I can’t remember why, but attending the Great American Beer Festival was my wife Heather’s idea. Odd, considering she’s gluten intolerant and can only really drink cider, yet for whatever reason last year she proudly declared we were going to attend in 2014, and that it was going to be my birthday, anniversary and Christmas presents all rolled into one. Fine by me of course, and despite spending months planning for it, it was kind of a surprise to find myself exiting a plane into Denver International Airport at noon on the friday of the festival.
Very quickly the altitude hit me, and for the first few hours in Denver I had an ongoing headache that just didn’t seem to go away. We had to wake up early for our flight as well, so the lack of sleep certainly wasn’t helping. But soon we were on the road in our rental car, heading straight over to the area of Denver called Berkeley to visit Hops & Pies, a local craft beer bar and pizzeria, recently made famous by an episode of Diner’s, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Hops & Pies was packed of course and even the bar was standing room only. We grabbed a few drinks (a Cigar City Octoberfest for me, and a local Colorado Cider Co. cider for her) and found an area to wait for our table. The vibe of Hops and Pie’s was clearly effected by the GABF, with everyone around us debating breweries and beers. A somewhat awkward man next to us was attempting to lead an impromptu tasting with a few pretty girls he had just met, while two Canadians nearby debated a new brewery opening up in their small Maritime town. It was a nice transition into the GABF mindset – where everything was all beer, all the time. Eventually we were seated at a table and I ordered what would turn out to be one of the best pizzas I’ve had in a very long time (mozzarella, prosciutto and arugula), and a selection of tasters from a variety of breweries including an excellent Peach Berliner from Perennial Artisan Ales (St. Louis, MO) and a couple of Pale Ales from 10 Barrel (Bend OR) and Station 26 (Denver CO).
As we were wrapping up, ready to trek down to the convention center to get in line, I overheard the waitress mention that they had run out of a specific beer, replacing it on tap with a Crooked Stave / Firestone Walker collaboration - Sour Plum. It wasn’t until then that I realized that I was about to jump into one of the best beer weekends I could imagine – where a special beer like this just happens to get tapped. I quickly flagged her attention and ordered a taster of the limited edition beer. Sour Plum lived up to the pedigree of both of its breweries, being beautifully tart yet not overly acidic, great flavor from the plums and a perfectly dry finish – but most of all that color – look at that beautiful red nectar.
With my headache still lingering and my body sluggish from lack of sleep, we stopped by a coffee shop nearby and I grabbed a bottle of Corvus Hopped Coffee. Having recently been turned onto coffee with hops, I was eager to try this offering from the Colorado roaster and it didn’t disappoint. The hops were perfectly integrated into the coldbrew, giving it a nice citrus notes that you would never know were hops if you didn’t know they were there.
Of course, by this time we were running a little late, and after an emergency phone charge in the rental car, we got into line at the convention center – a line that snaked around the building for what looked like miles. The organizers aren’t new at this thought, and as the doors opened we quickly found ourselves inside the convention center, plastic cups in hand.
Entering GABF for the first time is totally overwhelming and maybe I was naive to not plan ahead at all. I glanced around at the visible booths – what should I try first? Should I be tracking the whales? Or should I move through regions at a time? But instead something familiar caught my eye and walked over to the El Segundo Brewing booth and got a taste of their Schot In The Donker saison, a beer I’ve been meaning to try for a while. This is a surprisingly classic saison from a hop-focused brewery, with a slight tartness that really rounded it out. With one beer in me I just decided to just start exploring, grabbing a taster whenever something jumped out at me.
How does one summarize 3000 beers exactly? At a certain point it becomes a little redundant. Suffice to say, GABF is filled with some great beer, a lot of mediocre beer, and quite a bit of bad beer. Ultimately, its a microcosm of the craft beer scene as a whole and you need to wade through a lot of average stuff to find something really special.
What jumped out for me on the Friday session? Well I’m a big fan of the Austin beer community having spent some time there for SXSW, and Kamala Brewing‘s Bitterama Ordinary Bitter w/ Earl Grey tea was a huge standout for me, to the point that the assistant brewer T.J Swanson started to just reach for the Bitterama pitcher each time I came back. The tea does not overwhelm the bitter at all, and compliments some of the grassy qualities in the hops (in a similar way that hops compliment that coffee from earlier). Kamala also had a pretty great rendition of a west coast IPA, which TJ describes as having “all the best hops”, as well as a nice dry saison fermented with a blend of Dupont yeast and Wyeast 3711.
It was breweries like Kamala that became my ‘whales’ for the festival. Places that have some local hype (Kamala’s Bitterama won a GABF gold last year), but don’t have the distribution to make a splash outside of their region. As you walk around the GABF floor you start to see the more hyped breweries form lines that stretch right across the aisles to the point where you can’t be sure where one line starts and the other stops. Any craft beer fan could predict which breweries these are: Russian River, The Bruery, Wicked Weed, etc – mostly American sour breweries doing special releases. I realize we’re spoiled in California, but I can’t imagine waiting 20 minutes in line for 1 oz of Supplication. Its a great beer but in a room of 3000 beers, standing in line just feels so silly.
And the sours were everywhere! It seemed like just about everyone is brewing some kind of fruited tart beer – to the point where blogs are now saying sours will replace IPAs as the go-to style. While this could very well be happening, the issue I’m seeing is that the quality of sours is suffering significantly. I stopped by the Rare Barrel booth and grabbed their Egregious , a dry-hopped sour. I have yet to try anything from this brewery and I’ve got to say I was pretty disappointed. This beer tasted like pickle brine, and as a long line formed around their booth my thoughts on lining up for breweries at GABF were cemented – just not worth it.
Later in the evening, once Heather retired to the Designated Driver Lounge (GABF knows how to take care of their DD’s by the way), I ran into Sarah Bennett from Beer Paper LA and we explored the north eastern breweries where we found Destihl – you know, the canned sour brewery. Everyone’s excited about this place so we jumped right in. While their “Here Gose Nothin” was a fairly standard, easily accessible gose, their “Flanders Red” was far too sour, tasting more like sour candy than exhibiting the tart wine-like richness you expect from the style. Its a problem that kept popping up all through the festival – everyone is eager to make a sour, but it doesn’t seem like anyone knows how to balance them out. Its one of the biggest takeaways for me from GABF – the American sour industry is booming, but the quality is heading towards the gutter.
Of course, there’s always exceptions to the rule, which Sarah and I quickly discovered when she led me to Two Roads Brewing (Stratford CT) where we tasted their Philsamic, a sour ale made with balsamic vinegar which was the sour highlight of my day. The balsamic brought out such a richness that helped to balance the puckering qualities of the beer. It had the depth and nuance that was missing from just about every other sour I had at the festival.
All soured-out I wandered back to the Pacific of the festival and caught up with friends from Southern California. Its nice to hit up an area of the festival where suddenly you recognize the faces and can drink something a bit more familiar. Evan at Noble was serving up Galaxy Showers and Naughty Sauce, Tom from King Harbor was slinging the Swirly to lot of excited beer fans, and our friends at Smog City showcased their pretty-much-perfect Coffee Porter as well as the Chip Shot version, which every GABF volunteer I spoke to was raving about.
As last call loomed, we decided to pack it in. I had been awake for a very long time, I was recovering from a cold and the altitude had taken its toll – not to mention I had an entire second session on Saturday to enjoy.
Next Up: My Saturday in Denver, including visits to Hogs Head Brewing, Colorado Cider Co., Falling Rock Taphouse, The Saturday Night Session of GABF and Dr. Bill’s Bottle Tasting.