GABF 2018: Ryan’s Favorite Beers
The 37th edition of the Great American Beer Festival is notable for many reasons. Founder Charlie Papazian gave out his final fist bumps on the awards stage for his last GABF. Colorado Governor (and prospective 2020 presidential candidate) John Hickenlooper was awarded with some sort of beer glass statue that will look really nice in his den. The festival hall was expanded to near capacity, adding 100,000 square feet to make room for over 800 brewers and many, many beer-adjacent vendor booths. But GABF 2018 will mostly be remembered for being the year hazy went legitimate.
Three categories were added to the competition, all including the intentionally inexact signifier “juicy or hazy” because we still haven’t figured out what the baseline is for the wildly popular style. Though it’s probably a good reason it’s not a “New England-style” category with the inaugural winners hailing from Illinois (3), California (3), Colorado (1), Nebraska (1), and Louisiana (1). But it further proves that the style has graduated from its nebulous Northeast creation to being a style that anyone can make – which has also served as a criticism against it. Traditionalists love beers that are inextricably tied to where they are produced: a proper Lambic comes from the Zenne valley, and the definitive Märzen comes from Bavaria, and so on.
Or maybe the backlash comes from drinkers who want to see a variety of styles on the beer lines, and not 75% “juicy or hazy” IPAs on tap because they sell well. Certainly, hazy was everywhere on the GABF floor, and many brewers had more than one flowing. But it also wasn’t hard to find inspired takes on classic styles or innovative and experimental beers that were laborious in creation and almost so esoteric as if to dare drinkers not to even try it. This is part of the beauty of GABF. If you ignore the cynicism shouting at you from the back of your brain, you can open your mind to how wonderful it is to drink in a room full of passionate creators and enthusiasts, and you can discover the next wave of brewers that will innovate craft for decades to come. Even if the fest underrepresents parts of the country (which it does), GABF is a valid sample of where the beer industry is at, no matter how murky that can get.
So what follows is a list of my favorite beers I tasted at the festival. Truthfully, I was a bit surprised by the amount of crowd-pleasing adjunct stouts and barrel-aged sours that took over my list. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised – many of those beers taste better in small pours, as you never get a chance to grow tired of any of those big flavors. In most cases, the beers listed below were sampled multiple times, though I will argue that you can get a pretty good feel for a beer in a 1.5 ounce pour, especially when you’ve trained yourself to do so.
But my experience with beers I’ve loved at GABF translating over to loving the packaged version is pretty hit-and-miss. So, take these recommendations with a dash of Himalayan sea salt and grapefruit peel. Also, there are not really any hazy beers on this list at all – we’re saving that for a special report to come later. (And frankly, I enjoyed many hazy beers at the Fest but I didn’t love them like I loved these beers. Go figure.)
The list is also a bit Chicago and Illinois deficient. It’s not that we don’t have love for those beers – we have hundreds of hours of audio to prove otherwise – but the reason is as practical as you expect. Like good beer travellers, above all else we wanted the beers and breweries that are new or otherwise unavailable to us. So this list also omits many beers we’ve had and loved before from our local favorite breweries or have otherwise featured on the podcast.
Instead of reading all the tiresome words that follow, if you’d rather, you can hear us recap the fest and interview some great brewers, check out our GABF 2018 podcast episode here!
20 Honorable Mentions
2SP Brewing Company | Aston, MA | Bourbon The Russian | Russian Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels
Last year, 2SP’s base for this beer, The Russian, took a gold medal in the Imperial Stout category. This takes the classic full-bodied dark roasted base and adds a heavy helping of bourbon onto it. Decadent and almost challengingly hot, this reminds me of Bell’s Black Note from a few years back.
Arrowood Farms | Accord, NY | Farmhouse Table Beer | Mixed culture saison aged in Chardonnay barrels
It’s amazing to me that this farm-based brewery is flying under the radar. They grow many of their own ingredients and brought some delightfully unique and funky beers that were dripping with a feeling of terroir. This farmhouse table beer features Cascade hops grown on their farm, and it’s a beautiful expression of sweet white grapes, floral hops, and a lightly phenolic, drying saison yeast. I absolutely want to drink more of what they’re growing out there.
