Five ways to freshen up the Great American Beer Festival

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What's that you say? How can you mess with perfection? Easily. The Great American Beer Festival, which takes place September 29 to October 1, is the biggest consumer beerstravaganza in the world. It's on the life to-do list for beer lovers all over the globe, and it brings more cachet to Colorado than anything outside of Vail or Aspen. But, at thirty, it's starting to show its age.

Here are five ways to put a nice head on it:

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Orange is not your color.

5) Add another day and sell fewer tickets to each session.
An extra day would allow the Brewers Association to sell more tickets over the course of the festival, while selling fewer to each session and thereby making them more enjoyable for attendees, who have to spend time in many, many lines (to get in, to buy souvenirs, at certain beer tables). Brewers Association festival director Nancy Johnson says the issue comes up every year, but that "it's more than likely not something we would do," in part because the brewers are already away from home for a long time with a three-day festival, let along a four-day affair. "And we already have our dates through 2020. We can't just go to the convention center and add a day."

4) Move it or redesign it.
The Colorado Convention Center has horrible lighting that turns the beer festival into an eerie shade of orange. it also has acoustics that make a train station sound like a recording studio. Wouldn't it be nicer to have it, say, outdoors, in a place like Coors Field (where Blue Moon Brewing @ the Sandlot is attached). Johnson says this isn't happening anytime soon. "I feel like we have a really good model. We've looked at Mile High and at Coors Field. But there are so many pieces to it, and we just can't do it in near future." Okay, well then at least ask the convention center to add room dividers or screens between different areas of the hall or to reduce or change the lighting. The festival could also benefit by using more of the existing rooms that are attached to the main one.

3) Gimme shelter.
Add more tables, standing bars, couches, something, anything, so that people can have places to sit or stand and relax for a few moments. It's difficult to walk around with a glass in one hand, a pencil and a map in the other and have no place to set anything down. No wonder so many people are dropping their cups.

2) Require brewers to have a brewery representative on hand at all times.
Yes, I know this is a pain in the ass for brewery employees (who, rightly, want to party while they are in Denver) and I know that simply getting to Denver with one or two employees, let alone a larger staff, can be a financial hardship. But their breweries aren't well served by the earnest, but typically clueless volunteers who staff each booth. You would think that someone who volunteered to work a beer festival would know something about beer or at least take five minutes to learn a couple of quick things about the beer they are pouring. You'd mostly be wrong. Johnson says she would love to make this a hard and fast rule, but if she did, she'd have to enforce it, and that would be too difficult.

1) Better food.
The Brewers Association has increasingly pushed beer and food pairings in recent years, and even set up the wonderful, but pricey ($115 per ticket) Farm to Table section of the festival which allows attendees to enjoy awesome appetizers and desserts paired with some unusual beers (and to talk with actual brewery employees). But the food that is available via the convention center's vendors is absolutely horrible: nachos and pizza that you wouldn't even serve in a football stadium. There has to be a way to bridge this gap, either with better vendors or with added-value rooms that are similar to the farm to table venue, but much less pricey. Oh, and pretzel necklaces don't count as food.

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16 comments
Jai
Jai

I have worked the GABF for 16yrs and well I do see the point that some volunteers aren't as knowledgeable as they should be, I pride myself in talking to the brewers and tasting with them and learning about each beer I pour.  I have worked for some amazing breweries, and had a blast with the brewers and their crews!! Also I think that our particular volunteer crew has been together for a long time and are made up of a lot of home brewers so maybe we are a little ahead of the curve.. point being not everyone is an idiot.. thanx!

Carly
Carly

The bathroom situation (if you don't want to wait to go inside) is horrifying, especially for a non-smoker since the porta-potties and smoking tent/room thing is combined.  God forbid you have to break the seal.  Instant emphysema.  Wooohoo.

beeeeeeerrrrrrrr
beeeeeeerrrrrrrr

Maybe have every food truck in the city of Denver stationed in a fenced area outside/near a door that allows attendees to pass back and forth. Spread some of the financial profits around eh?

Nicole Relyea
Nicole Relyea

Another thing that prevents volunteers from knowing as much about the beers is that while we stay within the same region (island) we rotate breweries several times per shift (which I like, because pouring one brewery for four hours would get pretty dull.) Unless the brewers stayed at their tables the entire time, there's no way for them to be there to talk with every volunteer that rotates in throughout the shift. 

That being said, I make a point of tasting each of the beers I'm about to pour when I rotate in, so that I can talk about them. But then, I guess I'm one of those rare volunteers who is a beer nerd. Last year I also made an effort to fill in new volunteers who didn't know as much about beer, but there's not always the opportunity for that, either.

It does help when the brewers leave a cheat sheet at the table for volunteers, or at least writes %ABV and IBU's down. But they don't all do that... perhaps a better compromise would be to tell all of the brewers to leave that info for their pourers.

Scott Steigerwald
Scott Steigerwald

I see the point people are making that on Friday and Saturday evening all the drunks care about is "how high the alcohol % is" or "just gimme whatever".  But I think things might be different this year.  Considering the fact that GABF sold out in 7 days, I'm betting the slackers and procrastinators that missed out are the drunks and college kids we are all complaining about.  Because of the rising popularity of craft beer, we might see a lot more beers geeks than ever before.  Because of this, the Festival needs to step up it's game in general.  I like the idea of cheat sheets or a short briefing on the beers, styles, ingredients, etc.  It's so simple, but an effective idea.

