I Don’t Mind Being Right: GABF Agrees that Indy and Indiana are Beer Medal Heavyweights

I Don’t Mind Being Right: GABF Agrees that Indy and Indiana are Beer Medal Heavyweights

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

An article last week from Brewers Association (here) included an analysis of the medal winners at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) last month. They took several statistics about the winners and the beers and grouped them to see if they could find trends. They did find trends, from things that make you say “duh,” to items that were generally interesting.

State Data. For instance, it has become clear in the last few years that the states that enter the most beers win the most medals. Since GABF is held in Colorado and Colorado wins a lot of medals, it had become lore that being closer to Denver gave a brewery an advantage. Nope, the top seven states for medals were also the top seven states for entries (California, Colorado, Texas, Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, and Virginia). It was predicted that they should win 3.4% of the medals, when in fact they won 3.5%. That’s fairy predictive, and shows Colorado doesn’t really gain any advantage, or maybe it does.

It’s true that by flooding the competition with more entries they could improve their chances at more medals, and in this, it might actually be an advantage to be close to Denver. It’s not cheap to enter and send beer across the country for a competition, even if it is just enough for judging, not pouring at the festival. Each beer entered for GABF is $180, and shipping on your own can be close to $100 for just yourself, so sometimes breweries will get together and ship beers together. Enter five beers (just about the average/brewery for GABF) and you’re talking over $1000 just to get some feedback and a 3.4% chance at some hardware. Small breweries don’t have $1000 laying around, so choices must be made.

image credit: Brewers Association

Since breweries in Denver and environs can just drive beer over for judging, it would easy to see that they could enter more beers without breaking the bank. Using that same logic, it probably cost more to ship things farther, so the closer a brewery is to Denver, they might save a few bucks on freight and therefore enter an extra beer or two. You might argue that if the competition wasn’t in Denver, then Colorado would enter fewer beer and win fewer medals – so their beers may actually be over-performing. But for states it does hold true – if you want to win more medals, enter more beers.

City Data. BA most often looks at state data, but this year they switched it up and concentrated on metropolitan areas. They grouped the stats by number of entries, separating them into assemblages of 11-12, 26-50, 51-100, 101-200, and >200 entries. Indianapolis fell into the 51-100 category, with 66 entries. Overall, any single beer in the competition had a 3.3-4% chance of winning a medal, but Indy did much better than that.

Taking seven medals from the 66 entries meant that Indianapolis beers won medals at a rate of 10.6%, pretty much tripling the competition average. Sun King took three medals (one was a collab), while Metazoa, Four Day Ray, Chilly Water, and Blind Owl won a medal apiece. That gave the city the honor of winning both the medal percentage and absolute medal number for their category (51-100 entries). This is a rare commodity, and means that selective entry was the strategy, our city didn’t just flood the competition with a bunch of beers.

The double win is even more impressive when you consider that some of Indianapolis’ most medaled breweries in the past couple of years didn’t even send beers to GABF this time around. Consider how well Guggman Haus did at the Indiana Brewers’ Cup this year just weeks after opening. If they had sent beers to GABF, it wouldn’t have been surprising if they had them come home with medal(s). Likewise, Flix Brewhouse did send a couple of beers and they could easily have medaled as they’ve done in so many recent competitions, so it could have been a runaway win for Indy.

Indianapolis metro breweries. image credit: Indiana On Tap Brewery Map

In a larger category (101–200 entries), Charlotte, NC also won both the percentage and the absolute number of medals award. I do love Charlotte beer, but it must be pointed out that Indianapolis won more medals than Charlotte, and their city has about 50 breweries to our 40 (Indy, Carmel, Fisher, Greenwood, Speedway) and greater population of the metro area (2.5 million vs. 2 million). I’d have to say that by all measures, Indy ate Charlotte’s lunch.

True, Salt Lake City did win medals at a higher rate (11.1%) as did Santa Fe (14%), but four of Santa Fe’s five medals came from one brewery – Rowley Farmhouse Ales, which did win the small brewpub of the year award. They opened the week after Walter’s and my last trip to Santa Fe, so I guess another trip is in order.

Conclusion. I have argued for years that Indiana and Indianapolis are strong craft beer producing areas, but we never seem to win the huge number of medals that get places noticed. I have always gone with the medals:entries ratio as a truer gauge of success, simply because some places enter so many more beers than others. GABF has more beers from Colorado, some west coast states, and the states with bigger population. The US Open Beer Championship in Cincinnati has a huge number of Ohio entries, just like the Indiana Brewers’ Cup has for Indiana.

Perhaps most illustrative is the North American Beer Awards from the North America Brewers’ Association, located in Idaho Falls, ID. This year, more than half the total medals were won by breweries in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Oregon. And even then, Indiana had three breweries come back five medals (Chilly Water, Backstep, and Flix Brewhouse).

It’s hard to always get the medals:entries for a competition because they rarely enumerate the number of entries from each state, just the medal winners. To find out the entries number for Indiana, I would have to individually ask every brewery n the state how many beers they sent in to each competition, untenable given the time it would take and that people don’t like talking about not winning. But for those competitions where the data is available, Indiana always finishes in the top 3-6 of states. Now we have data to support that within Indiana, Indianapolis does just as well.

I’ve said it before, Indiana breweries should do something like Ohio does to show solidarity when winning medals. We’ve got great beer, shout it out. image credit: WCPO

Competitions and medals do matter in some capacity. One, they give a brewery news to send out to market itself. Two, they confirm that objective third parties think they are doing things well. Three, they will draw beer geeks from farther away to try and talk about their beer. And perhaps most importantly, even if they don’t win, they are getting objective feedback to help them do their job better. But, competitions aren’t the be all and end all of craft beer quality.

For reasons we have discussed before, beers that win medals are not better than beers that don’t enter contests. Only a percentage of breweries ever enter beers in competitions – GABF does better than most contests, with about a quarter of the breweries in the country entering beer. Why do so few enter? Because depending on their model, they may very well be able to sell beer without medals. A small town or neighborhood brewery may choose to cater to just their local clientele, and that group of drinkers may not even be aware that GABF exists. Truly, what percentage of craft beer drinkers keeps up with who wins medals – maybe 5-10%? Less? And two, there’s always the money aspect; if you don’t think you are getting the benefit from spending to enter beer, why do it?

It’s most important that breweries make beers that their patrons connect to and connect with that brewery. Sell beer and stay viable. If you want to enter competitions and connect to the beer world outside your brewery, fine, but it doesn’t have to be. Last word – congratulations to all who enter, it takes guts to put your beers out there to be judged – and congratulations to those that have success at contests, it means you’re really doing something right. Indianapolis and Indiana, you’re definitely doing it right.

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