The Great American Beer Festival is an overwhelming experience: a cavernous hall in a convention center in downtown Denver packed with 50,000 people and 3,500 beers to be sampled one ounce at a time.
It is as all-encompassing as the name suggests; an annual survey of beer in the United States, with MillerCoors and Sam Adams sharing the stage with tiny one- or two-barrel nanos. Seven hundred-plus breweries from all parts of the country, assembled in one place for four days.
With that many pouring stations and that many people, it’s impossible to get to every brewery you want to try. And tasting the beers one ounce at a time in such a noisy, crowded, hectic room isn’t what you could call optimal for qualitative analysis. But borne past the silent disco and Snyder’s Pretzels booth on rip currents of costumed, beer-goggled (both literally and figuratively) humanity, one does the best one can, and types cryptic notes with one’s thumb in one’s My GABF app. Here, then, are my standouts from 2014, in no particular order:
At the Brewer’s Reception the night before the first session, at an outdoor pouring station just downstream of the funk band (I don’t know what it is with brewer’s receptions and funk bands, but it seems to be a thing), this bright, tart, and salty little gem started the fest off right.
Scratch Burdock-Ginger Saison
From a nano in rural Illinois, Scratch brought a flight of beers that used no hops. With nothing to it but to gruit, I drank my way down the table and this peppery, pungently spicy saison was my favorite.
The hop-jaded palate of my IPA-snob buddy from Oregon was impressed with the bottled Saga being sampled. I like it too, but I knew that without having to go to Denver. Brewer Mike Lundell was spotted in the crowd, but was disappointingly not wearing a pretzel necklace.
It’s more or less a crime to have to drink this decocted dark lager from Prost’s beautiful old German brewhouse in one ounce increments, because it’s so good it deserves at least a half-liter. This malt-complex Dunkel is now available here in the Twin Cities, so consider yourselves warned.
Over in the Pacific Northwest aisle of the hall, Chuckanut was pouring their own line of Bavarian lagers, and I had seconds (thirds?) of their bright, gently sulfury, and deliciously Pils-malty Helles.
Cellarmaker Otto’s Backpack
Always a sucker for a Simpson’s reference, San Francisco’s Cellarmaker brought a pale ale with this name. It was dank and resinous with undertones of sweet fruit, and probably would not be allowed to drive a school bus.
Rare Barrel Cosmic Dust
This gold-medal winner out of Berkely is an oak-aged golden sour ale with hibiscus, fermented with Brettanomyces and Pediococcus. Earthy and mildly funky, shot through with sour cherry-like tartness.
Live Oak Grodziskie
Live Oak out of Austin, TX, is always good for German beers—I’m a fan of their Hefeweizen and Czech Pils, but this low gravity, Polish style ale made with smoked wheat malt was a scene stealer. Light-bodied and spritzy but with a very pronounced smoke phenol character (campfire, not bacon-ham as with Bamberg-style Rauchbiers).
Congrats to all the local brewers who entered—I look forward to drinking your efforts in increments larger than one ounce, and in a more intimate setting this fall & winter.