Sunday, October 7, 2018

To Go or Not to go? The Great American Beer Festival

Jason Pellett of Orpheus in
 Atlanta, GA pours his brews
 after winning a GABF medal
The name says it all--The Great American Beer Festival. Every year since 1982, people have been attending the oldest and largest beer festival in the United States. Over the years it has become larger and more diverse; however, with so many festivals, beer releases, and other beer events-the question that many ask, "Why go?"

I attended the festival for the first time somewhere in the late 1990s. I was both ecstatic and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude, and they only had about 2500 beers that year. Since that first experience, I have become a GABF judge which is a different experience entirely. Still, the festival holds magic for me and many of the people who attend on a regular basis.

So, if you have never been, or you have not been in awhile, here are some reasons that this festival is worth attending.

7. Bragging Rights: Your social media presence will never be so envied by your fellow craft beer lovers when you post the picture of that vintage beer that they have always wanted to try. (I had a 2014 Abyss from Deschutes Brewing Company during one session.) Also, where else can you "untap" 4,000 plus beers in one room. (No, it is physically impossible to try all the beers both from an alcohol and time management standpoint, but it is good to have goals.) I have never seen so many people using the Untappd app in unison. In fact, Untappd was a sponsor for this year's event.

6. Beer Swag: If you collect beer t-shirts, towels, bags, glasses, homebrew equipment, beer for your dog, or anything related to hops, beer, and the beer industry--you will find it here. I went this year intent upon buying nothing beer clothing related. I failed. I found the coolest light fleece hoodie with hops on it. Sold to the beer swag sucker indeed!

5. Surrounding Events: Hello, people. This event takes place in Denver, Colorado where you can throw a rock and hit a brewery. Most of the cities around Denver deliver the same. When you are not at your ticketed session, the city is your oyster--full of beer. If you love nature, you can always go out of town a little ways and hike off some that beer you have been drinking. There are brewery sponsored tap take-overs and special events all around downtown. One of my favorites is Epic's Fifty Firken Fiasco.

4. People Watching: What is almost as much fun as drinking good beer? Watching people drink good beer comes to mind. The costumes at GABF can go from the sublime to the ridiculous, and it is not just the attendees dressing out. Some of the breweries get into it as well. Although, I don't think it happened this year, people have also been married at GABF, and there is a bagpipe parade.

Franklin and Zach from Eagle Creek
Brewing Company enjoying the brewer's
 reception with Beer Wench GA and
Brewtopia Events founder, Owen Ogletree 
3. Supporting the breweries from your home state: Most people who have heard of the festival know that it is not just a few sessions of people drinking as much as they can in four hours. It is also a major American beer competition like World Beer Cup except all of the beers come from the U.S. The judging takes place over three days (Wednesday through Friday) during the week of the event. On Saturday there is a special awards ceremony just before the early festival session. Win or lose, brewers have put their hearts, souls, and money into the event. It is great to visit your local breweries and representatives to show them love away from home.

2. Meeting the Brewers/Owners: Even though I have been a part of the craft beer industry in small ways over the last twenty-five years, I still geek out. I love meeting the brewers and owners of the places that have brought me beer happiness over the years. Some of them are well-known in the industry and some are new, but being able to meet and hear the stories behind the craft makes it more special.
Sam Calagione shares his time at
the Dogfish Head booth

1. Travel the U.S. in one room: Some of you may be lucky enough to travel often; others, maybe not so much, but at GABF, you can try beers from places that you have not been yet or places that may not be easy to visit. My tip is to avoid the crazy long lines of the latest "whale" or "juicy" release and find the places of which you have never heard. Often, the beers are amazing and the brewers will truly appreciate the feedback. Even if you get a few duds here and there, it is worth it to be adventurous.
The ladies of Lady Justice Brewing Company

The Great American Beer festival is an awesome experience whether you are a seasoned beer aficionado, beer geek, or a craft beer newbie. Bring your adventurous spirit and a positive attitude and enjoy yourself! How can 60.000 plus people be wrong? Wherever you enjoy your favorite beers, remember to eat well and drink good beer.

Friday, June 22, 2018

An American Look at the South African Craft Beer Renaissance

This article was published originally in South Africa's On Tap craft beer magazine.

