Posts Tagged ‘gabf’

Observations from the 2014 Great American Beer Festival

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

GABF logo

Minnesota brewers racked up the medals at the Great American Beer Festival held in Denver, Colorado October 2nd through 4th. Summit’s often underrated EPA took bronze. Indeed’s Mexican Honey took silver. The barrel-aged Buffalo Bock earned a bronze for Town Hall. Bent Paddle took home a well-deserved bronze medal for 14° ESB. And Badger Hill and Steel Toe both won gold – Badger hill for their White IPA and Steel Toe for Wee Heavy.

Indeed, the Heartland region as a whole did well. Wisconsin garnered seven medals. Illinois took an impressive nine. And Iowa earned two. I’m thinking that our upper-Midwestern states will not be considered beer flyover country for much longer.

What is is it about beer people that makes them dress up?

Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association.

Trends

Hops are still king in American beer. India pale ale was the contest category with the largest number of entries for the umpteenth straight year. There was no shortage of hoppy beers in the festival hall. Nearly every brewery had a hopped-up pale ale, IPA or double IPA. White IPAs, black IPAs, red IPAs, Belgian IPAs, and session IPAs were also in abundance. The increasing demand for hops has led to rumors of an impending hop shortage, but there was no sign of it in Denver.

Hops may still be on top, but the number of sour beers in the hall suggested that a slow-building trend is now finally blossoming. Beers fermented with 100% brettanomyces yeast were easy to find. The number of all-sour breweries like Jolly Pumpkin or Trinity Brewing out of Colorado Springs is growing. There were barrel-aged sours, stainless fermented sours, and spontaneously fermented sours. They ranged in profile from delicate and vinous to aggressively funky. The lovely thing is that they were mostly very good. In past years at GABF tasting sours has been an exercise in dumping. The few good examples were overwhelmed by others loaded with foot-funk and vinegar. This year I only tasted one or two dumpers. At the Trinity Brewing booth the brewer told me that I would taste all of their beers. I countered that I would taste one or two. I tasted them all.

Saison was another big trend at this year’s festival. Suffice it to say there were a lot of them – spiced, unspiced, strong, black, and every other way. Through the course of the weekend I easily tasted more saisons and sours than any other styles.

Historical revivals? That trend is growing as well. Several examples of the salty-sour gose style were to be found. Berliner weisse with and without fruit was everywhere. And Austin, Texas based Live Oak Brewing Company had a very respectable Grodziskie, a smoked and slightly sour wheat beer style from Poland.

An unusual tidbit that I noticed was the use of blood oranges in beer. I had several beers made with this fruit from IPA to hefeweizen. My favorite beer of the festival was a blood orange gose from Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, California. I went back for several samples of this beer during all three sessions that I attended.

Another burgeoning trend that I find particularly exciting is the use of foraged ingredients. A mini-festival held during GABF week called Beers Made by Walking was dedicated to foraged ingredient beers. Breweries like Scratch Brewing from Ava, Illinois or the newly opened Forbidden Root Brewery in Chicago are using a variety of botanicals like walnuts, sassafras, lemon myrtle, burdock root, and even mushrooms to flavor their beer. Scratch Brewing completely rebuffed the hoppy beer thing by bringing a lineup of all gruits. None of their beers contained any hops at all.

Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association

Not All Trends Are Good

But it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns at the GABF. There has been a lot of talk in the industry lately about a possible decline in overall quality as the number of breweries mushrooms. 2014 marked the second year in a row that I have noticed a large number of so-so and not-so-good beers in the GABF hall. My mode of operation in the hall is to sample beers mostly from breweries that I have never heard of. I want to know what’s going on out there beyond the big names. And to be completely honest, I don’t like to wait in line for beer, especially when there are 3000+ other beers available. I tasted a lot of beers that just didn’t cut it.

I made a special point of visiting new breweries in the states that I covered in A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland. Of the seven or eight regional newcomers, only one of them – Forbidden Root – was making beer that rose above the level of average homebrew. Fortunately that one was very good.

