GABF turns 40: A history of the festival that shaped American craft beer

The first time Thornton resident Sarah Beth Bliss attended the Great American Beer Festival, she said it felt like “beer Christmas.”

A native of small-town Iowa, Bliss wasn’t exposed to the wonderful world of beer until after college, but once she attended her inaugural GABF in 2002, she was hooked. Every year since — or at least until 2020, when the public portion of the festival was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic — Bliss, her cousin and his wife have worn matching, custom-made bowling shirts embroidered with their names and adorned with patches from their favorite breweries.

In 2020, and again in 2021, Bliss instead hosted a fall bottle share with her roommate to keep the spirit of the event alive in her household. “Other people get excited about the holidays and look forward to them every year and count down the days and take time off work,” Bliss said. “Once I experienced GABF, that’s what it became for me.”

On Thursday, Oct. 6, the festival returns to the Colorado Convention Center for the first time since before the pandemic, and tens of thousands of fans like Bliss are reviving their beer fest traditions and hoping to raise a sample glass with longtime friends.

It’s also the 40th anniversary of GABF, founded in Boulder in 1982 before the advent of American beer culture as it’s known today. The Brewers Association will give a nod to its origins with a 1980s-themed costume contest and bands playing music of the decade.

For the most part, though, the event will look remarkably similar to the previous rendezvous —  a welcome sign that the world has reverted to something resembling normalcy after COVID-19. But when founder Charlie Papazian reflects, he can’t help but notice how much has changed.

“The goal was to establish a national event that celebrated American beer culture. That was the essence of what we were trying to do. People kind of scratched their heads and asked the question, ‘Well, what do you mean by that?’ ” Papazian said. “The beer festival really introduced people to the idea that there are lots of different kinds of beers.”

The beginning

In the early 1980s, Papazian, who’d moved to Boulder about 10 years earlier, was one of the foremost home-brewing experts in the world, often invited to judge competitions around the globe. During one of those journeys, a 1981 trip to England for the Great British Beer Festival, he was blown away by the way people had gathered to celebrate not just the beer, but also the culture around brewing and consuming beer.

His first thought: Could we do something like this in the United States?

As Papazian tells it, he ran the idea by the late beer writer Michael Jackson, who was all for it. But there was one major problem: In those days, there were only about 40 brewing companies in the United States, as opposed to the 9,000-plus that exist today.

“So where were we going to get the beer? That was our biggest concern,” Papazian said. “There was no literature, no stories had been written about different breweries. It just wasn’t part of the culture here in the United States to consider beer something you could talk about and write about and become interested in.”

There was also, notably, no internet. So Papazian scoured books by beer-label and beer-can collectors, and researched which breweries were still in business to invite them to his event.

The first GABF, at Boulder’s Millennium Harvest House, featured 22 breweries pouring about 40 different beers for roughly 750 attendees, Papazian said — a humble gathering compared to 2019, the largest GABF yet, when 800 breweries showed up with 4,000 beers to serve 60,000 drinkers.

There were primarily large commercial breweries like the Adolph Coors Brewing Co., Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. and Blitz-Weinhard Co., but there were also a handful of “micro” breweries, including fledging companies like Boulder Beer Co., California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Anchor Brewing Co., Rainier Brewing Co. out of Washington, and Stevens Point Brewery out of Wisconsin.

How does it feel to hit the 40-year milestone?

“It feels pretty awesome, actually,” Papazian said. “Who would have thought this thing would keep going when we started it? It was an exciting idea at the time, but we weren’t looking that far in the future.”

  • Every brewer invited to the inaugural Great American Beer Festival in 1982 was asked to bring two beers that were not light lagers. The goal was to introduce drinkers to something they might not find in the typical American beer aisle. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • Charlie Papazian (left) at the inaugural Great American Beer Festival in 1982. Papazian founded the event and served as the longtime president of the Brewers Association. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • A band plays at the inaugural Great American Beer Festival in Boulder in 1982. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • Festive attire has been encouraged at the Great American Beer Festival since the inaugural event in 1982. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • The inaugural Great American Beer Festival took place at a hotel in Boulder in 1982. Just 22 breweries were invited and 40-ish beers were served. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • At the 1982 Great American Beer Festival, brewers poured 6- to 7-ounce samples of beer, founder Charlie Papazian said. Today, the festival serves 1-ounce samples. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • More than 20 breweries poured samples at inaugural Great American Beer Festival, which took place in a 5,000-square-foot ballroom at a hotel in Boulder in 1982. In 2022, the festival floor will be 389,000 square feet. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • The inaugural Great American Beer Festival took place at a hotel in Boulder in 1982. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • About 750 people attended the inaugural Great American Beer Festival in Boulder in 1982. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • About 750 beer and homebrewing enthusiasts attended the inaugural Great American Beer Festival in Boulder in 1982. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • A band plays at the inaugural Great American Beer Festival in Boulder in 1982. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • The inaugural Great American Beer Festival took place at a hotel in Boulder in 1982. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • A poster from the inaugural Great American Beer Festival, Boulder 1982. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

