GABF 2023: Ryan’s Top 40 Beers
After taking a week or so to gather my thoughts and review my notes, I came up with this (extremely arbitrary) top 35 list of the best beers I had on the GABF floor. Following this list, I’ve also highlighted the five best beers I had at Denver taprooms during another fantastic weekend celebrating beer in one of the greatest cities on Earth. (Thanks again to the Brewers Association for having us at the fest year after year.)
Ryan’s Top 35 Beers from GABF 2023
35. Vortex IPA | American IPA | Fort George Brewery | Astoria, OR | 7.2% ABV
We’ve gone to GABF long enough to remember when the clear IPA reigned supreme, before it was overtaken by the haze. It did feel as if this year the clear, West-Coast or “American” IPA style has come back in a bigger way, though hazies were still everywhere. This Oregon-made IPA tastes like forest-y pine needles and sticky orange marmalade with a little bread crust.
34. Dortschlager | Dortmunder Export Lager | Künstler Brewing | San Antonio, TX | 5.4% ABV
Pronouncing things at this booth got dicey after a while on the floor, but their take on a dortumnder export lager is golden honey bread malt up front with a dry, well-attenuated finish that makes this an arena-friendly beer.
33. 1-900-PILS | Pilsner | Jessup Farm Barrel House | Fort Collins, CO | 5.5% ABV
We drank an barrel-aged brown ale from this brewery in the hotel that resurrected my beer drinking spirit on Saturday night, so it was nice to have this hoppy pilsner – alive with zesty citrus, pine, and gooseberry – at the “Wish We Were Here” taproom.
32. Helles | Helles Lager | Templin Family Brewing | Salt Lake City, UT | 4% ABV
A 2023 silver medal winner, this Helles isn’t reinventing the style. But the amount of pale malt and hop flavor that comes through cleanly in each sip makes this a thoroughly delicious and refreshing beer.
31. Alexander | Flanders red ale w/ sour cherries | Brouwerij Rodenbach | Roeselare, Vlaanderen Belgium | 5.6% ABV
At the Great American Beer Fest?!? Indeed, there was an International Pavillion “taproom” on the floor this year pouring bottles and cans from some brands that once occupied the “import” aisle at the chain liquor store. It was nice to see and sample through some of these classics, and I haven’t had this beer in over six years. It was maybe even better than I recalled, all cherry jam and tannic barrel and a moderate amount of acidity alongside a perfect dry finish.
30. RPM IPA | American IPA | Boneyard Beer | Bend, OR | 6.6% ABV
Though I usually go for their Notorious, one of the very few Triple IPAs I’ve ever had that actually works, I went for this go-to classic IPA. It’s not shy about its malt, but there’s a good amount of nectarine and pineapple notes before a stickier pine bitterness kicks in.
29. Elderflower Saison | Foeder-fermented barrel-aged saison w/ elderflowers | Heronmark | Allegan, MI | 5.5% ABV
I saw a guy sniff and sip this then make an immediate “yuck” face, so of course I was excited to try it. His reaction could be on the upfrontness of the flowers here which could catch you off guard, but I enjoyed the interplay with some of the more traditional saison notes like lemon, black pepper, and bubblegum.
28. Hefe | Hefeweizen | Altstadt Brewery | Fredericksburg, TX | 5.2% ABV
This was on my list after winning gold at this year’s World Beer Cup, and it drinks like banana meringue with a little white pepper – creamy at first with a crisp finish.
27. Grodziskie | Grodziskie | Live Oak Brewing Company | Austin, TX | 3% ABV
It’s incredible to me that this hasn’t won a GABF medal (and in fact was beat out by Chicago’s own Sketchbook for one this year), as it’s about as good as a smoked beer gets. The campfire wood smoke somewhat covers how light this beer really is, but it all settles in comfortably, full flavored, and easy.
26. C-Hops | American Pale Ale | Firestone Walker Brewing Company | Paso Robles, CA | 5.5% ABV
This is a throwback to a beer Firestone once made that even won a World Beer Cup medal, and it’s chock full of “C” hops like Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, and about 4 more. It’s got an old-school level of malt and a bombastic tangerine & grapefruit flavor that ends moderately bitter.
25. Saison D’Automne | Saison w/ lemon balm, bee balm, sassafras, and sage | Ghost Hawk Brewing Company | Clifton, NJ | 7.2% ABV
Toss a sweater on me, I’m ready for more Fall-inspired saisons. This beer is certainly herbal and almost tea-like with how much goes into it, and the saison itself is a touch darker than you might expect.
