Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Four Things I Learned at the Boulder Strong Ale Fest

For those of you who have never been to one of Avery Brewing's on-property festivals, it is hard to put into words how decadent they are.

At this past weekend's Strong Ale Fest, tasting stations offering eight beers each left participants with the choice between, say, Pliny the Younger, Strange's award-winning barleywine or several oak-aged offerings. Quality, normal porters and saisons stood little chance of being requested.

Even as attendees got accidentally drunk from tasting so many high-alcohol beers - and I defend the use of the term "accidentally," no matter how many people laughed when I used it Saturday - there was much to be remembered. (Especially if you were one of those geeks, like me, carrying around a notebook.) Here are some of the highlights:

1) The beer trend of 2013? How about monster coffee stouts? Sour beers have been hip for at least half a decade, and the offerings at the last two Great American Beer Festivals showed that oak barrels aren't up-and-coming; they're here. But the coffee bombs are truly on their way up.

Pizza Port Brewing's Bacon & Eggs, made with 25 pounds of roasters, was as smooth as it was bulky and java-heavy. And Epic Brewing's Big Bad Baptist - coming soon to Denver - offered a full mouth of coffee and cocoa in a startlingly tempting 11% ABV package. They were just two of many such offerings in a show that may point the way to the next great trend.

2) It's OK to use fruit in a big beer. Really. Anyone who got the joy of trying The Bruery's Five Golden Rings this Christmas season realized a brewmaster could add pineapple juice to the mix and still blow you out of the water with alcohol.

Avery's Missionary Position - its Reverend Belgian Quad with guava and pineapple - was refreshing and, dare we say, almost light and easy for a 10% booze blast. And the grape must that Odell added to its Amuste imperial porter was smooth enough to make it stand out in a room of darks.

3) The new generation of double IPAs are far more earthy and astringently bitter than their forebears. Classics of the style, such as Firestone Walker's Double Jack and Avery's Maharaja were assaulting in their citrus-fruit and flower-petal qualities, making them dangerously easy to enjoy. But the new breweries on the block have a different idea.

Gravity Brewing's Acceleration Double IPA, for example, showed off its 9.8% ABV in the most malt-forward way possible. And Telluride Brewing's Fishwater Double IPA presented a caramel initial taste before rolling out its bitterness gradually. Both were head-turners in their surprisingly non-citrus character, though it's yet to be seen whether they were unique to the style or the new - and slightly less approachable - standard bearers.

4) Sometimes the hype is worth it. For the most part, the Fearless Tasting Crew avoided long GABF lines in favor of exploring unknown breweries, and it's never stood in line for hours to get a ticket for one 10-oz. pour. But on Saturday, two almost cliched offerings really stole the show.

Crooked Stave - it of the ridiculous lines at every festival where it's pouring - put up the best beer of the fest with Sentience, a tart wild quad whose whiskey-barrel aging accented its sharpness perfectly. And the hands-down best hop bomb there was, yes, Pliny the Younger; Russian River's line-inducing triple IPA was pure benevolence, sliding sweetly over tongues of everyone who made the smart decision to seek it out.

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