It’s not hard to tell when the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is in town. Zealous tipplers mill around outside the Colorado Convention Center in costume, some clad in Oktoberfest lederhosen and alpine caps, others in themed cosplay (BASEketball Beers jerseys, Super Mario Bros., A League of Their Own), and even a few dressed as hop flowers or froth-topped mugs of golden brew. For the more serious drinkers, the tells are simpler—brightly colored wristbands and homespun necklaces adorned with pretzels.

Whatever the uniform, for three days and four sessions between September 21 and 23, some 40,000 beer lovers flowed into Denver for the biggest kegger in the country.

But there was something else brewing here this past weekend: While the thirsty throngs were flooding the convention floor, brewers, distributors, marketing reps, vendors, and other industry types were meeting in smaller taprooms and bars all over the city to discuss the state of craft beer across the country. The high-gravity topic around this year’s GABF? The future of events like GABF.

“We’re a home of beer fests, we’re a founder of beer fests,” says Shawnee Adelson, executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild, who’s sitting across from me in a booth at Oskar Blues Grill & Brew during the organization’s pre-GABF media mixer. “The GABF is celebrating its 41st year; the Colorado Brewers Rendezvous in Salida celebrated its 27th year [in July].”

That same month, however, an Axios Denver article portending the “death of the beer festival” sent ripples across the industry that radiated well beyond state borders and articulated what many craft brewers were already privately lamenting: the model for these marathon showcases of craft beer was outdated and in decline. Even before the pandemic, the GABF saw the pace of sales slow, no longer selling out in a matter of minutes or hours. When the event returned in person in 2022, the Boulder-based Brewers Association, which puts on GABF, reduced the number of available tickets by 20,000 and lowered the number of pouring breweries by 300. (This was due, at least in part, to ongoing construction at the convention center, but that limited scale continued this year.) Festivals elsewhere had been cancelled altogether, including notable Colorado events like the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival in Breckenridge and Greeley’s WeldWerks Invitational.

At stake, it appears, is the very idea of the beer festival, which has become something of an institution in a state that is home to more than four percent of the nation’s nearly 10,000 craft breweries.

A Post-Pandemic Paradigm Shift

In its first three iterations, the WeldWerks Invitational had amassed quite a reputation. Not only was it hosted by WeldWerks Brewing Co.—the eight-year-old Greeley brewery that’s collected awards and plaudits all over the country for its hazy IPAs (particularly, the tropical and crushable Juicy Bits), fruited sours, and variants of its Medianoche double pastry stout—but the list of invitees also contained names from all over the country with equal cachet, like Other Half Brewing Company (New York), Three Floyds Brewing (Indiana), Side Project Brewing (Missouri), and Russian River Brewing (California).

Kristin Popcheff, WeldWerks’ director of experience, says a big reason the brewery decided to “hit pause” on the event this year was because the team had its hands full with a major brewhouse expansion. Despite the success of the 2022 invitational, Popcheff says, events are just different post-COVID.

“It was pretty evident that once in-person events started coming back, it just didn’t feel the same,” Popcheff says. “Different events that we attended throughout the country weren’t selling out the way they used to, the number of attendees was going down, and some were even cancelled because they couldn’t sell enough tickets. We kind of felt it ourselves at our home base—that people don’t engage with festivals the way they did before.”

There are myriad reasons for the shift. Travel isn’t getting cheaper. And the way people find and drink beer has changed significantly in the past decade. Beer enthusiasts can explore and expand their palates in ways that didn’t exist in 1982, when Charlie Papazian held the first GABF in Boulder. Today, hopheads have 40-handle-plus taprooms, cooler-lined bottle shops, and to-your-door curation and delivery services like Beer Drop and Platt Park’s Craft Alley.

There’s also the fact that the entire craft beer biz is changing—a topic that was on the minds of many industry insiders in GABF attendance. In 2022, year-over-year volume sales were essentially stagnant for the first time in more than a decade (outside of the pandemic), turning the lights up on a party that had been growing rapidly for as long as most brewers could remember. The number of new brewery openings dropped, while the rate of closings went up. Market research shows that people are drinking less, particularly among younger generations, who prefer wine or spirits if they thirst for alcohol at all.

This culture shift was reflected on the floor of this year’s GABF, where, for the first time, brewers were allowed to pour “beyond beer” options like hard seltzer, kombucha, cider, and mead. There were also entire areas dedicated to non-alcoholic and gluten-free offerings.

“With consumer preferences evolving and brewers offering beverages to meet those changing tastes, we wanted to showcase a diverse range of beverages,” says Ann Obenchain, vice president of marketing and communications for the Brewers Association via email. “This way the festival can highlight the talent, innovation, and dedication of artisans in the industry, reinforcing the event’s mission of celebrating American craftsmanship.”

But another thing that was evident on the festival floor this year, something that might be at the root of the decline of other events, was a noticeable absence of the craftspeople themselves.

The Cost of Face Time at Beer Festivals

Beer festivals have been celebrations of the craft since their inception. True ale enthusiasts don’t come to get hammered on one-ounce pours; they come to experience and learn about the liquid they love. And what better way than when brewers pour those tasters themselves as they tell their stories?

But if travel is expensive for consumers, consider the costs associated for breweries who have to ship personnel, booth decor, and swag to these festivals, as well as kegs and/or cases of beer. Often, due in part to interstate regulations and, in some cases, profit-driven festival organizers, that beer must be donated—or essentially given away for free. (The GABF doesn’t pay for beer, but it does offer a program by which empty kegs are delivered to brewers, who can fill them and drop them off at designated shipping points all over the country to help alleviate some of the costs.)

As a result, some brewers struggle to justify the expense of attending a far-flung festival, often in a city or region where their beer isn’t even distributed. For many, GABF is an exception due to the sheer size of the event and amount of exposure it can provide (brewers can also enter their beers for the esteemed GABF awards). But even at the grandaddy of beer fests, attendees are commonly served by local volunteers who are friendly and receptive but don’t know nearly as much about what’s in their pitchers as the actual brewer would.

Access to brewers is a point of pride for Colorado festivals—and perhaps a key to saving the beer festival from its reported decline. Adelson, of the Colorado Brewers Guild, says that while the group has seen ticket sales slow (i.e., not selling out overnight like they used to), overall attendance for the guild’s three major annual festivals—the Colorado Brewers Rendezvous, Lake Dillon Beer Festival, and Collaboration Fest—has been stable, with the first two selling out this year as in years past. In general, Adelson says, Colorado brewers like to attend festivals that pay for beer, are hyperlocal, or support a cause they care about, even if that cause is the health of the industry itself.

“All of our events are really oriented toward brewers. Our members are excited to attend them, and I think that lends itself to a unique experience [for attendees],” Adelson says. “We want our brewers to pour their beer. They like to talk about their beer. The people that really want to go know that they’ll run into brewers there.”

As for GABF, proximity and relative convenience ensured there were plenty of Colorado brewers on hand this year, eager to share their passion along with sips of their wares. There were about 40,000 attendees drinking beer from more than 500 breweries, which is about the same number as last year. So, although the craft brewing landscape is changing in significant ways, it may be premature to ring the death knell for festivals—at least in Colorado.

“When you’re here in the summer, there are multiple beer fests every weekend,” Adelson says. “They are integral to the state and our craft beer industry. Festivals, in general, are part of what people think is cool in Colorado.”