The Great American Beer Festival has come and gone, but the craft brewers that took home medals from the competition are still coming down from their Rocky Mountain highs.
Beer drinkers and fellow brewers look to the GABF competition results as a barometer for which states are up-and-coming, which breweries should be on the radar, and which beer styles are popular.
While the GABF is careful to note that the information on past entries and winners on its website isn’t 100% accurate, we decided to delve further into the data with GABF Competition Manager Chris Swersey to see what trends emerge.
More categories, better representation
At the 2015 Great American Beer Festival, 1,552 breweries submitted 6,647 beers for judging in 92 categories. A total of 275 medals were handed out to 242 breweries, with seven breweries singled out, based on size, for brewery of the year accolades.
The competition portion of the festival has grown exponentially from 1983 when Sierra Nevada took first and second and Anchor Brewing took third in the “Consumer Preference Poll.” In 1987, the first 12 style categories were introduced—ales, alts, porters, stouts, among others.
Since then, categories have been abandoned (Dry Beers), added (Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer), amended (American-style/International-style Pilsener) and diversified (American-style Fruit Beer, Fruit Wheat Beer, and Belgian-style Fruit Beer). For the 2015 competition, the GABF Beer Style Guide was 44 pages long.
“Some of it has to do with just what we see in the marketplace overall as an association,” explained Swersey. “[…] if we see a category with several subcategories and one of those subcategories just becomes so big it deserves its own category, then we’ll consider breaking it out.”
For example, the growth in the number of Session Beer entries from 33 in 2008 to 94 in 2014 prompted the GABF to consider splitting off the most popular sub-category.
“Session IPAs just kept growing through the fall and winter and spring this past year and we thought, let’s create a category for it at GABF and break those out,” says Swersey, who estimates that roughly half of the sessions entered in 2014 were IPAs.
It proved to be a smart move: With 161 entries, Session IPA was one of the largest first-year categories on record. Overall, the competition saw a 20-percent increase in entries from 2014.
“[There were] a lot of entries and [creating a new category] gave room for some of those other session beers that are in the session beer category to show as well. […] We want to try and make the categories as competitive as we can and create a certain amount of equity in there whenever we can,” Swersey says.
Less entries, better competition
Beyond the annual rejiggering of categories, the GABF has also recently capped the number of entries per brewery. Festival organizers know how much space they have and how many beers they can judge. But one of the goals of the GABF is to allow as many breweries as possible to compete. Rather than limit the amount of breweries invited, the decision was made to set a limit of five beers per entrant.
“We did that last year and it was very successful,” Swersey says. “One thing we learned last year was that every category was far more competitive. The brewers had to pick their four or five very best beers—they didn’t have the opportunity to send 10 or 12 beers from their portfolio, they had to send their very best.”
Now that it’s harder for a single brewery to win multiple medals, the formula for determining the overall brewery and brewer of the year awards has been tweaked.
In 2014, two gold medals would have beaten out a gold, a silver, and a bronze, but this year was the opposite.
“A gold, a silver, and a bronze would beat out two golds,” explained Swersey, “because winning three is so much more difficult than winning two, and winning two, for that matter, is so much more difficult than winning one.”
But even with the entry cap, four breweries managed to win an astounding three medals each: Firestone Walker Brewing Co. (two gold, one bronze), Sun King Brewing Co. (one gold, one silver, one bronze), Port City Brewing Co. (two silver, one bronze), and Left Hand Brewing Co. (one gold, two bronze). Firestone Walker and Port City would go on to win mid-size brewing company and brewer of the year, and small brewing company and brewer of the year, respectively.
Historic data on competition and 2015 results
Analyzing the award data from this year and all previous years is complicated due to the nebulous identity of some of the larger beer manufacturers. “Where the beers actually come from may not be the street address of the company that actually registers the brewery,” Swersey notes.
For example, that Schlitz (an award-winning American Lager in previous years) you’re drinking was originally brewed in Wisconsin before being acquired by Stroh Brewing Company (Michigan) and could now be brewed at one of Pabst Brewing Company’s (headquartered in Los Angeles) plants in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania. You get the idea.
The GABF site itself goes as far as to warn against trying to draw any concrete, overall conclusions from the data available. With that in mind, the below infographic outlines a few notable stats from the 2015 Great American Beer Festival.