And the Beat Goes On – GABF 2019
Photo © Brewers Association
by Warren “BeerSensei” Monteiro
GABF has come and gone like a flashy comet, but the memory of five days in Denver lingers on. My game plan is always to arrive a day early and stay a day late. That way I can grab a big piece of Denver Beer Week as well. Sounds like bragging, but it’s thirsty work.
First stop was an early run at the changing lists at Falling Rock Taphouse. Two board changes later, we steered back west to 16th street for Blue Sushi Grill delights. (Gotta eat.) Then around the corner to sample the scintillating Freshcraft list. Too soon it’s time to float back to our hotel behind the station, but on the way there’s Whole Foods craft beer bar featuring Colorado beers only. Why fool around? So much for Wednesday.
Thursday starts with an Avery product launch of light and breezy low carb sessionish products. Barrel Program head Andy Parker introduced us to Stampede (4.5%, 10 IBUs), a crisp gold lager; Rocky Mountain Rosé (4.4%, 5 IBUs, 10 carbs), a sharp, weightless grape and grain backyard hybrid; and a pilot batch of summery Pacer IPA (4.5%, 25 IBUs, 3.5 carbs!). They’re keeping it local, but some may well find their way into the Philly market. To show what he’s made of, Andy finished us off in old school Avery fashion with a Barrel Aged Series PB&JStout (14.6%). Time for a walk.
At 5:30 sharp, the 33rd edition of GABF launched as a surprisingly mellow evening. Not as frantic as the number of booths and the following stats would suggest. According to Competition Manager Chris Swersey, this year’s competition was “the largest and most competitive to date” with 9497 entries from all 50 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the USVI. Pro-Am and Collaboration entries brought the number even higher.
The breadth of brewer preference this year jumps right out. Juicy or Hazy IPA, a category that didn’t even exist until last year, had the highest number of entries at 348. Of course, American Style IPAs, were right behind them at 342, but the surprise (though not to me) was Category 25, Fruited American-Style Sour Ale at 215 entries, a clear challenge to IPAs in general. German-Style Pilsners increased the surprise factor at 183, with Imperial IPAs at 173 rounding out the still-dominant, but now challenged, general style of IPA.
What’s out there beyond those brewery booths? Wandering about, we discovered Ken Grossman’s first Sierra Nevada brew kit, a small and lonely inspiration to us all. Small acorns into mighty oaks, etc. And nearby, further exhuming our yeasty memories was the History of Craft diorama. Its interactive timeline ended with video excerpts from Charlie Papazian’s pioneering craft brewer interview project. All in all, a great nod to the infancy of our craft and a project which should grow and grow.
For more recent history digging, the Heavy Medal tasting booth highlighted over 110 past award winners, including World Beer Cup winners. The State Guilds Pavilion proudly hosted tastes from boothless breweries across the U.S. Collaboration booths for both Pro-Am and BA brewers only blurred the lines between Pro and Am. The overwhelming choices across the board dictated either old favorites, unusual styles, or a hazy name from the past. So little time, really, to get a firm handle on the size of American brewing.
Jameson Caskmates stayed packed, with even more eccentric collaboration beers this year. My preferences tend towards getting that whiskey cask taste out there. Stouts like Green Flash, San Diego Bomber Jacket (10%) San Diego, CA and Old Ales like Black Abbey Old 95 (8%) from Nashville, TN fared best with me, comfortably coating my palate, even at a 1-oz pour.
The carnival aspects are still around. On the sweet candy side, Oskar Blues Silent Disco still thrives, infinitely preferable to the new Karaoke Stage, where much alcohol provokes little shame. A bluegrass stage was really entertaining but sadly hard to hear except ringside. We heard talk of launching a hard soda booth next year, which should produce some healthy debate.
The long booth queues continued with a couple of new stars, though the massive space was well arranged to take it. Rhinegeist (Cincinnati, OH)) was a huge hit with the crowd as was Area Two, the funky spinoff of Two Roads (Stratford, CT). Deschutes innovatively had four lines serving four beers each, shortening that dreaded wait. The Abyss (11.4%) took me out the door!
