First Draft Follies: Early History of the American Homebrewers Association and Brewers Association, Part 8

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Three --- Part Four Part Five --- Part Six --- Part Seven --- Part Eight --- Part Nine

Welcome to this edition of First Draft Follies, an ongoing series here at the blog. The material is presented “as is” from the first draft of the manuscript that became the book Ambitious Brew. In a few places I added one or two words in brackets — [like this] — for clarification. As always, when the excerpt is lengthy, and this one is, I break it into manageable bits and post those bits over the course of several days.

This edition of FDF concerns the early years of the American Homebrewers Association and what is now the Brewers Association, the craft brewing trade group. Much of my research into the topic fell into “insider baseball” information: interesting to those who were involved, and to people with a serious interest in brewing history, but dull as rocks to a more general audience. As a result, almost none of what follows ended up in the book, which was intended for a general audience.

On the other hand, the groups' early histories provide fascinating insight into the creation of a organization from the ground up, particularly the conflicts that ensued between and among the participants. As a result, I think it’s worth posting this (long) series in full.

For more about the founding of the AHA, see my earlier string of First Draft Follies entries on that topic. (The link takes you to part six of the six-part series; it contains links to parts one through five.)


 Nowhere was that more obvious than at the Great American Beer Festival, which, in its early years, stood as a perfect example of the way the Boulder group blundered its way into situations without thinking them through. In 1984, to use one rather horrific example, Papazian and Bradford, moved the festival to capacious Currigan Exhibition Hall in Denver.

The forty-odd brewers who attended could not fill the enormous venue and the five thousand or so paid admissions could not cover the cost of renting and insuring it. The financial loss boarded on the catastrophic. The Association borrowed money to cover not just that loss but basic operating expenses; a board member offered his own house as collateral.

Nor was the event particularly well-managed. Bert Grant arrived at the 1987 festival to find his entire stock of bottled ale buried in cases of ice. He “immediately began yanking bottles out of the ice and onto the table, dripping water everywhere.‘Jesus Christ, we need a bottle warmer not an ice chest,’” he yelled at the young volunteer assigned to his booth. She fled. (*1)

In 1988, the program was miscollated, thereby omitting a chunk of the alphabetical list of attending brewers, and award winners left empty-handed because the medals had not arrived.

The most notorious example of whatever erupted over the GABF’s Consumer Preference Poll, in which festival-goers voted for their “favorite” beer. Sierra Nevada, the golden boy of craft brewing, won honors in the first poll in 1983. The following year, Grant took the top two places and contract brewer Matthew Reich came in third.

But the 1987 festival nearly drowned in rumors that the owners of two breweries purchased bulk quantities of admission tickets and then and doled them out to attendees in exchange for votes. The alleged offenders, Boulder Brewing and Koch’s Boston Beer, placed first and second, respectively, in that year’s consumer preference poll. Daniel Bradford exacerbated the situation with what can only be described as ill-chosen words: “‘Without the bulk ticket sales we would not have made money.’” (*2)

Bradford later retracted the statement, but the damage had been done. Grant told Bradford that unless the awards were withdrawn, he, Grant, would refuse to participate again, and would organize a boycott of the event. Bradford explained that there had been “‘no flagrant disobedience of the rules and guidelines,’” which were, he admitted, “‘terribly flawed,’” for which he blamed himself. (*3)

Had he left the matter there, perhaps the black cloud would have drifted away. Instead he backpeddled, explaining away his comment about the bulk ticket sales as a “whimsical” attempt to “‘lighten the atmosphere.’” (*4)


SOURCES: *1: Vince Cottone, “Movement in the Right Direction: The Great American Beer Festival,” American Brewer (Fall 1987): 28.

*2: Ibid., 29.

*3: Ibid., 30.

*4: Ibid.