The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is many things to many people. For brewers, it is an unparalleled opportunity to meet other brewers, to trade ideas, and most importantly, offer much needed fraternity to last the underpaid, oft-neglected brewer until next September. For consumers and all attendees alike, the festival is the world's single greatest opportunity to sample beer. Among brewers, it is not overstatement to note that America offers the world's largest and most diverse selection of beers. At the festival, consumers could enjoy traditional styles, including porters, stouts, and pale ales, or test their palates with the products of the unbridled ingenuity of American craft brewers.
The festival also demonstrated that after a few years of tumult, the craft brewing industry remains strong and focused on the future. Building on its continued successes, craft brewers are looking to push past three percent market share. In welcoming people to the festival, Association of Brewers President Charlie Papazian served up a theme for the developing craft beer industry. Papazian called upon brewers to promote their products as helping people to "celebrate and improve the quality of people's lives".
The FESTIVAL GROWS
An event like the GABF also lends itself well to lazy reportage of trivial statistics. So let's get it out of the way. According to Events Director Nancy Johnson, 2600 volunteers helped run five and one-half miles of tap lines for more than 20,000 consumers. During the Professional Judge Panel competition, 102 international judges judged 2004 beers from 386 breweries in 65 different categories.
One of the festival's highlights is the release of the results from the GABF's private panel tasting competition. Judged by a highly qualified group of brewers, writers and brewing industry types, the decisions of the panel are the most eagerly anticipated moment of the weekend. The panel awards gold, silver, or bronze medals to the three beers which best represent each category of beer style as adopted by the Association of Brewers (AOB).
In an encouraging addition to this year's awards convocation, the newly elected mayor of Denver opened the celebration by welcoming brewers to his city. While this might not otherwise be a much noteworthy event, the particular mayor in this case is John Hickenlooper, owner of Denver's own Wynkoop Brewing Company, one of the largest brewpubs in America. In his welcoming remarks, Mayor Hickenlooper noted, "I wouldn't be here if not for beer." He went on to offer that the industry should continue to promote "beer as food". In praising the festival and promising to keep it in Denver, he raised a beer and toasted to brewing industry.
As the awards ceremony began, nervous brewers stood five deep in a crowd around the presentation stage. Adding to the air of nervous interest around the release of the results was a change in the guidelines by which the judges selected the winners. With brewers continually pushing the bounds of brewing, the AOB recently released an updated set of style guidelines to reflect the growing trends towards eclectic twists on beer styles.
While some criticize the AOB for this update, it would be impossible and entirely unreasonable to attempt to fit the range of American brewing creativity into neat, little boxes. The pale ale category is a perfect example. Classic English-style pale ales are known for medium hop bitterness and the use of English hops, such as Fuggles and Kent Golding. When brewers in the Pacific Northwest took hold of this historic style, the result was anything but traditional. Using American hop varieties, such as Cascade and Chinook, American brewers revolutionized the style and made it their own.
Whereas the English-style pale ale was subtle in its hoppiness, American versions often prefer to blister your tongue with a hop assault. In response to this trend, several years ago the AOB created the American-style pale ale category. Each year, brewers continued to up the ante in terms of hop flavor, freshness and bitterness. American-style India pale ales blew beyond the 100 International Bittering Unit (IBU) ceiling and brewers began harvesting hops directly from their own hop fields and immediately dropping them into their brewing tanks.
Similarly, American brewers continue to increase the alcohol content of their pale ales. Each year, a group of India pale ales from some of America's most eccentric breweries pushed the alcohol envelope in the range of eight, nine, and ten percent alcohol. Suddenly, judges began to question whether these beers should be considered IPA's, barleywines or some unknown third style.
In acknowledging the advancement of American beer, the AOB responded by adding several new categories, including the American-style Strong Pale Ale and Imperial or Double India Pale Ale. But for the AOB's decision, it would be nearly impossible for judges to compare beers of relatively low alcohol and hop levels to the hop and alcohol monsters thich now dominate the Imperial IPA category.
