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Why You Won’t See the Big Brewers This Year’s Beer Industry ‘Super Bowl’

The Great American Beer Festival, which kicks off Thursday Oct. 5 in Denver, has always had something of a focus on craft breweries, but this year the show appears to be drawing a line in the sand.

The majority of one-time craft brewers now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors won’t be at this year’s GABF, and several other big names will be absent as well.

That means well-known names such as Wicked Weed, which has won four GABF awards since 2013, and Goose Island, with 29 total medals, won’t be pouring this year. Neither will three-time medal winner Terrapin Beer Co. or Saint Archer Brewing, which won a gold medal in 2014. Other notable absences include Lagunitas, Elysian Brewing, 10 Barrel, Breckenridge Brewing, Blue Moon, the Sandlot, Leinenkugel, Revolver Brewing, Hop Valley Brewing, Kona Brewing, and Red Hook

The departures are a result of rule changes at the GABF that would seem to be more favorable to small brewers. The changes come months after the Brewers Association, which hosts GABF, launched a seal to go on bottles, signifying the brewer behind it was made by an independent organization, rather than a brewer that has been acquired by a larger company, such as AB InBev.

Some brewers put it more succinctly, though.

“We were not invited,” says Karen Hamilton, director of communications at Lagunitas Brewing Co., which is owned by Heineken. “The Brewers Association changed the rules.”

Ann Obenchain, marketing director for the Brewers Association, says “all breweries are welcome at GABF.” The rules, though, did change. A lottery system was put into place this year, meaning companies that had multiple breweries were given just one initial chance at a festival booth.

“This was designed to maximize access to the festival among all breweries that wished to be present,” says Obenchain.

As some brewers decline or move to more prominent positions, other spaces opened up and a second lottery was held and offered randomly to breweries not able to participate in the first. If picked, they had a limited time to accept the slot.

“Without disclosing brewery-specific information, breweries from ‘Big Beer’ have had opportunities to get a booth at the festival and have pursued their own courses of action as a result,” she said. In other words, they opted not to request a booth or declined or missed a deadline to accept one.

AB InBev declined to comment on the record about GABF, noting that only two of the breweries in its High End division—Blue Point and Four Peaks—would be pouring at the show. (Cynics will be quick to note Four Peaks brews both a Peach Ale and Double Pumpkin Porter, beers AB InBev mocked in its infamous 2015 Super Bowl commercial.)

Beyond the lottery, the Brewers Association also changed rules on who was eligible to be a Featured Brewery sponsor of GABF, announcing in June that only breweries that met its definition of a craft brewer would be considered. That ruled out previous sponsors including 10 Barrel Brewing, Goose Island (both owned by AB InBev), Blue Moon (a MillerCoors property) and Lagunitas.

While craft brewers and ‘Big Beer’ have been at odds for years, the tensions seemed to come to a head in 2017. AB InBev’s takeover of Wicked Weed in May sparked a backlash among craft fans and craft brewers, many of whom had collaborated with the Asheville, NC-based brewery previously.

Ironically, the escalating battle between the two comes as beer growth overall has slowed over the past two years. For beer sold at stores for the three months to June 17th volumes were 1% lower than the same period in 2016, according to market research firm Nielsen.