24. Funksloth | Foeder-fermented farmhouse ale | Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. | Albuquerque, NM | 6.3% ABV
Gotta love a beer that embraces “rustic,” and this one does so through a grain-forward and effervescent saison that is almost botanical. The foeders lend a tannic note that plays perfectly with the tartness.
23. Way Way Way Up | Barrel-aged barleywine w/ honey | Dancing Gnome & Jackie O’s Brewery | Pittsburgh, PA & Athens, OH | 12.5% ABV
This was pouring at the similarly underrated Collaboration booth (which was shared with the also incredible Pro-Am booth), and it is perfect for the bourbon lover. This one doesn’t hide the barrel, yet it’s still smooth with notes of graham cracker, turbinado sugar, and sweet plum.
22. Kiwi’n Me Smalls | American sour w/ golden kiwis and green spirulina | Estuary Brewing Company | Johns Island, SC | 5% ABV
Though their amber coffee beer was my first pour from them, and one that made me heel turn it back to the booth for another beer, this fruited sour won out for me. It’s bursting with juicy kiwi and lime flavor, going right up to the far end of tart without making you involuntarily pucker.
21. Peanut Butter Milk Stout | Milk Stout w/ peanuts, chocolate, lactose, and oats | Belching Beaver Brewery | Oceanside, CA | 5.3% ABV
This might be the best application of peanut butter in a beer I’ve ever had, and even better, its not on a gigantic barrel-aged beer. Rather, this one is so PB flavor-forward while not weighing you down with the booze. It’s a treat in every sense of the word.
20. Wibby Jibby | India Pale Lager | Wibby Brewing | Longmont, CO | 6.5% ABV
Another gold medal-winning beer, this IPL, or Cold IPA, or Session India Pilsener, or whatever they want to call it, is as fun to drink as it is to say. It drinks much lighter than its ABV, but it has lovely notes of peach and orange before finishing with a light herbal bitterness.
19. Rascal King | English-style pub ale | Flipside Brewing | Tinley Park, IL | 4.8% ABV
This beer needs to be on a hand-pumped cask. But even without the creamy natural carbonation, it gives you the lightly bready, slightly sweet flavor and has an easy finish that is more dry than bitter. For the locals: Eric’s beers at Flipside in Tinley are not to be missed.
18. Barrel-Aged Cuppa: Neat – Blanton’s | Imperial stout aged in Blanton’s bourbon barrels | Maplewood Brewing Company | Chicago, IL | 13% ABV
I love that this series’ most desirable variants now seem to be the “Neat” ones where the emphasis is on fancy barrels. This one highlights the fan-favorite Blanton’s and it infuses the roasty base stout with notes of honey, toffee, molasses, and an almost savory Maillard note.
17. Rise Up Rye | Rye saison | Gun Hill Brewing Company | Bronx, NY | 4.8% ABV
Brewed with the cast of Hamilton – but before they were nominated for All Of The Tony Awards, this beer doesn’t miss its shot to serve as a crossover for the beer nerd and Broadway crowd, as I’m not sure how often those two intersect. It’s a dialed-in saison that’s lightly fruity and soft, and the light touch of rye gives it an edge in the finish.
16. Biere Ovale | Mixed-culture foeder-aged saison | Our Mutual Friend Brewing Company | Denver, CO | 4.7% ABV
I don’t think they were going for “Orval-like” with this one, even though the name puts that suggestion in my head. But it does have a similar brett funkiness along with some light lemon and banana esters, topped off with a bite of black pepper.
15. Rhythm Unfiltered Lager | American Lager | Rhythm Brewing Co. | New Haven, CT | 5.5% ABV
The branding on this beer along with the woman behind it – Alisa Bowens-Mercado aka Lady Lager – put this on my radar. I was very pleased to find that the beer is both totally accessible while having a bit more of a grainy flavor punch than your average American Lager. This would be a cooler staple for me if it were available locally.
14. Tabula Rasa | Porter | Second Chance Beer Company | San Diego, CA | 6.2% ABV
Another perennial medal winner, collecting it’s fifth medal this year – a bronze to go along with four golds – this porter is rich-enough to make you think stout. But the mouthfeel and subtle notes of toasted grain and smoked malt put you back in porter mode.
13. Head Hunter IPA | American IPA | Fat Head’s Brewery | Middleburg Heights, OH | 7.5% ABV
2023 is the year of the Head Hunter: it won gold at GABF and gold at the World Beer Cup in each competition’s American-Style IPA category. That’s pretty impressive for a beer that’s been around as long as this one, and the aggressive citrus marmalade, dank cannabis, chewy malt, and piney resin have only gotten more expertly tuned.
