If you’re planning a visit to a local brewery this fall, maybe skip the first week in October. From the fourth to the seventh of the month, a big portion of the Philly beer community won’t be around. They’ll be in Denver, participating in one of the biggest beer fests in the US.

Around 20 breweries from the region are taking part in the Great American Beer Festival this year, joining nearly a thousand from around the country. These brewmakers will pour samples of nearly 8,000 different ales and lagers for a crowd of 60,000 ticket-holders, and also vie for a medal in the nation’s most prestigious professionally judged beer competition.

Which sounds cool — and it is. But it’s also hella expensive.

The GABF festival floor, packed with beer enthusiasts Credit: Danya Henninger

A costly endeavor

“It’s fun, but expensive. This might be our last year,” said 2SP brewmaster Bob Barrar. That assessment takes on extra weight when you consider Barrar holds the nationwide record for second-most GABF medals ever won by a single brewer.

About those costs. Each beer entered in the contest sets you back $160, and a booth on the show floor another $250. That’s just the start, though, since a brewery then has to buy plane tickets for everyone attending (around $300 round-trip each from PHL) and then pick up the hotel rooms (~$250 a night for four nights). If you send four beers and four staffers out to Colorado, that adds up to more than $4,000, even if you tell people they have to bunk in doubles. When you’re a small operation, you also have to consider the price of lost work back home.

Then add this to the calculation: GABF isn’t as much of a big deal as it used to be.

When the national Brewers Association started hosting it three decades years ago, the Great American Beer Festival was the talk of the industry. “It was really pivotal for Dogfish Head to come to when we first opened in 1995 as the smallest commercial brewery in the country,” explained founder Sam Calagione, who has participated every year since.

As craft beer exploded, so did GABF’s reputation as a must-attend event. Beer geeks scooped up all the public tickets for the 2011 fest in just 45 minutes. In 2013, it took just 20 minutes for a sellout. But as this Good Beer Hunting article about potential festival overload points out, that was the peak. Sellout has taken longer and longer every year since. This year’s allotment of tickets didn’t disappear until more than four hours after they were released.

Outside the Colorado Convention Center, waiting to get into GABF Credit: Danya Henninger

No sales boost for you

So why do so many Philly breweries make the effort? It’s not because they’ll see a monetary return on investment. Not directly, anyway.

“Not that many people know about GABF who aren’t heavily involved in the industry,” said Evil Genius cofounder Trevor Hayward. Victory Brewing cofounder Bill Covaleski concurred: “There are so many GABF categories (rightfully so) and so many beers on the retail shelves that I don’t feel a medal really creates an impact on the consumer mind.”

However, winning a GABF medal can be useful in marketing. “It is fun to be able to cut the fat and draw attention to your beer on its merits, not a well-executed [advertising] plan,” explained 2SP sales director Mike Contreras, the guy in charge of ensuring Barrar’s award-winning beers actually make money.

But an actual sales boost? Nah. “I can’t say a single award is a huge sales driver for a single product,” said Mark Edelson, director of brewery operations at Iron Hill.

He would know. His brewery has medaled at GABF every single year it’s entered, racking up a total of 45 medallions over the past two decades. And the Delaware-based brewpub, which boasts 12 area locations — including one in Chestnut Hill and one coming to Center City — spends a ton of dough on the event, paying or partially paying for a crew of 50 or more employees to attend.

Which in itself is a reason to participate. “It has mostly become an internal culture driver,” Edelson said, describing the thrill of standing on stage and having to wait for the loud cheering to subside before making a short acceptance speech.

Iron Hill co-founder Mark Edelson (left) at GABF Credit: Danya Henninger

Camaraderie and culture

Brian O’Reilly, brewmaster at Sly Fox, noted that the camaraderie isn’t just limited to your own company — it’s pervasive throughout the event. “Even though a large convention center is not my favorite place to enjoy a beer,” he said, “it has an amazing energy. It is both impressive and humbling to have that many breweries represented in one place.”

The concentration of breweries is itself a draw. “For us at Dogfish the biggest joy of coming to GABF is to pour beer alongside other independent craft breweries that are passionate about quality, consistency and being well-differentiated,” said Calagione.

“I feel like we enter GABF because we enjoy going to Denver and being involved in the sense of community that is craft beer,” said Curt Decker of Second District Brewing. “It’s a great chance to catch up with old friends, and make some new ones.”

Yards Brewing founder Tom Kehoe agreed. “It’s good to get out there and see what everyone else is doing,” he said. Adding the caveat that “it’s not the same as it used to be,” he described the networking as “great.”

