Breaking Down the 2016 GABF

Awards were handed out this past weekend at the Great American Beer Festival.  The popularity of the 30 year old festival continues to grow with a total of 7,227 beers entered by 1752 breweries.  That’s up from 6,647 beers and 1552 breweries in 2015.  Out of that sea of beer only 286 entries, roughly 4%, were recognized with a medal.  Here are some of my thoughts on the results.

Mixed Bag for Ohio Breweries

Ohio brewed beers took home 8 medals at the GABF, down slightly from last year’s haul of 10 but tied with 2013 and 1999 for the second best showing for the Buckeye state.  The decorated beers were:

  • Doc’s Scotch Ale, Millersburg Brewery (Gold Medal, Aged Beer)
  • AlpenGlow, Fat Head’s Brewery & Saloon (Gold Medal, German-style Wheat Ale)
  • Midnight Moonlight, Fathead’s Brewery (SIlver Medal, American-style Black Ale)
  • Black Muddy River, Fat Head’s Brewery & Saloon (Silver Medal, Other Strong Beer)
  • Monk in Public, Maize Valley Craft Brewery (Silver Medal, Belgian-style Strong Specialty Ale)
  • Hop JuJu, Fathead’s Brewery (Bronze Medal, Imperial IPA)
  • IBUsive, Fat Head’s Brewery & Saloon (Bronze Medal, Fresh or Wet Hop Ale)
  • Going Plaid, Fifty West Brewing (Bronze Medal, Scotch Ale)

As you can see Fat Head’s won an impressive five medals, more than any other brewery in the country (more on that later).  In fact, Fat Head’s has medaled at every GABF since 2009, a feat that few breweries can match. Meanwhile the other 140+ Ohio breweries were limited to only 3 medals, the fewest number for Ohio breweries not named Fat Head’s since 2012.  Central Ohio breweries were shut out of the medals altogether this year.  It was also the first year since 2012 that an Ohio brewed beer didn’t win the Imperial IPA category, though Hop JuJu still finished in the medals, adding to its long list of accolades. The medals won by Millersburg, Fifty West, and Maize Valley were the first GABF medals for each brewery.  Congratulations to all of the winners!

Ohio finished tenth in the medal count behind California (68), Colorado (38), Oregon (21), North Carolina (17), Washington (14), Virginia (13), Illinois (13), Texas (10), and Michigan (10).  On the other side of the ledger the District of Columbia and eleven states—Alaska, Arkansas, Alabama, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and West Virginia—were shut out of the medals altogether.  As far as I can tell both South Dakota and West Virginia are still seeking their first GABF medal.


Top Mid-Size Brewing Company Snafu

During the competition Fat Head’s Brewery and Saloon was named the top mid-size brewery in the country.  Later that evening the GABF rescinded the award and gave it to California’s Karl Strauss Brewing Company, who won three medals at the competition (2 golds, 1 bronze).  The change was not because Fat Head’s brewers were juicing with performance enhancing drugs, but because Karl Strauss had incorrectly identified themselves as a mid-size brewpub.  There are many questions surrounding this controversy, but here are a few that come to my mind.  Most of the answers are taken from an excellent post written by Rick Armon, I encourage you to check out his post for more details.

Why didn’t someone notice Karl Strauss was entered in the wrong category before the medals were handed out?  There’s no good answer to that one, other to say that Karl Strauss messed up and no one at the Brewer’s Association noticed, probably until someone complained after the awards were announced.

If Fat Head’s won five medals and Karl Strauss only three, how on Earth can Karl Strauss be the winner?  That’s because Fat Head’s entered beers from both their production brewery and their brewpub. The split was three medals for the Brewpub and Saloon (1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) and two medals for the production brewery.  Those are counted separately.

Why doesn’t Fat Head’s enter all of their beers under the same organization, say the production brewery?  Each brewing location is limited to five entries.  So presumably Fat Head’s entered five beers from the production brewery and five from the brewpub.

