Ryan’s favorite beers and a few festival notes from GABF 2014.
I admit it. Being a member of my particular generation, I have used snark and cynicism as some kind of holier-than-thou attempt at humor. It feels safer than just barefaced appreciation. But, damn it, the 2014 Great American Beer Festival was one of those life experiences that I’ll remember with ever-increasing fondness, exaggerating its good qualities to unrealistic heights that were neglected in the moment, like childhood or college. It’ll be a long time until another beer experience comes close to those three days in Denver.
Rather than recapping all three days as a pseudo-narrative (which Craig did), I’ve compiled this list of drinking highlights with some loose categories. For the most part, the list is compiled of beers and breweries that were new to me, so I left off other highlights like my three pours of Goose Island’s Pineapple Brettanomite and revisiting the gold medal-winning Defender Stout from Haymarket.
(And if you’re a brewery that feels slighted by being left off this list, just contact us at email@example.com to arrange for where to send us boxes of your beer – because we’ll do a podcast all about it!)
Barrel-Aged Stouts (All medal winners are marked with an asterisk.)
- A Night to End All Dawns – Kane Brewing (Ocean, NJ)*
- Assassin – Toppling Goliath Brewing (Decorah, IA)
- Churchill’s Finest Hour – Port Brewing Co. (San Marcos, CA)
- Bourbon Barrel Pumpkinator – Saint Arnold Brewing (Houston, TX)
- The Big Lebarrelski – Pinthouse Pizza Craft Brewpub (Austin, TX)
One of the best aspects of GABF is that brewers aren’t content in just showing off their flagship and a few seasonals: some breweries bring beers that only end up in the hands of locals, traders, and soulless hoarders. The first beer I had at GABF was Toppling Goliath’s Assassin, an imperial stout aged in 20-year Pappy van Winkle barrels, and it really was everything I’d hoped: chocolate, marshmallows, caramel, smoky oak, vanilla and bourbon. The biggest surprise was Kane’s A Night to End All Dawns (or ANTEAD for those acronym-loving traders), an imperial stout that just explodes with the spot-on aroma and flavor of German dark chocolate cocoa powder and a whole bunch of caramel bourbon notes. This was the best beer of the fest for me, and I wasn’t surprised when it took the gold in the Wood and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout category. If this one ends up at FoBAB, get in line for it first. My drinking companions told me that Port Brewing’s Churchill’s Finest Hour is a “whale” and then they called me “bro,” which I thought was rude. But I had a pour anyways, and it was really hot with the bourbon, but the thick melted chocolate body made it a big highlight.
- 2×4 – Melvin Brewing (Jackson, WY)
- Notorious IPA3 – Boneyard Beer (Bend, OR)
- Blazing World – Modern Times Beer (San Diego, CA)
- Elevated IPA – La Cumbre Brewing (Albuquerque, NM)
- Superdamp IPA – Comrade Brewing Co. (Denver, CO)
- The Pupil – Societe Brewing (San Diego, CA)*
- Breakside IPA – Breakside Brewery (Milwaukie, OR)*
- Double IPA – Pfriem Family Brewers (Hood River, OR)
- Expatriate IPA – Three Weav3rs Brewing (Inglewood, CA)
- Head Hunter – Fat Heads Brewery (Middleburg Heights, OH)
The Western states dominated this category, but it’s a little brewing operation working out of a Thai restaurant in the middle of the Rocky Mountains that ran away with it. Melvin Brewing out of Jackson, Wyoming makes a double IPA (or a quadruple pale ale, as they’ll tell you with tongue firmly planted in cheek) called 2×4, and I went back to drink it four times. It’s crisp and clean, devoid of any malt heaviness, so the freshness of Simcoe, Citra, Columbus, and Centennial hops are all tropical fruits and dank grassiness in the forefront. This is a beer I’d like to have in comparison to my favorite double IPAs – because it’s a serious contender. Also on the ridiculous beer styles front, Boneyard’s Notorious is a Triple IPA, and even though I have no idea what that even means anymore, it was an outstanding hop and malt cocktail with a biting finish. And if I could get my hands on fresh Blazing World cans from Modern Times, I would keep my fridge stocked – it’s balanced with sweet orange hops and bready malts to make the perfect hoppy amber. Any beer from the above list is one that should be sought out and enjoyed fresh from a tap, however far you must travel.
