Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Life's Little Lessons-Reflections on the Great American Beer Festival-part III

Sorry for the delay- if you've been following my three part series on the 2006 GABF where we were fortunate enough to win Small Brewpub or the Year, here is the final installment. If you are new to our little space on the world wide web, you might scroll down to my first two ramblings on this topic.

Deciding what to take to the GABF every year is always tough. There are so many great beers and there are so many factors involved. Putting a beer in the right category, getting your beer into a bottle , and getting it to Denver in good shape are all factors to consider. We knew we were sending our Pullman Brown(silver this year) since it just came off the WBC gold. We would also send some bottles of De Zuidentrein and see if it too could continue its winning ways. Since there was only a small amount of this, we would send it "judge only", meaning it would be judged in the competition, but not be available for the festival-goers.

What else ? After long thought and debate (and careful sampling of many beers) we decided to send a couple of barrel aged beers (Ol' Woody and Wooden Hell-bronze 2006). We also thought we could send our Honey ale since Todd had won awards with it, but it had not been to Denver since I have been at Flossmoor. That was five beers. We rounded it out with Imperial Mocha Stout in the coffee category and Angry Mike's Stoudt Creek. AMSC is an interesting beer, because we had about 6 bottles of it leftover from other occasions. It was the reigning Gold Medalist two years running in the experimental category at the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers. However, we had sent it to WBC and GABF before with good comments, but no awards. Our choices were 1) drink it ourselves or 2) send in the last few bottles and see if it could finally win. Luckily we chose #2 and it was 2nd place in the experimental category! Sorry Sam Adams, we were ahead of you again.

So that's the original seven beers we planned to send to the 2006 Great American Beer Festival. We did a lot of thinking, planning and hoping to get our line up ready. As I learned in my days as a teacher, remember the 6 P's. Lesson #8 Proper planning prevents piss poor presentation! Well, it's a good thing we kept thinking about our beers before the final deadline because I was not so sure Gandy Dancer Honey Rye Ale was the beer we should be sending. Andrew and I discussed alternatives and we felt like our newly made Schwarzbier was tasting good and would be perfectly lagered come late Sept. After countless days of waffling, my gut said go with the Schwarz. And go we did, and it's a good thing because without the gold we won with that beer, I would not be telling you about winning Small Brewpub of the year. That decision was huge. Lesson #9 When all else fails, go with your gut.

Alright, fast forward to September 27th. We were off to Denver. See Andrew's previous posts for pics and stories about our great breakfasts, a day in the mountains, and the great people we met and great beers we drank.
As the Festival wore on, I could not help but think ahead to the awards ceremony. We packed a lot into a half week, and it flew by as expected. Saturday came and I was feeling pretty good. Not only did lots of people love our beers (of course they did, who comes by your booth and tells you they hate everything you have) but I was happy with several of the beers we sent. This says a lot because as my wife will attest, I am my own worst critic. I guess this is a good spot for lesson #10 There is always room for improvement.
Even though I was confident that we sent one or two good beers this year, I started early on the routine with Andrew. " No regrets", "Being shut out won't matter" , blah blah blah. We found our seats (standing means pacing-that's not for me). I got a piece of paper out to mainly keep my hands busy and my mind off losing, but also to keep track of what medals my friends won. It's always great when our fellow Illinois brewers do well. It just shows that there ARE other good brewing regions beside the west coast. (eh hem-Piece Brewing WBC Small Brewpub of the year) So the ceremony began. 69 categories. 3 medals in each. It was going to be a long hour or two.

