IT’S TIME for a beer, America.
If not to make us forget, then to clear the dust from our throats, and maybe a bit of malaise from our hearts.
That’s the hope of a record number of area brewers who are heading to next week’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver. It’s the nation’s biggest and best professionally judged taste test, a tremendous Rocky Mountain keg party that draws 300 breweries and 22,000 attendees. No fewer than 10 local breweries have submitted about 50 beers for judging – about twice the usual number.
“People are looking for a distraction,” reasoned JoAnne Carilli, the hopeful festival spokeswoman. “They want something to do, they want to move forward with things, back to a semblance of normal life. ”
Though last week’s terrorist attacks may give even hairy-chested suds-chuggers second thoughts about hopping on a jet to Colorado, Carilli said there’s been no noticeable drop-off in ticket sales. And she said festival organizers are not worried that Osama bin Laden will target the nation’s treasured reserve of beer connoisseurs.
In fact, with scores of off-duty Denver cops, paid guards and volunteers, the festival floor crawls with security even in peacetime. Only, their biggest challenge is loudmouth drunks slamming down 1-ounce tasters, not Islamic fundamentalists on a bloodthirsty jihad.
“We have not addressed anything special within our particular security requirements,” Carilli said. “We’re moving forward as planned. ”
Still, she and others acknowledged some may be hesitant to travel in the wake of the mass hijackings.
Locally, most brewers shrugged off the threat with the usual carefree attitude of hops heads; they’re more concerned with International Bitterness Units than international terrorists.
“There’s not much I can do about it,” said Chris Leonard, brewer at General Lafayette Inn & Brewery (6461 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill). “My wife is fretting, but I try not to think about it too much. I could live in a bubble if I wanted to, but I’m not going to. ”
Leonard is hoping for a repeat of last year’s appearance in which his deliciously named Alt! Who Goes There? took home silver. He’s also entered his raspberry lambic, a sour ale that contains 2 pounds of fruit per gallon and takes six months to brew.
In Lewes, Del., Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione said, “Unless we bomb the Middle East between now and then, I’m going. ”
But he said the terrorist attack forced him to cancel plans to travel this week to Asia.
The photogenic brewer was supposed to be host on five episodes of a Discovery Channel series on the history of alcoholic beverages. It was a spinoff of his creation last year of Midas Touch Golden Elixir, a wine/mead/beer recipe based on a lab analysis of the organic remains in chalices found by Penn scientists who dug out King Midas’ 2,700-year-old tomb in Turkey.
Calagione was planning to re-create other historic beverages, including an ancient rice wine based on remains found at a Chinese banquet covered by a lava flow, and a Ukrainian beer pulled from a shipwreck.
“I was supposed to fly out to Turkey for the first show, but I don’t want to press my luck,” Calagione said. “They told me they’re going to find someone else to host the series. I can’t blame them. ”
So, Calagione is focusing on Denver, where judges will sample his Midas along with three other brews: Raisin d’Etre, Immort Ale and the bone-crushing 18 percent alcohol World Wide Stout.
“You enter and hope to win, but we definitely have a handicap,” Calagione said. “Most of our beers have at least one weird ingredient, so they really don’t fit into the official GABF categories. ”
Those categories are notoriously tight, with strict criteria that define 55 different styles, from German-style pilsener to chocolate-flavored beer. A brew like Raisin d’Etre – which, as its name implies, contains raisins – is beyond definition. Calagione will stick it into the Belgian specialty category and hope for the best.
The same problem confronts Yards Brewing, the 7-year-old Manayunk brewery that is making its first-ever GABF appearance. Brewer Tom Kehoe is sending the brewery’s flagship ESA, a local favorite.
“We entered it as an English strong ale, which it’s not. But that’s the closest we could get,” said Kehoe.
“We’re not so worried about medals, though. We’re kind of going out there because we could all use a vacation. ”
Is the Great American Beer Festival losing its relevance?
The yearly fest still packs ’em in; most sessions are sellouts. And the judging is respected worldwide.
But increasingly, microbrewers say the event’s treasured medals mean little to their businesses. The ones I spoke to this week uniformly said it’s “nice” to win, but the competition was secondary to merely having fun with a bunch of beer lovers.
Not a bad mission, but it also means the festival – which tapped its first keg in 1982 primarily as a way to spread the craftbrew gospel – is evolving into little more than a party.
That’s not enough to draw some brewers – especially those on the East Coast who have to shell out thousands to compete and travel to Denver. Why spend all that money to show off your talents to a bunch of Western aficionados who, unless they trek to Philly, will never buy your beer?
No less than Carol Stoudt, one of the microbrewing industry’s leaders and a longtime supporter of the festival, has her doubts. For the second year in a row, she’s sending only a handful of bottles to be judged; no Stoudt’s kegs will be served on the festival floor.
“What’s kind of disappointing for me,” Stoudt said, “is you always get the consumers or distributors out there wanting your product. But it’s not really in our market area. It’s not a good business decision to send our beer out there.
“Unfortunately, I can’t afford the time to exhibit on the floor, so we only actually put our beer into the professional blind tasting. I used to be opposed to that – you’d want the populace to sample your beer.
“But there are so many other [beers] out there, I don’t think most of the consumers will miss us. ”
Even the medals don’t shine as brightly anymore.
“It’s still nice and thrilling to win,” said Stoudt, who has collected medals in 12 of the past 13 years. “But winning is not as important to us as it was early on. ”
At Iron Hill, whose three brewpubs have collected medals in each of the past four years, it’s much the same story.
“Our brewers are proud when they win, and I think our customers appreciate it,” said Iron Hill’s Kevin Finn. “But the importance has faded to some degree. ”
Making the event relevant to East Coasters is clearly a goal for the Association of Brewers, which runs the festival.
In 1998, it brought a mini-festival east to Baltimore in what was supposed to be the first in a series of road shows. Though dozens of medal winners were on hand – many of which had never been poured within 1,000 miles of the Atlantic – attendance was sparse and the event lost money. The festival hasn’t left Denver since.
“I was an advocate for moving it around the countryside,” Stoudt said. “The GABF built up so much American craft beer awareness in Colorado. We could use that on the East Coast, especially because we’re so inundated with imports.
“But the Denver festival is so well-orchestrated, with all the logistics, the labor and the volunteers. They have such a strong base there, to move it would be a real nightmare. You’d almost have to start over. ”
Some local brewers say the festival organizers practically twisted their arms to compete this year. “They pleaded with us,” said Yards’ chief Tom Kehoe, who had never entered before this year. “I think that’s part of the reason they came here in July,” he said, referring to the kickoff of American Beer Month in Philadelphia.
Like the festival itself, the Beer Month kickoff – held for the second year in a row in Center City – was intended to promote American craft-brewing. The event this summer was a huge disappointment. There was almost no publicity and little direction. Only a handful of beer freaks attended.
Unless it gets a transfusion of energy, I doubt Beer Month will return here next summer.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Heavyweight Lunacy.