Why Are Fewer People Going to Beer Festivals? | Wine Enthusiast
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What Attendance at This Year’s Great American Beer Festival Says About the Beer Industry Right Now

About an hour into the first session of the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) last month, I passed a couple that seemed happy and caught up in the moment. “I just wish there was a place to sit down,” one said to the other as they strode past.

I felt that.

Having attended the festival—which is amongst the largest in the country—for the better part of the last 15 years, I’ve drank countless beer samples, been splashed by plenty an overflowing cup and often come home hoarse from loud conversations held over the din of the crowd. I also return exhausted from late nights and early mornings several days in a row.

In my 20s, it was obviously easier. Now in my 40s, I’m just looking for comfort and a proper pour of beer. But to some degree, my attitude is much the same as it ever was: I developed a curmudgeonly personality in my youth, often accented by a dose of cynicism. I’ve always felt older than my age. I’ve also been fortunate to have a career that has taken me around the world and into great breweries and beer experiences that are intimate and chockful of learning and full pints. The Great American Beer Festival (GABF), for all its good attributes, is none of those things.

The Great American Beer Festival 2023
Image Courtesy of Brewers Association

The event is held inside the sprawling Colorado Convention Center in Denver, where thousands of folks walk among hundreds of breweries only to wait in line for a one-ounce pours. These are often poured by a volunteer who, although passionate about beer, doesn’t know much about what they’re serving. Not that there is much chance to learn, since there is usually someone waiting behind you, empty glass in hand. Think of it like the soup restaurant in Seinfeld: Have your order ready, present your glass, name your selection, get your filled cup and move on.

But despite my grumpiness, I’ve come to enjoy the GABF each year. It’s generally a joyous occasion where groups of friends get together—sometimes in group costumes—ready to party, eager to taste, looking to try new beers as well as familiar favorites. There’s raucous cheering when a glass hits the floor and shatters during the Saturday afternoon session. It’s also a chance for me to catch up with colleagues, check in with brewers in person and to visit the city of Denver.

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This year, on the first night, a spark was missing. I was able to get a pour of Alaskan Brewing’s smoked porter, a Russian River pilsner, carrot juice saison from Ratio, multiple rounds of Sierra Nevada’s draught pale ale, along with scores of others. But the hall felt empty and there were few lines for beer. While that might be a good thing for those in the room, it signaled a shift in how beer festivals are perceived these days.

The fact is that beer festivals have been waning in recent years. Events that could once reliably sell out tickets within days or hours now often have a good amount available when the gate rope drops. Even GABF organizers predicted 40,000 attendees over four sessions during the three-day event, down from 65,000 in 2019. The number of breweries attending has shrunk as well, with around 500 this year compared to 800 in 2018. This is despite the number of breweries growing over the last six years, with about 10,000 in operation today.

Fremont brewing at the Great American BEer Frestival 2023
Image Courtesy of Brewers Association

What’s behind the downturn? Yes, the industry is in flux. Yes, there are other factors like the endurance of COVID-19 and a general avoidance of crowds. Add to those things the fact that younger generations are drinking less overall and not as focused on beer. But one only needs to look to the city of Denver to see how beer is, in fact, flourishing. The Mile High City, and Colorado in general, has long been a beer utopia thanks to a handful of pioneers and willing legislators who made it easy for breweries to open and operate. In turn, some of the country’s finest breweries are in the state.

Indeed, every year at the GABF, Denver is the show around the show. Brewers and travelers from around the country descend on places like Bierstadt Lagerhouse, which only makes traditional German lagers; IPA powerhouses like Comrade Brewing and Cerebral Brewing; and Hogshead Brewery, specialists in cask ale. Restaurants boast local beer menus, and even the airport and dive bars have Colorado-brewed beer on tap. The breweries are typically packed with folks sitting, conversing and having full pints of whatever they fancy.

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This scene is not unique to Denver, though. In fact, it can be found around the country, as beer drinkers increasingly go into their local breweries and drink at their leisure and comfort. There’s also a growing number of non-beer options available at breweries these days to widen the consumer tent. This is not to mention the tremendous amount of beer options available online.

I believe that a major reason for the downturn in beer festival attendance is this: It’s hard for a cavernous convention center, where one-ounce pours are served in chintzy palm-sized plastic cups, to compete. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s a credit to the abundance of comfortable beer-drinking options that exist today. With so many avenues available to explore good beer, milling around a sterile-feeling giant conference center is perhaps less appealing.

Group of friends at The Great American Beer Festival
Image Courtesy of Brewers Association

Still, the Brewers Association, which produces the GABF has tried to stem some of the bleeding. A gluten-free pavilion was introduced this year. Hard seltzer, kombucha and cider were poured at the fest for the first time. There was even an international beer pavilion… at the Great American Beer Festival. Time will tell if these efforts to broaden the event’s fan base will be successful.

Regardless, in my opinion, there will always be a need for events like the GBAF. It’s a celebration of and pilgrimage for beer, a chance for comradery and taste exploration. One does not need to be a super beer fan to attend, everyone is welcome. Even if these events no longer command the same crowds as they did in the past, they remain excellent opportunities to try an abundance of beers in one fell swoop.

I’ll certainly be back next year. Hopefully, there’ll be more places to sit.