For industry professionals, of course, there are multiple simultaneous reasons, but for lay beer lovers, the obvious answer is to drink beer. If we interrogate this a little more, there are several types of drinking opportunities for the craft beer obsessive: trying new brewers, sampling several offerings from a a particular brewer, enjoying brews not available in your region, checking off items of your hyped-beer bucket list.
So it was with this year’s Great American Beer Festival. As I tromped among the 800-plus breweries pouring at the Colorado Convention Center, I found myself interrogating what, exactly, drew my attention in an embarrassment of riches. I did plenty of ticking. It was a thrill to try Derivation, Todd the Axe Man and Hunahpu, but I won’t bore you with the my thoughts on beers for which much ink has already been spilled. Rather, I would like to explore the dueling methodologies of tasting beers at festivals, through 12 outstanding beers:
Fort Fletcher from Gella’s Diner and Liquid Bread Brewing (Hays, KS) – Having thousands of beers on offer gives you the chance to reacquaint yourself with what attracted you to craft in the first place. In an era of hazy pale ales, for example, one could easily forget the joy of a balanced, old-school American IPA. Plenty of brewers, judges and drinkers at GABF griped that there was little bitterness and no clarity to be found. Fort Fletcher was the antidote. LB Brewing has won festival awards for its wheat beers and hefeweiszns, but this pale ale was the standout for me. Reminiscent of Bells’ Two Hearted Ale and Founders’ Centennial, it shone golden clear, but there was a little extra-hopping kick of fir and fruit.
Strawberry Rhubarb Gose from Zion Canyon Brewing Company (Dammeron Valley, UT) – There are some brewers you could never try were they not pouring at a festival. Unless you are about to enter Zion Canyon National Park, for example, you’d have no opportunity to sip something from this Utah brewer. What a treat it is, then, to sample their stuff at GABF. They pack a hell of a lot of flavor into the state law mandated 4% ABV. The gose is a perfect recipe for this combo of low booze and evocative flavor: sweet-tart fruit, earthy rhubarb and salt to round it out. Balanced and delectable.
Snowed in Mocha from Copper Kettle Brewing (Denver, CO) – A gathering as well-planned as GABF has plenty of curated experiences, one of which was PAIRED, a tasting room featuring multiple brewers and chefs. I first sipped Snowed In Mocha paired with by a small slice of chocolate layer cake. The cake was lovely, but this huge oatmeal stout was revelatory. There was no shortage of barrel-aged brews pouring, yet this one seemed to ignite every synapse. Perhaps it was the chewy dark roast, a sharp bitterness straining against the cordial creme of the barrel, but Snowed In whipped my head around.
Mexican Brunch from Kane Brewing (Ocean, NJ) – Sometimes you have to fly halfway across the country to try something from your own backyard. Kane’s A Night to End All Dawns took home a medal this year, but this confident-bordering-on-aggressive Mayan Stout stole my heart. Considering that I live 90 minutes from Kane, it’s a tad embarrassing that I had to fly to Denver for this beer. Whatever the route, it was worth it. Rich as cinnamon toast drizzled in Godiva, with just the right peppery kick, this is up there with original Mayan trinity of Mexican Cake, Abraxas and Huna.
Project Dank from La Cumbre Brewing Co. (Albuquerque, NM) – It wouldn’t be a 2018 beer list if it didn’t include a massively hoppy IPA. La Cumbre is known for their intensely hopped ales. Project Dank is it’s ever-shifting IPA, each iteration featuring “different hops and hopping techniques.” Since this version is the only I’ve had, I’ll only report that it was bursting with fruit and totally satiating. It’s important, I think, to sometimes luxuriate in your favorite styles at a festival. Expanding your horizons can lead to sensory overload, so you need to break up the variety with some comfort beer.
Bourbon Barrel Aged Dark Star Coffee Edition from Fremont Brewing (Seattle, WA) – Fremont Brewing’s beers are reasonably widely available in the western US. Sadly, though, they do not distribute to New York, and I was not about to miss their booth. See, my oldest friend recently moved to Seattle and has been subsisting off Fremont ever since. She provided me with a list of must-haves, and Coffee Dark Star was the first one I tried. As I mentioned earlier, lot of stouts get aged in bourbon barrels. But when you quaff something as opulent as this, it sweeps almost every other BA stout away. The lesson here: trust your people when they tell you what to drink.
Dunkel Lager from Von Trapp Brewing (Stowe, VT) – Sometimes you’re sprinting around booth-to-booth, and you realize that your last five beers have been either hoppy, sour or barrel aged. You’re craving something flavorful but refreshing. In such a situation, nothing beats the Von Trappe dunkel. These lager-producers from the land of IPA poured a nutmeg spicy, pound cake sweet thirst quencher. It’s a welcome oasis in a land of heavy, unrelenting ales.
Transatlantique Kriek from New Belgium Brewing (Fort Collins, CO) and Oud Beersel (Beersel, Belgium) – Just because a brewer distributes to your region doesn’t mean you should skip them at the festival. How many bombers have you passed over at your bottle shop because 22 ounces seems like a lot, the price tag is high, and you can’t quite picture when you’d crack the top. Well, a 1-2 ounce pour is the perfect opportunity to sample just such a tempting brew. So it is with Transatlantique Kriek, the first of New Belgium’s Lips of Faith series and winner of the 2018 GABF Collaboration Competition. Somewhere between straw and gold, light on the tongue and bursting with puckery green apple and sour cherry.
Yorkshire Ale and Citrannati from Wooden Cask Brewing Company (Newport, KY) – Sampling unfamiliar brewers at festival often leads me to drop pins on the map, for taprooms I intend to stop by the next time I pass near them. The next time I pass through Cincinnati en route to my hometown of Louisville, KY, I will definitely drop by Wooden Cask. Perhaps it’s cheating to pick two of their beers, but I’m unwilling to sacrifice either. Yorkshire is just a smashing pub ale, grain-bready and more than a little funky. Staid, yet compulsively drinkable. Citrannati is a marriage of old world and new: a hefty English IPA with a dusting of super-dank dry hops to give it a contemporary pop.
The BIG Lubelski from Divine Barrel Brewing (Charlotte, NC) – GABF awarded over 300 style-specific beer medals this year, so I made a point to seek out a winner in a style I was unfamiliar with. The BIG Lubelski won silver for Historic Beer. This reincarnation of an obscure Polish style has the grainy, herbal notes of hopped up Czech lager, but the smoked malt is so pronounced you feel like it’s puffing out of your mouth.
Territorial Reserve Barrel Aged Wild Wheat Wine Honey Ale from COOP Ale Works (Oklahoma City, OK) – Finally, a gathering like GABF is a chance to challenge your beer prejudices. I will admit that the combination tartness and bourbon does not always sit well with me. In fact, I almost always prefer my wild ales to be light and crisp. So, I would normally avoid a wheatwine tartened in wine barrels then enspirited with whiskey. But again, a couple ounces is not a heavy investment, so why not? Territorial Reserve rewarded my slightly opened mind. It was a downright gnarly melange of honey and sourdough, caramel and pear, fire and wine – the kind of out-there ale that makes a festival.