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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What I learned at the biggest beer festival in America

Rare beers come out at rare times

Posted by Eric Doksa on Wed, Oct 5, 2011 at 4:00 PM

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For the past 30 years brewers and beer advocates from all over the country have been gathering in Denver, Colo., to attend the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). There were three times more beers available at this year’s 30th GABF than there were people in attendance at the first GABF. To put things into perspective, here are some stats from this year’s festival:

• 466 breweries in the festival hall
• 2,375 beers served at the festival
• 49,000 attendees

Notable breweries in attendance from the Southeast included Cigar City Brewing, Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery, Incl., Foothills Brewing, Highland Brewing Company, RJ Rockers Brewing Company, SweetWater Brewing Company, Terrapin Beer Company, and Thomas Creek Brewery.

The festival spans three days with four sessions, including an American Home Brewer’s Association Members-only session. Tickets went on sale June this year and all four sessions sold out in less than two weeks (the member-only session sold out in a day).

A list of breweries and a map of the festival was released in early September, followed by a complete list of all 2,375 beers just 1 day before the first session. I spent quite a bit of time reviewing the beer list and map to come up with a plan of attack for both sessions that I was attending. The planning paid off.

When I showed up to the Friday afternoon session an hour before doors opened there was a line wrapped around the Denver Convention Center. More than half the people in line were wearing necklaces garnished with pretzels, jerky, and funions. Groups dressed up as Waldos, athletic teams, Vikings, and German Oktoberfest attendees. There were even belts and necklaces designed to hold the single beer cup that you receive — which, by the way, must be guarded like it’s your child.

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Although the line was over a mile a long, it moved quickly and I was in the door being handed a small plastic cup within 20 minutes. The GABF representatives make it very clear that if you break or lose your cup, you will not get another one. The plastic cups do not break easily, but hundreds of people in the surrounding area will cheer and applaud if your cup hits the ground. In order to avoid the embarrassment, I went straight to the Oskar Blues tent and grabbed a free can necklace, which conveniently holds the little plastic cup.

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For the members-only session you are given an actual glass.The glass would not fit into my can of Oskar Blues Ten Fidy, which was hanging around my neck. Paranoid about shattering my glass, I found the Beer Caddy stand and purchased a brilliant necklace with a metal ring that would hold my beer in place. It may sound cheesy but it was a lifesaver.

At the festival there was an interesting spread of vendors and entertainment. Wahl had a free “grooming consulting” kiosk setup. Here you could get a free shave or haircut. Another booth offered free massages. There were many food vendors, bookstores, and even karaoke stages. Oskar Blues setup a silent disco, which was entertaining to watch. A DJ spun tunes and about 70 people danced while wearing wireless headphones.

But I was most interested in the beer. After solving my cup problem, I pulled out the map and went straight to my starting point, which happened to be Firestone Walker Brewery out of Paso Robles, Calif. (won three gold medals). This is where I first learned that rare beers will come out at specific times throughout the event. I wanted to try the Parabola, an Imperial Russian Stout, but was told it would be available at 2 p.m. I opted for the Double Jack, which was a nice double IPA with bold citrus flavors alongside sweet malt and hints of pine. I jotted down the time that Parabola would be available, which turned out to be an excellent Imperial Russian Stout, and moved into the next brewery on my list.

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This turned out to be a recurring theme. I ended up with a list of rare beers and the times they would be available. I was able to try a handful of them, but missed several. Keeping note, I was able to prepare for the Saturday members-only session. When I entered the convention center on day two, I immediately went to each of the breweries on my rare beer list and noted the times the beers would be available. This list included what was likely the most rare and expensive beer at the festival, Sam Adams Utopias.

The 2011 Utopias is an American strong ale that is blended from liquids from up to 18 different years of wood casks. It has little to no carbonation and boasts a high 27 percent ABV. It drinks more like a glass of bourbon than beer. With only 53 barrels produced, a bottle of Utopias starts at $150, if you can get your hands on one. With the first smell I could tell this one was going to be sweet, yet strong with notes of caramel and cinnamon. Taking the first sip I could taste vanilla, maple, and sherry with a burning alcohol kick at the end. Needless to say, I sipped on this one for a while. The only thing that could’ve made it better is if I had a cigar in hand.

