Reflections on Ohio’s strong showing at the 2018 GABF

At the most recent Great American Beer Festival Ohio took home 14 medals, shared by no less than 13 different breweries, both numbers exceeding high water marks from previous years. Cincinnati’s Brink Brewing picked up two medals and was recognized as the best very small brewery of the year [1].  Fathead’s medaled for an impressive 10th straight year, with a bronze medal for Midnight Moonlight in the American-style Black Ale category. This is the fourth straight year Midnight Moonlight has received a medal at the GABF, an achievement few beers can match [2]. Ohio had more medals than any state east of the Mississippi, only California (72), Colorado (30), Oregon (22), Texas (18), and Washington (17) fared better [3].

As an observer, consumer and advocate of Ohio beer I’m always excited when Ohio breweries medal at big competitions.  Watching the live stream of the GABF awards ceremony is surprisingly compelling. I recognize that I’m part of a tiny minority of people who feel that way, but when you make personal connections with local brewers, as many of us do, how can you not root for them.  As you might guess my ties are strongest with Central Ohio brewers, but more often than not the Ohio breweries bringing home the hardware tend to come from other parts of the state.  This year Northeast Ohio breweries (including Cleveland) claimed ten medals, while Central Ohio breweries were only recognized once—a bronze medal for Columbus Brewing Company’s (CBC) Melk Stout. In fact, if looking back over the last four GABF competitions, breweries from Northeast Ohio have won 30 medals, while Central Ohio breweries have garnered only 3.  If you think the last few years are an anomaly, consider the table below which summarizes GABF medal counts for the past nine years.  Only in 2014, when CBCs Bodhi and Creeper medaled in the über competitive American IPA and Imperial IPA categories, has Central Ohio matched Northeast Ohio. If we take CBCs, who have medaled four times, out of the equation the medal gap widens to comical proportions.  This got me wondering what’s behind this imbalance.

Ohio GABF Table
Ohio’s GABF medals broken down by region and year.  The numbers in parentheses represent Fat Head’s contribution to the NE Ohio medal count.

Hypothesis 1 – Northeast Ohio simply has more breweries

Maybe it’s just the law of proportions at work.  Looking at the geographical breakdown of the breweries that belong to the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, NE Ohio and Cleveland together have 68 breweries, while 41 Central Ohio breweries belong to the OCBA. While not every brewery in Ohio is an OCBA member there’s no reason to believe that the number of non-members is concentrated in any one part of the state, so let’s assume the 5 to 3 ratio that NE Ohio enjoys would be similar if we counted every brewery in the state.  That doesn’t begin to explain the nearly 8 to 1 disparity in medals over the past nine years.  Consider also that Cincinnati/SW Ohio have only 31 OCBA breweries, but have managed twice as many medals as Central Ohio breweries.

Hypothesis 2 – Northeast Ohio breweries participate in the GABF at higher rates

According to the Brewers Association there are 6300+ breweries in the USA today, but only 2404 participated in the GABF this year.  It goes without saying that a lot of breweries feel the cost and hassle of competing at the GABF don’t justify the potential benefits.  Each entry costs $165, then you have to figure in the cost and effort involved in shipping your samples out 3-4 weeks ahead of the judging.  Maybe Central Ohio breweries are more cynical about the GABF than breweries in other parts of Ohio.  It’s hard to get complete statistics to assess this hypothesis, but because the OCBA offers a service whereby they handle the shipping for member breweries I was able to get a hold of some data.  Justin Hemminger, Deputy Director of the OCBA, told me that the OCBA shipped entries for 54 breweries this year.  The breakdown by region is as follows: 25 from NE Ohio/Cleveland, 10 from Cincinnati/SW Ohio, 8 from Columbus/Central Ohio, 6 from the Dayton area, 3 from SE Ohio and 2 from NW Ohio.  That’s 37% of the member breweries in NE Ohio, 32% in SW Ohio, and 20% in Central Ohio.  Undoubtedly many breweries sent their entries directly to the GABF, rather than through the OCBA (Land Grant is one brewery I know that falls in this category), but for the sake of argument let’s assume that the relative ranking wouldn’t change too much if we had accurate statistics on total entries from each region of Ohio.  If the statistics do hold, the disparity between NE and Central Ohio is larger than the number of breweries would imply, though still not enough to explain the dominance of NE Ohio in the medal count.