Why doesn’t Fat Head’s Brewery and Saloon compete in the large brewpub division rather than the mid-size brewery division?  According to Brewer’s Association rules any brewer with multiple locations must enter in the category that the largest facility competes in.  Fat Head’s Matt Cole protested this somewhat arbitrary rule before the judging began, but to no avail.

I will point out that no matter how you parse the results Fat Head’s five medals is more than anyone else in the country.  Perhaps even more impressive, Fat Head’s entered at most 10 beers and half of them won medals. So in my book they are the undisputed heavyweight champion of US craft brewing for the time being.  The only brewery that came close was the relatively unknown (completely unknown to me) Überbrew in Billings, Montana that took home four medals, including the gold medal in the Imperial IPA category that usually comes back to Ohio.

FatHeads Taphandles

What’s in Style

Every year there are subtle changes in the style categories, new styles appear and unpopular ones are phased out.  There is a steady creep toward more styles rather than fewer. This year there were 96 different style categories, an increase of four from last year.

The five most popular styles based on number of entries are:

  1. American Style IPA – 312 entries (336 entries in 2015)
  2. Imperial IPA – 211 entries (208 entries in 2015)
  3. Strong American Pale Ale – 169 entries (134 entries in 2015)
  4. Coffee Beer – 168 entries (149 entries in 2015)
  5. Wood and Barrel Aged Strong Beer – 159 entries (179 entries in 2015)

What I find fascinating is that of the 15 medals handed out in these categories, only one went to a brewery east of the Mississippi, Fat Head’s bronze medal for Hop JuJu.

The four least popular styles based on number of entries are:

  1. Pumpkin/Squash Beer – 10 entries
  2. American/German-style Light Lager – 21 entries
  3. Belgian- and French-style Ale – 27 entries
  4. German-style Doppelbock or Eisbock – 29 entries

In the pumpkin/squash beer category the GABF decided not to award either a gold or a silver medal.  The only category for which all three medals were not awarded.  During the award ceremony the announcer said that when medals are not awarded the judges are trying to send a message.  In this case the message is pretty clear, stop putting @*!# pumpkins in beer.

Going beyond the extremes of most and least popular, a closer look at other categories offers an interesting glimpse at prevailing trends in the world of American Craft Beer.

  • In its second year as a category the number of Session IPAs dropped from 161 to 118 entries, a 27% decrease. From my undocumented perspective that drop does not seem to mirror a decrease in the number of session IPAs in the market.
  • Not surprisingly sour beers are up big time.  American-style sour ales are up from 56 in 2014 to 142 in 2016.  German-style sours are up from 80 to 141 entries over the same two-year period.
  • Entries into the (now) five categories of wood or barrel-aged beer seem to have stabilized.  After going up 55% last year, the total number of wood aged entries dropped slightly from 513 to 502.
  • I’m fascinated by the upward trend in the Field Beer category.  Since field beers were separated from pumpkin beers two years ago the number of entries has risen from 46 (2014) to 52 entries (2015) to 92 entries (2016).  What’s a field beer you ask? Basically it’s a beer with a vegetable added somewhere in the brewing process, and is not a fruit beer (106 entries), herb and spice beer (114 entries), pumpkin spice beer (39 entries), or chili beer (112 entries).  This year’s winner was Imperial Coconut Porter from Maui Brewing.  The previous two winners contained beets (2015) and cucumbers (2014).   We are still waiting for the first award winning carrot beer.
  • I still don’t understand the difference between a double red ale and an imperial red ale.

Maybe the hipsters were onto something

Venerable PBR took home the gold medal in the American Style Lager, Ice Lager, or Malt Liquor category.  So the next time you see someone sporting a handlebar mustache on their face, a brightly colored handkerchief in their back pocket, and the familiar white, red and blue can in their hand, don’t be so quick to dismiss them as being stuck in the 1890s.  When asked to comment on the award, a Pabst spokesman asked when they switched from ribbons to medals.

