GABF Medal Winners Analyzed, 2019 Edition

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Another Great American Beer Festival® (GABF) has come and gone, and with it, another iteration of the world’s largest professional beer competition.

This year, thousands of breweries entered nearly 9,500 beers with only 318 medals awarded. That means that overall a beer had a 3.3-3.4 percent chance of winning a medal – that’s about the same probability as flipping a coin and getting the same predetermined side 5 times in a row. For the most competitive categories – like Juicy or Hazy IPA – you’d need to land the same predetermined side up 7 times in a row. Feel free to try and see how long that takes you. Given this increasing difficultly, any brewery that won a medal this year should be confident in the fact that they made a beer worthy of being called one of the best beers in the country, because plenty of great beers entered and most didn’t win.

What’s the alternative? One option is to become more like wine competitions, where any wine that hits a certain points threshold wins. That’s how you get a competition like the Decanter World Wine Awards, where 12,218 wines won medals last year, equaling more than 70 percent of entrants.

As a beer drinker, as well an industry participant, I prefer the beer competition model. When I see a beer that has a medal on the label, I know that means something, not just that they entered a competition with better odds of winning than a coin flip.

But I digress… What I’m trying to say is that winning a GABF medal is hard, and that means beers that win are clearly marked as exceptional. I hope brewers feel the same way and balance the increasing challenge of winning a medal against the growing weight it carries if you finally win one.

State Trends Stay Consistent

When I started writing articles analyzing the GABF competition, part of the point was to dispel some of the myths about it, such as the idea that certain states had an advantage due to geography or other factors. As I’ve hopefully driven home in the last few years, state wins fall generally in line with their number of entries. Yes, there are variations (the beers aren’t just picked randomly after all), but there is no evidence that those variations are based on things like distance from Denver. The states that win the most enter the most beers.

This year was no exception. Half of the entries came from 7 states: California, Colorado, Texas, Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, and Virginia. Those states were expected to win 167 medals based on entries and categories entered. They won 174. That’s a 3.5 percent rate of winning instead of the 3.4 percent expected rate. The rest of the states were expected to win 150 and won 143 (doesn’t add due to rounding), or 3.1 win percentage versus an expected rate of 3.3 percent. So if want your state to win more medals, get more of your local brewers to enter!

A New Look: City Champions

Since I’ve done the state analysis a few times, this year I thought I’d change it up and look at metro areas (with data from the Census Bureau on urban places). As with the state analysis, this data isn’t going to be perfect, and might have a few quirks from breweries that have locations in multiple places, etc. Before someone complains about where I put their city, this isn’t based on my subjective thoughts on how good your local brewing scene is, but rather based on how many entries we got from a particular metro area.

But without further ado, here are the cities that cleaned up in Denver broken out into “weight classes.” I’ve excluded cities with less than 10 entries, since those are typically based on only one or two breweries. For each, I’ve selected a total medals winner and a percent winner. Did your city bring home a belt?

Sessionweight: 11-25 Entries, 76 Cities in the Running

Winners: Bozeman, Montana and Davis, California

Three cities – Boise, Idaho; Bozeman, Montana; and Las Vegas, Nevada – won three medals in this weight class, with Bozeman being declared the winner in the judge’s scoring due to its breweries entering the most competitive categories. Fitting for a barley growing state, all three Bozeman medals were in styles that could be considered malt forward: International-Style Pilsener, English-Style Brown Ale, and Oatmeal Stout.

Breweries from Davis, California only entered 12 beers, but they brought home two medals (both won by Sudwerk Brewing Co.). At 17 percent, that was the highest win rate of any city in the competition that entered more than 10 beers.

Pilsnerweight: 26-50 Entries, 27 Cities in the Running

Winners: Salt Lake City, Utah and Sante Fe, New Mexico

Salt Lake City breweries entered 45 beers and took home five medals, giving them a win rate of 11.1 percent versus an expected rate of 3.6 percent. If you’re a Belgian beer lover, you might want to throw Salt Lake into your vacation considerations, as three of the medals were in the Belgian beer family (American-Belgo-Style Ale, Belgian-Style Blonde Ale or Pale Ale, and Belgian-Style Tripel).

Santa Fe won fewer medals than Salt Lake with four medals total, but did so on only 29 entries, a fantastic rate of almost 14 percent. Santa Fe’s performance was driven primarily by small brewpub of the year, Rowley Farmhouse Ales, but they were pushed over the top by an additional medal won by Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery.

Porterweight: 51-100 Entries, 27 Cities in the Running

Dual Belt Winner: Indianapolis, Indiana

Indy was the first metro area to unify the percentage and absolute medal belts, bringing home seven medals out of 66 entries (10.6 percent). Two of the medals came from outside of the city proper (from Fishers, Indiana, a suburb). Perhaps the most impressive part of Indianapolis’s GABF was the number of breweries that won medals, with Sun King Brewing (two medals + a Collab medal), Metazoa, Blind Owl, Four Day Ray, and Chilly Water all winning medals. It might be time to set up a travel alert for flights into Indy.

IPAweight: 101-200 Entries, 12 Cities in the Running

Dual Belt Winner: Charlotte, North Carolina

The IPAweight class sees our East coast winner. With six medals, Charlotte narrowly edged out San Francisco and Seattle, both of which also won six medals, but on more entries and in slightly less competitive categories on average. Like Indianapolis, Charlotte saw five breweries win medals (Pilot (two medals), Triple C, The Chamber by Wooden Robot, Town, and Sugar Creek). Charlotte was also the first of our city champions to win multiple medals in a single style, taking gold and silver in Contemporary Gose.

Imperialweight: 201-500 entries, 5 Cities in the Running, plus an Additional Challenger from “Not in an Urban Area”

Not surprisingly, the Imperialweight category proved the most competitive. Every city in this category (Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Portland, and San Diego) won double-digit medals. That said, only one city can be crowned champion, and in an upset win, the 2019 winner, taking home both belts, was….

Los Angeles!

Brewers from the greater City of Angels won a whopping 18 medals out of 367 entries, a win rate of 4.9 percent, which exceeded the percentages for any of the other of the metros. Fittingly for Los Angeles, the winners were dispersed across the metroplex, with winners from Sherman Oaks to Rancho Cucamonga to Newport Beach. San Diego has long had a death grip on the beer crown of Southern California (and San Diego brewers still won plenty of medals), but this is a strong sign that there is plenty of great beer being made all across Southern California and that San Diego is no longer the only game in town.

To close, it’s incredible to see how many cities across the United States won medals. Looking at winners lists from 10, 20, or 30 years ago, you see a lot of familiar locations, but the geographic diversity of winners only continues to increase as the craft brewing movement broadens, with the GABF competition an evolving reflection of that movement, its depth, and its growing competitiveness.

Congrats to all the winners, and best of luck to everyone in 2020!