I was talking to a brewer friend who has judged beer at the competition for many years. He told me that he judged a lot of sub-par entries this year. I asked if this was the norm or something new. He said that this year was markedly different from past years. As new breweries continue to come on line, the industry is going to have to get serious about quality.

Lakewood Brewing Company at the 2013 GABF

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

“Internationally inspired, locally crafted beer.” That’s the motto of Lakewood Brewing Company in Garland, Texas. Founder/brewer Wim Bens was introduced to good beer while growing up in Belgium. Here in the US it was his love of Belgian beers that led him to American craft beer. His split influences are reflected in the beers that he brews at Lakewood. They layer an American sensibility onto a base of classic European styles.

In the lineup you’ll find a classic Pilsner, a Munich dunkel with pumpkin and spice, and a Belgian-style IPA among other Euro-marican brews. The crowning glory is The Temptress, a rich and chocolaty imperial milk stout that Bens calls “dessert in a glass.” The description is apt. It is one very tasty beer.

Mob Craft Brewing at the 2013 GABF

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

These are crazy times for beer. Breweries are popping up so fast that it has become impossible to track them. Believe me, I tried. From December 2010 until March of this year I was writing A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland, due out next May from the University of Illinois Press (really!). For those two and a half years I put considerable effort into keeping track of all the new breweries in four states. That was a fool’s errand. It ultimately got the best of me. In the interest of eventually actually producing a book I gave up.

I have to admit that since turning in the manuscript, I haven’t been tracking new breweries all that hard. I got burned out on the task. And so it is that I am continually learning about startups in the region. Perusing the list of breweries in the program of this year’s GABF I came across two that I had never heard of. One of them is Mob Craft Brewing in Madison, Wisconsin.

Mob Craft opened in June. The nano-sized brewery is using a crowd-sourced model for determining the beers they produce. Fans can submit recipes or suggestions on the brewery’s website. Drinkers then vote with their dollars by ordering the beers that they most want the guys to make. It’s an interesting concept; a drinker-driven beer lineup.

Excel Bottling Company at the 2013 GABF

Monday, November 25th, 2013

As a writer I’m a storyteller. I like breweries that have interesting stories. They make my job easier. The story can come from anywhere. It might be the brewer’s career path or brewing philosophy. It could be the history of the brewery or the building in which it is housed. Or maybe it’s the beauty of the countryside that surrounds the brewery. A brewer can make the best beer in the world, but without a captivating backstory it’s terribly difficult to pen an interesting profile. I’m left trying to manufacture magic from the rather mundane reality of making beer.

Excel Bottling Company in tiny Breese, Illinois made my life very easy. The company was founded in 1936 when Edward “Lefty” Maier captured a bank robber and collected a $500 reward. He used the windfall to purchase a bottling machine and open the third soda making plant in Breese. The others have long since closed, but nearly 80 years later Excel is still making soda the old fashioned way. They use real sugar, natural flavorings, and returnable bottles. And those bottles are still filled on that original 1936 machine.

Excel started making beer in 2012. It was mostly a business decision says Paul Maier, “Lefty’s” son. Returnable bottles have to be ordered in massive quantities and they needed another product line to keep them all filled. The current boom in brewing  and a change in the law allowing small brewers to self-distribute made beer a likely choice. They hired long-time homebrewer and homebrew store owner Tony Toenjes to oversee brewery operations. Rod Burguiere, a former brewer at Stone Brewing Co. was taken on as assistant brewmaster. Burguiere was looking for a way to move back to his native Midwest and jumped at the opportunity to bring a West Coast sensibility to Southern Illinois.

Summit Brewing Company at the 2013 GABF

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Continuing with the GABF video interview series, I visit Summit Brewing Company. I chatted with brewers Nate Siats and Jeff Williamson as well as Steve Secor from packaging. They gave me the low-down on expansion, new beers, and Jeff talks about making the transition from Flat Earth to Summit.

