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GABF 2014: Hogshead Brewing, Colorado Cider Company & Too Much Simcoe

“Aaron, the world is your oyster until 5pm” are the words I woke up to on saturday morning in Denver. We were staying with a friend for the weekend – my wife’s friend to be more precise – and they were happy to drive me around to local craft beer spots until the final GABF session began, at which point they could drop me off and have a girls night for themselves.

gabf_hogshead2With the schedule up to me, we headed straight over to one of the  ‘can’t miss’ places I had been hearing about for months – Hogshead Brewery. Much like local favorite Macleod Ale Brewing Co., Hogshead is a brewery known for focusing on traditional British styles – particularly those served from a cask. Obviously this wasn’t a place I could pass up and upon arrival I grabbed a pint of the Double ESB on cask, which was rich with a whiskey-like malt character, but still amazingly drinkable for the higher ABV (for a British style). The conditioning was exceptional as the beer had a great soft carbonation and were cleared quite effectively – which can be disappointingly rare for casks in these parts. 

Outside HogsheadHogshead has the vibe of a true neighborhood brewery, with groups of locals huddled around the bar, while dog owners hung out with their pups on the beautiful big patio – complete with custom cornhole boards and garage doors separating guests from the brewhouse. I went back to the bar for the Ella’s Bitter – an ordinary bitter that would likely be my go-to if I was a local. While certainly not a hop-forward beer, there was a vibrant bitterness to it, and it showed off a North-western US hop character that’s fairly uncommon in this style. It was restained enough to keep it from tilting into American ESB territory, but it certainly got my attention.

Knowing how much ‘beering’ (her word) my wife puts up with on any given day, I decided our next stop would be Colorado Cider Company, where my gluten-intolerant better half could enjoy a few drinks. We had already tasted their ‘Grass-hoppah’ dry-hopped cider w/ lemongrass the day before at Hops & Pie and were very impressed with its complexity. Colorado Cider is a bit hard to find as its buried in the very back of an industrial park, but its got a large comfortable tasting room with a great staff eager to talk about their product – not to mention that an 8-cider tasting flight goes for only $12. Of the ciders offered our favorites were the Glider Dry Cider, as well as the aforementioned Grass-hoppah. The Glider Dry had a fantastic apple character but was dry like a champagne, while the Grass-hoppah gives you a good punch of lemongrass and citrus while still maintaining that crisp dry character. On the other hand, their Pome Mel cyser was a little heavy on the botanicals, with lavender and rosemary creating a perfume character that overwhelmed the apple.

Colorado Cider Flight Heather,  my wife and self-described ‘cider-evangelist’, looked more like a kid at Disneyland as she picked up 5 bottles to bring back to LA, along with a t-shirt and some stickers. Her only regret the entire trip was not also picking up a hat – which I think is an endorsement that speaks volumes. While Southern California has great dry cider coming from Julian, its really a market I would like to see more of at home as the majority of the cider on the shelves are overly sweet.

With time running out before the start of the festival, I was given one final stop before we had to head to the convention center and of course I had to choose the Denver beer institution – Falling Rock Taphouse. Falling Rock was already bustling by 4pm, with special tappings of Avery beers all afternoon. While I ran to the restroom my wife ordered me Avery’s The Beast, which was a little too strong for that moment in time, so I switched over to a Hogshead classic ESB poured from the beer engine. Andy Black from Macleod Ale later described this beer as “it has this finish that just goes on for days” and he’s absolutely right. Its a fantastic beer and it was a relief to have something so quaffable right before the GABF session started.

Hogshead at Falling RockI ended up getting to the convention center a bit late and basically walked right into the festival – barely any line at all. Its was refreshing to have already one session already under my belt so I was a little bit more aware of what was available around the festival and how I should attack things. I immediately headed to Prairie Artisan Ales as they were one of the few breweries to ‘run out’ on Friday night before I could get to them. As a big fan of Prairie overall, I have to say I was a little underwhelmed with their offerings – a couple of sours that I could easily get in California, and a few totally overwhelming barrel-aged beers. I opted for a Funky Gold Mosaic and gulped it down as I wandered into new territory. One frustrating thing about GABF is that all the booths serve their beer from pitchers, which often end up a little flat and warm. Obviously its a bit of a necessity when you serving such a large volume of people, but the Prairie beer lacked any of the effervescence it normally has that carries the tart grapefruit character in the beer so well.

