For American craft-beer brewers and drinkers, Denver's Great American Beer Festival is the pinnacle.
The wildly popular event — held this year from Oct. 2-4, with tickets selling out in just 32 minutes — is comprised of three parts: a beer competition, with 5,507 beers entered by 1,309 breweries; a beer festival, where over 700 breweries poured their brews; and various beer-related classes.
The festival is open to breweries of all sizes, and Pittsburgh and its breweries were well represented. One, Fat Heads Brewery — which is based outside of Cleveland but operates a saloon of the same name on the South Side — not only participates in the competitions, but is also a sponsor.
The brewery has won a medal in each of the six years it's participated, and this year was no different. The brewery won a gold medal for AlpenGlow, a German-style wheat ale. Even with all the beer-related hardware, the brewery's first reason for attending GABF has nothing to do with medals.
"It's the camaraderie," says Geoff Stober, a brewery representative and general manager of the South Side saloon. "The bonds you build with other brewers in the industry, the excitement you get from watching your friends win medals. [...] There are just so many good people in this industry."
Donnie Knight, sales manager of Slippery Rock's North Country Brewing, sees the festival as a chance for smaller brewers to grow their markets. The brewery entered competitions and ran a booth so that the nearly 50,000 festival-goers could sample their beers. North Country just started canning its beers within the last year and is poised to send its product out to a wider range of distribution.
"Here at GABF, we've served our beers to bottle-shop and bar owners from all over the country," Knight said. "Distributors in Cleveland, Florida, even as far away as Idaho are interested in our beers." North Country may have even opened the door to a collaboration beer with a large brewery in Colorado. In an industry where competition is fierce, any chance to show off your product is welcome.
"I realized how much good beer there is out there, and just how limited shelf space is," he said.
Robbie Lowther, regional sales manager for Erie Brewing Company, agrees: "It's a great way to get our beers out to the general public. The number of sales contacts we made here is incredible." Lowther says traveling to Denver from Pittsburgh for the festival is well worth the effort because of the contacts that can be made from one event.
The owners of Zelienople's ShuBrew took a different approach to the festival. As first-time GABF attendees, they entered four of their beers into the competition but didn't have a tasting booth.
"Maybe within five years or so," says Erika Shumaker, who co-owns ShuBrew with her husband, Zach. "We'd also like to bring more of our staff along with us, perhaps even using [the trip] as an incentive."
Since ShuBrew is a relatively new brewery (recently celebrating its one-year anniversary), the Shumakers looked at their first trip to GABF — meeting other brewers and listening to their tips — as a learning experience. They attended many of the brewers' seminars and picked up advice on food and beer pairings that they hope to use in their brewpub. They also spent time tasting the beers of medal winners in the same categories that they entered.
"We wanted to see how we could improve our beers," said Shumaker.
But you don't have to attend the show to benefit from it. Four Seasons Brewing Company, of Latrobe, has been in business for just over a year and didn't have the funds to send any staff to GABF. It did, however, ship three of its beers to Denver to be judged.
Four Seasons won a silver medal in the Oatmeal Stout category for its "Darkside of the Pint." When asked about the financial investment to submit the beers, brewer and owner Mark Pavlik said it was "definitely worth it." GABF medal winners typically see huge growth in the demand for those beers, as well as an increase in sales in general. Consumers might be drawn to the brewery for its medal-winning beer, but they usually stay to try other beers.
And regardless of what initially drew local brewers to the GABF, most will return in 2015.
"We'll definitely be back," said Erika Shumaker. "Definitely."