I just happen to have four well aged PBR’s in my refrigerator. ISO Heady Topper, FT Pabst Blue Ribbon.

What’s in a name

Judging at the GABF is all done double blind so having a cool name doesn’t help your chances of winning one iota.  Despite that fact the list of winners contained some names that are so awesome they shouldn’t be overlooked.  Here are some of my favorites

  • Trump Hands (Gold Medal Session IPA, Cannonball Creek)
  • I Dunkled in My Pants (Gold Medal Vienna-style Dunkel, Figueroa Mountain)
  • Cherry Busey (Silver Medal Belgian-style Fruit Beer, Sun King)
  • Slippery When Wit (Bronze Medal Session Beer Category, South Street Brewery)
  • Sabre Toothed Squirrel (Bronze Medal American-style Amber Ale, Smog City)

There were also some beers that seem to be inaccurately named, like Average at Best (Silver Medal Double Red Ale) by Überbrew and Not Brown (Bronze Medal English-style Brown Ale) by Coopersmith’s Pub and Brewing.

Is Cannonball Creek trying to tell us that men with small hands should stick to session IPAs?

What happened to the regional/national breweries?

When you look through the GABF medalists it’s always interesting to see beers that you’ve tried.  I mean it’s awesome that Bodhizafa IPA by Georgetown Brewing in Seattle won the coveted gold in the American-style IPA category, but it’s hard for me to get excited about that result given the fact that I’ve never tried Bodhizafa and have no immediate prospects of filling that gaping hole in my catalog of life experiences.  On the other hand it tends to get my attention when the big breweries that distribute widely win a medal.  So I looked through the winners to see how many medals went to a brewery on the Brewer’s Association list of the 50 largest breweries.  I was a little surprised to find that only 9 of the 50 largest breweries won a medal:

  • Allagash – Tripel (Gold Medal Belgian-style Tripel)
  • Bear Republic – Pace Car Racer (Silver Medal Session IPA)
  • Bell’s – Expedition Stout (Silver Medal Aged Beer)
  • Brewery Ommegang – Ommegang Witte Ale (Gold Medal Belgian-style Witbier)
  • Firestone Walker – DBA (Gold Medal Ordinary or Special Bitter)
  • Founders – reDANKulous (Silver Medal Imperial Red Ale)
  • Karl Strauss – Queen of Tarts (Gold Medal American-style Sour Ale)
  • Karl Strauss – Mosaic Session IPA (Bronze Medal Session IPA)
  • Karl Strauss – Liquid AC (Bronze Medal English-style Summer Ale)
  • Left Hand – Fade to Black (Silver Medal Export Stout)
  • Summit – Extra Pale Ale (Gold Medal Classic English-style Pale Ale)

That’s a grand total of 11 out of 286 medals to the what are arguably the most familiar names in craft brewing. Despite the fact that I’m not counting some familiar names like The Bruery, Alesmith, and Surly that while not in the top 50 are still pretty widely distributed, it still means that 10% or less of the winning breweries are large regional/national breweries.

Curious to see if it had always been this way I went back to the 2010 results and looked for medals won by the same 50 breweries.  In that year the same cohort won 41 medals spread over 23 different breweries.  There were multiple medals for the likes of Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer Co., Stone, Deschutes, Tröegs, and Rogue, all of whom were shut out in 2016.  Does this mean that the large regional breweries are becoming less relevant in the eyes and palates of those who take beer most seriously?  Does it mean that most of the best beers today are being made by small breweries? Does it mean that large breweries can’t be bothered to make a special effort for the GABF?  Is it simply a case that 50 vs 1702 is not a fair fight?  I tend to think it’s a combination of all of the above, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this point.

greatlakes_new labels
Ohio’s largest brewery, Great Lakes Brewing, last won a medal at the GABF in 2007, a silver medal for Edmund Fitzgerald Porter.

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