I think this one must have happened late in the session. I seem to be a little less focused than in some of the other interviews. It is GABF!

Scratch Brewing Co. at the 2013 GABF

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Some breweries are just more interesting than others. This has nothing to do with the quality of the beer. It’s more about the brewery’s story and philosophy. One such brewery is Scratch Brewing Co. in the tiny, southern Illinois town of Ava.

Many breweries call themselves “farmhouse” breweries, but for Scratch Brewing Company the term is especially appropriate. The brewpub is located on a plot of forested land about five miles outside Ava. It is truly a farmstead that has been in co-owner Aaron Kleidon’s family for 25 years.

But “farmhouse” in this case also applies to the way they think about and brew beer. They follow an ethic that looks to back to a time when beer making was carried out on every farmstead using the ingredients at hand. They want Scratch beers to smell and taste like southern Illinois. The rustic flavors of their traditionally styled brews are enhanced by the addition of local ingredients, many of which are foraged from the property. These have included such things as nettle, elderberry, ginger, dandelion, maple sap, various roots, and cedar, among others. They grow some of their own hops and source others from Windy Hill Hops, a nearby grower.

The brewery itself is a mix of primitive and modern that reflects the different personalities of the owners. Aaron Kleidon is an expert forager who pushes a more primitive process that includes brewing in a copper kettle over an open fire. Ryan Tockstein represents the modern side of brewing seen in their 1.5-barrel Stout Tanks brewhouse. Foodie Marika Josephson fall somewhere in between and forms a bridge between the two.

While the character of Scratch beers leans heavily on unique ingredients, don’t look for them to be extreme. These brewers make beers to which modern palates will respond, but that are deeply rooted in older traditions. They look to their ingredients to complement other flavors already in the beer, not to overwhelm them.

I had interviewed Marika on the phone for my upcoming Midwest brewery guidebook, but hadn’t had the opportunity to visit the brewery or taste the beers. I was so excited to see them on the list at the Great American Beer Festival.

St. Paul Boy Makes Good: Bob Galligan of Hops & Grain Brewing in Austin, Texas

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Most people are unaware that aside from organizing private beer-tasting events, I also own a theatre company. Don’t bother asking which one. Although it’s quite successful, you’ve never heard of it. We don’t do any public performances. GTC Dramatic Dialogues tours to college campuses all across the country doing interactive, dialog-based shows on issues like diversity, sexual assault, and substance abuse. That’s right; I am both a beer evangelist and a substance abuse educator.

Naturally, we drink a lot of beer while on tour. The actors who work for me know that if there is a brewpub in the town where we are performing, we will be eating there. They have no choice. Beer and Yahtzee is a typical post-show activity. Ah, the showbiz life!

Over the years I have introduced a lot of actors to really good beer. For some it has sunk in more deeply than others. One of those is Bob Galligan. I hired Bob pretty fresh out of the theatre program at the University of Minnesota. He performed with the troupe for two seasons before moving to Austin, Texas. Bob was fun to have on the road. His oddball sense of humor can be seen in this video created with friends for distribution to colleges.

Once in Austin, Bob realized that there was no acting to be done. What was an out of work actor to do? Go into brewing, of course. Within a year he worked himself up from tour guide to canning line, brewer, and finally head brewer at Hops & Grain Brewing. I caught up with him in the brewery’s booth at the GABF.

Hopps & Grain AlterationAlteration
Hops & Grain Brewing Company, Austin, Texas
Style: Northern German Altbier
Serving Style: 12 oz. Can

Aroma: Clean. Malt forward with subtle bread crust and light spicy hops to balance. Dark fruits – raisins.

Appearance: Moderate head of off-white, creamy foam that is moderately persistent. Brown with reddish highlights. Clear.

