Heavy Medal: A Brief History of the Great American Beer Fest Awards
The history of the Great American Beer Festival is the history of craft brewing magnified. It started in 1982 as a one-night event, held during the fourth annual National Homebrew and Microbrewery Conference. From humble beginnings 35 years ago, the festival and industry have grown into cultural touchstones for generations of beer drinkers.
Competition began in 1983 but was limited to a three-tier consumer poll until 1987 when the festival invited judges and selected the best beers from each style present. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (’83), Yakima Russian Imperial Stout (’84), and Sam Adams Boston Lager (’85–’86) won the first four consumer polls. In the 1987 GABF, 38 medals were awarded over 13 categories. Sierra Nevada was the big winner that first year; the brewery took home three awards for beers that remain familiar to many drinkers today: Pale Ale, Bigfoot Barleywine, and Stout.
As the craft brewing world expanded, categories were added and subtracted from the festival to match what brewers submitted and what was currently in vogue. In 1987, the first year of judging, “Ales” was a category of its own. It disappeared a year later. Continental Pilsners (another original) has since become three separate categories. “Stouts” has splintered into seven. And India Pale Ale didn’t appear as a category until 1989, when Sacramento’s Rubicon Brewing took first place. By 1997, the judges were awarding 148 medals across 50 categories and judging roughly 1,800 beers. In 2007, judges evaluated over 2,700 beers and awarded medals to 225.
The festival itself is an enduring tradition, but the styles judged live and breathe with the industry. American-Style IPA, for example, has been extremely popular of late, attracting 312 entries this year, up from 150 in 2010. By 2016 the festival had grown exponentially; 286 medals were awarded in 96 categories covering 161 beer styles. And breweries from all 50 states and Washington DC entered a whopping 7,227 beers into competition. In 2016, Fat Head’s Brewery of Middleburg Heights, Ohio, took home five medals, the most of any one brewery.
As craft brewing’s market continues to expand, the GABF is well positioned to continue to celebrate beer and shine a national spotlight on innovative brewers. Each year the winners reflect the evolution of critical consensus in the beer world: winning beers from the ’80s have disappeared from the top lists—if not altogether. Though many of the classics are still popular (Sam Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Alaskan Amber come to mind), their spotlight has dimmed as new and exciting stylistic variations capture the limelight.
And although individual beers have lost some of their acclaimed luster over time, a few breweries have remained critical darlings through the years. Alaskan Brewing has brought 48 medals home to Juneau since 1987. Deschutes Brewery, which was founded in 1988 in Bend, Ore., currently has 43 GABF medals in its trophy case. Judges have picked beers from Wyoming’s Snake River Brewing 36 times. Sierra Nevada and New Glarus have each earned 33, while Marin Brewing of California has 31 and the count at Oregon’s Rogue Ales is an even 30. Despite not picking up any new medals in several years, Stoudt’s Brewing of Adamstown, Pa., has finished in the top three 29 times—as has Chicago’s Goose Island.
Historically however, the biggest winners are macrobreweries and longstanding brewpub chains. Pizza Port comes in first with 86 awards in total. While Pizza Port is unified in name, there are five breweries spread across Southern California that have all contributed to Pizza Port’s impressive total. More remarkable is the fact it’s won all but one of its medals since the 2000 GABF. Rock Bottom Breweries are a similar, though much larger, chain of brewpubs. There are over 30 Rock Bottom locations across the US, owned by the CraftWorks conglomerate of restaurants. Its medal count is currently 81.
The third, fourth, and fifth place brewers are macros that submit their flagship brews as well as the occasional specialty beer. These breweries consistently win in categories with little competition from craft brewers like non-alcoholic beer and American-style lager. As a growing number of younger, smaller brewing companies begin to make light lagers, crisp Pilsners and malty Festbiers, though, could there be a shakeup on the horizon? Time will tell, but Brown Truck Brewery, a company founded in 2015 in High Point, N.C., won gold for its American-Style Light Lager this year, unseating the previous year’s winner, Coors. These categories have existed since the beginning of the competition and the macrobreweries never miss a year of competition.
After Pizza Port, the next wholly independent brewery to crack the top 10 is Alaskan Brewing Company. Alaskan is the most-awarded independent craft brewery in the GABF’s history. Three other independent craft breweries made it into the top 10: Firestone Walker (now part of the Duvel-Moortgat family of breweries) tied for sixth with Alaskan while the Boston Beer Company came in at number nine. Iron Hill, another chain of brewpubs, came in eighth place. More impressively, Iron Hill continued its 20-year winning streak in 2016, when the chain scored its 45th medal for Bridge Street Bock. Coors Brewing Company rounds out the list at number 10.
Note: The data used in the charts and our analysis is imperfect. The Brewers Association stresses that it makes no claim as to the total accuracy of its competition data and does not allow member breweries to use this information for promotional purposes. Not only can brewery names change over time, brand names and brand ownership can, and do, too. Pro-Am wins and individual brewer and brewery awards were excluded. The totals reflect a comparison of available data for the three decades of beers entered into the main competition. ■