Friday’s Sam Adams Breakfast celebrated their recent merger with Dogfish Head (their “Renaissance moment” as Dogfish’s Sam Calagione calls it). After a video greeting from Sam Adams founder Jim Koch from Munich Oktoberfest, Calagione and the two respective master brewers explained their new release CollaBEERation (5%). I’d call it half reinheitsgebot (trad Adams pils), half reinheitskaput (non-trad Dogfish hopping and honey). Very smooth and drinkable; the honey notes are especially tasty. Sam says it symbolizes the “hexagon of the hive”. They also heralded the October 15 release of 2019 Utopias (28%). This year’s perks are an added madeira barrel blend and a pinch of Kozmic Motherfunk. It should retail starting at about $210. But watch out – it’s illegal in 15 states.
That afternoon, the Alpha King Challenge named Alvarado Street Brewery, Monterey, CA as this year’s winner. Their Double Cone Double IPA (8.5%, 110 IBUs) also won Imperial IPA Gold the next day at the awards ceremony.
PAIRED ate up (and drank up) most of GABF Friday evening. The beer+food event’s ambiance maintained its energy. Tasty portions seemed more manageable (and balanceable) than last year. Trusty servers cleaned out our glasses every time (I like this a lot). The space is the same, but it was somehow easier to thread the needle and find our first, second, third choices. Chef Adam Dulye scores big again.
Saturday was awards day. Award medals were totally spread out. Top winner with 3 medals was Rowley Farmhouse Ales, Santa Fe, NM, and none of them were IPAs. Should we even guess? All 3 were sours: (G) Meier German-Style Sour Ale (5%), (S) Agent Orange Apple Brandy Barrel (7.2%) and (B) Cote d’Or Double Cerise Mixed-Culture Brett Beer (6.4%). Here is a clear indication how craft brewers are deliberately widening their palates, a very good thing indeed. Check Rowley’s full product array online for a better idea.
It’s exciting how few of the winners you wind up recognizing out of this vast field. With 324 medals awarded, including Pro-Am and the new Collaboration Competition, turns out I had only tasted beers from 59 winning brewers. Forget about the other 2,236 submitting beers for judging. It’s a whole other world out there, approaching 7,500 these days. What’s more, I don’t remember any of those pesky 1-oz pours here that wasn’t drinkable. It’s why we keep coming back.
Let’s face it. This town turns lonely wanderers into greedy animals. A sumptuous dinner of prairie fare awaited us at Buckhorn Exchange, where we were chuffed to sit next to Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley (their traveling-show equivalents). This gave way to a full tasting of Oenobeers at Liberati Osteria (see last issue’s sumptuous summary) after which host Alex invited us to a paired dinner the next day. A lengthy stumble next found us in front of Falling Rock for a nightcap consisting of Firestone-Walker 2015 Parabola (14%) and Anniversary XX (13%). Wait – let’s do a real finisher with Avery Mephistopheles 2015 (14.666). And share. The hotel’s this way, isn’t it?
After a Sunday crawl down east Blake Street (sours at River North Blake Street Taproom, taster trays at 14er Brewing and a quick shorties around the corner at Epic) we climbed the stairs at Bierstadt Lagerhaus, where there awaited their celebrated Slow Pour Pilsener (5.2%) and a starter of fried polenta bites with taleggio cheese sauce. This led easily to a coffee crusted slab of ribeye bolstered by Alex’s Red Giant Dubbel Oenobeer (10% abv with 40% syrah grapes). The kicker was the Liberati Special Birramisu dusted with chocolate backed by Franconian Dunkel (6%), also an ingredient. What a way to leave Denver! And with a New Belgium Denver Airport taproom’s Voodoo Ranger (9%) easing us into our redeye flight, we floated to Manhattan like Ulysses back to Ithaca.
And so all adventures must end. What an array of amazing tastes. And it’s kudos again for GABF! As far as we could see, everybody got in easily, everybody floated easily through this year’s feng shui space arrangement, and everybody had a hell of a great time. Come on back for GABF #34 next September 24-26, 2020. Chalk in a couple of extra days for the Denver beer scene.
All the winners of GABF are posted at: www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com/the-competition/winners/; every year of them. Look for the PAIRED menu at www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com/at-the-festival/paired/menu/