The Greatest Beers I Had at the Great American Beer Festival 2015
by Ryan I.
It’s been a few weeks since the 2015 Great American Beer Festival – the 29th edition of the fest and its largest to date – and I’m finally ready to write about it. To be a proper member of the media, it’d have been responsible of me to write up my list or 1200-word rambling narrative during the afterglow and recovery period immediately following the fest. But I’m not a member of the media, despite acting like one for a few days. I’m a father to a 9-month old, a husband, a full-time teacher, and an irreverent podcaster. After taking four days away from any major responsibilities to drink beer, I found returning to life as usual pretty jarring, possibly due to the deletion of a year’s worth of brain cells in about 72 hours. So I’ve finally caught my breath long enough to start having daydreams about being back in that convention center, drinking world class beers one ounce at a time. So to fulfill my media obligations, I’ll avoid the simile-heavy narrative I had planned and give you an unsorted list of beer highlights from GABF 2015.
At first it hit like a sugar-coated peach ring, then the guava nectar and pine rush in and leave a sharp and dry bitterness on the end. It was spectacular and worth the wait in the ever-significant Short’s line.
Rahr & Sons Brewing Company (TX) – Oktoberfest Marzen, 7% ABV
Hiding a slightly elevated ABV for the style, the caramel malt is dominant, but there’s a slightly noticeable hop bite in the middle. This is one of the better Marzens I’ve ever had.
Moody Tongue (IL) – Bourbon Barrel Aged Chocolate Barleywine Barleywine, 9% ABV
Although the flavors in this beer are not unusual by any stretch, this exact combination was a simple yet new idea. Like a three-layer mousse cake, you could pick apart the individual flavors in this by focusing on them, or just enjoy how each flavor complements the next. The barleywine is reminiscent of a more American interpretation of the English style, like a tamer Firestone Walker Sucaba. But the chocolate is unmistakable, and it adds a bittersweet richness onto this beer’s medium body. Look out for this when it comes to bottles, as it could become even more interesting and smooth as it ages.
Smelling like some combination of a fresh-fruit-adorned tropical drink and a cafeteria fruit cup, this tasted like the best goddamn glass of juice I’ve ever had. There’s a light tartness, but the fruits rush in to take center stage: a tart mango, guava, and passionfruit soda. This had no evidence of alcohol on the taste, and I had about seven pours. This was probably my favorite beer of the fest.
Russian River Brewing Company (CA) – STS Pils Pilsner, 5.3% ABV
For the record, I had Beatification as well, but I think I liked their Pilsner better, at least when I had it during a serious spell of “sour fatigue.” Crisp but with a body just short of medium, the middle and finish are noble hops with maybe even a West Coast variety or two.
(Check out Episode 42 – Russian River: The Tioning)
Belching Beaver (CA) – Peanut Butter Milk Stout Milk Stout, 5.3% ABV
This brewery’s name is just another term for…you know, nevermind. It’s gross. But this beer is incredible, like a liquid scoop of peanut butter ice cream smothered in dark chocolate hot fudge.
Haymarket Pub & Brewery (IL) – Aleister Double IPA, 8% ABV
If they decide to package this at their future production brewery in Bridgman, MI, this has the chance to stand out in one of the most competitive craft styles. The flavor is largely grapefruit, some honey-like sweetness and floral notes, and large bitterness in the finish.
Initially I thought the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter was just another gimmick for the breakfast adjunct stout crowd, but the beer actually evokes a warm feeling from those familiar flavors. This Morning Wood (really? That’s what we’re going with?) is the barrel-aged version of the aforementioned porter, and it elevates the smoky spices used to imitate bacon and the pure maple syrup flavor. It’s an exquisite sipper that perfectly treads the line of “Too much?” and “Oh hell yes.”
Funky Buddha Brewery (FL) – No Crusts Brown Ale, 6% ABV
More beers need to taste like my favorite sandwiches. I’m 33 years old, and I average about three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a week. This beer could become my life. It is a liquid PB&J, but not at all obnoxious or sickly sweet like that sounds.
Live Oak Brewing (TX) – HefeWeizen Hefeweizen, 5.2% ABV
I’ve been hearing about this being one of the best Hefes on the planet for a while – probably thanks to The Beerists. I don’t drink a lot of hefeweizen anymore, but this one lives up to its billing.
Almanac Beer Co. (CA) – Valley of the Heart’s Delight Sour Ale, 7% ABV
As the sour napalm disintegrates your palate, you wonder if you will ever taste beer again. Then the one in your mouth explodes with apricot and ends with a little tickle of wine tannins. Beer is weird, y’all.
Like a whipped-cream-topped coffee with whiskey and Kahlua stirred with a cinnamon stick, this is simply ridiculous.
Ratio Beerworks (CO) – Hold Steady w/Coffee Scotch Ale, 6.2% ABV
This brewery makes a bunch of very good beer named after bands I loved in high school. So naturally I argued with them about the best Jawbreaker album for a while and walked away questioning my own stance. (24 Hour Revenge Therapy is the current answer.) This killer coffee scotch ale almost killed me.
Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales (CO) – Dreamland (Blueberry) – Sour Ale, 5.7% ABV
James Howat of Black Project told us this great story on our podcast about how he made a mini-coolship in the middle of a blizzard in Iceland and brought back a dangerously active fermenting bottle on the flight home. He’s one of these brewing wunderkinds making sours the painstaking traditional way, and each beer he brought had the complexity of its Belgian ancestors with some room to grow still. He speaks like a professor of sour – but one of those cool professors you’d want to party with. Each day at GABF, the line for Black Project wrapped around and through the neighboring aisle, and each session the kegs kicked a little bit earlier. There will be amazing things to come from this brewery.
I’m not about to say that we need this beer in Chicago. We don’t need it – the options for hoppy beers are already ridiculous. But I need this beer. And it’s okay if I have a long-distance relationship with it for now. I drank this at GABF, and I drank several pours at Hops and Pie. It’s sharply crisp, hugely bitter, and brightly fruity with a lager-like drinkability. It’s about as perfect as an IPA can be.
Comrade Brewing Co. (CO) – Superdamp IPA, 6.8% ABV
I put this head-to-head with The Apprentice from Societe while eating these insane garlic cheese breads at Hops and Pie, and the flavors all together were like that Mad Max movie in IMAX, but in my mouth. Superdamp is a superbly bitter beer, almost punishingly so, but it’s a must order on draft when you’re in Colorado.
Kane Brewing Company (NJ) – Cortijo Saison, 8.8% ABV
Tequila used to make my gag reflex kick into alert mode, but as I’ve had more and more quality agave spirits from craft distilleries, I find I can appreciate the flavor that much more. That being said, when I smelled this beer, I nearly reached for the dump bucket. The distinct aroma of a shot of tequilla sat in my little taster glass, and it was already well into the third hour of the fest. But man am I glad I tried it, because it was like a pineapple and mango margarita beer with the tequila flavor coming in appropriately strong.
Most of the members of Melvin resemble members of a criminal fencing ring, and their co-founder Jeremy Tofte actually reached across the table and slapped my pillowy tummy. But I couldn’t stay away because these weirdos make the best double IPA in the world currently. I had about six pours, and my soul is no longer pure. But that’s ok. I would do dangerous things for this beer. This might be the last time I can use the hipster bullshit response, “Well MY favorite brewery is this little Wyoming syndicate that started in a Thai restaurant.” They’ll be a household name soon, that is if you live in a house full of beer dorks.
Cellarmaker Brewing Company (CA) – Imperial Coffee & Cigarettes Imperial Porter, 10.4% ABV
To me, most smoked beers taste like sitting on the wrong side of a campfire alit with chemically-treated faux logs. But the black coffee bitterness keeps the smoke as a supporting flavor, and the results are marvelous.
Black Bottle Brewery (CO) – Cerealouisly Count Chocula Milk Stout, 6.4% ABV
This nailed that kind-of-weird chocolate puff flavor from the cereal, and their brewers and employees all dressed like cool Prom Goths, so I enjoyed it.
As if you needed any more evidence that barrel-aged sour beers were the biggest line-builder of the fest, walking past the Rare Barrel queue solidified it. (But also equally powerful was the elevator conversation I was trapped between in the Hyatt one night, wherein a badged gentleman answered an unintelligible question with this sentence: “Yeah, we’re a small sour house.” I still don’t know what that means.) This peach, vanilla, and cinnamon sour tastes like all of those things I just mentioned, but better because of an exquisite mouthfeel and the presence of alcohol. I hope they listen to Operation Ivy while they brew.
(Check out Episode 75 – The Rare Barrel)
Port Brewing (CA) – Churchill’s Finest Hour (2015) Imperial Stout, 10% ABV
Like a chocolate lava cake full of whiskey caramel sauce, I’m surprised people weren’t more psyched to drink this. Maybe they were distracted by the free sunglasses.
Yazoo Brewing Company (TN) – Cherry Deux Rouges Flanders Red Ale, 6.2% ABV
Brandon from Embrace the Funk/Yazoo knows how to make some stellar sour beers, and this one was brimming with tart cherry juice and a big tannic dry wine finish. I wish I’d had more to really appreciate its complexity, because there were little Christmas punch spice notes that came off of the last sip.
(Listen to us interview Brandon and Linus of Yazoo on last year’s GABF episode)
I can’t have this beer enough. It has this crisp hoppiness that mixes perfectly with a sweet pineapple juice flavor, and a creamy body. But it leaves a resinous bitterness on your tongue, and Sean Lawson was its affable pusher dressed like Vacation Dad.
(Check out Episode 81 – House of 1000 Hops)
Scratch Brewing Company (IL) – Single Tree: Hickory Sour Ale, 6.6% ABV
What the hell was this even? It was a sour that tasted like they extinguished the end of a burning tree branch in it. But I am intrigued and want more from this southern Illinois brewery.
Pfriem Family Brewers (OR) – Dank IPA IPA, 7.8% ABV
This grass-forward, sweet-and-savory hop cocktail almost didn’t make the list because I had it at Star Bar and not GABF – but it cut through an extreme case of palate fatigue and stood out as one of the biggest surprises of the weekend. So it was great.
Listen to brewer interviews and our recap of the fest on our GABF 2015 episode.