Monday, October 22, 2018

Three Cheers for Shelton Brothers and its Jaw-Dropping Collection

Of all the ways to express why Shelton Brothers is America's best beer importer, two moments in particular stood out from a gathering held Friday in an out-of-the-way, semi-decrepit warehouse in north Denver.

One came from Yazan Karadsheh (pictured at left), the founder of Carakale Brewing Company — the first craft brewery in Jordan — who explained how he overcame bureaucratic hurdles, faux competition from big beer and a bout with a black camel spider to establish his business locally. And as he poured a coffee porter brewed with date molasses and cold-conditioned with roasted cardamom and espresso beans, you realized how far the brewing ethos has spread and how it's worth seeking delicious beer in far-off regions to educate ourselves on the bevy of flavors we have yet to try.

The other came as Topher Boehm, head brewer for Wildflower Brewing & Blending of Australia (pictured below), ruminated on creating simple yet spunky wild ales and then re-fermenting them with pinot noir grapes through a process called carbonic maceration where the fermentation literally begins within the grape. The resultant ale was complex yet still supremely easy to enjoy, offering wine characteristics that coalesced with the underlying beer flavor to bring out the best of both worlds.

You could go on about the treasures that were poured at the Shelton Brothers Festival at Denver Rock Drill by 105 different breweries — about half of them domestic and half from from four  continents — but the aggregate impression was this: Shelton Brothers is rewarding daring and creativity. And by signing small breweries from around the world because of their willingness to do things that set them apart from most everyone else in the craft-brewing scene, this Massachusetts importer is spreading the gospel of beer in a way that even the loudest craft-beer evangelists can't.

While many of the beers in the Shelton Brothers collection rarely make it outside their home countries or even their home states, having a distributor allows them to make appearances where they otherwise may not, whether at a two-day event like the Shelton Brothers Festival or at tappings and tastings around the Great American Beer Festival or Big Beers Festival in Breckenridge. Yes, you want, after tasting one sip of Trillium Brewing's Triple Seesaw boysenberry/raspberry/blackberry saison to beg that it find a permanent tap handle in Denver; still, there is a satisfaction in knowing someone can get it here if absolutely needed.

Diving into Shelton Brothers' domestic collection creates a map of hidden gems that you want to seek out when traveling the country. There, for example, is Big Island Brewhaus from Waimea, Hawaii, whose gose fruited with the Brazilian grape jaboticaba brings a new taste to the genre, brilliantly tart and yet refreshing. Or there is Kent Falls Brewing of Connecticut, which artfully blended three years of spontaneously fermented beers into Everything Is Everywhere, which is sugary, tart and sharp without being overbearing in any of those traits.

And the worldwide offerings quite simply ramp up one's level of education. Swiss brewery Trois Dames' Foret Noir bursts onto your tastebuds with an astonishingly tart taste of fermented cherries that peels back to reveal malty and even chocolaty layers of an imperial stout. And after you sense something is just rawer and simpler about the salty and tart flavors in a Ritterguts Gose from Germany, you realize this is very literally the brewery that created the oldest gose style in the world.

You may not have frequent direct contact with beers distributed by Shelton Brothers, but the fact that these guys are doing what they are doing inspires other brewers to create their own unique libations, knowing that fellow style pioneers have found an advocate willing to send them far and wide. And that may be the greatest lesson one can take from a couple of hours of drinking beers whose names and reputations you largely don't know, only to find each are brilliant in their own way.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2018

GABF Alphabetical Challenge Completed

Three beers into the Great American Beer Festival Alphabet challenge, I was doubting myself. A watered-down 2SP Brewing Antonym, a weak 8th Wonder Brewing Boss Beer and an Alaskan Brewing Cranberry Tart that was far less tart than advertised, and I asked, "Am I wasting time letting fate choose my beers at the world's greatest beer festival rather than going for known gold?"

But in just a matter of minutes, I was playing rock, paper, scissors with the bartender at Three Weavers Brewing to get a free hat, feeling better about my embarrassing loss only when I got to enjoy a Festbier that was the tastiest Oktoberfest I had all festival. Then I bent my rules when I got lassoed in by the folks at Beachwood BBQ & Brewing and enjoyed an Amalgamator West-Coast-style IPA (it counted as my "G" beer) that reminded me how well hops can shine in non-hazy beers. And by the time I stumbled onto the taste-bud-awakening Island Baby from Black Star Brewing Co-Op. - a rum-barrel-aged beer re-fermented with pineapple, passionfruit and pomegranate juice - I knew I was on a journey I wouldn't forget.

