There’s a really good chance you know how this story ends. But beyond the official photo and press release, you really need to know the whole story.
Brian and I decided that we were going to attend the GABF (Great American Beer Festival) this year. We wanted the opportunity to enter our beer in a national competition—mostly to see what kind of feedback we would receive. We have two brewers that are new to brewing and to the industry—Lucas joined our team in January and Amber joined our team in April. We wanted them to get their first taste of “the industry” of brewing, and heck, Brian and I always enjoy hanging with “our people”.
We left Bucyrus as 4 a.m. on Wednesday. There was a lot of talk about sleeping on the drive to Denver, but there was very little sleeping done. We were all too keyed up to sleep. There were soybean fields, corn fields, rolling Kansas hills, a big tom turkey standing on the edge of a cornfield, the world’s largest prairie dog….
We got to Denver, settled in to our hotel rooms and went to a special event at Wynkoop for the GABF attendees. There were some great beers on tap, yummy food, and our St. Louis Cardinals advanced to the NLCS.
Cardinals advance to NLCS. Surly Pentagram. Hanging with your peeps at a private party at Wynkoop. #winning
We made our way to Star Bar for a few beers, and Brian and I finally went back to our hotel around 1. Lucas and Amber closed the place down. So much for starting the day at 4 a.m.
On Thursday we drove up to Fort Collins to a VIP event at New Belgium—such a great place with awesome co-workers that really care about taking care of fellow brewers.
We stopped in at Odell where a friend showed us the brand spankin’ new brew house and tap room expansion. Odell Brewing, a family-owned business that started on a kitchen stove, is SUCH an inspiration. (Thanks again, Lynsey!)
Thursday night was our first session at GABF. Each session is 5 hours. I don’t know how many people are at each session, but the GABF was a sell out with 48,000 tickets. That’s a lot of people! We were pouring Black Walnut Wheat, McKinney Eddy Amber Ale, Old Tom Porter, Missouri Mule IPA and Sweet Potato Ale. We sent our beer out in advance, in kegs, and they were already set up and ready to go. I should add here that the Brewer’s Association puts on this event with the help of volunteers. The volunteers are AWESOME. They work their butts off, and everyone that helped the area we were in and at our table was spectacular. I don’t remember all their names, but they were great.
Every session opens with a bagpipe parade.
The Piney River booth.
The Piney River Crew in the booth.
The GABF divides the breweries up according to region. Our booth was in between Nebraska Brewing and Budweiser (St. Louis connection). Rockbridge, Tallgrass, Springfield Brewing Company and Mothers were some of the other beers in our section. There were breweries from all over the US—a lot of representation from breweries in Colorado and California. It was neat to have beers from New Glarus, Surly, Sun King, Three Floyds, Russian River and Elysian available to sample—all under one roof. There were also some lesser known breweries (some even smaller than Piney River) with great beers to sample, too.
Our Sweet Potato Ale was a big hit from the first night. There was only one other sweet potato beer being poured, and the brewery it was from was not pouring it. It was being poured at the Craft Brewers Guild tables. On Friday evening, we had to stop pouring the Sweet Potato so we would still have some for the later sessions. We still ran out of Sweet Potato in the first session on Saturday. Then, the attendees began hitting the Black Walnut Wheat.
On Friday we traveled to Upslope in Boulder for a special event with Crown Packaging (the place we get our cans from) and Wild Goose Canning (the company that made our canning machine). The labeled Piney River cans went over better than free beer. There’s serious interest among craft brewers in finding a way to do lots of brands without purchasing lots of truck loads of cans. This little brewery in Bucyrus has found a great option for breweries that can.
The very cool Sanitas Brewing logo–a new brewery that cans which we also visited in Boulder.
Saturday morning, about 5,000 members of the industry gathered in a ballroom in the bottom of the Denver Convention Center for the Great American Beer Festival Award Ceremony. Coffee, donuts, beer, bronze, silver and gold medals were awarded for beers in 84 different categories. We entered 10 beers—the maximum number we could enter–so we had 30 chances to win a medal. The possibilities were exciting, but we felt as though we would really just get good feedback to help us learn what to do for future competitions.
The stats for the 2013 GABF competition.
I had a dream on Friday night that we won a gold medal for McKinney Eddy Amber Ale, but at the ceremony 9 of the 10 categories came and went—including Amber Ale–without a mention of Piney River. Brown Porter, the 74th category of 84 beer categories, was our final chance. Brian, Lucas and I (Amber had to go back to Missouri for a family event) were sitting on a front row in a section with a bunch of people from CA that we didn’t know. But they knew each other because they kept congratulating other CA breweries as they received awards.
The bronze award winner for Brown Porter was announced. It was not us. Down to two chances.
The silver award winner for Brown Porter was announced. It was not us. And at that point, Brian, Lucas and I felt like our medal chances were over. What first time brewery wins a gold medal at the GABF?
Chris Swersey, the emcee, began announcing, “The Gold Medal goes to Old…”
“What?!,” I was thinking. Suddenly time slowed waaay down.
“Tom…,” Swersey said.
I screamed. I was sitting between Brian and Lucas, and suddenly we were high fiving and jumping up and stumbling down the aisle to accept a GOLD medal from Charlie Papazian.
Each of us has specific memories of going to accept that medal. Brian, who remembers walking on air, was tackled by a sales person from one of our distributors. I never saw it. I was just elated, reminding myself not to run to the stage. Lucas remembers feeling a little emotional, kind of teary-eyed.
And there we were. A gold medal around Brian’s neck. The flashes of dozens of cameras. The silhouettes of thousands of people looking back at us on that brightly lit stage. I never saw the red carpet, but Brian said one was there.
I had to snap a photo of all those people looking back at us.
Piney River Brewing received their gold medal at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival awards ceremony held in Denver on Saturday morning. Shown here, left to right: Lucas Clem, brewer; Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewer’s Association; Brian Durham, head brewer and co-founder; Joleen Durham, co-founder and original keg washing queen. Not present, Amber Powell, brewer.
As soon as we walked off the stage, I gave Brian a GIANT hug. I remember thinking, “All that work. All the sacrifices. All days where we went to bed and got up to go to our day jobs in the same day.” I was so proud of Brian. I was so proud of Piney River. And then I started shaking.
I couldn’t take a decent photo because I was shaking!
Lucas, Brian and I went to get a beer, but the beer stations were dry!!! (We need to time our medal winning a little better.) None of us really remember any of the last 9 award recipients. I was sending texts, tweeting and posting information online. Brian was texting our distributors. Lucas was texting Amber and his family.
By the time we were upstairs in the convention hall, the winners had been announced. Piney River’s booth was a non-stop sea of people. Yes, they were interested in Sweet Potato and Black Walnut, but many people just wanted to try Old Tom Porter. The story of Old Tom Porter would never be the same.
Later that afternoon, one of the judges of the brown porter competition stopped by to say how much they enjoyed our Old Tom Porter, and that even after the judging they finished drinking it. Another judge told us that gold medals only go to technically excellent beers. Brian realized that he no longer cared that he didn’t have formal brewing training and started Piney River as a homebrewer. Just like Paul Gatza from the Brewer’s Association said–when you’ve got a GABF medal around your neck, you can run through walls.
The winning entries ran inside the hall all day on Saturday. I managed to snap a photo of the screen showing our category.
Our first Piney River toast with our Gold medal winning Old Tom Porter.
We ended Saturday at the GABF with celebratory beers at Star Bar. It seemed like a good place to round out one of the most amazing days of our lives. On the ride home, I studied the corn fields, hoping to see another old tom. Old Tom didn’t need to make a second appearance. One was all we needed.