What does a Great American Beer Festival medal really mean for brewers?

A packed patio at Denver Beer Company in Highland. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) highland; brewery; patio; food; night life; restaurant; beer; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite
A packed patio at Denver Beer Co. in Highland. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Beer Co. opened its doors in August 2011 and less than two months later it earned one of the most prestigious awards in the U.S. brewing industry:  a Great American Beer Festival medal.

The medal helped put the then-fledgling brewery on the map alongside the best and savviest beer makers in the nation, said Denver Beer Co. co-owner Charlie Berger.

“Because The Great American Beer Fest is in Denver every year, it’s easy to forget this is the biggest beer festival in the world,” Berger said. “It’s the Super Bowl of beer.”

Winning a gold, silver or bronze medal for a beer entered into the GABF competition can help a craft brewery stand out among the thousands of beer makers competing for beer lovers taste buds and dollars.

“A brewery that wins a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest becomes a destination,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for Brewers Association and judge at GABF.

The same could also be true for bronze and silver winners, Herz said.

In 2011, Denver Beer Co. took home a bronze medal in the specialty beer category for its Graham Cracker Porter. At the time, the brewery was rotating small batches of the beer — 7 barrels at time — in its taproom, Berger said.

“After we won the medal, we quickly realized this was a beer we were going to have to rotate more often into the lineup,” he said. By 2014, the demand for the beer was so solid that Denver Beer Co. included the porter as one of two beers it would start canning.

About 1,500 barrels of Graham Cracker Porter are expected to be sold this year, Berger said.

Wynkoop Brewing Company. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) beer; nightlife; kevinjbeaty; bars; denverite; denver; colorado;
Wynkoop Brewing Co. winner of eight Great American Beer Festival medals. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Dry Dock Brewing Co. saw a similar uptick in demand after winning its first GABF award in 2008. Altogether, the Aurora brewery has earned 22 medals — including five gold medals — and was named the 2009 small brewer of the year.

“Winning a Great American Beer Festival award at the early stage of your brewery can be critical,” said Dry Dock Brewing Co. co-owner Kevin DeLange. “It put us on the map.”

Brewers tend to get praise from beer bloggers, national websites and other media after winning a medal. The attention can help draw in beer connoisseurs and eventually average beer consumers.

“The benefit we got from winning was free advertising,” DeLange said. “We could never have afforded to spend as much money on marketing as we got after we won.”

These days winning means even more, said Steve Kurowski, spokesman for the Colorado Brewers Guild.

“There are more breweries and beers allowed in the competition, so there are less opportunities to win medals.”

There were a record 4,269 breweries in the U.S. last year, according to the Brewers Association. Of those, 1,552 breweries entered 6,647 beers into the GABF judging competition. Only about 4 percent of those beers took home medals, according to the Great American Beer Festival’s 2015 data.

No number of GABF medals mean guaranteed success for a brewer, Kurowski said. “You still have to be a good business owner and manager and be good at inventory and purchasing. The medals are just part of the equation.”

Even with its many medals, Dry Dock isn’t rethinking its strategy for selling beer. Since winning in 2008, there hasn’t been a year when the brewery has made more beer than it can sell, DeLange said.

“We’d rather short our customers than take on a bunch of debt to increase production and hope they’ll buy our beer,” he said. “Our philosophy is to grow organically.”

Business & data reporter Adrian D. Garcia can be reached via email at agarcia@denverite.com or twitter.com/adriandgarcia.

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Adrian D. Garcia

Author: Adrian D. Garcia

Adrian D. Garcia covers business and trends for Denverite. He's covered business for The Fort Collins Coloradoan and serves as treasurer for the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.