12. 2022 Helm of Awe | Blend of barleywine and imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels w/ vanilla | False Idol Brewing | North Richland Hills, TX | 13.5% ABV
We’ve been lucky to have some stellar barleywine and stout blends from the likes of Private Press and Revolution recently, and this one fits in right alongside those barrel-aging pros. It finds that sweet (but not too sweet) spot of where the chocolate and caramel notes intersect and blends it with vanilla and pipe tobacco notes.
11. Real Heavy | Scotch Ale/Wee Heavy | Real Ale Brewing Company | Blanco, TX | 9.3% ABV
Possibly the most-decorated Scotch Ale made in America, this is a fantastic mix of caramel malt, turbinado sugars, and a light peat-like smokey quality. It drinks easier than the ABV suggests, but it’s not wimpy at all. This beer took its seventh GABF medal (and fourth gold) this year for a reason.
10. Mehndi Special Reserve (2023) | Barrel-aged imperial stout | More Brewing Company | Villa Park, IL | 16% ABV
This annual highlight from More is no slouch this year, as the rich chocolate brownie batter base gets a shot of caramel and leather from the barrels, hiding the elevated ABV while coating the tongue.
9. Vincent | Blend of 1, 2, 3, and 4 year oak-aged dark sour/wine hybrid aged on grape must | Buried Acorn Brewing Company | Syracuse, NY | 8.6% ABV
This is about as close to having a straight up glass of red wine you could’ve experienced at the fest. It felt lower in carbonation as well, and it came in sort of like a more complex and drier version of the Lambrusco my parents drink with their pizza. And I mean that lovingly.
8. Verb Saison Red Ale | Saison w/ lemon verbena | Montclair Brewery | Montclair, NJ | 4.5% ABV
When we talked to Leo Sawadogo, he gave us an hour’s worth of stories in about 6 minutes. He learned to brew beer as a kid with his mother in Burkina Faso, has a history working in recorded media, started a brewery after his wife wanted him to get his equipment out of the basement, and was a winner on the third season of Discovery’s Master Distiller. Plus, this beer is a tribute to France’s World Cup team embracing players with African heritage, and it was made in collaboration with Allagash. It’s a delicate saison first and foremost, dry with light peppery phenols, that gets a nice flavor boost from the lemon verbena that never dominates the excellent base.
7. Expand Your View | Robust porter w/ bourbon barrel-aged chocolate malt | Pax Verum Brewing Company | Lapel, IN | 6.8% ABV
This was a new one, both in terms of the brewery and the barrel-aged malt – which we didn’t know was a thing you could do. It doesn’t trick you into thinking the beer itself is barrel-aged, rather it takes an already roasty and bitter base porter and layers on some designer chocolate bar notes before going unexpectedly dry by the end. Indiana’s Pax Verum has earned their spot on our radar with this great beer and many of the others they were pouring at the fest.
6. Medianoche: Amburana Vanilla Luar | Double barrel-aged stout w/ vanilla | WeldWerks Brewing Co. | Greeley, CO | 13.7% ABV
When we asked co-founder Neil Fisher about the Amburana barrels used in this beer, he absolutely lit up like he was recanting the tale of a long-sought treasure. With this beer, it’s easy to see why. The luscious chocolate of the Medianoche base is enveloped by an equal layer of vanilla and woody cinnamon, making this like a boozy frosted cinnamon chocolate bun.
5. Nose Goblin | Double IPA | Ghost Town Brewing | Oakland, CA | 9.2% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
The name does not disappoint, because at first whiff this thing absolutely grabs hold of you. It’s bombastic with fruit like juicy citrus and green grapes, and the flavor has enough bitterness to keep away the sweetness and hide much of the 9.2%. It was easily the best IPA of the weekend for me.
4. Duck Duck Gooze 2022 | Gueuze-Style Ale | The Lost Abbey | San Marcos, CA | 7% ABV
It kind of feels silly putting this beer number four on the list, and maybe it’s because it’s the least surprising beer to stop you in your tracks. Of course DDG is a stunner when you have one of the best and oldest wild programs in the country able to siphon off perfection from their foeder forest and bring together a blend that could easily pass for the Belgian classics.
