Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Best of the GABF, 2013

What stood out about the recently completed Great American Beer Festival was that so many beers stood out, maybe more than at any time in the past 10 years. And what's more, beer aficionados didn't have to wait in the 70-person lines at the hottest breweries to find experiments that were both fascinating and extremely well done.

With that said, here is one beer geek's opinion about the best the industry showed off in Denver this past weekend. I've deviated from past formats by failing to narrow it down to just one beer in several categories because, well, too many beers deserve recognition.

Best in Show: CHP, Heretic Brewing
This is almost a random pick with so many equally worthy contestants, but this northern California brewery's chocolate hazelnut porter was the most surprising and refreshing find of the weekend. At a time when more brewers are stepping up their games with use of chocolate, this offered the perfect blend of nuttiness and sweetness in a beer that went down smoothly and made you want to try it over and over again.

Best with Hops: Muffin Top (Clown Shoes) and Fan Boy (Elevation Beer)
The push to over-hop beers seems thankfully to have been replaced by a push to add new flavoring to go with big hops. And these two seemed to lead the way in that respect.

Muffin Top is a Belgian Tripel IPA from Massachusetts, blowing your taste buds with the sweet ester of a strong Belgian beer combined with mouth-consuming grassy hops. Fan Boy is a soon-to-be-released (if the government gets its act together) barrel-aged double IPA from Poncha Springs that imbues oak and vanilla through its big, bold character in a way that may even appeal to non-hopheads.

Best Traditional Sour: Salado Kriek, Freetail Brewing
This San Antonio brewery's kriek is both eye-openingly tart and wonderfully fruity, leaving it cherry-like and sharp at the same time.

Best Barrel-Aged Sours: Saint Dekkera Reserve Sour Paw Paw Ale (Destihl) and Farmer's Reserve No. 3 (Almanac Beer)
To hell with cherries. Breweries from across the countries are throwing rare fruits and fruit blends into barrels and producing complex and pucker-worthy beers of unique flavor.

Destihl, the barrel-aging masters from central Illinois, outdid themselves with their use of the "prairie banana" to  make a very tart effort that leans somewhere between a citrus and sweeter fruit but satisfies immensely. San Francisco's Almanac, which earned its reputation as one of the "it" beers of the festival, brought strawberries and nectarines together and kept you guessing what you were tasting.

Best Aged Non-Sours: Dragon's Milk Reserve - Smaug's Breath (New Holland Brewing) and My Turn Series: Chris (Lakefront Brewery)
 The increasing diversity of aged beers may be the biggest trend in craft brewing. And two one-off products showed why it should continue.

Michigan's New Holland offered a bourbon-barrel stout made with chile that left you with two extreme tastes surprisingly blending in your mouth rather than competing for your attention. Milwaukee's Lakefront rolled out a vanilla maple doppelbock - not barrel-aged, but aged naturally for 10 months to give it smoothness - that allowed the vanilla to mellow the maple while putting forth both tastes.

Best Unique Additives, Colorado Style: Basil Blonde (Copper Kettle Brewing) and Card Your Mom Saison (Caution Brewing)
Colorado isn't the only state using herbs and spices to liven up beers. But these two Denver breweries deserve a special call-out.

Copper Kettle's addition of basil allows the taste to permeate the blonde ale and give it an earthy, sweet feel without overdoing it or, most importantly, teasing you to the point where you can't taste it. Caution's cardamom saison offers flavors both big and exotic and raises the question of why there aren't more breweries trying Middle Eastern and Asian ingredients.

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