An employee of Avery Brewing Company taps into a barrel as he and his team set up for last year's Great American Beer Festival in Denver.
Photograph by Helen H. Richardson — Denver Post via Getty Images
By Chris Morris
September 23, 2015

Forget Willy Wonka. The golden ticket craft beer lovers are dreaming of these days will get them into the Great American Beer Festival.

With over 3,500 beers on tap and at least 750 participating breweries, this is ground zero of the craft beer movement. It’s where the industry crowns its best beers, it’s beer lovers’ best chance to try rare brews that aren’t available in their areas, and it’s a scalper’s delight.

The Festival, hosted by the Brewers Association in Denver from Sept. 24 to Sept. 26, offered more tickets than ever before this year, charging $80 per session. But it still took just 77 minutes for the three-day event to sell out. (If it’s any consolation, that’s a bit more time than 2013, which sold out in 20 minutes.)

“This is the one where everybody stops and pays attention,” says Brandon Borgel, marketing director at San Leandro, Calif.-based Drakes Brewing Co. “It is the single event where you can try just about everything—and not just try it, but potentially meet the brewmaster or the owner of the brewery … It’s overwhelming, but it is the biggest stage, and we all want to be seen on it.”

 

To accommodate demand from beer lovers—and brewers—this year’s GABF is expanding its footprint by 90,000 square feet. All totaled, the Brewers Association says it expects 60,000 attendees, which include show-goers, brewers, and media —an increase of 11,000 from 2014. (The association does not give exact ticket sales figures.)

That incredible demand for tickets is a siren to scalpers. On Stubhub, GABF tickets are commanding up to $555 per session. Those prices are ridiculous, but they underscore just how big the craft beer explosion has become.

Last year, 3,418 craft breweries were operating in the U.S. Compare that to just 44 breweries (large and small) in 1980 and 537 in 1991. By the end of the year, experts say, a new craft brewery will open in the U.S. every 12 hours. Craft beers accounted for one out of every 10 beers sold domestically last year—with small and independent brewers accounting for 11% of the total beer market. The craft industry’s goal is to increase that share to 20% by 2020.

Beyond the kid-in-a-candy-store joy of having pretty much any beer you can imagine available, the GABF is also where the gold standard for beers is set. The festival’s awards are among the most coveted in the industry, and a gold, silver, or bronze medal can put a relatively unknown brewer on the national map.

“Winning one of those medals solidifies what you’re doing,” says Chris Brown, co-founder of Charleston, S.C.-based Holy City Brewing, which won a gold for its Pluff Mud Porter in 2012 and a bronze in 2014 for its Washout Wheat. “It shows people you’re making a great beer … and it makes everyone try to make a better product.”

As for the festival itself, brewers of all sizes will be on hand—and while the makers of industry favorites (like Russian River, The Alchemist, and Three Floyds) will inevitably have the longest lines for a tasting, it’s a chance for smaller brewers to share in the adulation of fans.

“It puts all of American Craft in one spot,” says Joey Redner, founder and CEO of Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing, whose national reputation results in consistent long lines at the show. “Any brewery—from nano to multi-coast operations—can be a part of that excitement and in some ways on equal footing … It’s also just a lot of fun.”

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