Hypothesis 3 – The Fat Head’s effect

No Ohio brewery, and few breweries anywhere, have had the kind of success that Matt Cole and company at Fat Head’s have had at the GABF over the last decade.  Not only have they won medals every year since opening in 2008, their medal count (21) alone equals the total number of medals won in all regions of Ohio outside of NE Ohio put together.  If you consider Fat Head’s a freak of nature, like Usain Bolt, and remove them from the equation the imbalance becomes much less glaring.  NE Ohio still comes out on top by a significant margin, but you might be able to convince yourself that hypotheses 1 and 2 can almost explain the discrepancy.

It’s also possible that the presence of breweries like Fat Head’s have an indirect effect.  There’s no question in my mind that there are best practices that will help increase your odds of success at these big competitions.  Timing your brewing schedule so your best beers are at their peak when the GABF judging rolls around.  Having the facilities to minimize dissolved oxygen in your packaging line and avoid temperatures swings while shipping.  Perhaps most importantly, knowing which categories to enter (breweries are limited to four entries per facility) [4]. Maybe some of these tricks of the trade have rubbed off on the breweries who regularly interact with Fat Head’s.  This would be even more apt for brewers who have spent time in the organization.

Fat-Heads-GABF

Hypothesis 4 – Northeast Ohio breweries brew their beers more to style

Anyone who has experience judging a beer competition knows the task is all about choosing the beer that comes closest to the ideal representation of a given style.  Some styles (American-style IPA, fruit beer, coffee beer, etc.) allow for considerable artistic licence, while others (most any category that starts with the word German) have relatively narrow parameters.  Your beer might be delicious, but if your Berliner Weisse has too much Brett character, or your Kölsch is dry hopped with American hops, good luck.  Are Central Ohio breweries more likely to throw the style guidelines out the window than other parts of the Buckeye state?  I have no reason to believe this is true, but neither can I discount it out of hand.

What is the impact of a GABF medal?

How much does any of this matter?  I can’t help but wonder about the relevance of a medal, or lack thereof, to a breweries bottom line.  For example, after Elevator’s Mogabi received a bronze medal in the American Wheat Beer category in 2015 I don’t remember people suddenly hoarding six-packs.  It didn’t seem to move the needle much on public perception of Elevator or Mogabi as far as I could see.  Conversely, Central Ohio’s only medalist last year, BrewDog’s Elvis Juice (bronze medal, American-style Fruit Beer), accounted for 44% of their US sales last year.  That might be more about the rise in popularity of Fruited IPAs, but for a brewery that takes marketing as seriously as BrewDog it can’t hurt to have a GABF medal in the arsenal.

The rewards associated with Central Ohio’s medal-winning beer this year are harder to quantify. Columbus Brewing Company’s Melk Stout (bronze, Milk or Sweet Stout category) is a small batch beer with very limited distribution.  I asked CBC’s Tony Corder to expand a little on the thinking that goes into choosing what beers to enter. His response is a useful glimpse into the mind of Central Ohio’s most successful brewery in these competitions:

As we only have one location/license, we are only afforded four entries into the big competitions like World Beer Cup and GABF. The other beers submitted this year were the peach sour, Festbier, and Insane Wanderer. We tried to send a nice little mix of styles. Although we’re predominantly known for all of the hoppy stuff (IPA, Bodhi, Creeper, etc), we are definitely capable of brewing great beer across a breadth of styles. We’ll always pursue great hoppy beer, but it’s important to me that we not be limited to just that. The breweries I respect the most are the ones who have proven to brew a wide range at a very high level (cough, cough Firestone Walker).  To date, we’ve won a handful of major awards for hoppy beer, but also awards for lager, brett/sour, and now stout.