  • Scenes from the inaugural Great American Beer Festival in 1982. The now esteemed GABF competition began as a people’s choice preference poll, in which attendees would vote for their favorite beer. (Provided by David Bjorkman/Brewers Association)

Reshaping the American beer industry

While GABF wasn’t the catalyst for the American craft beer movement, it certainly was one of its shepherds. At the inaugural festival, Papazian asked each of the breweries to serve two beers that were not light American lagers so attendees could discover flavors beyond what was typically available in the beer aisle. Styles such as Oktoberfest, porter, steam beer, red ale and bock all made an appearance, Papazian said.

In 1984, Papazian recalled, Bert Grant of Washington’s Yakima Brewing & Malting Co. brought a beer that was unlike anything brewers and drinkers had ever seen. Grant, who died in 2001. called it an imperial stout, and there was a seemingly never-ending line to get a taste, Papazian said.

“It was the first time anybody had ever experienced a beer like that. It was maybe 8%-9% alcohol, it was black as a starless night and it was very hoppy,” said Papazian, who would go on to found the Brewers Association, a trade group that advocates for innovation in brewing and craft beer. “I remember some of the mainstay professional brewers at the event, they couldn’t believe someone would brew that kind of beer and actually serve it at a beer festival and call it beer. It was so out of this world.”

The competition portion of GABF began as an informal people’s choice poll, and although drinkers weren’t well-educated about the vast array of beer styles beyond light lager, it was clear they were craving more. Sierra Nevada has poured samples at every GABF over the last four decades, and founder Ken Grossman remembers the happy reaction when he served the brewery’s flagship pale ale.

“I think our pale ale got the No. 1 in consumer choice,” Grossman said, “and I want to say our porter might have gotten second.”

Shortly after the festival’s founding, the competition was judged by professionals; earning a medal here became one of the beer world’s most prestigious accolades. In 2022, judges will have sampled 9,680 entries to crown winners in 97 style categories.

The camaraderie that defines the craft beer ethos is also due in large part to this festival.

“Brewers readjusted their thinking that they could be shoulder to shoulder under one roof and create something that was really attractive to beer drinkers, and put their competitive nature aside,” Papazian said. “Up until that time, breweries didn’t share their beers at events if other brewers and other competitors were there.

“There was a great paradigm shift with the Great American Beer Festival,” he added.

  • Long before he was mayor of Denver, Hickenlooper had caught the homebrewing bug during a stint working at a sardine factory in Maine. He opened Wynkoop Brewing Co. in 1988. The brewpub remains open today, though Hickenlooper sold his ownership share in 2007. (Provided by the office of Sen. John Hickenlooper)

  • John Hickenlooper, left, with the co-founders of Wynkoop Brewing Co. circa 1987/1988. When it opened in late-1988, Wynkoop was Colorado's first brewpub since Prohibition. (Provided by the office of Sen. John Hickenlooper)

  • John Hickenlooper circa 1988. Construction began on Wynkoop Brewing Co. in January 1988 and opened later that year, Hickenlooper said. (Provided by the office of Sen. John Hickenlooper)

Despite enthusiasm on the festival floor, mainstream acceptance of the beer revolution was slow to catch up. John Hickenlooper, then an unemployed geologist, first attended GABF in 1986 after deciding he wanted to open a brewpub.

Long before he was Denver’s mayor, Colorado’s governor and now a U.S. senator, Hickenlooper had caught the home-brewing bug during a stint working at a sardine factory in Maine and then later as a college student. He was looking for ways to save money, and it turned out that buying the ingredients to make beer was cheaper than buying the finished product.

Hickenlooper owned Papazian’s book, “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing,” and relished drinking among like-minded hopheads at GABF. Still, investors were hard to come by then, Hickenlooper remembers now. Even his mom thought he was crazy to open a beer business.

“My mother wouldn’t invest. My mother said, ‘Who wants to have dinner in a brewery?’ ” he told The Denver Post. “We had to convince people that fresh beer was better. Most people invested because, I don’t know, I think they pitied us.”

Wynkoop Brewing Co. made its debut in 1988 at a historic Denver warehouse at 1634 18th St. and found success quickly. (Hickenlooper is no longer an owner of Wynkoop, having sold his share of the company in 2007.)

“We thought, someday these brewpubs will be popular and someday there will be 500 breweries. We thought we were crazy,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s become this phenomenon, and Denver and Colorado have been at the center of it. But the Great American Beer Festival was a big part of what made that happen.”