Also, I know a person that volunteers every year...and that person doesn't even drink beer.  Go figure.

Michael Patrick
Michael Patrick

I would like to hope this is true - it's much more fun to pour for people that have actual questions about the beer rather than whats the alcohol content of this one?

I would say at least 20% of the questions I got last year when pouring Saturday night were "Which one is the lightest?" The brewery I was pouring for most of the night didn't make any "light" beers so I told these folks that PBR and Miller light were on the other side of the island and they were welcome to try as much of that as they wanted.

Austinbeergeek
Austinbeergeek

On number 2, we took great pains to educate the volunteers at the booth last year, and tried to be in the booth when possible. This year, we have a schedule and their will always be a rep in the booth. Ideally, we'd like the volunteers to be able to describe the beers, and have the rep discuss more in depth questions.  Unfortunately the BREWER cannot always be int eh booth, so things like boil times, recipes, etc. may be beyond even those closest to the operation, but not directly involved in production.

In this case, if you are REALLY interested, get contact info for the BREWER and discuss it with them.  All the breweries will be happy to give you website and contact info.

Standing up for Volunteers
Standing up for Volunteers

As a long time volunteer who is passionate about beer, I do my best to meet with a brewery rep before the session and try to get their take on their beer, find out what key ingredients they use, and where they distribute.  Most breweries however cannot afford the entrance fees and travel expenses to have staff on hand or have no one at the site to pass out information to the 'brew crew' volunteers prior to the event.  Calling the volunteers "clueless" is insulting though, a lot of effort goes into the prep, setup, execution, and tear-down of the event.  A huge point you're missing though is that not everyone wants a ton of detail about the beer.  Some people prefer to make their own opinions or are just there to get drunk.  Work a Saturday evening volunteer shift and see how many questions you get on the hop varieties used.  The question I've asked most often throughout the event is usually "which one has the highest alcohol percentage?".

beer
beer

I definitely do NOT think moving it to an open air venue would be a good idea.  Weather is too unpredictable.  It could be 90+ degrees (like last year), or snowing and 20 degrees.  I gladly take crap lighting so that I can be indoors and not subject to the elements.

In addition to an extra day, maybe having different regions in different rooms? The convention center is huge, so I would assume their is space.  I haven't given a great deal of thought to that, just throwing it out there.  But if you do add an extra day,brewers need to bring more beer.  they already run out too quickly as it is.

I often wonder about the volunteers.  B/c there are many that don't even seem to care about beer at all, so why are they there? I cannot imagine that if you at least drink beers other than those from the huge breweries that you wouldn't know at least something about beer and try to learn something about the beers you are serving.  A lot of the volunteers don't seem the least bit interested in beer, much less those that they are serving.

Weege
Weege

#6 Hookers.. cause after all that adult beverage, your beer goggles will be on overdrive..

jonathan_shikes
jonathan_shikes

Well, I agree that many of the volunteers are both well-educated and enthusiastic about beer (in some cases, much more so than the drinkers!), but it seems like the vast majority are barely aware of the name of the brewery for whom they are pouring. Perhaps a brewery employee could spent fifteen minutes before each session giving the volunteers at his (or her) booth a quick primer course in what each of the beers are, what style they fall under, and maybe a few fun or interesting facts or figures. Or at least a cheatsheet they could reference.

Nicole Relyea
Nicole Relyea

Interesting ideas. I definitely agree that the ambiance of the festival is somewhat lacking, and that it would be great to have more opportunities to talk to the brewers themselves. I think a lot of the issues you've pointed out and the challenge of changing them has to do with the size of the event. It's easier to keep things the way people expect them than to re-educate thousands on how it all works. As one of the volunteers who does know about beer, I agree it would be great to have them all educated on it, but again - how do you teach a few thousand volunteers everything about beer in advance of the event?

Jason
Jason

Love numbers 1 and 2. Hate it when you have a question about a beer and no one at the booth can answer it. The pizza works in a pinch but with so many beer smart resturants in the Denver Metro area, why can't they have an area to promote what they can do with food/beer pairings? Last year went to SAVOR, the huge beer/food pairing event that is a fast sellout. So many local brewpubs and gastropubs would love to show off what they can do.

Michael Patrick
Michael Patrick

I would say that number 2 is 50/50. Some people volunteer because they get free beer and who cares what it tastes like or if I can actually tell someone what the hell they're drinking.

Others - like myself - are beer geeks and enjoy discovering new beer and telling people about it. The problem is the management makes the volunteers wait 20 minutes before they get to taste the beer so the only thing we have to go on for that time is what the description says. 

On the other hand - half the people attending don't have a clue about what hops are - or what mouthfeel means so if a volunteer doesn't know about beer who cares for them?

Dave Butler
Dave Butler

You hit on one of my major peeves - the lighting. I guess making everyone look like an orange helps save money somehow. Ever notice once it's over they turn up the lights and it's much brighter?  Go figure.  I'd also be in favor of expanding it one more day. How about a Sunday afternoon session?  Nah - cuz that interferes with NFL football watching and a day to recover.  So probably a Wednesday night session would be best choice.  But I doubt brewers want to have to ship even more beer than they do now.  Let's stick with pre- and post- GABF events for extending the experience.

My other pet peeve - Ticketmaster handling sales and their outrageous fees.

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