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Charlie Papazian Reminisces on 35 Years of GABF

The founder of Great American Beer Festival talks to 5280 about how the event has grown from humble beginnings. 

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Thirty-five years ago, a relatively unknown Charlie Papazian—home-brewing enthusiast and founder of the Association of Brewers (now the Brewers Association)—changed the country’s beer culture forever when he hosted the first Great American Beer Festival in Colorado. Only 20 breweries poured at the first GABF in 1982, and Papazian and his team were still trying to sell tickets the day of the festival. Today, a ticket to the fest is highly sought after, with the event generally selling out within hours and bringing roughly 60,000 attendees to the Denver area for three beer-soaked days each fall. Today, Papazian is a craft beer celebrity. As the author of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, he’s widely credited as the father of home brewing. And at GABF, you can often find him generously accepting requests for photos and doling out his signature fist bump to event attendees.

We caught up with Papazian to take a walk down memory lane and get a sneak peek into the 35th year of the Great American Beer Festival, which takes place October 6–8.

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5280: What inspired you to start the Great American Beer Festival.

Charlie Papazian: I had traveled to England in 1981 to go to the Great British Beer Festival, which I had been invited to judge. When I walked into the hall, I was kind of awestruck with the concept of a national festival to celebrate beer. So I brought up the idea of doing a Great American Beer Festival. There were only 40 breweries in the whole country at that time. I pursued the idea with some friends and we figured out how to find the unique beers from the few breweries that existed. We started in 1981, and the whole thing came to fruition in 1982.

What was year one of the festival like?

There were only 20 breweries the first year and only four microbreweries. We had about 800 attendees, and we were still selling tickets the day of. We never really sold out in those early days. It was a one-day event on June 4, 1982 in Boulder. To get the beer here, there was a beer importer and distributor based in the Boulder/Denver area who had a trucking company. He volunteered to drive his truck to pick up beer in different parts of the country. There was only one truck run. It started somewhere in the New Jersey area, and somehow we got the beer here. It was supposed to be here two weeks before the festival, but it got here the day before. We were kind of on pins and needles that first year.

How has the GABF changed in the past 35 years?

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The logistical aspects of the event have changed. The security, the number of beers, the thousands of volunteers—that all has changed. What hasn’t changed is the spirit of adventure that the festival presents to the people who come. Yes it’s a festival about beer, and the culture of craft beer in particular, but what does change is that we present the festival in our current year. We move the culture of the beer festival along with the culture of beer in America. We have GABF apps and entertaining things that are of interest today. We always try to make the event fresh while still focusing on the beers.

What is your favorite part of the festival?

It’s always exciting on Thursday when the doors first open. The electricity in the room is always a favorite of mine. It’s fun to wander the hall and discover things and people that I’ve never heard about, or I’ve heard about and never met. Things happen in a good way, and you meet the people, the beers, and the breweries that you’re supposed to meet. It’s always a great experience. I also love finding beers and beer styles that I’ve never had before, and innovative approaches to brewing.

What beer trends and 35-year celebration nods should attendees be on the look out for at this year’s fest?

I’m pretty certain that there will soon be a successful trend of really flavorful, yet refreshing lagers, whether they’re European style or have American accents, from light or pale to golden or amber lagers that are not so high in alcohol content—somewhere less than six percent. And hoppy lagers, as well. I think that trend will be huge. And there will be some displays and exhibits in the BeerX:Craftbeer.com Experience Booth in the Meet the Brewers area, where we’ll have memorabilia from past beer festivals.

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