When the 28th Great American Beer Festival came to its noisy close last month in Denver, the granddaddy of American beer events had chalked up another set of records. By the time the downtown Denver Convention Center emptied for the fourth time in three days of packed sessions, more than 49,000 guests had roamed the aisles, sampling from nearly 2,100 beers on offer from 457 American breweries—about a third of the nation's total.
As boggling as these numbers are—not to mention the military-like logistics required to manage them—when the festival is over, these are irrelevant. But what makes the festival a must-attend event for breweries are the rigorous evaluations that go on unseen, where more than 100 qualified judges assess beers and award the coveted GABF medals.
Cooped up in the windowless lower floors of the downtown Marriott, panels of beer professionals rated more than 3,300 beers in more than 70 categories this year. Festival organizers announced the winners to a packed session, with medals presented to team after team of elated brewers who now have bragging rights for the next year. Attendees then spent the remainder of the afternoon, award lists in hand, drinking the winning beers dry and pumping the brewers' hands.
I've been through this ritual many times and tasted fine beer in the post-ceremony scrum, but I have to confess I don't enjoy the experience much. The GABF is an event, like Munich's Oktoberfest, that every beer lover should experience, but once is probably enough. The convention center is packed, the crowds let out an irritating ritual roar every time a cup—a plastic cup, mind you, now that glass is banned—hits the floor, and the general din sounds like someone putting nails through a blender.
Happily for readers in the Triangle, some of the pleasure of the Saturday ceremony can be captured here at home. Even though only a portion of the award-winning beers are available here in North Carolina, our shelves are far better stocked than they were several years ago—and your samples at home needn't be limited to the one-ounce pour mandated at the GABF. Here, for armchair festival-goers, is a short virtual stroll around the festival floor, an introduction to some of the beers that were judged the nation's best in their particular categories.
As makes sense in any tasting, take the lighter styles first. Bell's Brewing—formerly Kalamazoo—out of Michigan is one of the old-guard breweries that holds its own in the face of challenges from a younger generation of brewers. Their Two Hearted Ale is a great favorite with Triangle drinkers (including this one), but it was Bell's Lager that took the bronze medal in the Bohemian Pilsner class.
Haywire Hefeweizen from Pyramid (Washington) won the gold in the American Wheat Beer category, a light style that retains the spritzy quality of a traditional German wheat beer, but without the banana and clove flavors that come with the European original.
For a beer that stays true to its German heritage, grab the gold-winning Dogtoberfest from Flying Dog. The formerly Denver-based brewery is now located in Maryland, but the brand has retained its gonzo-inspired labels by Hunter S. Thompson illustrator Ralph Steadman.
"Session Beer" is a new, rather head-scratching category. It's not a style, but a function: A session beer is the beer you choose when you plan to have several and want lots of flavor and not a lot of alcohol. The bronze medal in that class went to Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales (Michigan) for Bam Bière, the least quirky offering from a small, family-run company that produces a line of tart, challenging beers.
Barley is the dominant grain in beer, but a little rye can add a distinctive astringency. Great Divide (Colorado) took a classic German märzen—a malty, rounded lager—and dried it out with an addition of rye, which, ironically, would render the beer unacceptable under German restrictions that limit beer's grain to barley, in the main. The bronze medal in the Rye Beer category went to Hoss, which I sincerely hope is a tribute to the late, great Dan Blocker. Didn't they grow rye on the Ponderosa?
On to more vigorous styles: First, step up to music-inspired Ska (Colorado) with silver-winning Buster Nut Brown, a chocolaty, drinkable British style with American hopping levels. In the Strong Pale Ale category, we're lucky to have the beers from father-and-son Bear Republic Brewery (California) available, especially Racer 5 IPA, the gold medal winner. And, with one of several prizes, Avery Brewing (Colorado) won a gold for the elegant "liquid bread" doppelbock called The Kaiser.
Stick with Avery for a striking entry in the Experimental category: Brabant is a dark ale fermented with Belgian yeast, then aged in oak casks that formerly held zinfandel, for a slightly sour but extremely well-balanced beer.
Ever-innovative Dogfish Head Craft Brewery (Delaware) earned recognition for three of its most challenging beers: Chateau Jiahu and Midas Touch, beers based on archaeological evidence from China and Sumeria, respectively; and Palo Santo, a strong brown beer aged in casks made from an exotic Paraguayan hardwood.
The final stop in this quick survey will have to wait until the winning beers, both seasonal creations, come up on their brewers' schedules again. But both are outstanding beers from North Carolina breweries. Paul Philipon of The Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in Farmville returned to the winner's stage this year to collect medals for both the regular and barrel-aged versions of his intense Baltic Porter. And Jamie Bartholomaus, also a past winner, took a bronze medal back to Foothills Brewing Co. in Winston-Salem for the limited-release Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout, brewed with cocoa nibs.
There are more winners available on the shelves of better beer retailers. For the complete list of the festival awards, check www.beertown.org and treat yourself to the best of this year's brews.
Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, based in Durham. Beer Hopping appears the first Wednesday of each month. Reach Johnson at email@example.com.