The AOB also created a new category in response to brewers' increasing usage of wood and barrel-aging for their beers. This Wood and Barrel-aged category covers "any lager, ale or hybrid beer, either a traditional style or a unique experimental beer that has been aged for a period of time in a wooden barrel or in contact with wood. The brewer ages the beer with the intention of imparting the particularly unique character of the wood and what has previously been in the barrel."
The explosive growth of the wood and barrel-aged category further reflects the growing American drive for inventive brewing. At this year's festival, an astounding 50 brewers entered beers in this category, making the style the fifth largest represented at the festival.
On the festival tasting floor, it seemed as if every other brewer had brought along at least one barrel-aged beer for sampling. The gold-medal winner was the Red Line Bourbon Imperial Stout produced by the Rock Bottom Brewery's Chicago location, a huge beer at 10 percent alcohol by volume (a.b.v.) and 85 IBU's. The brewers used oats in the production of this beer and aged it in Jim Beam barrels. For such a high alcohol level, the beer is very dry, with little residual sweetness. The barrel aging lends characteristic oaky and vanilla aromas. The beer's complex flavors made it an excellent selection for GABF gold.
The Chicago Rock Bottom also brought the Sub Zero Barley Wine, a beer I thought to be one of the year's best during the 2003 Real Ale Festival. The Sub Zero weighs in at 11 percent a.b.v. and 95 IBU's and is aged for one year in wet bourbon barrels. This beer attempts to sneak by you with a straightforward, unassuming orange color. The deep, sharply sweet and almost medicinal aromas are the first indication that something far more sinister lives in this brew. A deep alcohol base washes over the palate on first note, and a pleasant oakiness pervades throughout the brew until a sharp hop finish.
Perhaps the most overlooked barrel-aged beer of the festival was the Wild Turkey Bourbon Stout produced by the Denver Chophouse and Brewery. The brewers use their Oatmeal Stout as the base beer and rack 50 gallons of it to fresh Wild Turkey casks. The beer is served on the handpull at a warmer temperature and pours with an impressive, creamy head. The aroma is intriguing, with a distinct and unexpected light creaminess and subtle oaky and vanilla notes. The beer's flavor is more sweet than bitter, with an enjoyable creaminess throughout, and a light, warming alcohol base. The beer is full-bodied and gains great character from cask-conditioning. While the beer boasts great complexity with multiple layers of flavor, it remains eminently drinkable.
At the festival and throughout the rest of the year, beer geeks intensely debate the decisions of the competition judges. Despite some seemingly perennial choices, including multiple awards for New Glarus Brewing Company in fruit and wood-aged beer categories, and for the Alaskan Brewing Company's Smoked Porter, the judges also provided some fodder for barroom arguments. Much to the amusement of the crowd, Anheuser-Busch's Michelob outlasted 15 other entries to win gold in the European-style Pilsener category. Michelob's offspring product, the Amber Bock, also took a silver medal in the American Dark Lager category.
COORS the CRAFT BREWER?
In an event and competition dominated by smaller craft brewers, perhaps the most interesting story of the weekend came out of a project by one of America's big three. During the weekend, I attended an event at the Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field, owned and run by the Coors Brewing Company. The event heralded the brewery's roll-out of an extension in the Blue Moon line of beers, which began at this pilot brewery. The new addition is a pumpkin beer for autumn, a product with a bit too much spiciness, but otherwise a nice offering. The real story, however, is the beers produced by the Sandlot brewpub for consumption at Rounders, a bar in the ballpark, and at select accounts in the Denver area.
The Sandlot brewery itself is a bit of an enigma. It clearly belongs to Coors, whose name can be found on the pub's signature glassware and on signage throughout the bar. But the pub also produces a compelling and inventive series of ales and lagers. The brewpub continues to brew the Blue Moon products enjoyed throughout the ballpark, including the white and pumpkin ales, and an abbey ale only found at the pub. But the brewers, and its owners, have shown a true dedication to creating flavorful craft beers. In its time, the brewers have produced traditional styles, including spot-on pilsners and a bock beer, and off-beat offerings, such as a peanut butter beer.
