GABF 2012: Bigger is sadness

I was one of the general public online that fateful day when tickets to GABF sold out in 45 minutes. I had researched the event and heard that Thursday night was the best session to go to, but I bought Saturday night first because I had two friends who wanted to go with us and Saturday was when we could all go together. I never got a chance to purchase another session as all the tickets were already in the process of being bought by the time I’d completed my transaction for Saturday night. I reacted to this ticket frenzy by immediately becoming a member of AHA (American Homebrewers Association) because I predict that all tickets will be sold in pre-sale next year. Plus, there are a couple of members-only events that I suspect would have been more about the experience I was looking for as a lover of American craft beer. That’s the kind of person I am – I will plan a year in advance to ensure that I have time to re-plan everything so that nothing unexpected will happen to me. And for the most part, I have to say that my GABF experience was predictable. Still, I was surprised at how disappointing the whole thing was for me.

The Line

The doors opened at 5:30 p.m. so I lined up at 4:00 p.m. as instructed by veterans of the event (AHA members had their own entrance). One of my friends showed up in the line a little after 5:00 p.m. and texted us to let us know he was finally inside after we’d already bought our t-shirts, started sampling beers, and found a table to sit at. The line was a sight to behold as it snaked around the Colorado Convention Center. Still, the efficiency of how the 2,500 volunteers handled that line is awesome considering that it only took them an hour to get everyone into the building. It was a four-part process where they checked your ID at the door, then scanned your ticket at the next door, gave you a wristband before walking into the exhibit hall where you showed your ticket again and received your tasting glass.

The Booths

Once inside, I was awestruck. I mean, you know it’s the biggest beer festival in the world and you’ve thumbed through the program and scanned the mobile app while standing in line but there is just no way to describe the scale of this event with breweries standing shoulder to shoulder across 188,000 square feet. I immediately wanted to know how these brewers – many who don’t distribute in Colorado – get the licensing and approval and money to ship all that beer here. Every once in a while I see someone in a yellow t-shirt (volunteer colors) rolling a pony keg through the crowd and I’m thinking, that’s it? One booth just ran out of one tiny keg of beer? But then you start doing the math in your head (okay, maybe just me and let’s face it I looked it up on the internet) and you realize that at 1 oz. pours, a 7.75 gallon keg is 992 servings of beer. To give every single person one sample would only take about 20 full-size US kegs. I did see some booths pouring from bottles – they would have to ship about 140 cases.

It took me a while to get past the magnitude of the event and actually sample my first beer. I was somewhere in Section C when a man behind his counter of beer waved me over to him. I don’t remember what I asked for or what brewery he was representing. And that is why (upon reflection) I am disappointed in GABF as a craft beer event. There is so little marketing going on to make an impression on me as a consumer and almost no conversation beyond the volunteers flirting with pretty girls. I want to stress again that I admit that Saturday is famous for being the worst night to go but still, that’s no excuse in my mind for the lack of style at this event. It’s as if the effort to get their beer and people to GABF is all a brewery can muster up. You couldn’t make a sign with your name and logo on it? You forgot the laminated cards describing your beer? You couldn’t make more stickers?

I go to a lot of professional conventions. I’m used to carpeted floors, booth babes, and towering signs with subtle lighting all designed to draw me in to talk to a sales person. I love everything about the psychology of marketing at a convention and I expected these breweries to want to make an impression on me in the same way. I didn’t expect butcher paper on tables with beer styles hand-written in permanent marker in front of a pitcher of beer. I was horrified that many of the breweries just used the sign provided by the convention to label their booth and list their beers. Many of them didn’t even provide their volunteers with a branded t-shirt to wear while representing the brewery behind the table. I knew ahead of time that most of the brewery reps do not hang around for Saturday or would be out on the floor finally enjoying the event themselves but I was still largely disappointed that these beers were unrepresented by the folks who are passionate about them. That no one engaged me in a conversation about beer or encouraged me to sample more than one of their brews – to move off to the side and talk for a bit about what makes them special – was the worst part. It’s left me wondering what the whole point of GABF really is for brewers. How are they benefiting at all from their participation at this event if they don’t win an award? What’s the point of the whole thing? Is it really just one big party and if so, how does that make us any different from frat boys drinking Bud Light?

