By Mike Pomranz
Updated October 01, 2015
© Chronicle / Alamy

Over the weekend, the 29th annual Great American Beer Festival, perhaps the world’s preeminent gathering of brewers, was held in Denver, Colorado. 242 breweries won a total of 275 medals broken down into 92 different beer categories covering 145 different beer styles chosen out of 6,647 entries from 1,552 brewers. If you’re a casual beer fan, as you look down the list of winners, you might find yourself thinking, “I haven’t tried, or even heard of, practically any of these beers!” And you wouldn’t be the only one.

According to the Brewers Association, the group behind the GABF, in 2014 (the most current year for which they have data), America boasted 3,464 breweries. Compare that to just five years earlier, in 2009, when the country had a paltry 1,653 places making suds. In just half a decade, we’ve seen the number of breweries in the U.S. essentially double. That’s good news for beer lovers and has been a boon to the local beer movement, but it also means that keeping up with all the brews out there is becoming more difficult.

For beer competitions like the GABF, another consequence is that, purely statistically speaking, America’s largest and best-known brewers, even within the craft category, are less likely to be bringing home GABF medals. In 2010, 3,523 beers were entered into the GABF; meanwhile, 239 medals were awarded. That’s how tight the squeeze has become: Over 3,000 additional entries were added in 2015, compared to just 36 new medals. The result: It’s not so easy to find all the GABF winners on your local store shelf.

Take, for instance, a simple category like American-style pale ale. In 2010, Firestone Walker—at the time the country’s 29th largest craft brewer—took gold and silver, accounting for two of their six total medals from that year. This past weekend, the Paso Robles–based brand (now ranked as the 16th largest craft brewery) was the festival’s winningest brewery, but only brought home three medals—half as many as five years ago. And none of them were for its (still impressive) American-style pale ales. Instead, the honors in that category went to Central Coast Brewing, Track 7 Brewing and Cannonball Creak Brewing—all small local breweries situated way outside craft’s top 50 biggest producers.

The fruit beer category reveals a similar story. In 2010, only one fruit beer category even existed. The three medalists are all companies you’ve probably heard of: Blue Moon, Pyramid and New Glarus. The smallest of those brewers, New Glarus, ranked 22nd among craft beer producers at the time; the largest, Blue Moon, is run by Coors. Jump to 2015, the GABF now has three categories with “fruit” in the title, but this time around no top 50 breweries placed in any of them. The largest name among the nine winners is probably BJ’s Restaurant and Brewery, which has been in the top 50 in the past, but isn’t big enough currently.

And consider a well-known and well-regarded brand like Sierra Nevada, America’s seventh largest brewer overall and one of the original breweries of the craft movement. The company has won at least one GABF medal every year dating back to 2008, but earned none in 2015.

It seems like every year, staring down the GABF list of winners becomes more and more intimidating. But instead of letting the list scare you by pointing out all the breweries you don’t know, take a moment to reflect on just how far America’s beer culture has come in our lifetime.

Then take the opportunity to go discover some award-winning beers you have never tried. Did you know that on the GABF website, you can even sort all the winners by state? If you’re looking for a way to get better acquainted with new brews, a great place to start is to sort by your state and then go out drinking.