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Great American Beer Festival Goes Virtual For 2020

The professional beer competition will take place, and other activities may include at-home beer and food pairing deliveries and virtual conversations with brewers.

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Events large and small are going to look different for the foreseeable future, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic; the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is the latest to receive a facelift. The massive annual beer fest and competition will be held mostly online this year, rather than in person in Denver as it has been for the past 38 years.

The popular event, one of the largest beer festivals in the world, also has a new date and duration: Oct. 16 and 17, three weeks later than originally planned, and spanning two days instead of the usual three.

The announcement comes on the heels of Governor Jared Polis’ executive order designating the Colorado Convention Center as an alternate care site for COVID-19 patients who don’t need to be hospitalized but still require medical care and observation. 

That order made hosting the festival at the convention center “infeasible,” according to the Boulder-based Brewers Association, the organizer of the festival and the national trade group representing small, independent craft breweries. “As the world is still greatly affected by the spread of COVID-19 and will continue to be affected for the foreseeable future, we must stay true to our priorities and pursue other ways to host GABF,” said Brewers Association president and CEO Bob Pease in a statement.

Organizers are still working out logistics and details, but you can expect some combination of live and virtual experiences to be held across the country, according to the announcement from the Brewers Association. Activities may include at-home beer and food pairing deliveries, local brewery activations, guided beer tastings, and conversations with brewers. 

The festival plans to move forward with its professional beer competition, which involves a panel of more than 100 judges awarding gold, silver, and bronze medals to the best breweries and beers in an array of styles. The Brewers Association is working out a plan for the competition, but indicated that it will likely involve temperature checks, cleaning and sanitation, directional traffic patterns, personal protective equipment, and strict schedules.

The news wasn’t a surprise for David Lin, founder of Denver’s Comrade Brewing Company, which has won multiple GABF awards. When he learned in April that organizers were canceling Munich’s Oktoberfest, he knew it was only a matter of time before GABF suffered a similar fate. “The writing was pretty much on the wall,” he says. 

For brewers, GABF is an important opportunity to reconnect with industry peers from across the United States, Lin says. And for beer drinkers, it’s a chance to try new beers and styles and learn about brewing innovation. The GABF competition and subsequent awards can also have a huge impact on a brewery’s business. Case in point: Comrade saw double-digit sales growth after winning two gold medals and the “Best Small Brewing Company of the Year” award in 2019. (The golds were for the American-style strong pale ale and American-style India pale ale categories.) “That was really, really helpful to us,” Lin says. “We saw an immediate impact and jump in sales that we were able to sustain.” 

Lin has an idea to help raise your spirits if you’re bummed about not being able to attend traditional GABF festivities this year: Create your own beer festival at home. “A lot of breweries are still open for to-go sales, and with 400-plus breweries in Colorado, it’s not that different from walking up to a booth and trying some beer from a brewery you’ve never been to before,” he says. “Go out there and order some beer or buy a new six-pack at your liquor store.”

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