GABF 2018: Craig’s Awards
This GABF was full of some firsts and last. First time there were hazy categories and medals. First time with food trucks and two new sponsored booths – Jameson caskmates and Buffalo Wild Wings. Last with Charlie Papazian as head of the Brewers Association. And the last with John Hinkenlooper as Colorado’s brewpub owning governor.
As with any fest, there’s the good and the bad. Again, the fest is heavily inundated with breweries from the West Coast, mainly Colorado and California, with very little East Coast participation. I spent three days navigating the fest and still thought it was a fun, exciting, interesting, educational and, yes, tiring time. Here’s what stood out.
There were some really out there ones that I missed pics of (the komono wearing couple and the Yuengling gladiators, both by Fiction Brewing’s booth oddly enough), but for the most part it wasn’t as crazy as in years past. Still fun to see people dress up though, especially in groups!
Bronze: Whatever was going on at Black Project
Black Project was not pouring at GABF this year, so I made it a point to stop there. Both times the place was moderately packed but, more importantly, the beers were flowing and rarely kicked. And they had a cooler full of bottles to go! Their sours, save for one I think the bartender punk’d me on, were never too acidic or tart. Everything was easy to drink and had the perfect amount of fruit or coffee or whatever was in the beer. Hell, even if they are pouring at GABF, stopping off at Black Project is always something you should do.
Silver: Finn’s Manor Drop the pH
I was worried that most things at this event would be tapped out by the time the GABF session ended, but I was pleasantly surprised that some beer was left over from every participating brewery. It was also my first time at Finn’s Manor and it was an eclectic mix of old world bar, with an outdoor dance club with a warehouse feel, complete with outdoor bar and food trucks. The lambic slushie they had was outstanding (I think that’s what it was called), and the people watching was top-notch. Will definitely be looking to stop by during any visit to Denver.
Gold: Hops and Pie California Breweries Event
I think I’ll rename this category the Hops and Pie Best Event of GABF, ‘cause it seems like they win it every year. This year it was California breweries, with Sante Adairius, Rare Barrel, Cellarmaker, Fieldwork, Moksa and Alvarado St. providing some kegs for the event. Ignoring the still-absolutely-delicious garlic cheesy bites, the tap list was insane. I wish I could have stayed here the whole day, but I had a GABF session to go to. The best part was that it never got so packed that you couldn’t move and there was never a line to get in. I was happy to get full pours of Sante Adairius’ Cellarman and Westly and head out. Outstanding.
Best New GABF Feature
Bronze: Food Trucks (and food in general)
I was expecting this to be a long-lined disaster. Instead, lines were either non-existent or small, and the food choices were varied for both their style (meatball subs, tacos, BBQ) and options (vegetarian was available in at least two food trucks). A well-implement and much needed new feature that I will take advantage of in future GABFs as most people should (1 ozs catch up with you quickly).
Silver: Buffalo Wild Wings booth
Places to sit. Free wings. TVs. While the line got insane at times, it moved fast and most people were happy with it. Free wings were doled out two at a time in either medium or honey BBQ sauce options and you could go back in line as many times as you want. The seating area was slammed during the Saturday session as there was college football on, but it seems like most people got their wings and kept walking. They were also pouring beer on one side of the booth, but I passed on that because, ya know, 800+ other breweries. A great new addition and one I hope stays around and maybe expands a bit, especially in terms of wing offerings (boneless and I’ll be there all day).
Gold: Red Rock Deli Potato Chip and Pretzel Booth
Among the hazy maze of the new alphabetical system, there was a consistent presence we could always locate – the Red Rock Deli potato chip booth. One side was giving out bags of Rold Gold pretzels (along with things to make pretzel necklaces, but fuck that) which would have been awesome enough, but the other side was giving out three different types of potato chips – Red Curry Coconut, Lime and Cracked Pepper, and Himalayan Pink Salt. These were perfect for snacking on the go or, as a certain other podcaster discovered, stuffing in your pocket and slowly eating them. The Himalayan Pink Salt were the more standard of the three and paired with pretty much everything. Lime and Cracked Pepper paired especially well with tequila and mezcal barrel-aged beers (basically the Speciation Artisan Ales booth) and the Red Curry Coconut went best with stouts, but was my least favorite due to the power flavors on the chip. In the absence of the Cypress Grove booth, this was a godsend.
Rust: More Brewing
This was bad while the beers (read:stouts) lasted. On the lightly packed and not sold out Thursday session, More Brewing had a line that went to the opposite sides’ section, then bent and went all the way to the end of that section (which was about half of the entire row). This was seven minutes in to the fest. It really didn’t cause much foot traffic issue because they ran out of stouts, but while they were there it was bad.
Aluminum: Russian River
Russian River should get the lifetime achievement award for long lines. Every year they show up to GABF and every year they have a line. They bring enough not to run out for most of the session so the line stays bad most of the time. Similar to More’s line, but longer and more consistent.
