What Do Breweries Get Out of the GABF?

Firestone Walker flashing their medals in 2015. Matt Brynildson is second from right. Photo: Nick Rivers

The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) just wrapped up its latest competition on Saturday. Nearly 300 medals were handed out for beers in 98 styles (!), which means the exclusivity of medaling has become somewhat diluted. It is no longer uncommon to walk into a brewery and see medals hanging from the wall--after all, more than 2,500 have been handed out over the past decade. In the hours since the winners have been announced, my email account has filled up with breweries announcing their wins--and many of those breweries will go on to tout wins in promotional material, on websites, and in some cases on labels.

It's expensive to enter the contest, winning is a crapshoot, and anyway, there are so many medals that a win is likely to get lost in the shuffle. Most consumers don't track who wins these things, and if they learn a brewery has won an award, probably don't care. All of which raises an interesting question. Why bother?

I reached out to six people this week and asked them exactly that. More than 2,000 breweries entered nearly 8,000 beers this year, so clearly it does matter. It turns out the reasons breweries compete have a lot less to do with the promotional possibilities of a win. In fact, just entering offers valuable experiences and information. What follows are very lightly-edited responses from:

  • Brewmaster Matt Brynildson of Firestone-Walker, perennial winners and multiple winner of brewery of the year;
  • Founder Josh Pfriem of pFriem Family Brewers, routinely cited as one of Oregon's best breweries, shut out of the awards this year;
  • Brewmaster Phil Leinhart of Ommegang, another multiple-award winner;
  • Founder and Brewer Dave Marliave of Flat Tail, a small brewery in Corvallis, OR that has won medals in the past and took home gold this year in American Sour;
  • Gary Fish, founder of Deschutes, shut out this year, but winner of dozens of medals over the years; and
  • Alan Taylor of Zoiglhaus, a two-year-old brewery in Portland. Alan is a German-trained brewer whose Northern German pilsner took gold this year.

The Promotional Benefit of a Medal

My first question was whether GABF medals are valuable in marketing. Even if a brewery does have success, is it something they can use to boost sales? Generally speaking, most of the breweries I spoke to thought the marketing benefit was fairly low. Even where it offered some potential, it was limited to specific cases. Gary Fish nicely sums up the prevailing view:

"Over the years, we have won our fair share of GABF hardware [and] we have enjoyed every one. We’ve rarely used these awards for marketing purposes, although we have done it. We enjoy our victories like everyone else, but what it does for sales? Who knows. It doesn’t hurt, but likely helps little in the grand scheme of things."

Flat Tail's Dave Marliave is at center. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Winning an award at GABF does have some promotional benefit--for the right brewery at the right moment. This is particularly true for a certain class of breweries, and here Matt Brynildson lays out the conditions:

"It seems to have the greatest impact for small or new breweries. I have witnessed some new or unknown breweries benefit from a win. A great example is Central Coast Brewing in San Luis Obispo. Since their recent success at GABF, I have seen a new and well-deserved reverence for their beers locally. One could argue that having a great brewer at the helm of a brewery is the real key to success and that the awards are simply the artifact from that sound business move, but I think it is all linked."

But not every new or small brewery is going to be able to capitalize on a medal. Flat Tail brewery in Corvallis is far enough outside Portland that it doesn't get release-by-release attention from local writers (I plead the fifth), and because it's competing against so many high-profile breweries, it often gets lost in the shuffle. Dave Marliave:

"I think it really depends on the breweries size, age, and 'buzz factor' going into the win.  For a brand new brewery, a GABF medal is a phenomenal way to kick-start brand awareness, and prove to the seasoned beer veteran that you know what you're doing.  For a brewery that's been around for more than a few years I think its a different story.  Flat Tail has never been a buzz brewery for whatever reason, so our medal winning doesn't get the coverage that many other cult breweries do."

I don't think this is sour grapes, either; Flat Tail's not a one-hit wonder. In addition to awards for other beers, Marliave has now twice won awards in the American sour category, and this follows a novel and unexamined approach he has.

When we lost our barrel room due to a contractor error in late 2015, I had to dump over 100 oak barrels of wild beer, some of which were the first 20 batches I ever brewed at Flat Tail. As a result, I was forced to repopulate our sour and wild program in a hurry. I started playing around with fermentation temperatures, vessels, etc. with a few strains of lacto and our house brett strain, and eventually figured out that I could get massive acid development quickly, with a touch of brett character, using a unique combination of fermentation temperatures and tank geometries. The DAM Wild series is a 100% live sour series that hits the shelf for $5.99 / 22oz, only takes 4 weeks to brew and bottle, and has won a GABF bronze, World Beer Cup Bronze, and now GABF Gold in the 22 months since we first launched. 

Ommegang's Phil Leinhart at GABF in 2013. Source: Vimeo

Certain breweries have reporters beating a trail to their doors to write long, lyrical accounts of their beer and processes--particularly if they're making wild ales. A four-minute stroll takes drinkers from Flat Tail to Block 15, with a far more famous wild ale program. De Garde, on the coast, also attracts thousands of pilgrims. But Dave, despite the medals and his boutique size, hasn't attracted the attention. (Apropos of all this, I plan to go visit him in the next couple months and report back.)

