By J. Travis Smith
on 6.6.14

A little before 1 p.m. last Saturday, a series of black luxury cars, used hybrids and oversized SUVs with large U placards in their windshields began pulling up to the Seaport World Trade center in Boston, spilling out an assortment of pretzel-necklace-wearing thirty-somethings, bearded and tattooed in tattered shirts with obscure beer logos across the front. The cars were Ubers and, in an effort to curb drunk driving, they came free with the purchase of every American Craft Beer Festival ticket. And sure enough, they returned four hours later, picking up the same crowd — an intoxicated group stumbling in the afternoon sun from the blur of a beer-filled afternoon.

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Only in its seventh year, the American Craft Beer Festival is already the largest beer festival on the East Coast. This year 143 brewery booths generously served a total of 622 distinct beers to a crowd of 15,000. Part of its draw, especially for the smaller breweries, is also what distinguishes it from the decidedly West Coast-dominated Great American Beer Festival, held out in Denver annually since 1982. The American Craft Beer Festival isn’t a competition; brewers aren’t asked to pay for their booth space, and they are reimbursed for the beer they serve at the festival. This means that smaller brewers — many of them from the Northeast — that didn’t have the money, time or manpower to make the trip to Denver last October are able to attend. It also makes the festival something of a celebration of beer for beer’s sake, not for prestige, a Northeast party to contrast the deeply entrenched Midwest- and West-centered Great American Beer Festival.

With their $50 ticket in hand, 5,000 beer enthusiasts showed up for each of the three sessions, wrapping themselves around the walkway that spans the outside of the convention center, keeping well out of the traffic on Seaport Blvd. It was a cattle shoot of excited beer geeks and complete newbies. Once inside, each ticket holder was given a small plastic cup to hold 2-ounce pours, a guide to each brewery and their beer, and a map, then set free to run amok. The brewers were scattered in groups of about nine along the blue carpeted festival grounds in a four by four grid.

This is a beer Bacchanalia, and it couldn’t have happened 25 years ago. In 1979, when Carter de-regulated the beer industry, there were 90 breweries in America. By the end of 2013 there were 2,822, which is 366 more than at the end of 2012, meaning that last year an average of one brewery a day opened within the U.S. These are numbers akin to tech startups, making the festival feel like a booze-fueled Silicon Valley convention, where everyone is focused on trying to craft the perfect viral variation of identical ingredients: malt, hops, water and yeast. We were at the heart to of the friendliest entrepreneurial land grab in history.

The festival is something of a celebration of beer for beer’s sake, not for prestige.

This popularity, both in suppliers and drinkers, is a symptom of the broader trend in craft beer. According to the Brewers Association, overall beer production dipped 2 percent in 2013 while craft beer production rose 18 percent. This means both new drinkers and new breweries are mixed in with the veterans; the line in front of the Narragansett (est. 1890) booth was the same length as the Trillium (est. 2013) booth. There was room in this town enough for the both of them, at least for now.

With so many varied drinkers schlepping around the festival over three sessions, deciding what to put on tap is no small decision for breweries. Established breweries want to reward their knowledgeable fans, while also introducing new drinkers to their flagship brews. This is why Founders and Left Hand rolled up with seven selections each, from Pale Ale to whatever Good Juju is, while Brooklyn kept a case of Cuvee Noire on hold, only to be opened up about halfway through the festival, after their Summer Ale ran low. Newer brewers, wanting to be noticed, brought only their best.

Weaving through intoxicated crowds that intermittently let out low, rumbling crescendos that faded out into an echo of “USA, USA” and passing by the only line for a men’s restroom this side of the Mississippi, ticket holders who stopped at each booth could discover a stunning range of 65 styles of ale and 19 styles of lager. Talking to brewers, it became clear that, along with its increased popularity, the changing landscape of craft beer is to blame for such a wide arrays of styles, many of which would have been considered extreme only a few years ago.

“The craft beer consumer has ADD”, said Jessie Hunter from Ithaca Beer Co. On Thursdays her brewery wheels a five-gallon barrel of test beer into the tap room to get feedback from their regulars. This is because there’s no standard for craft beer, only trends and even then, no foolproof way to stay ahead of them.

New drinkers and new breweries are mixed in with the veterans; the line in front of the Narragansett (est. 1890) booth was the same length as the Trillium (est. 2013) booth.

This year the trend was capturing the tartness of saisons. Or was it the drinkability of low-gravity sessions? Brooklyn’s booth was kept busy dishing out their ½ ale, a session style saison, confounding the trend even further. John Williams, the region’s sales rep and a certified cicerone, said that sessions are coming out in full force this season because beer fans want to be able to drink more beer. More specifically, they want something with less alcohol but all the taste, so they can drink more of it without “getting kicked in the head.”

Williams conceded that the “IPA is still king”, which is no mystery at the festival. Of all the beer types, the American IPA is the most represented, trailed by — you guessed it — the American Double IPA. This isn’t a new trend either. Across the country at The Great American Beer Festival, IPAs have been the most represented beer for the better part of a decade.

And the big-picture trends? Once the hangover fuzziness fades, it’s clear that the current craft beer movement is defined by two symbiotic groups. The first is a diverse collection of new drinkers stepping tenderly onto a foundation of pale ales, stouts and IPAs established by decades of pioneers sipping multi-colored microbrews. Brewers are forced to perfect their regular offerings for the growing proportion of “new drinker”. This is why you see Stone Brewery coming out with a new IPA every few years, even after having produced their original, flagship IPA in 1997.

The second group has been exploring the beers put out by small master brewers for years. And, as in most instances, once they’ve tried it all, they want to push brewers farther and farther. This demand brought back the use of Brettanomyces and subsequently saisons, a style once thought to be extinct, while sessions have sprung up as a low-gravity counter to the Imperial craze of doubling down on alcohol content.

If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is. But it’s also amazing. The rapidly growing number of suppliers means increased competition. So when consumers demand something, the brewers listen. This type of voting power has long since diminished at Anheuser-Busch InBev. Among the eagerly drinking throngs of the American Craft Beer Festival, choice is alive and well — and healthily sloshed.

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