What it was like at the first Great American Beer Festival

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Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian.
The boozy world we live in today — wherein the craft-beer industry might successfully put a brewery on every corner — may not have existed at all were it not for Charlie Papazian. Founder of the American Homebrewers Association, the Association of Brewers, and the Great American Beer Festival, not to mention author of the seminal how-to guide The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, Papazian spoke to a historically large crowd of journalists at last week's GABF, so we listened.

The current president of the Brewers Association, the result of the merger of his association with another, spoke about the good ol' days in 1982, when the first Great American Beer Festival hosted 20 breweries, 40 brands of beer and 850 people. (Last week's numbers hit 732; 4,809; and 49,000, respectively.)

"If some guy — about my build, maybe a little thinner; big, black bushy beard; big crop of curly hair; a little crazed look in his eyes — came up to you and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do a water festival, and get all these people to come to the water festival!’ If I told you that today, the wheels start spinning. That’s kind of the way it was in 1982 when talking about beer.

"‘Come to this water festival. We’re gonna have water that has flavor in it, and these people are gonna make it and then put a little alcohol in it too, so it’s gonna give you a little buzz. And it’s gonna be a great festival: We’ll charge money, and people will come and drink water, and we’ll make some money, and we’ll tell the world about how great water is.’ And that’s about where beer was at in those days, because there were only about 42 breweries in the United States [and] they were mostly all producing great light-lager beers."

Papazian said that first festival was mostly attended by the homebrewing community that had built up around the Denver and Boulder area, and was only served by four "what we could call today 'craft brewers'": the Boulder Brewing Co. (later called the Boulder Beer Co.), Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Anchor Brewing Co., and River City Brewing Co.

"Beer styles are a big part of craft beer," he said. "And in 1978, when I founded the American Homebrewers Association, we established the first homebrewers competition, and it was basically light lager, dark lager, light ale, dark ale, [and] strong. It wasn’t that sophisticated as it is today. ...

"And one of the things that the beer styles has really made a big difference with is that the beer drinker is now engaged, as they weren’t engaged in 1982, in that it’s a conversational piece. And beer styles can be discussed among beer drinkers [as something] other than just a brand of beer.

"Beer style has really afforded an opportunity to engage the beer drinker with the brewmaster and has helped really create all the wonderful beer culture that we have in the United States. And I would say that all the brewers in the United States are proud to represent the best beer culture in the world."

For a tiny taste of what last week's festival was like, see our video:




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