Finally, in terms of marketing, medals probably can have a cumulative effect. Here's Josh Pfriem mentioning what a few people told me:

"If you win a medal for a beer that is a major player in your portfolio that you sell, it can be helpful. You still need to market the win of the beer to the consumer, distributor, and retailer, which means you need to invest further marketing dollars and time to this. Winning medals at GABF brings attention to your brewery, which creates conversation in the industry and might help you to build your overall brand in a indirect way."


The Real Value is Inside the Brewery Walls

This year 2,217 breweries entered their beers in the GABF's competition. If they weren't doing it for the promotional value of winning, what was the reason? It turns out there are several benefits to competing--even if a brewery doesn't win a medal. Entering becomes an important diagnostic tool. Breweries have their own in-house tasting panels and quality control, but sending beer out to a competition gives them an objective third-party review. Phil Leinhart:

 "It can be useful to see how you stack up. The feedback I am most interested in for this purpose, however, is the Judge Tasting Sheets which gives detailed info from each judge. These sheets also indicate if the beer advanced to the 2nd round. It is nice to win a medal but, as I tell our brewers, if a beer advanced then it is a pretty solid beer."

Matt Brynildson agrees, and adds to the picture:

"You also have the opportunity to taste the winning beers and learn more about how winning brewers are approaching the different styles. If you have the opportunity to judge the event, you are able to tap into an even deeper resource of information and see what makes a winning beer. The vast majority of brewers continue to support and compete in the GABF because it is a great opportunity to network and gain knowledge that you can take home to make your beers better."

The team from pFriem in 2015; Josh is next to Charlie Papazian (second from right). Source: pFriem Family Brewers

Four of the six breweries I spoke to used the phrase "stacks up"--as in, how a brewery's beer "stacks up" against others nationwide. Josh Pfriem points out that participation not only allows breweries to see where their beers stand relative to the market, but what the market actually looks like. All that information gets folded into the learning breweries take back home.

I think the real strength of beer competitions as a whole is that they drive brewers to make better beer for the consumer. It is a way to see how your beer stacks up next to your peers, and also to find beer that inspires you. GABF is great because you get to join your peers during the award ceremony and then you go get to try award winning beer right after the ceremony. From a brewers perspective, this is one of the most important parts of the competition. Whether you medal or not in a category, you can go and try the beers that did medal and see how your beer stacks up. All this to say, I think beer competitions drive brewers to make better beers.

That said, we shouldn't get focused too exclusively on the high-minded information-gathering aspect of the competition. Winning is its own reward.

"GABF medals are great for morale! Brewers like to walk around the GABF floor with their medal(s) hanging around their necks. I think there is likely subtle competition among peers. Certainly, pride in a win is not a bad thing." (Gary Fish)

"Blowing one’s horn about an individual medal isn’t likely to change a lot out in the market place, but if you are new to the game of brewing, it sure feels good." (Matt Brynildson, who added, "We are now expected to win and so the real question is, would we be hurt by not winning?  Ha – that’s a little bit stressful to think about.")

"There's something deeply satisfying about continuing to beat out the big boys in the sour game with our humble $5.99 bottle." (Dave Marliave)

The only photo I could find of Gary Fish (far right) with medals--though not the GABF. Source: Deschutes Brewery

The Limitations of Competitions

Finally, two brewers mentioned some of the limitations to competitions that give them pause. Alan Taylor, who is so busy he doesn't have time to respond to emails, called me on the way home from a long day in the brewery. He has ambivalence about contests in general ("like my stance on the Purity Law"). To paraphrase, he told me that it's such a crapshoot.

"Russian River won ten medals or something one year and was named brewery of the year, and the next year they didn't win anything. That's a great brewery!"

Taylor is also involved in a long-running grievance with the Berliner weisse category. Taylor, educated in Berlin, has made a careful study of historic Berliner weisses. This included study of the microbiology of old bottles from Schultheiss. Brettanomyces played an important role in building the typical flavor of this style--one far more complex than mere lactic fermentation can provide. But the GABF rules still stipulate Brett is inappropriate. So, to his frustration, he says, "I don't think our Berlinerweisse will ever win an award. I like to spend money to be told Brett shouldn't be in a Berliner weisse."

Update. Apparently Alan's long crusade bore fruit. The 2017 Guidelines now include this note for Berliner weisse: "Brettanomyces character may be absent or present at low to mediumlevels, and if present may be expressed as horsey, goaty, leathery, phenolic, fruity and/or acidic aromasand flavors." (My understanding is that they "typical flavor" of Berliner weisses is not so much the classic Brett character, but the results of its activity in converting the acids produced during lactic fermentation into fruity esters--but that's a debate for another year.

Alan Taylor at Zoiglhaus Oktoberfest, which happened the day the awards were announced. Photo by Sandra Clark.

Josh Pfriem agrees with Taylor (as do many other brewers I've spoken with over the years), adding:

"The reality is that beer judges take tiny sips of beer and try to imagine how that beer would be as a whole beer. A really good beer judge can do this and pass amazing beers to the final round, but not all beer judges are created equal. Some years when evaluating our beers against ones that medaled in categories that we entered, I am like, 'Wow, that's an amazing and inspiring beer! I totally get while that medaled!' Other times it can be very frustrating and challenging: 'How did that beer get to the medal round?'"

On balance, the reason breweries enter competitions--particularly those with qualified judges and deep competition pools--is because they learn so much when they do. There may be some downstream opportunities to use a medal to promote their beers, but this isn't the central reason most breweries compete. Plus, it's pretty sweet to cruise around that final sessions with a medal hanging around your neck.