We need no more proof that craft beer has reached critical mass than last week's registration insanity for the Great American Beer Fest.
While fans may be used to the fact that coveted general admission tickets to the country's largest and most important beer festival sell out in a matter of minutes, this year it was the breweries themselves that were shut out of the competition. 350 of them to be exact. Three of which are from L.A.
Within an hour and a half of registration opening for the massive three-day Brewers Association event last Tuesday, all 600 first-come-first-served spots for had been gobbled up. Everyone after that was placed on an ever-growing wait list, including many gold medal winners from last years competition and many more who had been attending for years.
One of Los Angeles' oldest breweries (Eagle Rock Brewing, which won a gold in 2010), our largest (Golden Road Brewing, with its new killer IPAs) and one of our youngest (Ohana Brewing Company, sours from which are finally ready for competition) all landed on the waiting list.
"We can't help but feel somewhat disappointed and let down by the fact we can't join in and be recognized," said Jeremy Raub of Eagle Rock Brewery, who was put on the wait list because the overloaded GABF website kept pushing him back to the start of the form.
"All of us in this industry work incredibly hard and one of the cool things is to be recognized for the work we do. Obviously, a medal isn't the end all be all, but it's nice to be recognized and nice to know you're competing on a national scale."
For new breweries looking to gain legitimacy among the 2,360 craft breweries currently operating in the U.S., there is no greater competition than the Great American Beer Festival.
For the last 31 years, the massive event has brought together a nation's worth of breweries to Denver, Colorado, where they pour their wares, talk with fans and have their beers judged by professionals against similar styles from around the country. Winners get medals that they take back to small towns and burgeoning city scenes as bragging rights that they're doing something pretty great.
The first festival featured 22 breweries and has over the years made room for more. But this year, the growth of craft beer has become too large for the festival to handle.
More than 400 breweries opened last year alone and only 20 spots for breweries were added. In 2012, more than 100 spaces were added and registration filled up in a few days. 70 still ended up on a wait list.
By the end of last week, the Brewers Association had removed some unverified breweries from the registration roll and both Golden Road and Eagle Rock received calls offering them spots to the festival. By then, however, Raub says he already changed all his plans and he had to tell BA that he couldn't pour on the festival floor, though he did enter two beers into the competition.
Ohana's Head Brewer Chris Walowski said he hasn't been contacted by the Brewers Association for a space and is especially bummed that this is the first year that his brewery is eligible for GABF and he won't be attending. "We've been saving up all year for this," he said.
Even with the absence of Ohana and Eagle Rock, L.A. is sending a formidable crop of breweries to GABF this year. Those confirmed to be representing are El Segundo Brewing, Smog City Brewing, Golden Road, Haven Brewing and Beachwood Brewing. Both Beachwood and Smog City medaled last year's competition and Haven and Golden Road are now armed with Head Brewers from the all-powerful Drake's in Northern California.
"It's a drag that more L.A. brewers aren't represented at GABF, but I don't think it'll have a long term impact on our scene," said Raub. "We're still going to do what we do and grow into a strong beer community. Maybe what this is all is pointing to: more regionalization of small-batch beer around the country. Maybe it'll put less of an importance on GABF and national medals, especially if you only distribute locally, and more emphasis on regional competitions."
If brewery registration is any indication, public tickets will go fast (last year, it only took a few hours). Mark your calendars now for July 31 at 10 a.m. Visit greatamericanbeerfestival.com for more information.
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