- Mocha Machine – Beachwood BBQ & Brewing (Long Beach, CA)*
- Morning Bell – Kane Brewing (Ocean, NJ)
- Koffee Kream Stout – Comrade Brewing Co. (Dever, CO)
- Last Snow – Funky Buddha Brewery (Oakland Park, FL)
- Black House – Modern Times Beer (San Diego, CA)
Honorable Mention: Naughty Sauce – Noble Ale Works (Anaheim, CA)
My brilliant theory behind the proliferation of coffee beers is due to the partnerships breweries can make with local roasters, who often provide unique blends or specially-chosen beans, that give each brewery a chance to do a specialty coffee beer that gives brewery reps something to talk to you about while you’re just trying to sip their beer at their booth. But it’s more likely that brewers love coffee, and stuff brewers love ends up in their beers. One of the most-deserved gold medals was in the Coffee Beer category, going to Beachwood BBQ’s Mocha Machine. This imperial porter was rich with chocolate flavor and the bitter roast of coffee came through to finish strong. Kane’s Morning Bell was just as good, replacing chocolate with a suggestion of creamy half and half and a bigger coffee flavor. Comrade’s Koffee Kream Stout is a beer that could easily become a part of my morning routine, if I didn’t have an actual job to go to. One of the weirder beers of the fest was the Naughty Sauce by Noble Ale Works, a golden coffee milk stout that poured no darker than an Oktoberfest; you’d never guess it wasn’t deep brown or black based on its flavor.
- Oblivion Sour Red – Wicked Weed Brewing (Asheville, NC)
- Map of the Sun /Sourtooth TIger– The Rare Barrel (Berkeley, CA)
- Cable Car – The Lost Abbey (San Marcos, CA)
- Dogpatch Strawberry/Farmer’s Reserve Citrus – Almanac Beer Co. (San Francisco, CA)
- Benedictum – Real Ale Brewing (Blanco, TX)*
- Presque – Transient Artisan Ales (Lansing, IL)
- Oud Bruin Dog Barrel (aged on cherries) – River Dog Brewing (Ridgeland, SC)
- Myrtle – The Commons Brewery (Portland, OR)
- Skully No. 11 Old Sour Red – Paradox Beer Co. (Woodland Park, CO)
- Sour Farmhouse Ale – Woodfour Brewing Co. (Sebastopol, CA)
This category has caused me to cheat a bit. There were too many to choose from. First of all, I’ve disregarded Russian River – I had both Supplication and Temptation, and those would certainly be on this list. But what’s listed above were all new to me, and I had a hard time narrowing down the portfolios of a few breweries. The Rare Barrel and Almanac were pouring multiple beers; I had them all. Each beer from them was incredible on its own merit, so even narrowing it down to the top two from them was difficult. Wicked Weed’s Oblivion Sour Red was puckeringly sour, but had juicy blackberries and tannic wine flavors that melded beautifully. Trying Cable Car from The Lost Abbey was a treat, but it was hardly the world-changer I was told it’d be. But, still, it left me wanting a whole bottle to myself. Friend of the show Chris Betts and Transient Artisan Ales are making sours that can hold their own in a fest of this scale, and I’m glad I got to try his Presque alongside so many sour producers with twice the experience and ten times the capacity. All of Transient’s stuff held up beautifully, and I expect the medals to come for Chris somewhere down the road. Benedictum from Real Ale won big in the sour category, and I thought it was quite impressive, even though it’d be a stunner after resting in some red wine barrels.
Missed the Mark
So, it’s only fair that I acknowledge a few beers – from breweries that I generally love – that made me wish I’d avoided their lines in favor of some small time booth nearby. There was a surprisingly short wait for The Bruery’s Black Tuesday, which I’d never had. And maybe I know why. It was so sweet and alcoholic: almost what I’d imagine chocolate wine to taste like. Two of Firestone Walker’s sours, Lil’ Opal and Bretta Weisse, had notes of plastic and acetone. While I loved Prairie’s Funky Gold Mosaic, the burnt plastic came out strong in their Coolship Truck that may or may not have actually been aged in a vinyl truck bed. The celebratory Sam Calagione brought a vast array of Dogfish Head beers, and I was psyched to try his Guided by Voices collaboration beer, Beer Thousand, as it’s a band (and an album) my father and I both enjoy. But the beer tasted like sweet corn malt liquor, making it much more fit to be hidden in the Suitcase. Sierra Nevada’s Barrel-Aged Narwhal was high on my must-try list, as I love the base beer, but it was thin and barely registered any barrel.
Caribbean Daydream – Yazoo Brewing (Nashville, TN)
– My favorite unexpected beer of the fest, this Brettanomyces-fermented red ale was aged in 30-year Estate rum barrels with pink guavas and mangoes thrown in. It’s as tropical, satisfying, and deeply complex as it sounds. This is one I can’t stop thinking about. I crave more.
Gingerbread Stout – Buffalo Bayou Brewing (Houston, TX)
– Just to be sure, I had to have a Hardywood Park Gingerbread Stout to compare, and yes, this Buffalo Bayou offering is the best of that style I’ve ever tasted. It was a rich and thick stout first, with gingerbread and molasses rushing in and stopping short of overly sweet – just perfect.
Cucumber Crush – 10 Barrel Brewing Co. (Bend, OR)*
– I’ve really taken to cucumber beers lately, and this one hit it perfectly, earning a gold medal in the process. All the light and refreshing elements of the cucumber are here without the bitter green skins. This one took home a gold for Field Beer, which I now understand to be a category of beer.
Until next year, Denver.