They had an endcap booth this year. They were right near where people were let in to the fest. They brought 10 beers. They had pizza pairings for the first 100 spaghetti gose orders. Cue the A-bomb. The crew at the booth was working hard non-stop, but they couldn’t make a dent in the ever growing line. At its peak it stretched from Weldwerks endcap, out to the opposite side, then down the aisle almost to that end’s endcap. Best part of that line though? Oozlefinch and Orpheus were right next to Weldwerks, making your line drinking very tasty and very, very necessary.
Rust: Timed Tappings
Still the domain of only a few breweries there and it still sucks. Bottle Logic had five beers listed in the GABF app, but only 2 were pouring at all times. Three of their barrel-aged offerings were timed tappings – a different one each day. Sam Adams did their usual with Utopias and of course caused a standstill in their area. Oskar Blues even got in on it with some of their Ten Fidy variants. Either go with the 3 Floyds model (“We’ll put some random thing on when something kicks”) or what Melvin did a few years ago (“It’ll tap when the brewers get here.”) So much congestion…
Aluminum: Alphabetical Breweries
Not only our complaint, but that of many festival goers. It routinely felt like I didn’t know the alphabet for most of the fest. There were two main points of consternation. The first was that we thought it was alphabetical by numbered island, when in fact it was by the entire row created by multiple islands (for example, one side of island 1 could be Ab-Al, but then Al would continue on island 2, not wrap around to the other side of island 1). Secondly, you could arrive to where you think the brewery would be, only to find out that the brewery was in the Meet the Brewer section, which had its own alphabetic system. Shit, even this explanation was confusing.
Pyrite: Fake GABF Beers
Never heard of this before until this year. I went to a booth to try a beer listed on the GABF app, only to find out it wasn’t there. I later found out that they had no intention of bringing that beer to the fest; it was only to get people to visit their booth. That is a real shitty thing to do and I will definitely not be stopping by their GABF booth again. I really hope this doesn’t become some trend.
Pure Project | Roes Red | Flander Red | 7%
A yeast blend with all the hot bacteria (5 in all) that survived a fire, this Flanders red aged in Pinot Noir barrels was tart with tons of dark fruit. There was some sweetness,a bit of funk, and some earthy character with a sour finish, but it remained extremely drinkable. Definitely the standout at their booth.
Firestone Walker | Parabanilla | Barrel-aged Imperial Stout with vanilla | 14%
This is what I’m always on the lookout for. A well-established brewery that takes one of it’s signature barrel-aged stouts and does something new with it. I was excited by Parabajava when it came out (good) and tried Scotch Parabola at FoBAB (not so good) so when I heard Parabanilla was on tap at the fest, I went right to the Firestone Walker booth. It delivered stunningly, quite possibly being my beer of the fest. The usual Parabola notes of chocolate and oak with some whiskey heat with the addition of a ton of marshmallow vanilla making this a delectable treat that was not cloyingly sweet but really showed that Firestone Walker can compete with the new stouts if they so desired.
Arrowood Farms | Junebug | Sahti | 5.9%
A rarely brewed beer style made with juniper and a sourdough yeast culture? Those adventurous enough to try it were rewarded handsomely. Light tartness, a full body, a dry finish, and a bit of sweetness, Junebug was one of the most unique beers at the fest. The most amazing thing about it was the balance – it wasn’t too much of anything. Except drinkable.
pFriem Family Brewers | Druif | Lambic-inspired ale with Reisling grapes | 7.3%
The lambic-inspired beer that’s the base of favorites Peche and Frambozen, but with Reisling grapes, is gonna get some words from me (and judges as well, it won gold). The refined lambic-style pFriem beer with, you guessed it, just the right amount of grapes to get noticed but not overtake the base beer. While definitely an American-take on the style (not a ton of funk and a fuller mouthfeel), it was delicate just like those in the Pajottenland and deserving of the gold.
Russian River | Intinction | Pilsner aged in Sauvignon Blanc barrel with Sauvignon Blanc juice | 7%
I’m usually skeptical of beers with wine juice in it as it is typically overdone, but we’re talking about Russian River here, so I gave it a chance and – surprise! – it was good. The pilsner base provided a light and crisp mouthfeel, the brettanomyces added some funk and grass while the Sauvignon Blanc brought some tannic qualities and fruitiness. The barrel added a bit of a fuller mouthfeel than typical of a pilsner. A well-balanced, refreshing and flavorful beer.
Orpheus | Everything Lasts Forever | Methode Traditionnelle III Gueuze-inspired ale | 6.5%
A pillowy soft 3-year gueuze-style blend with tons of funk, lemon, dryness, and a bit of tartness, Orpheus’ Everything Lasts Forever is everything a Methode Traditionnelle III beer should be. It reminded me of a less tart or sour version of Duck Duck Gooze (also at the fest and winner of a silver medal). Some I came back to again and again.
