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Charleston’s brewers go for gold at the Great American Beer Festival

Eye on the Prize

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 There are beer festivals, and then there’s the Great American Beer Festival.

This month will mark the Denver, Colo.’s festival’s 33rd incarnation, and the organizers make no mistake about its superlative nature. Per their website, “Each year, GABF represents the largest collection of U.S. beer ever served, in a public tasting event plus private competition.” Gauntlet: thrown.

The public tasting portion draws epic sell-out crowds. Last year 49,000 ticket holders sampled 3,500 different beers from over 700 breweries. Imagine: that’s nearly half the population of Charleston in a single shed-style amphitheater.

The private competition is where things get really interesting. A panel of certified judges sniff, swirl, and sometimes spit through dozens upon dozens of entries from breweries all over the country. In hard numbers 2014 saw 222 judges sample 5,507 beers from 1,309 breweries. That’s a lot of swilling.

Winning a GABF medal is a badge of honor that not only gets you weekend kudos, but can legitimize a beer, a brewery, or even a region. Our own Holy City Brewing has taken home two of these medals — a gold for Pluff Mud Porter in 2012 and a bronze for Washout Wheat in 2014.

“I think as a brewer and brewery the first medal told people that we were making good beer and doing things the right way,” says Holy City head brewer and co-owner Chris Brown. “The second said we are consistent and that the first wasn’t just a fluke. It puts you on the map on a national scale, and I feel like we get a little respect because of it.”

While Holy City isn’t the first Lowcountry brewery to venture to GABF with dreams of glory, this year they’ll be joined by more local comrades than ever. Seven of our nine local production breweries are sending beer to and/or pouring beer in Denver the last weekend in September, and spirits are high. Read on to see who’s bringing what, and get some perspectives on the festival.

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Palmetto Brewing

Year Founded: 1994
Attending the fest? Nope
Is your brewery a GABF virgin? Nope
2015 Entries: Homefront IPA, Huger Street Wheat IPA, Pale Ale
Previous Medals: N/A

We asked Tasting Room Manager, Hospitality Director, and Certified Cicerone® Collin Clark:

Why send beer to GABF? "How better to improve our product than by listening to those who are drinking it?"

Are beer "competitions" like this good for craft beer? "For a commercial brewery, competitions serve to provide constructive critique of the beers we produce. As long as the competitive aspect is treated respectfully by participants, there’s no problem with a little friendly competition. It merely adds to the experience. Plus, everyone loves the chance to win a medal. Who doesn’t like shiny things?"

Has GABF gotten too big? "If more beers are entered in each category and the judging becomes more specific as a result, breweries stand to gain a more useful analysis of their entered beers. It could be said that GABF’s increasing size is merely reflecting the greater changes occurring within the entire craft beer industry."

What's your post-GABF recovery time like? "Palmetto Brewer Clint Vick always seems to recover pretty quickly — ready to get back to brewing as soon as he lands back in Charleston … well, at least not long after landing! I think it’s safe to allow at least a 24-hour recovery for … jet lag. Just jet lag. Yeah."

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Holy City Brewing

Year Founded: 2011
Attending the fest? Yep
Is your brewery a GABF virgin? Nope
2015 Entries: Dorchester Light, Dr. Dunkelstein, Pluff Mud Porter, Smells Like Rick, Washout Wheat
Previous Medals: 2012 — Gold for Pluff Mud Porter (Brown Porter), 2014 — Bronze for Washout Wheat (South German-Style Hefeweizen)

We asked Co-Owner and Production Manager Chris Brown:

Why send beer to GABF? "It's a good way to connect with brewers from around the country and people in the trade. It's also nice to showcase what you can do on a national scale. "

Are beer "competitions" like this good for craft beer? "I think so. You have to be making good beer to win in these contests since there are so many entries. I think it encourages breweries to step up their game. If we keep having this increase in breweries in the country and a lot of them make bad beer, it's going to hurt us all."

Has GABF gotten too big? "I don't think so. It's big and the later in the night the less people care about what they are drinking, but I think for the most part people want to talk to the brewers. They want to learn. That's a lot different than beer fests that are just about drinking. "

What's your post-GABF recovery time like? "I'll be back to work bright and early Monday morning after getting back to Charleston on Sunday, but I probably won't have a beer for few days. "

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Frothy Beard Brewing

Year Founded: 2013
Attending the fest? Yep
Is your brewery a GABF virgin? Nope
2015 Entries: ¡Ándale! Pale Ale, It's Cucumber Thyme!, Out at Third Tripel
Previous Medals: N/A

We asked Co-Owner and Brewer Joey Siconolfi:

Why send beer to GABF? "It's a great idea to go the festival so that you can get a sense of trends developing within the craft beer world, plus you get excellent feedback from judges and other brewers."