If you’re going to a fest like GABF, best to come prepared Credit: Danya Henninger

‘An internal glow’ — and lessons learned

For Kehoe — and many others Billy Penn spoke with — the main benefit of competing at GABF is internal validation.

“In all honesty,” Kehoe said, “the biggest benefit of winning an award is the gratification that the employees get out of it. The brewers pour their hearts into making beer that they love and it’s good for them to get some recognition for their efforts.”

Said Victory’s Covaleski: “The highest value of an award is the internal glow it offers our team.” Even when a beer doesn’t snag a gold, silver or bronze, there’s still a reason to enter in the competition, he added, “because we do receive the judges’ notes.”

Yep, a chance to have professional tasters assess your product is apparently worth flying 2,000 miles across the country. “I actually value the opportunity to have industry people whom I respect taste our beer and offer feedback more than the competition itself,” said Second District’s Decker.

“All I hope for is that my beer gets passed onto the next round of judging, “ said Scott Rudich of Round Guys Brewing in Lansdale. Rudich is also one of those judges this year, and he explained how the feedback is broken down. The sheet with comments handed back to entrants will have info in one of three categories:

  • This beer was flawed and here is why
  • This beer is excellent, but there were better beers on the table
  • This beer made it to the next round of judging

“It’s a VERY big deal when a beer gets a medal; you need to have a lot of highly trained palates to all agree you made a top notch, world class beer,” Rudich said.

“I really don’t care about bragging rights or marketing,” he continued. “We won three [Inquirer] Brewvitational awards and saw almost no bounce from that. A GABF medal, for me, is personal. I would love to win for my team.”

The awards ceremony at GABF is a big deal Credit: Danya Henninger

The 2017 Philly-area GABF lineup

Not all breweries like to share which beers they’re entering into competition. “I hate that question, ‘What are you sending,’” said Sly Fox’s O’Reilly.

Rudich from Round Guys explained why some feel that way: With so much competition, winning a medal is very, very hard, “so if you do not earn a bronze, what does that say? Does that say your beer is crap? No. Not at all, but the Brewers association stopped publishing the submitted beers long ago because of this very thing.”

But some brewers were happy to share. Here’s what folks from this region are sending to GABF this year, and why:

Yards Brewing (Philadelphia)

  • Brawler
    It was something that people didn’t quite understand years ago when we first released the beer, but people have really clung to this over the past several years. We are happy to have a beer like Brawler in our lineup and the style is fairly rare nowadays in a sea of IPAs.
  • ESA
    This beer is just straight near and dear to my heart. It was the first beer we ever brewed and it still remains a favorite to the Yards family and those that have known about this beer since the beginning. It is a great drinking beer, but currently not the kind of style that wows people. Good beers win; fancy names and cool labels are not judged at the GABF.
  • Love Stout
    To be quite honest, we won silver with this beer last year and it would be nice to keep the momentum going with this beer.
  • Poor Richards Spruce Ale
    Being the unique beer that it is, it fits nicely into what we think a beer competition should be: Is it well made, and does it taste good? We have also won with this beer in the past and it’s kind of a funny one to win an award for since it is such a unique beer that seems to be so polarizing for people.
  • PYNK
    Since this beer is tied into charity, we would love to see it also win an award.

Second District Brewing (Philadelphia)

  • Bancroft Beer
    Our “house” beer, and the only beer we strive to keep available at all times at the pub. Entered in the Session Beer category
  • Pět Pils
    Our pretty traditional Pilsner, entered in the Kellerbier/Zwickelbier category, due to the fact that we do not filter it, which would hurt it in a Pilsner judging.
  • Huy
    Vietnamese coffee stout, entered in the Coffee Beer category.
  • RusticAF
    Yet to be released at the pub. Entered in the Classic Saison category

All beers were entered because we really like them, and think they fit solidly in the specific category we chose to enter them in. It’s also nice to send a variety of styles, because we feel that that’s what we do here. (On a side note, when you’re as small as we are, it’s also important that the beers fit into your schedule.)

Evil Genius Beer (Philadelphia)

  • Purple Monkey Dishwasher (Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter)
  • And it Don’t Stop (Saison)
  • Ermagherd Honey (Honey Beer)
  • Wubba Lubba Dub Dub (Biere De Garde)

While in past years we’ve entered the “big” categories like IPA, we decided to look at some of the other categories that don’t get a huge number of entrants and are also styles we haven’t necessarily made before. It gives Jon, our brewer, a chance to stretch his brewing muscles and try some things out we haven’t necessarily had a chance to do.

