Monday, September 28, 2015
The recently concluded edition of the Great American Beer Festival brought us more breweries serving more beer and winning more awards than ever before. And the one-directional trends of years past (everything is hoppier or more sour or more barrel-aged) seemed to give way both to a willingness to experiment in new directions and to bring a broad swath of beers that weren't all meant to overwhelm you.
It's hard then to denote certain beers as the absolute stand-outs among such a varied presentation, especially when the Brewers Association already does such a good job with its medals. But, as always, I will do my best to try to call attention to a few that this beer writer will be thinking about long after I wash out my new tasting cups and toss away my wrist bands.
Best in Show: Vanilla Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout
At a time when everybody is making their own bigger, bolder, barrel-aged creation, Goose Island has set the bar with this giant stout (13.8% ABV) aged in unique barrels (rye whiskey) with the addition of Mexican and Madagascar vanilla beans. It is huge. It is sweet, with a backtaste of bitter rye. And it warms you as it goes down. When I mentioned several of my favorite finds to a bus tour of beer writers during the festival, this was the one that received several nodding heads and thumbs up. The secret's out: Goose Island has exceeded its original Bourbon County Brand Stout and is waiting to see who can catch up with it.
Best Traditional Sour: New Belgium NBB Love Felix
It seems somewhat odd to call out the wild ale that serves as a base beer for Le Terroir, especially when that gem of a dry-hopped sour was being served at the same booth. But at a time when breweries are trying to ramp up their tartness or even bourbon-barrel-age their sours (a bad idea, based on results so far), this golden and tart beer comes across as clean and crisp and puckery in an almost pristine way. It's a reminder of what Colorado's largest brewery does so well.
Best Non-traditional sour: Odd 13 Brewing Humulus Kalecumber
You might say that kale and cucumber and (muted) mint are not ingredients you want in your beer. But you would be very, very wrong. This rising star from Lafayette broke down doors with this tart and yet soothing vegetable beer based on a Berliner weisse. It was fascinating and yet very drinkable, and it served notice one again that this is a brewery to be watched.
Best Dark, Non-Barrel-Aged Beer: Funky Buddha First Snow
Both coconut and coffee are becoming more common ingredients in porters, but few beers have ever put them together in a way that this sweet and zingy and mouth-filling creation does. Funky Buddha was one of the hot breweries at the festival this year. Its reputation appears well-deserved.
Best Hoppy Beers
Fat Head's Brewery of Ohio took home three gold medals, including for its black IPA and its double red ale, but its truly artistic hop bomb was its Hop Juju Imperial IPA, a wonderfully full effort that was as hop-forward as one could be without being biting. But Port City Brewing - this year's small brewing company of the year - proved that great hoppy efforts also come in slightly smaller-IBU packages, as its Monumental IPA set the standard for being flowery without ripping up taste buds.
Best Lighter Effort
Indeed Brewing of Minneapolis offered up an L.S.D. Honey Ale that made full-flavored use of its three initialed ingredients - lavender, sunflowers and dates. But it's the mellow body that lets you breath in the qualities of each that make this the quaffer of the festival.
Most Interesting Experiment
Right Brain Brewery of Traverse City, Michigan, is one of a handful of beer makers specifically from that state that seem to enjoy pushing the envelope in regard to which ingredients can work in a beer. But with its Mangalitsa Pig Porter - a dark, chocolaty beer made with smoked pig heads and bones, it found a way to pour something akin to cocoa bacon java in a glass. And that's a compliment.