You wouldn’t think that two totally unrelated events such as a horse race and a baseball home stand could temporarily derail a beer organization’s attempt to spread its craft beer message and festival across America. Especially when you consider that the organization in question is the Brewer’s Association and the festival is the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). But in 1998, that’s just what happened.
In the mid 1990s, the craft beer scene was in a little flux. Many microbreweries and brewpubs were closing down because people were either put off by the higher prices for an unknown product, or in some cases just not happy with what they perceived as inconsistent quality. But at the same time, the cream of these breweries were starting to rise to the top and be noticed by craft beer fans, aided in part by expanding product distribution and the emergence of the “craft beer bar”.
In 1997, the GABF was already 17 years old and had grown steadily in size and interest. Soon it seemed only natural that the largest beer festival in America should spread to other parts of the country, so the event organizers decided to add a “road show” festival in 1998 where some of the winners from the 1997 GABF would be showcased along with local and regional brewers. Since the GABF was held in Denver, the organizers decided to pick an East coast city to hold the festival and, lucky for me, the first city they picked was Baltimore.
It was while holding my tasting glass from the 1998 GABF “On The Road” in Baltimore that I came up with the idea for the Beer Relics series. It was going to be one of my first posts for the Delaware Valley Beer Bloggers site. Sadly as happens sometimes, monkeys throw wrenches. While looking for something behind my bar one day, I knocked the glass off the shelf and it fell to the floor and shattered. Of course, it couldn’t have been one of the many OTHER beer festival glasses I own. No.
But sometimes you get lucky. This last weekend I was actually cleaning the barroom, especially the area that would function as a wine cellar if in fact there was any wine in it. In the cellar I have a shelf unit I made that rests on top of a small cabinet with drawers. In the cabinet I rediscovered years of beer junk that I’d been thoughtless shoving in the top drawer, and much to my surprise at the very bottom of that pile were two programs and my ticket stub from the Baltimore GABF “On The Road”. Let that be a lesson to you boys and girls. Never throw anything away (well beer related anyway), you never know when it might become useful.
Looking through the program’s list of the 125 breweries that attended the event is literally turning back the pages of time. Delaware brewers Fordham Brewing and Old Dominion Brewing (the only one of what we would now consider as a “local” brewery to win a Gold Medal that year in the American-Style Pale Ale category with their Tupper’s Hop Pocket, a beer that sadly is no longer in production) are listed in their original locations; Annapolis, MD and Ashburn, VA, respectively.
The Samuel Adams Brew House which used to sit at the current Nodding Head Brewery location in Philly was in attendance. Breweries were there that I wouldn’t have guessed have been in operation for so many years like Duclaw and Brewer’s Art. Future major players in the craft beer industry were mere fledgling breweries at the time; Yards (4 years old), Dogfish Head (3 years), Victory (2 years), Troegs (2 years), Weyerbacher (3 years) and Allagash (2 years).
And legendary “wish they distributed here” breweries to this area such as Alaskan Brewing and New Glarus were there. As were a host of other breweries that are sadly no longer in business such as Baltimore Brewing, Fredrick Brewing and Typhoon Brewery.
Another interesting part of the program is the list of 1997 Great American Beer Festival medal winners in that the number of styles awarded was only 49, verse the current 84 (not taking into consideration the multitudes of subcategories). There’s no Black IPA, Double IPA or Barrel-Aged beers here, just straight ahead Belgian, English, German and American styles with the most “bizarre” categories being Fruit, Herb/Spice, Specialty and Smoked. Unless you count Nonalcoholic. And no, we don’t.
The advertisements are also interesting with ads from the now defunct Bare Bones Grill and Brewery, Frederick Brewing, Oxford Brewery, and Sisson’s Restaurant and Brewery. Sharing the same page of the program are Baltimore area favorites The Last Chance Saloon (now the Second Chance Saloon) in Columbia, MD; and Max’s in Fell’s Point which back then only advertised 67 drafts verse the current 140. The back of the program contains an ad for a book signing by Pete’s Wicked founder Pete Slosberg.
As far a memories, I have a few that peak through the distant, beer soaked haze. First, I remember spending a lot of time at the Real Ale Festival exhibitors table. I’d already grown fond of cask ales by that time, so I was glad to see the Chicago based festival there with a few beers. Second, the rules for beer festivals were very strict back then (not sure if they still are) and only 1 oz pours were allowed. To make sure this was abided by, brewery members and representatives were not allowed to pour at the booths. All pouring was done by volunteers. As we traveled down to the event tDoB co-founder Chuck informed his neighbor Al of the 1 oz pours to which he stated, “1 oz!! You can’t even get a buzz on if they’re only pouring 1 oz!!”. Well, Al ended up in what was called the “time out room”, which was really just the first aid station with a couple of people in it to watch over the people who had, as we like to say at festivals, “over moderated”. He’s never lived down how 1oz pours kicked his ass.
So knowing what we know now about the popularity of beer festivals, surely this event was a success. Why didn’t the GABF continue with it? Well sadly, that’s where the horse race and home stand come into play. While the event itself was just as good as any beer festival is required to be, the GABF made one mistake – they scheduled the event for the Friday/Saturday of May 15 & 16.
Both days were scheduled home games for the nearby Baltimore Orioles whose Camden Stadium was drawing large crowds because it was still fairly new, as well as being the prototype for the up coming trend of open, baseball specific stadiums. To make matters worse, the team they were playing against was their division opponents the Tampa Bay Rays, playing their first season in Major League Baseball and making their first road trip up to Baltimore. But the real conflict was that May 16th was the 123rd running of the Preakness Stakes (Real Quiet won) which is a huge event in Baltimore, bringing in people from all over the nation. [Note: I also have it in my mind that there was another large beer festival going on the same weekend, but can’t remember which one, and can’t dig it up from the internet graveyard]
Because these events had been schedule further in advance than the festival it meant two things. First, many of the people local to Baltimore already had plans that weekend and second, hotel/motel space was at a premium (in both availability an d price) making it impossible for many out of town beer lovers to travel into the city for the festival. At the time of the event attendance was listed as being in the thousands, but that was split over three sessions. You’ve heard of a kid in a candy store? Think more like several hundred golden ticket winners in Willy Wonka’s factory.
Rows, upon rows of beer booths with barely any people in front of them. Virtually no wait for a taste of Alaskan Smoked Porter or DFH’s new Immort Ale. While we were there it was magical. Not long after the event however, we realized that our good fortune had actually come with a price.
It didn’t take long after Baltimore for the GABF to end the road show program stating, “We do not anticipate taking GABF on the road in the future. Among other considerations, the sheer size of the event makes that an extremely challenging prospect. GABF will take place in Denver for the foreseeable future.” And it took ten years for the Brewer’s Association to bring a large scale festival back to the East coast when it debuted SAVOR in Washington DC in 2008. And while the GABF never mentions it, I’m sure the lackluster attendance factored into the decision as well. Even though future events might not have been hampered with such unique circumstances.
So there you have it. A beer festival that was done in by a couple of baseball games and a horse race. Truly the stuff from which beer relics are made.