Bagby Beer Company | Oceanside, CA | Schwartz Story | Schwarzbier
Sometimes you need a flavor oasis in a sea of aggressive palate smashers, and this Schwarzbier did it for me. Mostly on my radar due to their appearance at the upcoming Half Acre Far and Away event, I was grateful to find their booth stocked with perfect lagers. This beer is clean and refreshing, but still carries through roasty and even some smoky flavors.
Columbus Brewing Company | Columbus, OH | Bodhi | Double IPA
Another brewery to seek out at Far and Away, this Double IPA has been a fan favorite for a long time, and it’s clear why. It’s a perfect West Coast-style classic with big Citra hop tropical fruit and herbaceousness. The alcohol is so well-hidden you’d swear it was just a full-flavored IPA. (Columbus also took home a bronze medal for their Melk Stout this year.)
Cruz Blanca Brewery | Chicago, IL | Agent Piña | Chardonnay barrel-aged saison, aged on fresh pineapple for 14 months
So, I’m allowed a few homer picks, right? This beer is ridiculous. It’s not the second coming of Pineapple Brettanomite – one of the finest beers head brewer Jacob Sembrano ever made while at Goose Island Clybourn. It’s something entirely different: big sweet white wine character hits first before fresh pineapple juice emerges to take control. The finish is a kiss sweet but mostly dry. Look for this when it’s released in bottles as Paz y Piña – and get the other three bottles of wild ales while you’re at it.
Hi-Wire Brewing | Asheville, NC | Blueberry Sour | Sour ale aged in oak barrels with blueberries
One of those breweries that does every style well, Hi-Wire’s national profile should continue to grow this year. This sour is pure blueberry flavor without the artificial or candy-like sweetness so many other blueberry sours express. The sour level is significant but not abrasive, and the finish is desert dry.
Live Oak Brewing Comapny | Austin, TX | Grodziskie | Grodziskie
This is no surprise, because Live Oak makes some of the best traditional-style ales and lagers in the States. This beer is bursting with big smoky aromatics that mellow significantly in the flavor. But it finishes crisp with light caramel malt sweetness and just a few remaining burning embers.
The Lost Abbey | San Marcos, CA | Cuvee de Tomme | Barrel-aged wild ale with sour cherries
So yes, Duck Duck Gooze was pouring right next to this, and it was as incredible as it always has been. But how have I overlooked this long-produced Rodenbach-turned-to-11 sour while it’s been in bottles? Well, no more, I’m buying this the next time I see it. The big sour cherry flavors tamp down some initial Acetic notes, and the barrel tannins ride through to the end. But it’s amazingly complex, with burnt sugar, vanilla, prunes, and a light chocolate character mixing with those prominent barrel and cherry notes.
McClellan’s Brewing Company | Fort Collins, CO | Wulver IPA (on cask) | International IPA
Craig giddily shouted “casks!” and pointed to the hand pumps at McClellan’s booth. It’s a rare site to see on the festival floor, but it’s a Godsend. The creamy mouthfeel of this IPA emphasizes the fruitiness of the hops over the bitterness, and the light malt sweetness is there throughout.
The Oozlefinch Craft Brewery | Fort Monroe, VA | Departed Days | Chardonnay barrel-aged saison
I just realized this is my third Chardonnay-aged saison on this list, and apparently this is a thing now? Hey, I’m ready to do a whole podcast on it, if anyone wants to send us some (wink). Anyhow, Oozlefinch was a revelation – everything at this booth impressed. I had to pick one to highlight, and this one is both complex and delicate. Chardonnay grapes and something like grains of paradise offer the most flavor, while the tannic barrel character thins and dries out the mouthfeel to a nice easy finish.
Orpheus Brewing | Atlanta, GA | Ye Who Enter Here | Imperial stout with vanilla beans, guajillo chiles, and coffee beans aged in bourbon barrels for 26 months
25 months wouldn’t have been enough. No – the folks at Orpheus needed 26 months in barrels to get this juuuuust right. (You can really taste the months!) But seriously, this beer reads like a dare but tastes like a dream. After the big charred oak and caramel notes from the barrel subside, this is mostly chocolate and coffee, with a little vanilla-esque coffee creamer and a mild pepper heat near the end.
Our Mutual Friend | Denver, CO | Oy | Mixed culture fermented graf ale
Each year, I find a way to check the box next to “beer style I’ve never tried before” at GABF, and this beer/cider hybrid (and collaboration with fellow Denver outfit Stem Ciders) was an unexpected treat. OMF does amazing saisons, so I trusted them fully with this pour – and it paid off. Starting like a funky and farmy brett beer, this finishes with a light and dry apple crispness. I could consume a whole sixtel of this.
