Charlie Papazian, Founding President of the Brewers Association and the Great American Beer Festival
In 1982, Charlie Papazian—whose titles are too many for the headline space allotted in this column—threw a festival. What he calls an “astounding” crowd for the time (800 people) showed up to a hotel in Boulder, Colo., to drink some craft beer. Fast-forward 30 years: An insurance crisis and several recessions later, this fall’s Great American Beer Festival sold out in one week to 49,000 attendees, and Papazian is still at the helm. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s as eager as ever to impart fest strategy tips to GABF neophytes.
Was there ever a time when the future of the festival seemed uncertain?
There was a period in the mid-’80s when the insurance crisis hit the United States, and businesses weren’t able to get liability insurance. And that’s when the fest was actually postponed from June to the fall, [in 1996]. …
The beer festival really didn’t generate a surplus or was profitable for first 20 years, so it was kind of a break-even proposition, and sometimes we even lost some money. But the board of directors really thought this was a long-term project and that it needed to keep investing in it. In 1984, we lost our shirts because we moved from Boulder to Denver, and we thought we would get the same turnout in the Denver community that we did in the Boulder community, and that was a huge mistake. So we were in debt right after that festival, and took two or three years to climb out. Those were rough times. … But I felt an obligation to all the people that were volunteering their time. I didn’t want it to all be for naught. So we plugged on and made some personal sacrifices, and worked our butts off to get it back on track. … People always ask me if I ever thought the beer festival would be where it’s at now, and it was probably in my wildest beer-saturated dreams that I may have imagined it would be this big. But I never imagined that it would have this much of an impact and be this brand of an event.
What are you looking forward to the most this year?
What I look forward to every year—it’s a gathering of the beer community like no other. It’s not a conference … it’s not necessarily about marketing, it’s not necessarily about technical learning or government affairs. It’s about the beer and the camaraderie, and seeing people that sometimes you only see once a year.
What do you hope brewers take away from the GABF?
That there is value for them being there … value in meeting the beer drinkers and really understanding this year’s perspective on why people are drinking the beers that they’re drinking.
What do you hope the beer drinkers take away?
A very, very big smile. And not being able to wait till next year. And also that they can take the spirit of the festival back to their own communities, whether they have their own festivals or their own beer events with small groups of their friends. I’m hoping they take away the fact that a large group of people can come together and responsibly enjoy beer, and have a great time.
Any advice for a first-timer?
Give up right away on the idea that you have to taste everything [laughs]. It’s a combination of doing a little bit of planning … but also give yourself time just to wander, because some of the best stuff about the festival is discovery. ■