For the first time I was able to attend the Saturday evening session of the Great American Beer Festival, long after awards had been announced and little medal stickers were slapped up on beer signs throughout the hall. So I made a big list of all of the 2017 GABF Gold Medal winning beers and attempted to try them all. Now, of course, not all of the 97 gold medal winners in the 98 categories (shame on you, Fruited American-style Sour Ales) were being poured on the floor. By my sloppy count, 41 were pouring, so I made a visit to each and every one. 16 of those 41 had kicked before I had a chance to try them. And around 7 of those I must’ve completed neglected to take notes on. So, after mathing it all out, I’ve come up with my completely arbitrary top 15 best gold medal winners at GABF.
15. Witty Moron | Stone Brewing (Escondido, CA) | Other Style Belgian Ale
A black witbier, this beer is decidedly un-Stone-like. There’s no hop explosion or aggressive boozy malt. It’s just an orangey wit dipped in a very light chocolate roast, and I didn’t even have to get emasculated by its label copy to enjoy it.
14. Dortmunder | Lupulin Brewing (Big Lake, MN) | Dortmunder or German-Style Oktoberfest
My main reference points for Dortmunder are Great Lakes and DAB Original – the first proudly declares its Gold Medal status in its name, and the second is more memorable as a rusty tin tacker in a dank century-old German-style bar down the block from me. This beer more resembles the former, as it prominently features grassy noble hops, and German malts that taste like a light, multigrain cracker.
13. Mr. Kite’s Pale Ale | Social Kitchen & Brewery (San Francisco, CA) | Classic English Style Pale Ale
The body of this beer reminds me more of an India Pale Lager with its crisp clarity that is bookended by light citrus and resinous bitterness. It’s an all day drinker, and it’s cool because it’s English.
12. Wobblor | Crooked Lane Brewing (Auburn, CA) | German Style Doppelbock or Eisbock
Wobblor is like sweet raisin bread. Wobblor is a touch boozy with a great malty flavor. Wobblor is lonely. Wobblor sad. You Wobblor friend? Wobblor happy again!
11. Hold the Reins | Brink Brewing (Cincinnati, OH) | English Style Mild
Like a hopless brown ale, this has light notes of coffee roast stirred with vanilla cream. This beer would be an absolute dream on cask. I went back for seconds, despite dreaming of something creamier. (Ew.)
10. Zwickelbier | Red Rock Brewery (Salt Lake City, UT) | Kellerbier or Zwickelbier
Vibrant Lemon Banana sounds like a fictional high school band in a bad young adult novel about suburban ennui, but it’s also the three words I wrote to describe this beer. It also sort of tastes like a Nilla wafer and finishes with some orange pith. It’s excellent.
9. Tabula Rasa Toasted Porter | Second Chance Beer Co. (San Diego, CA) | Robust Porter
This beer is both complex in flavor and easy to drink, exhibiting an almost Schwarzbier-like mouthfeel experience with both roasted licorice and coffee beans, hints of dark chocolate and cherrywood, but all resting upon a lightly roasted yet clean finish.
8. Saison | Funkwerks (Fort Collins, CO) | Classic Saison
This beer is well established as one of the great American saisons, so I’ll just copy that. The yeast is in perfect form, putting Brett-like over-ripened fruits on a soft body and leaving a bit of banana and clove before a surprisingly dry finish.
7. Heritage Coffee Brown Ale | Alaskan Brewing (Juneau, AK) | Coffee Beer
Hey – a brewery I’ve heard of! Huge medium roast coffee and cocoa aromas burst forward to meet you at the glass’ edge. In flavor, it’s a slightly nutty brown ale with a kiss of coffee in flavor. Despite the distinctive coffee roast, it’s never bitter, and drinks easy. I believe I’ve found my new fall weather beer.
6. The Russian | 2SP Brewing (Aston, PA) | Imperial Stout
This gave me the feeling of the first time drinking Ten Fidy from Oskar Blues or Old Rasputin – it’s got a classic quality to it, all upfront with bitter dark chocolate and licorice. It’s chewy, roasty, and toasty, and you start to be filled with self-righteous thoughts about the destructive needlessness of barrel-aging. (It passes. See below.)
5. Razz Against the Machine | Little Machine (Denver, CO) | American-Style Fruit Beer
The raspberry on the aroma of this beer is almost too pure to be actual raspberry, like sniffing some Bath and Body Works creation without the noxious notes of a cheap body spray. The flavor is jammy at first, but it quickly goes light and dry, just leaving this tart pucker of chewing on an underripe raspberry dipped in lemon juice.
4. Grisette Summer Ale | Sly Fox (Pottstown, PA) | Belgian and French Style Ale
A new icon of Twenty Griseventeen has risen, and it’s this yeasty bubblegum and lemongrass little champagne number – bubbly, sharp, and dry. If this beer were more available, then my whole line of Grisette pun-based activewear would finally take off. Game. Grisette. Match.
3. Imperial Smoked Porter with Cacao Nibs | Joseph James Brewing Co. (Henderson, NV) | Chocolate Beer
The rich cacao aromas on this are absolutely outrageous: a smoke-enhanced trip through the hot fudge dungeon (do not Google that). I could hardly bring myself to break the nose experience by drinking. But the flavor was more of the same: enormous chocolate with a smoke note akin to chewing on the burnt parts of a marshmallow. Dark cherries and the boozy burn of fresh oak make up the finish on this aggressively delicious porter.
2. Lemon Balm and Beets Wheat | New Sarum Brewing (Salisbury, NC) | Herb and Spice Beer
A salad in a taster glass, this smells like a crisp lemon vinaigrette poured over roasted beets and sprinkled with rosemary and spruce, as if that was normal. The flavor is equally vegetal, herbal, and citric, with a bit more arugula or pine in the flavor, but with a lot of lemon and earthy beet notes. It’s exactly the kind of beer that stands out on the festival floor against huge stouts and juicebomb IPAs, and it was probably poured in the exact right quantity. Despite that, I won’t soon forget the flavor on this one, and it was an adventure.
1. Medianoche | WeldWerks Brewing Co. (Greeley, CO) | Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout
When we talked to Randy Mosher, the man who literally wrote the book on tasting beer, the first standout he mentioned was this beer. Barrel-aged stouts are practically a dime an ounce these days, but when it tastes like a rich fudge brownie with dark chocolate chips, toasted walnuts, and a caramel and vanilla drizzle, it is hard to deny. There will be many more GABF weekends featuring many more heavily-populated events pouring many more of Neil Fisher’s hype-inducing brews, but they will most certainly live up to that hype. Just ask The Mosh’.
For more highlights from the fest and several interviews from some of the standout brewers from this year’s GABF, check out our podcast episode here.