3. Pine Mountain Monolith | English Brown Ale | Wild Fields Brewhouse | Atascadero, CA | 5.4% ABV
If Wild Fields is on a path to becoming a brown ale brewery, then I need to get to Atascadero. Though they didn’t repeat gold medals in both brown ale categories like last year (but did score one for oatmeal stout this year), Wild Fields won me over with this beer full of notes of toasty malt and roasted nuts and a slight bitterness that could easily make this an everyday drinker. It’s really one of the best browns I’ve had in a long time.
2. Small Batch: Peach Beer | Wild Ale w/ peaches | Russian River Brewing Company | 7.15% ABV – listen (Patreon only)
Using a mix of their spontaneous Sonambic and “Orphan beer,” this beer is deep and okay before the massive puréed peach flavor takes over. We loved the newly-bronze-medaled Small Batch: Intinction Sauvignon Blanc on the show earlier this month, and this beer is just as impressive. It simply comes down to if you like wine grapes or peaches more.
1. Gose to Fino’s | Gin barrel-aged gose w/ fresh lemon and lime zest and coriander | Heavy Riff Brewing Company | St. Louis, MO | 6.2% ABV
Poured from a can, this beer executes a unique but not unlikely idea with ease, both complex and easy to throw back endlessly. Reminiscent of a gin-light G&T, the tart zest and coriander create a prickly yet refreshing mouthfeel that is all-the-way dry by the end. This reminds me of a specialty release Off Color bottle, and that is certainly high praise.
In addition to walking 30 miles on the festival floor, we were able to visit five great Denver breweries. Here were my highlights, in the order of when we visited each brewery.
Fresh Hopped Antidote | American IPA | Ratio Beerworks | 7% ABV
As a 41 year-old white guy from the Midwest, I am immediately drawn to the punk/emo nostalgia bait that Ratio puts on their taplist. Fortunately, the beer is much better than a gimmicky naming convention (which I’m not criticizing at all to be clear). I passed on obvious choices based on my musical tastes from my teens and twenties like the King of Carrot Flowers, Domestica, and the Hold Steady in favor of this fresh-hopped IPA. It hits all the right notes of a clean American IPA but amplified by the pungent dank and grassy fresh hops. It went perfectly with the early At The Drive-In and Jawbreaker pumping from the speakers on their eclectic and comfortable patio.
Dunkel | Dunkel | Bierstadt Lagerhaus | 6% ABV
Craig and I both made the somewhat unpopular decision to NOT get a Slow Pour Pils at Bierstadt – not because it isn’t great, but more because we’ve done it before (and we’re impatient). But their whole menu of German-style beers is impressively crafted: Craig had a Schwarzbier that was a perfect balance of roast and light bitterness. I resumed my Dunkel Jagen with this beer, and it brought out notes of baked wheat bread, light caramel, a tiny bit of cocoa powder, and a lightly bitter dry finish. It went well with free retro pinball and watching people fail at garbage can and volleyball beer pong.
Chin Wag | ESB | Hogshead Brewery | 5.8% ABV
We arrived at Hogshead just before the rest of the caskheads got into town. As we sat on the sun-drenched patio with our freshly-pumped cask pours, we watched several rideshare cars pull up minutes apart from one another and multiple people exiting with their luggage straight off the flight. Breweries aplenty were there, like the crew from Oregon’s Breakside and Illinois’ own Flipside. When there are seven (!) beers being hand-pumped from casks, the real beer nerds gather like fruit flies. This ESB is creamy from the cask but still holds onto some bitterness in the end. Hot take beware: Hogshead is the more quintessential Denver brewery experience than the Slow Pour Pils. Unless there was another brewery vying for that traditional brewery crown…
Tmavé 14º | Dark Lager | Cohesion Brewing Co. | 5.1% ABV
Good Lord. Seeing as I hadn’t been in Denver since 2019, this brewery was completely new to me since they only opened in 2021. I’ve never been to a brewery dedicated to traditional Czech-style beers, and now I want to know why there isn’t one within driving distance from my house. This place was an absolute revelation – I could’ve stayed to drink the entire taplist. But this dark lager does everything perfectly, balancing some dark chocolate notes with a little sweet kiss of toffee and a good creamy body before an easy-drinking finish. Taste the decoction!
Dunkelweizen | Dunkelweizen | Prost Brewing Co. & Biergarten | 5.3% ABV
Based on the two-tone appearance of my pour, I think this Dunkelweizen was literally a half Dunkel and half Weizen pour – and I’m not complaining. Prost’s Biergarten was lively and perfect on a breezy Saturday night, though the EDM on the speakers didn’t match the accordion and lederhosen vibes. This beer put the perfect bow on a trip of stellar beer, carrying across both banana esters and caramel malt character before finishing clean and easy.