Welcome to the Great American Beer Festival.
It’s the world’s single-largest drinking event this side of Munich’s Oktoberfest: 457 breweries, 1,813 beers and more than 30,000 extremely serious, all-business, nose-to-the-grindstone conventioneers.
We’re talking three days of extensive, self-sacrificing research, if you know what I mean.
And for what?
For most of us, it’s to hone our beer-consumption skills.
But for others, like Gene Muller, it’s for the glory, and maybe prosperity.
Muller, president of Flying Fish Brewing, of Cherry Hill, N.J., is one of several Philadelphia-area brewers who have schlepped their finest ales out here to compete for medals in the most prestigious beer competition in the world. A panel of professional judges conducted blind taste tests and last night awarded medals in 50 categories ranging from potent Scotch ales to godawful American light lagers.
“I’d love to win and I’ll be a little disappointed if I don’t,” Muller told me shortly before the awards were announced.
Muller got the idea to open a brewery a few years ago when he and his significant other, Robin Tama, were driving through Arkansas on the way home from the GABF. He quit his job, convinced investors to ante up seed money, filled a nondescript industrial park building with kettles and fermenters, and last October put out his first batch of suds.
Still, he faces stiff competition for shelf space in the burgeoning local beer market, so Flying Fish can use every break it gets.
You can laugh at the notion of awarding medals for something as pedestrian as beer, but Joe Sixpack can’t think of anything more worthy of honor. A great glass of ale stands as a gift from one man to another, the honest work of a brewmaster offered to a grateful taste of a beer drinker.
“Winning a GABF award is prestigious both in the fact that it’s the most competitive judging of the year, and because it’s the most recognized,” said David Biles, of Valley Forge Brewing, which last year copped a gold medal for its Imperial Stout.
Others, like Jim Bell, president of Brewerytown’s Red Bell Brewing, say “there’s no correlation to winning a gold medal and selling beer,” But even Bell sent out his head brewer and four different styles to take a stab at a GABF medal.
Like I said, serious business out here.
As we waited for announcement of the medals at the city’s Currigan Hall convention facility, skilled, dedicated analysts dived into their work, meticulously scrutinizing the vast field of malt specimens. We examined, we sniffed, we drank.
Red ales, brown ales and golden ales. Sweet stouts, dry stouts and oatmeal stouts. Belgian, Canadian, English, Scottish, German and American styles. Name a beer, it is here.
Flying Fish entered four beers: Extra Pale Ale, E.S.B. (Extra Special Bitter), Porter and Abbey-style Dubbel. Of the bunch, I like the porter the best – it’s a smooth, dark-brown ale with a lightly chocolate after-taste.
Unfortunately, there were no medals for the porter, nor any of the other Flying Fish styles. When I wandered over to the brewery’s booth after the awards ceremony, Muller looked down but not out. Tama busily poured the standard 1-ounce taster for a visitor.
“I guess you’re the obit writer, huh?” he asked.
I commiserated with him for about five seconds, then ran off to taste the gold medalists.
Among the winners on the local scene: the mild, light Stoudt’s Pils and the awesomely potent Triple Bock from Samuel Adams Brew House.