Are beer "competitions" like this good for craft beer? "Winning national medals can be a huge boon for the brewery. Charleston is home to one medal-winning brewery, and not only has it done great things for their business but it's made all of Charleston beer look good."

Has GABF gotten too big? "I've only been to GABF once, and I'll admit it's a bit overwhelming. It's a spectacle. There is a fife-and-drum marching band that makes rounds on the festival floor. Even at such a huge scale, you'll still find hardworking humble brewers and enthusiastic fans. The sense of community, even nationwide, between craft brewers is still one of my favorite parts about this industry."

What's your post-GABF recovery time like? "Not only are there over 700 breweries on the show floor pouring anywhere from 1-10 styles, there are more breweries in the Denver, Fort Collins, and surrounding areas than you have enough time or liver for. We came back from our two-week GABF road trip exhuasted, but inspired to take our brewery to the next level."

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Freehouse Brewery

Year Founded: 2013
Attending the fest? Yep
Is your brewery a GABF virgin? Yep
2015 Entries: Ashley Farmhouse Ale, Folly's Pride,Green Door IPA, Sourlina Peche
Previous Medals: N/A

We asked Owner and Head Brewer Arthur Lucas:

Why send beer to GABF? "Getting responses from the judges and interacting with other brewers from around the country."

Are beer "competitions" like this good for craft beer? "Not sure. Everyone wants to get a prize, I guess? I think most brewers take these medals with some grain of salt, but if you win it would feel great."

Has GABF gotten too big? "Not sure."

What's your post-GABF recovery time like? "Hit the ground brewing."

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Revelry Brewing

Year Founded: 2014
Attending the fest? Yep
Is your brewery a GABF virgin? Nope
2015 Entries: Funkmaster Brett & The Furious Hops, Gullah Cream Ale, Lean or Fat?, Mel's Munich Helles, Oh My Darlyn!
Previous Medals: N/A

We asked Co-Owner, Head Brewer, and Certified Cicerone® Ryan Coker:

Why send beer to GABF? "The most important benefit to me is the judges' feedback on the beers as well as the opportunity to taste beers from all over the country that provide inspiration for future projects."

Are beer "competitions" like this good for craft beer? "I think medals stating place rank are a great idea. It helps smaller brewers gain exposure in an otherwise difficult landscape and helps validate your process, ingredients, and technique. Many small operations make exceptional beer and these competitions provide an excellent platform to be recognized for hard work. "

Has GABF gotten too big? "I think the competition is growing parallel to the growth of the brewing industry and is a fairly well orchestrated event. As a brewery representative we have more access, separate bathrooms, separate entrance, etc., so it makes the experience an enjoyable one. Of course, being able to try potentially thousands of unique beers is pretty exciting too."

What's your post-GABF recovery time like? "I'm becoming seasoned to these festivals now and have learned that it's a marathon and not a sprint. I'll likely take a day to get back to reality when I return, but will be ready to get back to brewing beer inspired by what I've seen a few days before at the festival."

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Tradesman Brewing

Year Founded: 2014
Attending the fest? Nope
Is your brewery a GABF virgin? Yep
2015 Entries: Bricklayer's Red Ale, Coconuts and Bolts, Elbow Grease, Sweet Potato Pie, Welder's Wheat
Previous Medals: N/A

We asked Co-Owner Chris Winn:

Why send beer to GABF? "The biggest benefit, if you win, is a really big splash and some immediate validation. Your peers notice, your fans notice, and new customers have one more reason to give your beer a shot."

Are beer "competitions" like this good for craft beer? "There are plenty of great beers out there that have never been judged, and don’t need to be. The competition brings more attention to the whole category, and I think that’s a good thing. It also implies/supports the underlying position that what we are making is of high quality and worth judging."

Has GABF gotten too big? "It is freaking huge. It demonstrates how big the field has gotten, but it’s a very high energy event and I think serves it spurpose in getting/keeping folks pumped about beer. A good crowd response is a huge boost to brewery morale and reminds us of how lucky we are to do this."

What's your post-GABF recovery time like? "360 days."

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Oak Road Brewery

Year Founded: 2015
Attending the fest? Yep
Is your brewery a GABF virgin? Yep
2015 Entries: Carolina Evening, Oak Road Vienna Lager, Percy the Passive Aggressive Pineapple
Previous Medals N/A

We asked Co-Owner and CEO Ben Bankey:

Why send beer to GABF? "If you can win a GABF medal, it legitimizes your beer to stratospheric levels, which makes it a very desired commodity."

Are beer "competitions" like this good for craft beer? "When you can have beer judged and awarded by organizations that carry the weight they do, it can only help bolster the industry. Working in IT we rely on industry standards as a baseline for quality and expertise."

Has GABF gotten too big? "No idea."

What's your post-GABF recovery time like? "No rest for the wicked! We go from Charleston Beer Week right into GABF. It's gonna be an insane two weeks, and we all still hold full-time jobs. So basically it's gonna suck on Monday!"

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