Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Essential Beer Guide to the GABF

The Great American Beer Festival - the beer world's combined version of the Olympics, a national political party convention and a super-cool family reunion - begins tonight and runs through Saturday night. But if you're reading this, that shouldn't be a surprise.

Last year, I wrote a general tip sheet on how to attack the event when you have only four hours to do so. But with 453 breweries set to offer up about 1,900 beers this year, I thought about the question: What does a festival goer truly have to try in their time there?

There's no one answer. You want to grab beers that aren't available at your local liquor store but also ones you know you love. You want to try the biggest, boldest brews ever made but also know that if you spend the whole night drinking nothing but imperial stouts, you may forget where you are by 9:30.

So, what follows is one man's opinion on the 28 beers you really, really shouldn't miss as you make your way around the hall. This is just a starter set, as 29 is an extremely low number of stops to make in a night. And I realize there are some fabulous breweries (Lost Abbey, Brewery Ommegang, Avery, to name a few) that are must-hits but aren't included on here. But this is an overview of many different styles - and presented in a way that you can grab your festival program and use it to meander the stations as they are numbered below in the most efficient way possible.

K26: New Glarus Raspberry Tart. Yes, starting here requires you to jet immediately to the middle of the convention center rather than start on the edges. But if you don't get into the giant line forming by this brewery early, you may not get a chance to enjoy it later.
M24: Thirsty Dog Old Leghumper Robust Porter. Every year I drink this beer, I want it to be a little darker. But I keep going back because you just have to honor the best-named beer in the show (and enjoy the bottle label if it's on display).
O4: Cambridge Brewing Cerise Cassee. A wild-fermented sour ale that was hands down the best beer of the festival last year. It can't be missed.
L13: Snake River Zonker Stout. As far as bold and chocolately beers go, there's nothing smoother and more enjoyable than this Wyoming creation.
L8 The Sandlot Goat Rancher. The small brewery inside Coors Field wins a ridiculous amount of medals every year, but you rarely get their medal winners on tap at Rockies games. This bock is an example of why they're so honored.
H20: Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout. You can get many of Brian Dunn's beers on tap year-round, but not this one. It will be one of the most complex flavor patterns you'll taste all weekend.
H12: Pug Ryans Helles Good Beer. Most of the Colorado beers you want to drink are available throughout the state, so you can skip them in a time crunch. This malty, sweet helles is on tap only at the brewery and only during the summer. It may be the best lager you have.
D33: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. A ferocious and dark-as-night offering that I've heard more than one brewer call their favorite beer at the show. A rarity that shouldn't be passed up.
H1: Sam Adams Utopias 2009. The truth is that I think the world's strongest beer at 25% ABV tastes more like cognac than beer. But it only gets offered up only a few times a show - when you hear a little bell ringing in the booth - and the lines form quickly to get it.
I8: Russian River Consecration. Currants are added to this strong dark ale that's aged six months inside cabernet sauvignon barrels. Maybe the most talked-about beer of last year's festival, it is a worthy member of Russian River's sour family.
I6: San Diego Brewing Hopnotic Imperial IPA. This is the beer that won the gold medal for double IPAs last year. 'Nuff said.
E14: Six Rivers Chile Beer. Brewed with four kinds of chile, this joyride from a small California brewery will snap your taste buds back to life without burning them.
E36: 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon Wheat. Strangely satisfying, this San Francisco concoction puts a new and pleasing spin on wheat beers.
O34: Kona Coco Loco. Browsing through the festival guide, it appears that coconut is the hip new taste being added to a number of beers this year. I haven't tried this particular beverage, but Kona Brewing is to be trusted with crafting a new style.
O24: Moylan's Hopsickle Imperial Triple IPA. Another one that I haven't tried yet, but just look at the key words here: Imperial Triple IPA. I'm not sure how you pass up something like that.
M4: Lone Star. No GABF is complete without stopping to get one of those cheap beers you drank in college and then realizing how far beer has come. Lots of people drink PBR, but you can get that anywhere. And Lone Star won a gold medal in its category last year. No kidding.
J19: Blue Moon Saison Farmhouse Ale: Think you know this Golden brewery? Think again after you taste this exquisite Belgian offering. Then beg them to package and release it.
K16: Bell's Two-Hearted Ale. Few regionally available beers inspire the passion that this giant hop monster does.
K11: Atwater Brewery Vanilla Java Porter. The former Stoney Creek Brewery made a vanilla porter that outshone most of the festival early in the decade. This is its successor.
K5: Vino's Pizza Pub Holidaze: The most complex and unique Christmas beer around - and it comes out of Arkansas.
G8: Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale. It isn't the pecan taste that makes this unique so much as the fact that Lazy Magnolia is Mississippi's only brewery. And you just have to support that.
G31: Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout: Many festival beers are aged in bourbon barrels. This may be the only one that actually mixes bourbon into the brew. And in a one-ounce pour, you can try it and truly appreciate it.
G34: Collaborative Evil 2009. Nine brewers got together to make this golden strong ale. Stop by award-winning Flossmoor Station to try it.
C12: Breckenridge 471 Double IPA. After you've tasted a lot of better-known double IPAs, stop by and drink what I've come to believe is the best one in America.
B18: Dogfish Head Theobroma. No GABF is complete without tasting one of Sam Calagione's crazy historical beers. Made with Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, this will do the trick.
F34: Elysian Brewing The Great Pumpkin. This will make you actually think you've stuck a straw into pumpkin pie. A remarkable beer for the season.
F38: Alaskan Brewing Smoked Porter 2008. Too few breweries bring cellared beers, and few aged beers are finer than this classic.
F16: Papago Brewing Orange Blossom: A wheat beer that tastes like a Creamsicle. You may think that sounds weird, but just wait until you try it.


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