Festival-less GABF Moves Forward with Medal Competition and Updated Style Categories

Registration opens in June for this year’s GABF competition. Changes to the style guidelines this year include new homes for lower-strength Belgian-style ales and Kentucky Common, while pale ales and IPAs got tweaks to reflect the growing aroma spectrum.

Joe Stange Apr 21, 2021 - 6 min read

Festival-less GABF Moves Forward with Medal Competition and Updated Style Categories Primary Image

Photos: Courtesy Brewers Association

Registration opens June 8 for the 2021 Great American Beer Festival awards competition, with all beers except fresh-hopped beers due to the GABF warehouse by July 30. The Brewers Association recently announced that there will be no in-person beer fest until next year, but the competition will continue as it did in 2020.

As usual, the fresh-hopped beers have a later entry window. This year that window is from October 4 to 8, with a special judging session to take place October 12. The organizers plan to announce the winners of that category on October 15, more than a month after the main GABF awards ceremony.

The BA also has released its annual update of its beer-style categories. Beyond being a reference for any brewer who wants to hit suggested parameters for a particular type of beer, the guidelines are important for competitions, and especially for GABF. Choosing the right category for the right beer can greatly increase your chances of success in the competition.

The BA temporarily streamlined its guidelines for the 2020 GABF, anticipating fewer competition entries while the festival went virtual in the midst of the pandemic. In the end, however, there wasn’t a huge drop-off—breweries still entered 8,806 beers last year, compared to 9,497 the year before. It’s reasonable to expect a rebound in 2021.


Evolving Styles

The style categories tend to evolve with the times, following the trends and sorts of beers that American brewers are making. Often there are hundreds of minor tweaks to the guidelines, as well as a handful of more visible changes in new or consolidated categories.

New categories this year include:

  • Belgian-Style Session Ale, such as singel or grisette
  • New Zealand–Style Pale Ale
  • New Zealand–Style India Pale Ale
  • Kentucky Common, once a nearly forgotten style that has enjoyed a modest comeback in recent years

Chris Swersey, the BA’s competition manager, says that the new Belgian session category creates a home for both lower-strength abbey-style beers (i.e., singels) and grisettes. “There are dozens of both being brewed by U.S. craft brewers, so this space needed a home,” he says. Because Grisette is a protected brand name in Belgium—it’s a beer brewed by Brasserie St. Feuillien—the association opted not to include it in the category name.

Swersey says the Belgian styles received the most revisions of any group. “While Belgian beers are notoriously difficult to bucket, we recognized that Belgian-style beers between 2 and 5 percent ABV didn’t have a defined home.” That’s the reason for the new Session Ale category: “This isn’t a style per se, but rather a genre of lower-ABV beers that can encompass a wide range of hue, aroma, and flavor experiences.”

Several other Belgian styles received revisions, including broadening the Witbier and Tripel categories “to reflect increasingly diverse spicing and citrus choices used by today’s innovative Belgian brewers,” Swersey says.


The new New Zealand–style categories provide a home for pale ales and IPAs driven by the sort of hops that are grown there—although the style description is careful to avoid mentioning the origin of the hops, instead saying that the beer should exhibit “attributes such as tropical fruit, passion fruit, and/or stone fruit, cut grass, and diesel.” Likewise, the Australian-Style Pale Ale category now says the beer should have “attributes typical of modern hop varieties such as tropical fruit, mango, passion fruit, and/or stone fruit,” without reference to the actual origin of the hops. (Previously, that category asked that beers show “attributes typical of modern Australian hop varieties.”)


Swersey says that several categories were revised this year to remove reference to the origin of the hops. “Two primary drivers for this [are the] enormous innovation in hop breeding around the world and brewer creativity with a hugely expanded pallet of hop varieties,” says Swersey, who also has served as the BA’s supply-chain specialist. “As recently as five to 10 years ago, the aroma and flavor experience provided by hops from individual countries carved out much narrower lanes and largely defined the flavor experience offered by beers from those countries. Whereas, today, hops from the U.S., Germany, U.K., Australia, and New Zealand all offer much wider flavor and aroma experiences, which can and do often overlap.

“As an example, the meaning of American-style pale ale has really broadened in recent years; the floral, citrus, and currant-like attributes typical of the U.S. Cascade variety still represent the stylistic epicenter, but tropical, stone fruit, pine, and herbal are all welcome and accepted now. The same goes for ales from the U.K. and Down Under.”

Meanwhile, the BA Style Guideline Committee decided that Kentucky Common was a historical style whose time had arrived. Its growth in popularity among brewers has been a gradual thing. “We’ve noticed a slow increase in Kentucky Common entries at the Great American Beer Festival and increased knowledge and media coverage of this uniquely American style in recent years,” Swersey says.

A notable omission from the guidelines? Hard seltzer, a style whose examples from craft breweries these days far outnumber Kentucky Common. Swersey acknowledges their popularity but explains that “many or most of these brands are not defined as beer, so we don’t include them in this beer-style guidelines document.”

Joe Stange is Managing Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® and the Brewing Industry Guide®. Have story tips or suggestions? Contact him at [email protected].