2SP Brewing (Aston, Pa.)

  • Imperial Shade (Black IPA)
    Bob [Barrar] is pretty happy with the way the beer came out last year and thought it was one of our best new releases. It was very hop forward with a strong dosage of Mosaic hops and using black malts that are dehusked, which doesn’t give off bitterness like roasted malts, the body beer had a nice medium bodied weight for its ABV.
  • The Russian (Imperial Stout)
    Bob won gold last year at GABF for this beer and has a bit of history with that style. We love this beer because it’s complex with plenty of depth and it really is a standout beer.
  • 2SPils (Kellerbier)
    This is, kinda surprisingly, our No. 2 selling beer just behind our Delco Lager (that should tell you a lot about our region). We’re entering this beer because we love this forgotten style and we see a lot of energy/interest behind lagers now.
  • Bean n’ Gone (Imperial Coffee Porter)
    Made with coffee from local roasters Green Street Coffee. They made us a special roast that consisted of Ethiopian coffee beans that really give the beer a nice addition of subtle light blueberry flavors from the lighter roast. We didn’t want a dark roast because we thought the bitterness should come from the beer and not the coffee. We were really impressed with the sweetness that came from the coffee and thought it was interesting enough to submit to GABF.

Victory Brewing (Downingtown, Pa.)

  • Sour Monkey
  • Prima Pils
  • Home Grown New American Lager

We are sending Sour Monkey and Home Grown because they are new developments for us that we are particularly proud of and would love to gain the insights of our peers as to their perceived quality and qualities. Home Grown is on treacherous ground, though, as no category exists for an bold, American hopped lager.

We send Prima because ourselves and the professional brewing [industry] love it so much. We understand that some judges have considered it a “calibration beer” in past competitions.

Sly Fox Brewing (Pottsville, Pa.)

  • Helles
  • Pils
  • Grissette
  • Oktoberfest

Sterling Pig Brewery (Media, Pa.)

  • Shoat Pilsner
  • Pata Negra
  • Snuffler IPA
  • Big Gunz DIPA

Shoat, snuffler and Big Gunz are year round core brand so winning a medal for those brand would validate even further why we have those beers are core brand. Pata Negra is a beer that has won medals for Brian McConnell in the past at the Great American Beer Festival, he thinks that his beer has a good chance to win again.

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery (Milton, De.)

  • Flesh & Blood IPA
  • SeaQuench Ale
  • Lupu Luau
  • Puddin’ Wine
  • Oak-Aged Vanilla World Wide Stout

Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats (Rehoboth Beach, De.)

  • Remarkable Architect Black & Blue Barrel-aged Sour
  • Liquid Truth Serum
  • Chicha
  • Do It, You Won’t
  • Frequent & Vigorous

Tattered Flag Brewery (Middletown, Pa.)

  • Warbonds Stout
  • Teutonic Knight Hefeweizen
  • Manghost

We are sending these because they are our flagship beers and we believe a good representation of their style.

Iron Hill Brewery (Wilmington, De.)

  • Ore House IPA
  • Pig Iron Porter
  • Vienna Red Lager
  • Russian Imperial Stout
  • Munich Dunkel
  • Bock
  • Schwarzbier
  • Aged Russian Imperial Stout
  • Bourbon Russian Imperial Stout
  • Crusher
  • Overload Stout
  • Sweet Leaf IPA
  • Oktoberfest
  • German Pilsner
  • Imperial Pumpkin Ale
  • WC Reserve (sour beer)
  • The Cannibal
  • Rye of the Tiger
  • Bedotter
  • Wee Heavy

We are entering 20 beers to the GABF this year. That is the max we can enter. Seems like a lot, but with 12 locations, that is less than two entries per location, where everyone else gets to put in five entries. No matter how big we get, we will be maxed out at 20 entries. We will produce in excess of 200 beers in any given year, so we have to be selective in what we send. Best foot forward is my rule. 

Also on the list to compete at GABF 2017:

  • 2nd Story Brewing (Philadelphia)
  • Bar Hygge / Brewery Techne (Philadelphia)
  • Conshohocken Brewing (Conshohocken, Pa.)
  • Earth Bread + Brewery (Philadelphia)
  • Fegley’s Brew Works (Allentown, Pa.)
  • Lancaster Brewing (Lancaster, Pa.)
  • The Lion Brewery (Pittsburgh, Pa.)
  • Neshaminy Creek Brewing (Croydon, Pa.)
  • Troegs Brewing (Hershey, Pa.)
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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...