Best Booth (Beers)
These breweries brought their A game to the fest. Anything from their booths were quality and you couldn’t go wrong with anything you chose. (Beers from these breweries are excluded from Best Beers category.)
Honorable Mention: McClellan’s
I’ll always give a shout-out to cask ales. McClellan’s had two handpumps working at the fest and it was pure bliss to enjoy some cask ales after swilling through a ton of hazy IPAs. Their Kilt Tilter Scotch ale on cask was just what I needed during the Saturday afternoon session after I had lost both my energy and palate. Flavorful and refreshing, I’m always happy to see cask ales being poured at a festival and wish more breweries would do so.
Sometimes having a booth located near the bathrooms has its benefits. I passed this booth multiple times, but I only needed to glance once at the beers to stop and try some of their wares. They brought three beers – Assault N Fudgery (salted fudge porter), Who’s a Good Boy? (chocolate raspberry imperial stout) and Yada Yada Yada (brown ale with peanuts, chocolate and caramel) – and all three had very powerful aromas indicative of their respective adjuncts. The taste, however, was beautifully restrained on all three. You could taste the beer and the adjuncts and none of the beers were too sweet. Assault N Fudgery and Who’s a Good Boy? also reminded me of less intense versions of Forager’s Pudding Goggles and Haymarket’s Clare’s Thirsty Ale, which is never, ever a bad thing. Glad I had to go to the bathroom so much!
A name alone does not make a quality beer. We first saw Oozlefinch on tap at Hops and Pie and remembered it (seriously, who could forget it?) as we strolled by the Weldwerks booth (location again!) Their hefeweizen (Lady in White) and hazy IPA (Old Fogey) were well and good, but their mixed fermentation sours are where things really got interesting. From a dark sour made with a three beer blend in wine barrels (Shady Character) to a saison and red kolsch blend aged in Cabernet Franc with tamarind and peaches (Self Contemplation), their sours were always flavorful and never too acidic. The standout for me was Deep Meditation, their imperial saison aged in Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay with cherries and brettanomyces – beautifully tart, dry and refreshing.
Gold: The Referend Bier Blendery
Upon reaching the booth, I saw something very unusual – no plastic pitchers. Instead, there were two ceramic pouring vessels and two lambic baskets and, upon seeing the whole table, one plastic pitcher (so close). In the vessels and baskets sat four different versions of their Berliner Messe (pronounced mess-uh) series of spontaneously fermented Berliner Weisse/lambic hybrid beers. I won’t even try to describe their processes; check out their website for detailed info on these beers. I will say they had a pillowy soft mouthfeel with just the right amount of tartness and barrel character. I could’ve stayed at their booth all day and drank everything. This was the closest thing I’ve had to Drie Fonteinen or Cantillon from an American brewery. Wish I lived closer to Pennington, New Jersey!
Reserved for those breweries who have consistently brought it to GABF at least three years. They are excluded from Best Beer and Best Booth categories.
One of two new inductees, Weldwerks brought it big time. They moved up to an end cap booth, which allowed them to have one side for festival attendees and one side for badge holders (breweries, media, guests, etc.). While that helped us out, the main line was a juggernaut for most of the night. But, thanks to the end cap, they were able to pour ten different beers, including four Medianoches, three different Juicy Bits, two fruited milkshake IPAs, and the, um, spaghetti gose. While I would have like a bigger variety in celebration of their 100 different beers released this year, I’m not the one to complain with four different Medianoche variants on tap. The 100th different beer, QDH (Quadruple Dry Hopped) Juicy Bits was on tap and tasting great, but the peanut butter Medianoche and, yes, spaghetti gose stole the show. The spaghetti gose with pizza pairing was one of the best pairings I’ve ever had. Definitely justified the line that it got.
Me: “Hey Jonathan! We came here first because we thought stuff was going to kick fast. I’ll have the BA Bout It.”
Wakefield pours said beer.
Me: “This is great. Sweet, with some nice barrel character. What’s the ABV?”
Me: “Damnit Wakefield!”
This is how my fest started. It, alcoholically speaking, only went downhill from there. But the Wakefield booth was a standout one again. In addition to BA Bout It, there was the return of podcast-favorite Haterade, the GABF debut of the Ecto Cooler-looking Troll So Hard (Berliner with lemon and key lime), and Frida and I’m Your Huckleberry (two fruited sour ales). Depending on your tastes, he had sweet, fruity, and sour beers for most palates. Say what you will of the man, but the beers he makes are some of the best in this current area of pastry sweetness and fruit-forward beers.
Melvin scaled back their events ever so slightly, and their booth seemed a bit less rocking this year. In addition to their annual IPA throwdown at Falling Rock and their now-annual wrestling event at Bierstadt Lagerhaus, they brought the Wu-Tang Clan (who else?) to Denver for a show on Wednesday night. They had special tappings each day (including a hazy beer) and the bus and DJ were there, it just felt a bit more muted than previous years – especially last’s years raucous party at their booth. Still quality beers, though.