Many of the beers we sent this year and last year were bunched near the beginning of the list.Silver for Pullman Brown in the Specialty category, then Silver for Angry Mike's in the Experimental, then Bronze for Wooden Hell in the Stong Barrel Aged Category. Bam three medals in the first dozen categories. I think people noticed us!
Don't get me wrong, we were MORE than satisfied to win three medals at one GABF, but we did need a gold for the cycle :) Well, just 16 more categories and we would be to the German Style Schwarzbier. BAM! we earned gold. Unbelievable. From that walk on stage my head was spinning and a lot is foggy, so I'll try not to make too much stuff up now. After we got back to our seats, you couldn't have pried the smile off my face. In 28 of the 69 categories, we got to shake hands with Charlie Papazian 4 times! (for those not up to speed in the craft Brewing scene, Papazian would be thought of as a forefather. He was doing IT before there was an IT. Author, brewer, leader, and president of the Brewer's Association). Needless to say we were stunned amazed and in awe. And we had one beer left. I dialed my wife real quick to tell her how things were going. We did have a while until category 56 came up. Andrew just about knocked the phone off my ear. "Knock it off, we have to pay attention, don't jinx it" were some of the ramblings I remember him saying. Well, Zuidentrein did not win anything and we fully understood why. There are some really kickass sour beers being made today in the US. We couldn't stand up. Oh well.

As we collected our thoughts, it dawned on us that those four medals could possibly be enough to get Small Brewpub of the Year (3 pt. for gold, 2 pts for silver and 1 for bronze). They were winding down the medal list and as they did, last year's small brewpub of the year, Pelican in Pacific City Oregon began a landslide of medals. Gold, Gold, Silver, Gold, Bronze. As our categories were all at the beginning, his were all near the end. Well, that's it, we decided. As much as you might daydream about winning the big award(and I did) and hoping you win it, you're pretty sure that's never going to happen. People like me don't win stuff like that. And really who cares. The beer is still good and we did get four medals. Pretty darn good. Honestly. Well, if I'm going to be totally honest, we don't send the beer and pay a hefty entry fee for seven beers just to come home with one bronze medal. Don't get me wrong, I'll take that one bronze medal and wear it proudly, but c'mon, we all want to sit on top, right? so.. while we were thrilled with the results we knew finishing just behind Pelican (a damn great brewery) was a litlle bittersweet.
So they started to name breweries of the year. Large brewery-Pabst, Mid Size-New Glarus, Small-Bear Republic, Large Brewpub-Pelican brewery----What??!!!???

Crap, they must have made enough beer this year to qualify as a large brewpub. Andrew caught my dumfounded glaze. My heart rate rose and my blood pressure pulsed. Could we possibly win the coveted award. Having sat through 90 minutes of awards, you can't really tell who won multiple awards so we didn't know. It seemed like an eternity went by. C'mon...announce it already. And when they did I was shocked, astounded and amazed. I'm certain that there was only about a couple of minutes from the announcement to the time we came off the stage, but in that short time as all the clapping is going on and cameras are being flashed, all the hard work that went into getting to that point went flashing by. Angry Mike's was put together three years ago and aged in a barrel, Wooden Hell was put in a barrel a year ago, the bottling, the delivering of festival beer to Wisconsin, the delivering of bottles to Goose Island, filling out the forms, getting everything out to Denver, waiting, hoping, planning. It was like a big weight was lifted off our backs. The rest is fuzzy. 80 million people said congratulations. Thank you by the way if you said that to me that afternoon and I gave you some mumbled response. It was crazy.
I know to some, it may not seem like much. It's just an award for making beer. But in reality it goes way beyond that. Beyond the fact that it is one of the top awards we can recieve in our industry. Sure, many can argue the flaws of GABF and I know not EVERY beer and brewery in the country was entered(yet they were invited-remember, you can't win if you don't play. Which lesson was that? ;) ) But here's what it really means. My peers, the judges, said that I make quality beers. The judges are beer industry professionals, brewers, beer writers and some are BJCP certified. Many have judged for years and there are several from other countries. In short, they thought so highly of my beers and so many of my beers that we were able to earn the top spot of all the small brewpubs entered. And what it tells me is that all the details that we sweated over (how much hops, how long to age, which beers to send, how much bubble wrap to put around a bottle before sending) all paid off in the end. And no matter what happens down the road, nobody can take away the 2006 Great American Beer Festival.
With our recent wins (WBC and GABF) people have asked me about raising the bar too high. What next? they ask. Well, winning this award once was great, but some might think a fluke. Aw, he was lucky, the naysayers reply. Well, win it twice and we'll make believers. Maybe that's just what we'll do.
You keep drinking great craft beers and I'll keep makin' em. Lesson #11 Drink good Beer!

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