GABF grows up: Bigger festival is actually better

By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Oct 07, 2015

Naysayers say the Great American Beer Festival is too big and getting bigger just makes it worse. I've read column after column worried about too much of a good thing, "peak beer," and the inevitable slide from the top of the mountain.

But after all of the hemming and hawing over GABF getting unwieldy and again just too damn big, I think the bigger festival was actually better than it was in years past. The logistics of the event seemed to be on a higher plane to me as an attendee, a journalist, and a volunteer.

Increasing the festival's floor space at the Colorado Convention Center by a third (or 90,000 square feet) not only allowed for a record amount of different beers poured -- 3,800, a new record for a U.S. beer festival -- but the new layout felt more open with fewer bottlenecks. There was still a lot of human traffic, sure, but the flow was better, and the two entrances made for notably shorter and faster lines, even with more attendees than ever, about 60,000 in all.

I was a big fan of the new "Meet the Brewer" section where I spent a good deal of Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, the two sessions I attended, bouncing between Stone and Great Divide in slow then slower motion. The concept of booths always aimed by reps from the breweries helped cut through the noise of 750 breweries and the non-geographic spin was a great change of pace from the GABF norm.

Courtesy GABF

But I was also impressed as a journalist. I had attended as media several times before, covering GABF for the New York Daily News, ColoradoBiz, and other publications, but it got increasingly hard to get a press pass. I even had a hard time getting access the year after my NY Daily News story, and it had the fifth-highest circulation of any fishwrap in the U.S. at the time.

But now the Brewers Association have upped their PR budget and brought in The Rosen Group out of New York. The credentialing process was smooth and simple, despite a circulation with a few digits less than the NY Daily News. It means that the BA is trying to push its message far and wide: GABF is bigger than ever, and we want to get the word out and get even bigger.

But media access (or lack thereof) has never been a big deal to me. I've also volunteered for GABF for about 10 years running, resulting in more free tickets than I could personally use. I've worked cleanup for most of those years, so I typically have gotten four tickets for the next year from volunteering for two shifts of lifting kegs, draining trash cans of melted ice, and cleaning and rolling taps.

And this year, even that was streamlined. A team of volunteers had pulled all of the kegs from their barrels after last call at the Saturday night session. Even with 33 percent more square footage, the cleanup crew moved faster than ever to help revive the Colorado Convention Center to its pre-GABF condition.

Having watched this process and all of its moving parts firsthand every fall for the better part of a decade, I was more than a little impressed on the strides that were made, especially considering there were more kegs, barrels, and taps than ever.

So what's to fear? Bring on more beers, more breweries, more space. GABF hit critical mass a long time ago, and then started to look like it could become an all-consuming black hole, but the 2015 edition seemed more like the start of another supernova.

I'll admit, I entered on Thursday at 6 p.m. with a bit of ennui, but left the convention center on Sunday afternoon with renewed enthusiasm. Bring on GABF 2016.