The last couple of years we’ve sent Simon, our American style Stout. It’s fairly hop forward and has gotten great feedback, even making it to the medal round (with no hardware) a few times. This year we just decided to mix it up and send a stout in a different category. We were confident enough in our ability to send a quality beer. Apparently it turned out ok! But who knows what we’ll do next year. So many styles to choose from, but we have to limit it to four.

That a brewery would use one of their four slots for a limited distribution beer suggests that the personal satisfaction of medaling at the GABF might motivate brewers as much if not more than any potential impact on sales.  Now that I think about it, how many people can say they’ve tried Midnight Moonlight?  I know I haven’t, but that doesn’t diminish the credibility boost that Fat Head’s enjoys every time it wins another medal.

Although they’ve yet to break through into the medals at the GABF, Little Fish Brewing in Athens has twice medaled at the equally prestigious World Beer Cup. I asked head brewer and co-owner Sean White what it feels like to hear your name called at one of these events.

It’s hard to sum up the feelings of winning a WBC medal.  On the one hand, it is hugely elating to win at the national/worldwide level, especially if you are at the award ceremony, congratulating and being congratulated by your friends, and heading up on stage to shake Charlie Papazian’s hand.  Last time we were on stage, Charlie told me he “loved the name” of the brewery.

It can feel vindicating to win a medal, when your beer is tasted blind, among a field of other beers that may be quite amazing.  There’s no brewery hype or reputation to skew the results.  It’s just the beer in a glass, in front of the judges.

How we pick our entries is, we literally just sample every bottled beer that we have in-house at one time and pick the four (our brewery limit) that we think are the absolute best.  We don’t really try to game it, or brew specifically for the event.  The other challenging part is deciding the correct category to enter and wording the beer properly in the case of special ingredients or process.

The tough thing about medaling, with the type of beers we brew, is the feeling of pressure to brew that beer as close as possible to the winning brew in subsequent batches.  Since both the beers that we have won with have been barrel aged, there can be a lot of variation between batches, and we try to achieve consistency through blending.  Not every batch is going to taste exactly the same, and the magic that may have been in the winning beer may, or may not be, in the next batch.  That pressure is not entirely bad, but it’s a force that I feel as a brewer.

Closing Thoughts

In all likelihood I’m completely overthinking this.  After all, a Vermont brewery hasn’t received a medal at the GABF since 2015, and then it was a silver medal for a Bohemian Pilsner from von Trapp Brewing.  I visited Vermont back in July and I have to say some of the beer was spectacular, and not just the pilsners.

Nevertheless, I’d be happy to entertain other hypotheses.

Footnotes

[1] Very small breweries are defined as those producing less than 1000 bbl per year.

[2] Among Ohio beers only Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald and Hudepohl-Schoenling Little Kings Cream Ale have won more medals, with five each.  I don’t know about you, but I did not realize Little Kings was a five-time GABF medalist until I wrote this article.

[3] At first glance it might seems surprising that more than half of the medals (159 out of 306) went to these five states. Then again the same states rank high in number of breweries: CA (764), WA (369), CO (348), OR (266) and TX (251).  It does make you wonder why states like New York (329 breweries, 3 medals) and Pennsylvania (282 breweries, 5 medals) fared so poorly.

[4] Fatheads does enjoy the advantage of having two facilities, North Olmsted and Middleburg Heights, which allows them to enter eight beers instead of four.  While it was still in operation their Portland location also entered four beers, but those medals have not been included in the totals here (they get counted with Oregon).  I’m not sure if the opening of the new Canton location has allowed them to enter 12 beers from Ohio.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Ohio’s strong showing at the 2018 GABF

Add yours

  1. Pat. Great insights, and armed with all the facts. Before I read it, my response was simply Matt Cole, but clearly it is more than just him.

    1. Thanks Bill. I’m not sure I provided many answers, but I tried to frame the questions at least. I wonder how much the OCBA efforts to get breweries beers to Denver help boost Ohio’s performance. I bet the breweries in many states don’t have that luxury.

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