The senator estimates he’s attended the festival more than 30 times.

  • Volunteer Heidi Clark serves beer at the 36th Great American Beer Festival at the Colorado Convention Center on Sept. 22, 2018. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

  • Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

    The Brewers Association hosted thousands of beer enthusiasts during the 36th Great American Beer Festival at the Colorado Convention Center on Sept. 22, 2018.

  • Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

    Darcy Weiss of Virginia Beach tastes a beer at the 36th Great American Beer Festival at the Colorado Convention Center on Sept. 22, 2018.

  • Ted Ohanlan of Albuquerque, NM stand in line for beer tasting at the 36th Great American Beer Festival at the Colorado Convention Center on Sept. 22, 2018. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

  • Patricia Maldonado and her husband Albert Maldonado wait in line at the Fat Heads Brewing booth on Sept. 21 in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Denver Post)

  • A patron stands near a light-up beer sign during Great American Beer Festival at the Colorado Convention Center on September 21, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Denver Post)

  • Ted Risk of Wibby Brewing sports an inflatable flamingo as he makes his way through the crowd during Great American Beer Festival at the Colorado Convention Center on Sept. 21. (Seth McConnell, Special to The Denver Post)

  • Andy Colwell, Special to The Denver Post

    Boulder resident Glenn Grant displays his lanyard of pretzels, beer buttons and other Great American Beer Festival paraphernalia during the event's first night at the Colorado Convention Center.

A beloved beer nerd tradition

Today, GABF is more than just an annual event. It’s a rite of passage for industry personnel and a cultural touchstone for beer enthusiasts. And after two years off due to COVID-19, regular attendees are eager for the three-day beer-drinking tradition to reemerge.

Chris Black worked at bars and for beer distributors in Texas early in his career, but when he got the chance to open his own spot —  the legendary Falling Rock Tap House — he chose the Mile High City because “there was this big beer event that the whole world of beer came to Denver for.” Revelry around the annual celebration eventually spawned an entire week featuring dozens of festivities, from rare tappings to pints nights and other special events.

In 1997, the first year Black attended, he handed out business cards to promote his new bar, boasting “no crap on tap.” In the decades thereafter, Falling Rock became the premiere destination for ancillary GABF celebrations, where rubbing elbows with brewers and drinking something you’d never heard of was commonplace.

When Falling Rock closed in 2021, it left a barrel-sized hole in the city’s beer scene — and this will be the first year that most people will attend the fest without stopping at the bar beforehand or afterward. Falling Rock traditionally hosted a 5 p.m. Monday kickoff the week of GABF, and Black didn’t know until the last minute where he would choose to be at that time this year. Your best chance to find him throughout the week is at stalwart Bierstadt Lagerhaus and the newly opened MobCraft Dee Tacko, where he has teamed up with the owners to offer some Falling Rock-like tap takeovers.

Black anticipates GABF’s post-pandemic return will feel different for other reasons as well, in part because it will be significantly smaller than previous years due to construction at the Colorado Convention Center. The costs of travel and doing business have also skyrocketed, prohibiting some breweries outside of Colorado from joining the party, he said.

Still, fans like Aurora resident Brad Bagsby were already culling a spreadsheet of can’t-miss beers to seek out on the festival floor weeks ahead of time. It may be more challenging to navigate this year, since breweries are arranged in alphabetical order instead of region, said Bagsby, who’s attended as a fan and volunteer since 2010. But he’s hoping he still discovers some new breweries along the way.

As Sarah Beth Bliss dusted off her beloved bowling shirt, she mused about how many years — and beers — have come to pass. Her cousin’s kids, who were infants when that bowling shirt tradition began, are now of drinking age, so the family recently gifted them their own GABF shirts and a stack of patches. They’ll join the crew at GABF in 2023.

David Gardner of Highlands Ranch spent some time in the days leading up to the fest by planning and laying out the costumes he’ll don each day. In fact, GABF was one of the reasons Gardner left a career in teaching to join the beer industry.

“The atmosphere is so fun — so much fun that I left teaching to start working at a brewery here in Colorado,” said Gardner, a GABF veteran since 2004.

After several years at Littleton’s Living the Dream Brewing, Gardner opened Max Taps Co. in Highlands Ranch (2680 E. County Line Road A) in 2017 and, earlier this year, expanded to a second location in Centennial (11405 E. Briarwood Ave., #100).

While some folks may stay away from the festival this year in the wake of the pandemic, the die-hards will return, not just for the beer and the camaraderie but also for the return to normalcy.

“We’ve endured a lot over the last two years,” said Bagby, who’s also competed in the festival’s home-brewing-centered ProAm category. “It’s good to come back to something familiar and exciting that we looked forward to every year.”

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