River Dog Brewing Co | Ridgeland, SC | 3 Barrel Circus | Red wine barrel-aged mixed culture brett ale 🥇
From a blend of three wine barrels, this brett beer gives the impression that it’ll be big and boozy with a ton of oak and slightly solventy aromatics, but it drinks easy and dry. Tart dry raspberry and currants are prominent before a big tannic dryness takes over. It’s amazing to me that it’s only 5.2%, but it’s even more amazing that it got a gold over The Lost Abbey’s Duck Duck Gooze (which earned a silver) in the Wood and Barrel-aged Sour category.
Societe Brewing Company | San Diego, CA | The Coachman | Session IPA 🥇
Remember a few years ago when winning a gold in the Session IPA category would’ve been the talk of the fest? Well, this beer still deserves that talk, because it has more flavor than most of those juicebombs dominating the floor. Honeydew melon, overripe cantaloupe, and passion fruit are prominent in the aroma and get to a sessionable level in the flavor along with a quick kick of bitterness on an effervescent and snappy mouthfeel. If this were canned and available near me, it would be an absolute regular in my rotation.
Speciation Artisan Ales | Comstock, MI | Saltation | Tequila barrel-aged sour with blood orange, guava, limes, and salt
Mitch Ermatinger was pouring two sours aged in tequila barrles and one in mezcal, and in less-skilled hands, these beers would’ve made all other subsequent flavor enjoyment impossible for the night. But like the others, this beer uses the lightly smoky agave notes as the base for an exotic margarita cocktail experience. The lime and guava stand out the most to me, but there’s an undeniable dry and salty finish as well.
Spice Trade Brewing Company | Arvado, CO | #PSL | Pumpkin beer with pumpkin, spices, lactose, and coffee beans
Ok, so, it’s a little unfair for this beer to be on the list with some actually stunning beers. This one is just stupid fun. This booth had a line that tilted towards the brownish pitcher pouring this beer, so the gimmick worked. And in the flavor, they’ve mostly pulled it off. Like most pumpkin beers, you taste the nutmeg and allspice above all, but it’s tamped down by a little roasted coffee with cream in the end.
Sunriver Brewing Company | Sunriver, OR | Fuzztail |Hefeweizen 🥈
This beer should be a shining example of why Untappd ratings are terrible garbage at times. This 3.58 bottlecap averaging Hefeweizen won a silver medal this year, and a gold medal last year. It might be better than my once-reigning favorite HefeWeizen from Live Oak (which averages a 3.83 for God’s sake). A little more lemony and citrusy than other Hefes, this still has that medium-chewy body with a hit of banana bread and clove.
Upland Brewing Co | Bloomington, IN | Two Of Tarts | Gose with passion fruit and mango 🥇
A big and fruity gose that won’t explode on your porch, this one has incredible passion fruit, hints of mango, and a big sweetness before it goes salty and dry. It’s a flavor slip-and-slide and is perfectly refreshing for warmer temperatures.
Wild Barrel Brewing | San Marcos, CA | Hipsters Demise | Imperial stout with maple syrup, coffee, and vanilla bean
Wild Barrel has a whole series of adjunct-laden stouts in their Hipster series, and I appreciate that they acknowledge what they’re doing. This one is a liquid death trap for beer dorks, as it has coffee, vanilla beans, and maple syrup that all play together very nicely.
Wit’s End Brewing Co | Denver, CO | Jean-Claude Van Blond | Belgian blonde 🥇
A little sweeter than most Belgian blondes, this gold medal winner is absolutely packed with banana, clove, and bubblegum while finishing crisp and clean. It’s a note-perfect Belgian blonde.
My Ten Favorites
Barrage Brewing Co | Farmingdale, NY | Yada Yada Yada | Brown ale with chocolate, peanut, and caramel
This one starts with an unbelievable peanut butter and chocolate aroma, but the flavor is a much more restrained brown with those notes plus a kiss of caramel. If you wait a little between sips, the aftertaste is exactly like chocolate-covered peanut butter-filled pretzels.
DESTIHL Brewery | Normal, IL | Wild Sour Series: Piña Colada Gose | Gose
I am no fan of piña coladas, and my relationship with coconut in beers is complicated. This absolutely nails it. Not that it’s an exact copy of a piña colada – it’s actually just a perfectly refreshing gose with supporting pineapple and coconut flavors that do not linger in the finish. This is stellar, and the best addition to this series in a while.
