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.
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.
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.