The 34th Annual Great American Beer Fest is upon us, and Northern Colorado breweries are ready for their shot at more medals but most seem to agree that GABF – the biggest national beer fest with more than 1,500 breweries and 7,000 entries vying for 90 medals and top honors – is more is more about networking and camaraderie.

Crow Hop Brewing Co-owner Michael Noonan said the main goal is marketing. “The real reason for the fest is to get to people who haven’t tried your beer.” The Loveland brewery, whose Rado’s Red Ale won a gold medal last year, said he will be returning to this year’s festival to meet new people and learn new techniques. Though Noonan wasn’t eager to divulge their GABF entries, he assured me that Rado’s Red Ale would be there to defend its title.

The Brewers Association– the mind’s behind GABF – estimates that nearly 60,000 people will attend the festival this year, due to a surge in craft brewing popularity. Craft brewers reached double-digit (11 percent) volume share of the marketplace for the first-time ever in 2014. That growing popularity has seen a surge of new breweries popping up all over the country, making this year’s competition harder than ever before. There were 3,464 breweries in America at the end of 2014, according to The Brewers Association, with more than 550 being opened last year.

This means competition for the likes of Noonan and other Colorado brewers. “It’s less likely that we’ll win now than we did in the earlier years,” Brad Lincoln, co-founder of Fort Collins brewery Funkwerks, said. The 5-year-old brewery that specializes in saisons earned the gold medal in the Belgian-Style Fruit Beer category for its Raspberry Provincial last year, but Lincoln feels competition in the more specialized categories that Funkwerks brews will be bigger than ever. “We used to have so few categories to enter, it felt like we were competing against ourselves.”

Win or lose, Lincoln said, GABF is all about networking – presenting new faces and techniques and filling their taproom with curious craft beer lovers for weeks after the festivals. “We’re just going to go, have a really good time, drink a lot of great beer, meet a lot of cool people and if we win a medal, great. If we don’t, whatever,” Lincoln said while sipping Funkwerks gold-winning Raspberry Provincial, which was submitted to GABF to defend its title this year. Funkwerks’ four other entries to the festival – Barrel Brett Trois, Deceit, Saison and Oud Bruin.

Another first year winner, Wiley Roots brewing will be returning to GABF seeking a second medal in its third year at GABF. The Greeley brewery earned a bronze medal for their Super 77 Wheat in 2013, just months after opening.  They went home empty-handed last year, but co-owner Miranda Carbaugh is hoping that time, experience and experimentation will be the key to winning their second GABF medal. “This year we are really excited to have people try the full range of what we can do,” she said. But more important, Carbaugh feels, is the feedback she gains at the fest and the beer, of course. “Every year we get really great feedback, from judges and other people there. And I just love trying all the different beer!”
In addition to Super 77, Wiley Roots submitted Midnight on the Run Barrel-aged Imperial Chocolate Porter, Blood Orange Carousel Gose, Apumpalyptica Imperial Pumpkin Ale, and Red Wiley Amber Ale. Carbaugh said she and husband Kyle are excited to have people try the full range of what they can do, and to receive feedback from the festival’s Professional Judge Panel, even if they don’t win.