Firestone Walker Brewing Co. | Paso Robles, CA | Parabanilla | Imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with vanilla beans
Aromatically, this is all cakes and cookies. But in the flavor, it’s dominant with marshmallow – almost like those little shaped ones you find in cereal. Beyond the marshmallow is a bigger semisweet chocolate presence and a little lingering oakiness. This is how you do an adjunct stout, especially when you have the money to throw at expensive vanilla beans and the best collection of bourbon barrels on the West Coast.
Modern Times Beer | San Diego, CA| Fellowship of Xul | Barrel-aged dessert stout with cocoa nibs, coconut, almonds, vanilla, & peanut butter
One of my biggest festival regrets was not spending more time at the double-wide Modern Times booth. This beer is a stunning pastry/dessert stout that is about 100 pounds of flavor in a half pound can. The peanut butter dominates the aroma, but there’s a darker chocolate flavor that comes on and is deepened by hints of almond milk and creamy Jif.
More Brewing | Villa Park, IL | Barrel-aged Henna (Swirl) | Bourbon barrel-aged chocolate and vanilla imperial stout
If you got a pour of More’s wildly hyped barrel-aged adjunct stouts, you must’ve been at their booth within the first 30 minutes of the fest. This booth was undoubtedly a hit with festgoers, and the proof is in the pudding-flavored beer. This one is like a perfect chocolate mousse. There’s a distinct vanilla presence and milk chocolate with just enough barrel to keep it from going overboard.
New Glarus Brewing Co | New Glarus, WI | R& D Champ Rouge | Lambic-style with red wine grapes
Released last year, apparently I missed out entirely on this addition to their R&D lineup, and I feel like a failure. This could be considered amongst the best of the sours in this limited release series. It’s scary to think that New Glarus could get any better at fruit and sour beers, but here we are. This one is complex with some earthy sour funk, big sweet red grapes, and a big oaky and dry finish. I had this more than any other beer at the fest, and it’s crazy that it was pouring the whole time.
pFriem Family Brewers | Hood River, OR | Druif | Lambic-inspired ale with Riesling grapes 🥇
Winners of the Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year, pFriem has been our pick for this country’s best brewery since last GABF. We seriously haven’t shut up about this brewery in 12 solid months, and that’s not going to change. This one won a gold in the “Mixed-Culture Brett Beer” category, and that entry choice is a very interesting one. It’s clearly a lambic-style beer that crosses the flavor line into white wine territory. But like every other pFriem lambic-style, the mouthfeel is full and effervescent, and any long-lingering sourness is dried up in the excellent finish.
The Referend Bier Blendery | Pennington, NJ | Berliner Messe – Gloria | Berliner Weisse/Lambic-style hybrid aged in oak and dry hopped in the cask
James and Melissa Priest not only brought their world-class spontaneous ales to the fest, but they brought their lambic baskets and pitchers as well. It’s a silly thing to focus on, but once you talk to the Priests, you understand their reverence for sour beer as well as biology, art, classical works, literature, etc. We fell in love with their whole lineup of beers, so choosing one is a bit arbitrary. This one is a mix of earthy and oaky vinous notes and a mix of pineapple and lemongrass.
Weldwerks Brewing Co. | Greeley, CO | Single Barrel Peanut Butter Cup Medianoche | Imperial Stout aged in a 10-year Breckenridge Distillery bourbon barrel for 19 months, then aged on Reese’s peanut butter cups, peanut flour, milk chocolate, and cacao nibs
Competing with Modern Times for both “best peanut butter beer” and “best beer with an obscenely long style identifier”, this beer is shamelessly decadent, and it gives me crazy taste-nostalgia for my aunt’s peanut butter and chocolate fudge bars. WeldWerks knows how to bring the crowd-pleasers, as they make a ton of them, but it’s hard to argue against the hype when the execution is this good.
Wolf’s Ridge Brewing | Columbus, OH | Terre Du Sauvage Green | Dry-hopped and oak-aged saison
Though medal-less at GABF, this beer won a gold at last year’s FoBAB for Wild/Brett Beer. Earthy and slightly oaky at first, flavors of underripe melon, lime, and pine emerge the deeper you go. I didn’t have a better saison all weekend, and I can’t wait to have this one again.