Other notable beers with special release times included The Bruery Black Tuesday, Three Floyds Zombie Dust, New Glarus Raspberry Tart, Ithaca Le Bleu, FiftyFifty Eclipse, and Kern River Citra DIPA.

After I got my fill of every beer on my list I decided to try out some smaller, lesser-known breweries and brewpubs. Here I learned to not underestimate anyone, whether you’ve heard of them or not. The Brew Kettle Taproom from Strongsville, Ohio, blew me away with White Raja IPA. The IPA gave off a tremendous aroma of tropical and citrus fruits. The flavor was of grapefruit and pine, with a dry finish. At only 70 IBUs, it wasn’t as bitter as a lot of the west coast IPAs and was very drinkable.

The most unexpected brewery of the festival was Rocky Mount Brewery out of Colorado Springs. They brought all of their latest fruit beers: Key Lime Cheesecake, Michigan Cherry Pie, Eat a Peach, and Blueberry Cobbler. Typically, when I hear names like these, I imagine a lighter beer with a slight fruit taste, but that was not the case. Each of these beers gave off bold flavors. Like biting into fresh fruit. The Key lime cheesecake not only gave off lime and cream cheese flavors, but you could taste a graham cracker crust. The Michigan cherry pie was sweet and tart and tasted like a freshly baked pie. The news spread and the line to try these beers was continuously long. I got in line four times myself.

Speaking of long lines, Cigar City Brewing had the longest line throughout the festival. Every day, every hour there was a line of at least 30 people waiting to try one of their many delicious beers. I myself opted for the Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Brown Ale, which smelled and tasted exactly as you would want it to be — like a homemade oatmeal raisin cookie.

I was able to get my sour fill from many fine breweries such as Ithaca, Russian River, New Glarus, and The Bruery. But the winner was Lost Abbey, which brought three mouth puckering, delicious beers: Framboise de Amorosa, Red Poppy, and Veritas 008. I’m hoping that one day these beers make their way to South Carolina.

The festival also holds competitions in every beer category. For a full list of awards you can check out the Great American Beer Festival website, but let’s give some props to the Southeast:

American-Style Wheat Beer: Schweat — SweetWater Brewing Company — Gold
Rye Beer: Crank Tank — SweetWater Brewing Company — Bronze
Extra Special Bitter: Minaret ESB — Cigar City Brewing — Gold
Barrel Aged Strong Stout — 2010 Bourbon Barrel Aged Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout — Foothills Brewing — Silver

And to all you the lager and light beer drinkers, here’s an interesting outcome:

Old Milwauke Light — Pabst Brewing - Gold
Busch Light - Anheuser-Busch - Silver
Pabst Blue Ribbon — Pabst Brewing - Bronze

Pabst Brewing also took home the gold for large brewing company.

It was unfortunate that Charleston didn’t have a presence at the festival, as people would’ve lined up to try COAST’s Barrel Aged Blackbeerd or Westbrook’s Cowboy Meets Farmer, but it made me smile every time someone asked where I was from and when I said “Charleston” they would ask if I’ve been to The Charleston Beer Exchange or what I think of the local breweries. There’s no question that Charleston is regarded as a highly respected beer city, and even destination.

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The weekend couldn’t have come to a better end than running into Co-Founder and CEO of Stone Brewing Company in the security line at the airport. He was happy to see I was wearing a Stone hoodie and gave me a copy of his latest book, The Brewer’s Apprentice, which is a great read for home brewers.

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In the end I realized it’s impossible to try all 2,375 beers in less than three days. Ninety unique beers, several gallons of water, a lot of scrumptious eats later, and I’m already planning the trip back to Denver for the 2012 Great American Beer Festival. If you’re a beer lover, mark your calendar for October 11th -13th 2012. This is an event you cannot miss. Trust me.

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