Magnolia BrewingNext stop was Magnolia Brewing, who also participated in Cask Days this year so I wanted to make sure I stopped by to say thanks and try a few of their beers prior to traveling up to Toronto for that festival. They had a pretty wide selection available, from a few bitters to some west coast IPAs and a few darker offerings. At this point there was a crowd in front of the booth but I managed to sample a few solid bitters and a really nice IPA. Its a little disappointing that a brewery like this isn’t able to bring casks to the festival, but I know from experience that the logistics of shipping casks can be a huge headache – lets hope future GABF’s have stronger representation from real ale brewers.

As I meandered by the booth for Singlecut Beersmiths out of Queens New York I immediately recognized their name – Stan Hieronymus tweeted a recommendation of them a few weeks earlier and that in itself warrants stopping for a few tasters. Singlecut became my great find from day two at the festival with a lineup that showcased confidence and consistency in a way very few breweries can. First off was their Kim Hibiscus Sour Lagrrr!, which was light and crisp with a perfectly balanced tartness nicely complimented by hibiscus and black currants. I discussed my opinions on the state of sours at the festival in my last post, and suffice to say that Singlecut certainly falls into the category of breweries that seem to know what they are doing. Next I ventured into their selection of two IPA’s – the 18-Watt and the Full Stack – which really held up to a lot of westcoast offerings. They were two beers that were full of great pine and citrus and managed to pull off that ‘dank’ quality that everyone is looking for but so few from the east coast seem to pull off effectively.

SingleCut BeersmithsIt was refreshing to find an east coast brewery making IPA’s that held up to those from the west coast. Its surprisingly rare, and as more and more breweries try to mimic the West Coast IPA style, the more  I realize that its much harder than it looks. As I wandered the floor of GABF drinking many sub-par IPA’s, there was a common taste in many of them that just wasn’t working – Simcoe. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Simcoe hops and have even brewed with them myself but the bulk of the simcoe-heavy IPA’s being served at GABF were just plain bad. There’s the central flavor in Simcoe – some call it catbox while I would call it more of a musky earthiness, that can be used to great effect when its supported by a solid hop bill. But when that’s the center of your beer without other hops  to balance it out or a strong malt backbone to hold it up, your IPA is going to taste like moldy water. Unfortunately I had a number of simcoe-hopped beers at GABF that suffered from this, and it really soured me on the hop.

Fig FirkinThe rest of my night was spent bouncing back and forth between new breweries and favorites from the day before. I definitely swung by both Two Roads Brewing and Kamala Brewing a few more times but eventually I started to get the urge to just leave and explore Denver a bit more. Saturday night at GABF has an incredibly different vibe to Friday night, with very few brewers present meaning you end up discussing beer with the volunteers serving (which isn’t a bad thing – these volunteers loved beer). Knowing that there were plenty of events happening all over town though, I opted to get out of the festival atmosphere and as I made my way to the exit I came face to face with a firkin propped up on a bar and was pleased to see it was from Figueroa Mountain – the Santa Barbara County brewery that just took 3 GABF medals earlier that day. The firkin was their Lizard’s Mouth Imperial IPA with mosaic and it was fantastic. I was surprised at how few breweries dragged casks along with them, and it filled me with pride one of our local spots were one of the few.

I immediately headed back to Falling Rock and with a brief stopover at the restroom I ran into friends from the Four Brewers podcast and it just so happened they were pouring as part of Dr. Bill’s Tasting event. They invited me over and I suddenly found myself surrounded by some of the best brewers in the country as well as some of the most sought after bottles in the country. We’re talking all the reserve bottles from Firestone Walker, Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout from Cigar City and sours from everywhere you can imagine. This is one of those events at GABF that should simply not be missed – grab a session ticket for Thursday or Friday and make sure your saturday is reserved for this event. Even if you get tasters of a fractions the beers pouring, you will get things that GABF attendee’s only dream of.

With the night getting late I said my goodbyes at Falling Rock and called it a night. Luckily for me I was staying in Colorado until monday so I had a few more days to explore, but the big events were over, and I had my fill of great beer over a fantastic two days at the Great American Beer Festival. There’s a lot of people out there that will complain about GABF – saying that its the Comic-Con of craft, and while that’s absolutely true, the spirit of the event and the organization of the festival make it absolutely worth the trip.

In my last post about The Great American Beer Festival, I recapped my first day in Denver, from Hops & Pie to the convention floor and even my disappointment with a lot of the sour beers being produced these days.

See You Next Year