Saturday, October 22, 2016
Yes, there was creativity in the envelope pushers once again at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival, in those creations that dialed up the hop bitterness, the wild sourness or the alcohol content. But there was something else underneath of that typical striving this year as well.
Some of the best offerings were subtle. Or were peppered with unique flavors, even if they were not the most extreme beers. They were an evolution unto themselves - a new way in which beer tastes continue to change and break through new boundaries.
And, in recognition of the week-long celebration that the GABF has become, I've expanded this annual list to include beers found at events outside of the Colorado Convention Center walls as well. These are the beers still running through my mind and taste buds even two weeks later - and beers I will seek out until the festival returns to Denver next year.
Best in Show: Funky Buddha Aged Chocwork Orange
Served at the Denver Rare Beer Tasting, this 11 percent offering was a stunning blend of heft - an imperial milk porter - and sweetness, as this Florida brewery made the deft choice to age it six months in Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels and infuse it with whole cocoa nibs and orange peel. The orange dominated the nose and the mouthfeel, but all of the ingredients combined to taste like one of the most sophisticated and intricate chocolates you would ever try - in beer form. True genius.
Best on the GABF floor: Rare Barrel Dubious Nights
Tequila barrels can add an intriguing flavor, but they also can be overwhelming. As a vessel for this California brewery's dark sour, though, the barrel effectively electrified the sour notes without making the tartness pulverizing. You were left with a fantastic sensory experience.
Best Hop Bomb: Weldwerks Double Dry Hopped Juicy Bits
With all the hype surrounding the Greeley brewery, the GABF was a good time to really test out its signature beer against the rest of the country. And at a tasting at The Lobby, this New England-style IPA stood up to any hoppy beer being poured, offering an earthy citrus body worth sinking your teeth into but rearing back to just 55 IBUs in order to keep it palatable.
Best Subtle Hop Bomb: Alvarado Street Mai Tai PA
If the pale ale truly is making a comeback, this silver-medal winner from California in the international-style pale ale category is a poster child of why. Flush with grassy overtones and a citrus bite but imbued with a medium body, this is the kind of hoppy beer you can drink all night without burning out taste buds.
Best Sour Bomb: Two Roads 2015 Kriek, aged 18 months in oak barrels
There was nothing subtle about this offering, which greeted you with a sharp cherry bite that managed to accent both the fruit flavors and their sour quality without being acerbic. It hit like a ton of bricks. And it was phenomenal.
Best Beer Darker Than Night: Mockery Brewing Party at the Moon Tower
The little Denver brewery in the RiNo neighborhood has made a bevy of unique offerings but none that put all of its talents together quite like this bourbon-barrel-aged porter with Madagascar vanilla beans. It presented a serious whiskey overtone with a soothing, almost sweet vanilla flavor that landed right when you needed it on the back of your tongue.
Most Surprising Beer: Sam Adams Rebel Juiced IPA
When Jim Koch introduced this new year-round IPA at the annual Sam Adams brunch and said it was blended with mango juice, it sounded like a bad gimmick. Then you put it to your nose and smelled a Hawaiian tropical drink. And then you put it in your mouth and realized that the juice added just enough of a subtle sweetness to make this dangerously drinkable and unique without being cloying. And then you realized, "Oh, this is why they're still at the top of their game."
Most Surprising Trend: Subtle sour-mash fruit beers
Across the GABF floor, breweries were pouring what could be termed gateway beers to the sour genre but stood out in their own right as eminently drinkable and outstanding offerings. Upstream's elderberry Thug Passion and Black Star Co-Op's Waterloo sour-mash wheat were just two of the standouts in this rising style.
Best Portfolio: Great Divide Brewing
The week began auspiciously with the roll-out of the new Velvet Yeti, a 5 percent nitro stout that may be appropriate as an apres-ski warmer but seemed a distant, smaller cousin of the great Yeti line of beers. But Denver's best brewery then knocked it out of the park with The Smoothness, a Jameson-barrel-aged black lager that soaked in the whiskey flavors but kept them balanced with the malt. And then it made an adambier - a subtle dark German-style offering that also reflected a wonderful oak barrel - as it rolled out a new line of glasses it made with Spiegelau just for barrel beers. Finally, by the time you were sipping Barrel-Aged Old Ruffian barleywine at the Barrel Bar, you realized that Great Divide is on the top of the national game when it comes to its barrel-aging prowess.