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The Great American Beer Festival 2012: A Look Back

Sours. Beards. Chili Pepper. Dirndls. Of all the things to expect at the Great American Beer Festival, restraint isn’t necessarily one of them. This is a place where boldness is remembered. Sometimes, for a select few, it’s rewarded with a medal.
Great American Beer Festival 2012
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The buzz for this annual gathering of brewers, distributors, and acolytes began even earlier than usual this year when 49,000 general admission tickets sold out in less than an hour. By October the beer community’s Twitterati was already starting to make predictions and recommendations well before the doors of the Colorado Convention Center swung open for the eager public.

Craft beer pioneer Jack McAuliffe made an appearance along with his New Albion Ale, 110 brewery booths were added to the main festival hall, and an 84th category (Fresh Hop Ale) was added to the list of beer styles in the competition. Even for the seasoned festival-going veteran, this four-day event that typically spills over into various bars and breweries in Lower Downtown, River North, and Capitol Hill, is not something to be taken lightly. It requires a certain amount of dedication to come out on two feet. And no amount of Cicerone training could prepare you to make it through a tasting menu featuring well over 2,000 beers from more than 600 breweries in a modest 92 hours. Honestly, that’s probably for the best.

Besides, Denver’s tribute to American beer isn’t simply about the careful and solemn evaluation of an endless parade of ales and lagers. It’s also meant to be fun. They do call it a festival after all. And people definitely turn up in a celebratory mood. Some of them seem to have been growing mighty beards in anticipation. Others look like they stumbled right out of a Bavarian Oktoberfest. Or Comic-Con. Dave Engbers of Founders Brewing might have summed up GABF—and to a degree, craft beer’s recent history—when he told a roomful of colleagues and journalists: “We don’t really do subtle.” 

Once again, American-style India pale ales, Imperial IPAs, American-style strong pale ales, and American-style pale ales dominated the medal contest in sheer numbers with 551 entries between them, or more than 12 percent of the 4,338 beers entered into the judging. Personally I found Wynkoop Brewing’s Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout more intriguing. Here was a beer advertised to contain seven percent ABV and three BPB, or balls per barrel. There’s a new one. Other stouts impressed me, too (Green Flash’s Silva Stout and Great Divide’s Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout come to mind), but most of all, it was an abundance of complex sours that drew me and scores of other attendees to tables where volunteers poured Gose, Berliner Weisse, American-style Brett Ale, and Belgian-style lambics.

For all of the attention and praise that’s routinely heaped on the many hop-forward ales brewed in the U.S., this year it seemed like the spotlight swiveled away from Humulus lupulus ever-so-slightly, shining a little more light on Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus. Captain Lawrence of New York ended up with a pair of medals for its American-style and Belgian-style sours, but everyone seemed to be talking about the tiny Colorado brewery masterminded by Chad Yakobson.

A meticulous craftsman with a flair for the unexpected, Yakobson decided to focus on a style niche that’s difficult to brew, challenging to market, and expensive to produce. Fortunately for his business as well as the larger craft brewing community, his Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project has thrived in the two years since he started. At the awards ceremony on Saturday, his bourbon barrel-aged wild quadruple took second place in the wood and barrel-aged sour category. Sentience often fades fast at the fest, but interest in his lineup picked up during the final session.

Destihl from Normal, Illinois was another brewery to generate a lot of talk for its pucker-producing products, in particular the sour strawberry, sour apricot, and sour Hawaii-Five Ale, the latter brewed with peach, pineapple, mango, strawberry, and blueberry. To call them pungent is to understate their woody, acidic character. San Antonio’s Freetail Brewing also had fans lining up for its sours and Ananke, Raspberry Ananke, and Fortuna Roja were all memorable samples.

In the end, the White Truffle sour from Goose Island that I tried at the Beer and Food Pavilion on Friday might have been the strangest beer I’ve tasted all year. Intensely funky with a robust body, I couldn’t imagine drinking a pint of the stuff, although I’m sure the Clyburn brewpub would serve it with a well-paired entrée. On the other hand, I found Breakside Brewery’s Passionfruit Berliner Weisse (4.6 % ABV) to be one of the most drinkable beers of the fest, sour or otherwise.

Extremely flavorful beers, however, weren’t limited to sours – 63 coffee beers vied for recognition in the competition, as did 50 smoke beers. Walking the crowded festival floor I counted no less than two-dozen beers made with habanero, jalapeno, poblano, chipotle, or Serrano chilies (not counting any I might have missed). As one would expect, even in a best-of-the-best setting like GABF, some of these were more successful than others. In the new Brewpub Pavilion, I liked the Chili Pepper Ale from McKinleyville, California’s Six Rivers Brewpub, which also paired well with cheese. Lefthand Brewing’s Fade to Black Pepper Porter meanwhile, reminded me of mole in a glass with its smoky, malty, and subtly spicy qualities.

On my way back to the East Coast, I took my seat on the plane and attempted to reflect on the bigger picture. What would motivate a brewer to toss bull testicles into a foreign-style stout recipe? Will style guidelines even matter ten years from now? Where will the next generation of brewers take craft beer? Then I remembered something I heard Jared Rouben of Goose Island Brewing say on Day Two: “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not innovating.” It was a bold statement to make, but then again, I’m pretty sure he knew his audience.