For the GABF, the brewery produced a series of one-off beers and entered them in the competition. During the awards ceremony, the efforts of the little pilot brewery were richly rewarded. While on-stage accepting the gold medal in the German-style Pilsener category for their Pinch Hit Pilsener, the brewers learned they had also won a bronze medal for in the Bohemian-style Pilsener category for their outstanding Barmen Pilsner. At the pub, this beer is served carefully and thoughtfully in a sturdy, attractive gold-rimmed pilsener glass. The pour takes several minutes and results in a gloriously layered head, which gives way to ample lacing. The aroma is not quite of Saaz hops, but is zesty and spicy in hoppiness. The beer has a strong malt backbone, is clean in flavor, with a long lasting bitter and spicy hop finish.
After collecting their first two medals, the brewers had barely left the stage, when the presenters called them back for an encore. The brewers won a bronze in the Munich-style Helles category for their Helles of a Play beer. To round out their impressive wins in the highly competitive German lager categories, Sandlot won another bronze in the Bock style for its Carl & Richard's Excellent Bavarian Adventure beer.
While many self-described beer geeks might reflexively scoff at such a performance, the antipathy is entirely misplaced. During my visit, the brewpub offered several solid beers and a few excellent offerings. In all honesty, I had my doubts as well about the seriousness of a brewpub run by a multi-million barrel producing macro-brewery. But I defy beer geeks to name another brewpub that offers two different smoked beers on their beer menu? Or two solid pilseners? Or such a range of ales and lagers? Overall, the performance of this pilot brewery was impressive and offered a welcomed challenge to the mindsets of the craft brewing community.
OUTSIDE the FESTIVAL
At times, it seems as if the festival is nothing more than an excuse to host a series of side events and parties. From the moment of touch-down in Denver, the media schedule is packed from early morning to late evening.
This year's side events included a showing of a new documentary produced about the craft brewing industry. The film, entitled "American Beer", is the brainchild of Paul Kermizian, and combines the quintessential American pastimes of road-trips and beer. The film follows the exploits of four friends who endeavor to tour 38 breweries around the country in 40 days. While the movie certainly does not attempt any compelling narrative on the craft brewing industry or impart any philosophy of brewing or life, it is an entertaining romp through some of America's best known breweries. Any such film is going to include some drunken exploits and this film is no exception. It mixes the tried-and-true elements of drunkenness, debauchery and flatulence, often to comedic effect.
Along the way, however, the troupe manages to interview some well-known individuals in the brewing industry, including Fritz Maytag of the Anchor Brewing Company and Ken Grossman from Sierra Nevada. The vignettes from the trip include some very personal and compelling moments with some brewers. Early in the film, the group meets with the eccentric Ray McNeill of McNeill's Brewery in Brattleboro, Vermont. McNeill, who once aspired to be a professional cellist, offers up some chilling theme music for the visit. The track plays throughout their tour of McNeill's bare-bones brewing setup. McNeill himself notes that he was probably half-cocked to think that setting up a brewhouse in an old three story house was a good idea. During the tour, he shows the group a mess of tangled tap lines he compares to a mess of snakes, how he runs a hose through a hastily cut out hole in the floor to his 22 ounce bottles at the mind-boggling speed of four bottles per minute, and several dark, dingy areas the group looks afraid of going into. This segment, followed by a rather lengthy tasting session which lasted until 3am, shows the love a brewer has for his craft and art, and tells a great story of a classic brewing industry personality.
The film, and the festival itself, lent consumers and brewers alike the feeling that a sense of optimism was building in the craft brewing industry. With stability comes the opportunity for increased creativity, and American brewers continue to push the level of brewing to new bounds. After a few years of downturn, fun has returned to defining the industry as craft brewers look to make a meaningful contribution to the lives of their consumers.