Three and a half years ago, on a bucket list trip to South Africa with my husband, we found craft beer… good craft beer. Recently, we brought thirty-two beer travelers specifically to enjoy the exploding craft beer scene around Cape Town. The most popular question that I’ve been asked since the trip is “How is the craft beer scene in South Africa?” After much reflection, I have an answer.

I started writing about craft beer not long after I started drinking it in the early 1990s. I fell in love with beer that was bursting with flavor and came to appreciate a plethora of styles, but I live in Georgia, part of the deep south of the United States, and the beer scene here took off slowly. We would travel to other states to find good beer and explore different styles. The craft beer scene in Cape Town and the rest of South Africa reminds me of those early years and the beginning of our current explosion of breweries and brewpubs in the USA over the last ten years.

What makes up some of these similarities? Take a population hooked on light, fizzy lagers, rooted for decades in tradition, and living in a hot and humid climate, and finding a way to market a 9.5% ABV Russian Imperial Stout can prove daunting. Add into the mix a group of passionate brewers, brewery owners, beer lovers, and foodies; and you get the start of a craft beer revolution. Brew it, and they will try it - eventually. Most of the breweries we’ve visited in South Africa make a light lager as a concession to the majority of the population. Along with more adventurous styles, many of our American breweries have done the same but are slowly learning that they have to brew the flavorful styles that they want to drink, and then educate the masses in a way that encourages them to try these new beers.


Give the people the same old bland beers, and they will never change their palates. Brew the amazing beer that you want, and people will become curious about what is so special about it. Michigan-based Founders Brewing Company almost went under because they were brewing beer to please the masses - beers they thought would sell. Almost out of business, Founders decided to go out with a bang and brew the creative, flavorful cutting-edge beers they loved to drink. Guess what? They are currently one of the most successful craft breweries in the United States.

I saw pockets of this rebellious nature while visiting breweries around Cape Town. We tasted a saison brewed with a mix of sorghum and barley, a brilliant imperial IPA, a delicate pilsner with the perfect mix of hops, and a wild fermented ale brewed with artistic aplomb, just to name a few. With all of the brewers and staff that we met, we were welcomed with open arms and open taps. These people wanted to show off their craftsmanship and receive feedback on their labors of love. This gives me hope that the next time I visit South Africa, I will have many more wonderful beers to try.

This being said, we did have some mediocre beers and beers with off flavors. Some of our U.S. breweries that started in the 1990s are no longer with us because their beer just was not of good quality. Also, some brewery owners could not manage the business end of brewing. Some, thankfully, kept trying. They tweaked recipes, assembled tasting panels for feedback, and even worked together with other breweries to improve their beers and find and audience.

We witnessed some collaborating in South Africa, with different breweries having conversations, sharing ideas, and pulling together. For the most part, I feel that the craft beer landscape in the U.S. is a cooperative community. There are always outliers and those who do not play well with others, but if multiple craft breweries share the same mission to save beer drinkers from bland beer, working together seems the best way to go.

 Using local and native ingredients in the brewing process stands out as one of my favorite things from South Africa. Although many of the brewers are working with familiar styles such as American-style IPAs and German-inspired wheat beers, I loved the creative beers that incorporated native hops, grapes, or herbs. I’m not knocking traditional styles at all, but I feel that playing with native ingredients can be fun and innovative. It seems that there are quite a few specialty cocktail places around Cape Town that infuse herbs and other botanicals into their mixes. If you are looking to expand the craft beer market, look to what is popular - especially when trying to entice novice or non-beer drinkers.

I wish I had space here to talk specifically about each brewery we visited, because they all offered something special, and I hope that each of them finds their way. In every market, brewers must figure out what works for their specific audience, but I would challenge the craft brewers of South Africa to take chances, have fun, and brew what they want to drink. I also challenge the traditional beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers of South Africa to venture outside their comfort zones and try the local craft breweries. They might be surprised to find some new favorite brews. When I first starting writing about beer, our entire state of Georgia had maybe five breweries. We are now home to around 40 craft breweries, with several more in the works. It may take time, but craft beer’s appeal tends to eventually win people over. Life is short. Eat well and drink good beer.


Kerri Allen is a Georgia beer writer, craft beer traveler, and judge at the Great American Beer Festival. Her beer blog can be found at