The GABF Alphabetical challenge, for those who didn't read my pre-festival blog, was a self-created way to end 18 years of run-to-the-hot-brewery routine and soak in everyone at the festival in a way that put every beer on display in a new way. I started at one end of the hall and drank the first beer I saw that began with "A," then "B" and then "C," and so on, to let me soak in the full range of breweries that made the trip to Denver, from the superstars to the little guys pouring two beers.

Throughout the night, I hit a variety of both the big names and those I'd never tried before. And though not every taste was pure bliss, I certainly discovered flavors I otherwise would not have known.

The most astounding find, for example, was Devil Wind Brewing Watermelon Goes of Xenia, Ohio - a brewery that brought just three beers and sat in the comparative shadow of next-door booth Deschutes Brewery, no line in sight. Very share and fruit-forward, this beer may have imbued more flavor from the often-shy watermelon than possibly any beer I've had, and it was a revelation that I never would have found on my own.

Not far away was the Pro-Am booth that I often skip; instead, I found Pillory, an American sour ale brewed with Lacto that not only cut just right but introduced me to Ghost Town Brewing. I knew Bosque Brewing a little but likely wouldn't have stopped to try Open Space Haze and its uber-pineapple flavor with the challenge. Ditto for Reuben's Brews, which offered a Gose that was as sharp and drinkable as just about any gose I found during the show.

Sometimes the excursion took me to places I knew. At Weldwerks, I happened to land on Extra Extra Juicy Bits, a huge, exotic-fruit-laced offering that was as good as any hazy being poured on the floor. At Cigar City, I was almost disappointed to have a beer as familiar as Jai Alai IPA, even as balanced as it was. Then again, at Destihl, the excursion led me away from the fruit beers I seek there so often and toward Dasvidanya, a 12.5 percent ABV Russian imperial stout (though in retrospect, I would have preferred a sour).

Twice I mixed things up. The first time was with the aforementioned Beachwood Amalgamator, and that was a gift. The second time, meanwhile, was when I entered Paired, the food/beer mash-up featuring nationwide knock-out chefs that required me to switch to getting a beer and plate with the next letter in the name of the food or beer rather than starting it.

Yeah, maybe I wouldn't have tried the sea urchin mousse from Big Grove Brewery in Iowa, which proved absolutely as un-pairable as it sounds. And I probably wouldn't have sought out the Oktoberfest from Accomplice Brewing, which was far too weak for the wagyu beef taco with which it was paired.

But I also may not have headed for Armadillo Ale Works' tropical sour, whose sweet notes accented the taste of a rockfish ceviche. And I, well, I probably would have headed anyway for the Barrel-Aged Mocha Snowed In that Copper Kettle Brewing matched up with a chocolate layer cake. And I surely would have gone for J. Wakefield Brewing's sour saison Aren't You a Peach, but, still, it was more than perfect with an olive-oil cake. (And in a note of irony, when I finally reach J. Wakefield on Saturday afternoon, it was tapped when I got there.)

To be sure, there was some bad stuff I found in my wanderings. Chapman's Brewing of Indiana had an IPA, Undaunted, that tasted so much of plastic that I had to take the rare step of dumping it out. Bold Missy Brewery of North Carolina had a honey blonde, 9 to 5, that actually inspired me to write the word "Ugh" in my notes.

(I also was in the right place at the right time to meet the Visit Santa Rosa hop mascot coming out of his changing booth, but that didn't fit into my alphabetical stylings. Still, see the photo above.)

I didn't make it across the entire floor with my adventures. as that is a task that's become increasingly impossible, no matter your pattern for the night. But I hit places I never dreamt I'd hit. And, truth be told, I am thankful that I had that chance.

Would I recommend the GABF Alphabetical Challenge for everyone? No. Most people come once every few years and have a certain amount of breweries they want to hit, and that is something that should bear no shame.

But I would recommend that next year when you're walking across the floor and you see that booth next to the big-name brewery that has no line, stop there. Ask someone about the brewery, if a representative is at the table. Try their beers. Make a new find. This, after all, is what the Great American Beer Festival is all about. And forcing yourself to find that spirit is a noble end.

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