Jameson's beer garden promises plenty of unique brews.
jameson caskmates ipa edition
Credit: Courtesy of Pernod Ricard USA

The Great American Beer Festival, probably the country’s largest and best known beer festival, has just announced a huge new sponsor, though the name might surprise you for a number of reasons… Jameson Irish Whiskey.

Debuting at this year’s GABF, set to take place in Denver from September 20 to 22, will be the Jameson Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden. The 12,600-square-foot beer garden, part of a nearly 100,000-square-foot expansion of the festival floor in total, “will feature 17 small and independent Jameson craft brewery partners and their limited-edition Jameson barrel-aged beer in a setting that draws inspiration from their local neighborhoods,” according to an announcement of the partnership. The breweries 8th Wonder, Bale Breaker, Big Dog’s Brewing Co, Black Abbey, Captain Lawrence, Cigar City, DC Brau, Fat Heads, Foolproof, Fulton, Great Divide, Green Flash, Harpoon, Heavy Seas, Parish, Revolution, and River Horse are all already on board for the collaboration, so clearly, there’s an opportunity for some amazing and unique craft beers here.

Aging beer in whiskey barrels has continued to grow in popularity since it first gained traction back in the mid-‘90s thanks to products like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. More recently, the Brewers Association—the craft beer trade group that also runs the GABF—says that the sale of barrel-aged beers has risen 20 percent in the past three years alone, so offering an area dedicated to whiskey barrel-aged beers makes total sense.

However, in other ways, this partnership with Jameson—billed as the GABF’s first ever spirits sponsor—feels a bit odd. First, in case you haven’t caught on, Jameson Irish Whiskey would seem a bit out of place at the Great American Beer Festival… an event where only American breweries are allowed to participate in the competition.

But even setting that quibble aside, a more philosophical conflict exists: Though the GABF is open to all U.S. breweries, last year, the Brewers Association essentially banned breweries the organization doesn’t classify as “craft” from sponsoring the event. One of the BA’s keys to being defined as craft is a certain level of independence—less than 25 percent outside ownership. Needless to say, Jameson isn’t beer, so the rules of craft beer don’t apply; but Jameson also isn’t in any way independent: The Irish brand is a subsidiary of the global spirits giant Pernod Ricard. It’s easy to see how this could potentially be construed as a double-standard, especially when many in the craft beer and craft spirits world try to foster relationships across both industries.

That said, it’s also easy to see why both parties—the GABF and Jameson—would want to make this partnership work. Jameson has continued to push its line of beer barrel-aged products known as Caskmates; putting that brand in front of tens of thousands of diehard beer fans, especially with the prominent billing of being the festival’s first spirits sponsor, is a coup. And speaking of coups, one can only assume the GABF will make out well in the deal too… no matter how good the beers served in the beer garden are.

As for whether the Brewers Association is conflicted by any of this, Ann Obenchain, the BA’s marketing director chose to focus on the breweries involved. “This particular GABF activation is focused specifically on small and independent craft brewers,” she told us via email. “The Brewers Association believes the Jameson Caskmates program specifically offers a natural tie in to craft beer and supports small and independent neighborhood breweries. This craft beer-focused activation will also be targeted to Jameson’s cross-drinking customers, elevating the status of craft beer.”

Frankly, the Great American Beer Festival is a major event; it’s certainly worthy of big sponsors. But at the same time, the Brewers Association drew a line in the sand with beer literally last year. Regardless of whether working with a non-craft spirits brand like Jameson is a double standard or not—and it’s certainly not clear that it is—what is more clear is that if there is a debate to be had, the GABF kind of started it.