I stood in line outside the convention center next to a guy chugging a Bud Light before coming in. His motives were pretty clear. I don’t want to be in the same room with people like that, but on Saturday night at GABF, that’s who you get. People getting drunk 1 oz. at a time. Remember what I was saying about carpeted floors at other conventions? The floor at GABF is kept bare so you can hear someone drop their plastic tasting glass on the cement and mock them. That got old quick because every 10 seconds someone dropped their plastic glass on the cement. For the record, that did not happen to me and that seems to be the first question every veteran asks. Seriously? You don’t ask me what my favorite beer or brewery was but you ask me whether or not I had the dexterity to keep my hand wrapped around my tasting glass for three hours?

Last call

I got the wisdom of cement as I passed through an area being guarded by volunteers where someone had yacked what looked like a pulled pork sandwich. At that point of the night, all yack would have resembled a pulled pork sandwich. When people start puking on the floor, I figure it’s already past my bedtime so I look at my watch – 8:00 p.m. Whoever puked couldn’t have been inside for more than two and half hours. That’s when it finally hit me what this event is about for everyone except me. Why invest your marketing dollars (beyond the cost of shipping your beer and brewers) on signage and shirts and stickers when most people here are never going to promote your product?

But you know what? Regardless of the scale of the event, there was hardly ever a line to get beer at the kinds of breweries I came here to see – the breweries I can’t see anywhere else. There was time to make an impression. It was possible to get me to your table as opposed to your neighbor’s table with just a little bit of effort. And once you got me there, it wouldn’t have been hard to reinforce the name of the beer to me and give me a factoid about it and hand me a business card with a sample tweet. This is the only craft beer event I’ve been to where it never occurred to me to take tasting notes or tweet while at the event. No one made me want to brag that I was there. Nothing special was really happening.

Yes, it was clever that they had a mobile DJ doing karaoke and the lines to the silent disco, cheese trays, and photo booth were all insane. There was a vendor trimming facial hair and some great booths selling t-shirts for various charities. I would have gone to the sessions in the middle of the venue but there was no real indication on the floor of when those things were happening nor was there a whole lot of promotion about what was happening inside. I didn’t know who the brewers were at the front of the stage that were getting ready to speak and there was no announcement made or flashing light in the arena indicating that a session was about to begin. It’s as if they didn’t want me to attend the sessions at all. So, why have them?

All I remember is row after row of yellow t-shirts pouring beer under black and white block-lettered signs. After 12 samples of various double IPA’s, my pallet was shot. All the free water and pretzels in the world couldn’t make my tongue remember anything. I needed someone to engage my brain in the process. For someone to qualify me as a beer drinker and decide if I was in their target market. No one asked me where I was from and no one thanked me for coming by their booth to sample their beer. We did more marketing just walking around with shirts representing our local breweries but do you know that none of our local breweries asked us to do that for them? Why not?! Why not encourage your local fans to promote you at GABF? It just really hit home very hard why Budweiser is so popular in America. They know how to market and promote their beer.

Maybe I’m going through some sort of GABF drop, but I’m just really, really sad about the whole thing. I’m sad that I don’t have any desire to return to that event. I’m sad that it will just continue to spiral down until everyone yacks craft beer on the floor of the Colorado Convention Center. The efficiency of getting people through the door (and the attendants in the restrooms kept those lines moving as well) was completely wasted on me. I barely lasted three hours before I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there.

What I’d rather do

Yes, the event was disappointing but the trip was not. I was inspired to come to GABF after being in Denver last year while all the locals were getting excited about it. The week before GABF, Denver hosts Denver Beer Fest which showcases restaurants and brew pubs and breweries all over the city in smaller events designed to get you excited about the new beers you are tasting. Even with some of the larger breweries that distribute throughout the US, when you come to their headquarters, you are introduced to smaller batches that they don’t ship. THIS is what craft beer culture is about for me.

Let’s be honest, I’m from Texas and I appreciate what Shiner has done for craft beer and how long they’ve been in business, but they took home gold medals for beers that in my opinion are not representative of our beer culture. It’s clear to me that the GABF judges are not my craft brew peers. They’re still judging styles of beer like the AKC at a dog show. When I’m exploring craft beer, I’m not looking for a pure-brewed. Where is the national event for the mutts? The extreme Olympics of beer? That’s the event I want to go to. Ya’ll can have GABF. I won’t be online fighting for tickets next year.


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