Flavor: Malt definitely leads. Bread crust maltiness with caramel-like melanoidin. Bitterness is medium to medium low. Spicy and floral hop flavors are medium to medium low. Hints of chocolate and dark fruits like raisins. Clean, crisp lager-like finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium body with some creaminess. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: I’m going to call this one a Northern German Altbier. The bitterness and hop flavors strike me as low for a good example of the Düsseldorf variety. Caramel and toast malt with touches of dark fruit are similar to Belgian dubbel, but without the yeast esters and phenols.

Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery at the 2013 GABF

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

I don’t think I am saying anything controversial when I submit that the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery is one of the best, if not THE best, brewpub in the Twin Cities metro. The beers are well-made and often quite interesting. The food is always tasty. The atmosphere is comfy and inviting. Although I don’t get there as much as I would like, it’s one of my favorite places to drink in Minneapolis.

Town Hall has stood the test of time to become a Twin Cities fixture. Founded in 1997, it celebrates 16 years of beer and food this year. Town Hall has not only survived, it has expanded. With its two satellite locations, the Town Hall Tap and the Town Hall Lanes, doing well, owner Pete Rifakes is turning his attention back to the mother ship. Plans are in the works to renovate the 7 Corners brewpub and expand brewery capacity.

In this 2013 Great American Beer Festival interview Rifakes and brewer Mike Hoops talk beer, bowling, and building a better brewery. Just a warning, the planned renovation means the restaurant will have to close briefly sometime next year.

Ray Daniels of the Cicerone Certification Program at the 2013 GABF

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Every year at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) I do interviews with local and not-so-local brewers and beer industry celebs. This year’s assortment includes chats with Mike Hoops and Pete Rifakes from Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, a gaggle of guys from Summit Brewing Company, and Marika Josephson from Scratch Brewing, a new and very exciting brewery in Southern Illinois. I talked with Mob Craft Beer, a new “Heartland” brewery that didn’t make it into my upcoming beer guide. I got a very special interview with old friend and former employee Bob Galligan who moved to Austin, Texas a couple of years ago to be an actor, but ended up as head brewer at Hops & Grain. These and others will be showing up here in the coming days and weeks, with a shout-0ut of thanks to my great friend Tom Graybael who did the shooting.

I start the series with an interview with Ray Daniels, author of beer and brewing books as well as the founder of the Cicerone Certification Program. I first interviewed Daniels at the 2010 GABF. The Cicerone program was just getting its feet under it at the time. It has been grown with leaps and bounds in the intervening years, becoming the standard for beer-knowledge certification. In this interview Daniels talks about that growth and about education programs that have been put in place to serve those who desire certification. He drops some news about the newest training products that the program offers and projects where the program might go in the future.

2012 GABF Interview with the New Beer Geeks TV Host Michael Ferguson

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Beer Geeks TV debuted last year. Using a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives format, the Beer Geeks team visited local breweries, beer bars, and other brew-related venues to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the local beer scene. The show won rave reviews and a couple of local Emmys. But big changes are in the works.

This year producers Matt Sandell and Ed Bremer announced that the show had been picked up by the producers of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives to go national. Resulting shake-ups of personnel raised controversy on the interwebs. Perhaps the biggest dust-up came from the replacement of Emmy-winning host Jeff Angell with master brewer Michael Ferguson. While the transition has no doubt caused some painful personal rifts, I believe it is a good move for the show.

Ferguson is the Director of Brewing Operations and Beer Training for the BJ’s chain of brewpubs. He might be known to fans of the Brewing Network where he raised some listener hackles by suggesting that extract homebrewers weren’t actually brewing. Ferguson has been in the business for decades and knows brewing and the brewing industry inside and out. This gives him an advantage as the host of a show that attempts to get inside the heads of brewers as they ply their craft. He knows what questions to ask. As an educator, he also knows how to bring the mysteries of beer making down to an easily understandable level. Ferguson is also a natural in front of a camera.

You can watch a trailer for the first episode here. In the meantime, enjoy this interview that I did with Ferguson at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival.