09/28/2011 03:46 pm ET | Updated Nov 28, 2011

The Great American Beer Festival Celebrates 30 Years Of Great American Craft Beer (PHOTOS)

It has been 30 years since Charlie Papazian founded the first craft beer-centered Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and beer lovers’ taste buds have never been the same.

The GABF has come a long way since its humble beginnings -- only 22 craft breweries were in attendance in that first year. Compare that with nearly 500 breweries attending in 2009 and it’s clear that craft beer has really captured the hearts and tongues of the nation.

More than 50,000 craft beer brewers, aficionados and drinkers are expected to attend the 2011 GABF in Denver this weekend, Sept. 29 - Oct. 1.

HuffPost recently sat down with Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director at the Brewers Association, to get a little history lesson in craft beer, where it’s been and where it’s headed next.


How did the craft beer movement get started?
There are so many factors that set this movement in motion early on, but there are some touchstone events that really helped. It initially started in 1979 when Jimmy Carter made it legal to home brew up to 200 gallons of beer a year. Around that same time, Charlie Papazian founded what would become the Brewers Association (called the American Home Brewers Association back then), and soon after that, the first microbrews and brewpubs start popping up around the nation. Then in 1982, we had the first celebration of the craft beer movement at the Great American Beer Festival in Boulder, Colo. And from those humble beginnings a new American industry grew.

How has the craft beer industry continued to thrive and grow over the last 30 years?
Instead of an industry, the craft beer movement is often called a community. I think what happened is that somehow the purveyors of craft beer tapped into this feeling that ‘life is good when shared together.' These like-minded people, professional brewers and home brewers, realized early on that if they helped each other they would all grow. So they organically did that. I don’t think it was a true strategic mission, it really happened on the local level, brewer helping brewer. Community mindset is literally what shook up a billion dollar big beer brewing industry, the little guy figured it out by helping each other.

And that community-feel is still true today. Today’s brewers are artists of liquid creations and in the arts the best inspiration is often found through collaboration, being exposed to all sides of the medium, and not sequestering oneself.

Is craft beer good business?
Nationwide you have these incredible small business success stories that have literally changed a global brewing industry. In the United States, pre-1980s, all we were drinking was light American lager because that was all that was offered to beer lovers. That has all changed thanks to craft beer brewers. Now we’ve got 133 different American style beers officially on the books at GABF. That selection is a beautiful thing. Beer is most definitely good business and it has proven to be a community that has been able to nurture itself, very noticeably in a state like Colorado.

You could have had the current economy, starting three years ago, really bring this entire revolution to a screeching halt -- you’ve got a higher price point going on, higher costs for smaller amounts of elements purchased -- however, even in these hard economic times, the interest and enthusiasm for craft beer still carried the day.

How did the GABF get started?
Charlie Papazian started it and what he’ll tell you is that in 1981 he went to the Great British Beer Festival. He got very inspired by that. At that time beer-famous Michael Jackson (not musical Michael Jackson), was a friend of Charlie’s and involved in the British Beer Fest and wondered why they couldn’t do this in the US. Charlie was coming at it from a home brewer perspective, but he knew he had to go after the commercial beer makers, which is just what he did. It all started to grow from there. And it's grown massively over the last 30 years. At this 30th anniversary GABF we’ll have a whole pavilion inside the event that is the size of the original 1982 festival. We're going to show a lot of pictures from that period and try to give a sense of what the original festival was like.

What beer styles are you looking forward to at this year’s GABF?
I’m looking for those pumpkin beers, they are so heartwarming, ease me into the Fall. The seasonal aspect is definitely on my radar. We have some exciting new categories too, like chocolate beer. Chocolate beer used to be part of the Urban Spice Beer category, but this year has enough entries to justify its own category. So anything chocolate I’m looking forward to. Another new category is the Brett, the American style Brettanomyces ale. The wild Brett yeast lends a lot of leather and other ‘funkified’ flavors that really are interesting, so I’m definitely on the look out for those.

Great American Beer Festival: Through The Years