Observations from the 2014 Great American Beer Festival

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.


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.

Ray Daniels of the Cicerone Certification Program at the 2013 GABF

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

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.

2012 GABF Interview with Tim Nelson of Fitger’s Brewhouse

Shortly after interviewing Dave Hoops in the Fitger’s booth at the GABF, I ran into the ebullient brewer again on the festival floor. This time he had Brewhouse co-owner Tim Nelson in tow. They confided that they had information to share about new doings at the Duluth brewpub. How could I pass up this opportunity?

The first bit of news was that Fitger’s had purchased an historic building in Canal Park. The plan is to renovate the old train depot and open a third “tied house” like Burrito Union and Tycoon’s Ale House, which the brewery already operates. This news has since been reported in other places.

The more exciting news is the possibility of a second Fitger’s brewery. The brewhouse has been in possession of a large warehouse building for a number of years. The plan is to eventually build a larger and more efficient brewery in the space to increase capacity. If you have ever been to the Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, you know that the brewery is crammed into tiny spaces on multiple floors. Having followed Hoops through a brew day, I can tell you that it is not an efficient system.

A warning; toward the end of the interview there is some confusion about exactly which new operation is being discussed. I ask about a timeline for the new brewery. Nelson answers with a timeline for the Canal Park pub.

2012 GABF Interview with Matt Potts of DESTIHL

With locations in Normal and Champaign, Illinois, the Destihl restaurants take the brewpub idea and step it up a notch, adding a casual fine-dining flare to the familiar concept. From the food to the décor it feels familiar, but just a little bit higher class. The fish tacos aren’t just whitefish, they’re swordfish. The pizzas are wood-fired and feature unique combinations like asparagus, bacon, and herbed goat cheese with a balsamic vinegar glaze. House beers are served alongside high-end wines and spirits. The dining room has the brewpub-standard motifs, stone veneers and dark wood, but given a contemporary, industrial-arts twist.

Destihl beers have pulled in multiple awards in national and international competition. Brewmaster Matt Potts has received some high praise from beer-lovers and fellow brewers for his barrel-aged, sour beers. I had the opportunity to sample several at the Normal location and the congratulations are well deserved. Except for a fantastic Flanders Red Ale, most of these tart treats are soured versions of the brewery’s regular offerings, like Blond or Dead Head Red. They are all unblended, single-barrel vintages. The sour beer du jour is listed on the menu as St. Dekkara Reserve.

Business has been so brisk that the company is building a production brewery in Bloomington, Illinois in order to meet demand. The new brewery will handle most of the core beers for both brewpub locations as well as packaged beer for off-sale. The brewpubs will continue to produce the specialty beers, one-offs, and sours.

2012 GABF Interview with Summit Brewing Company

A lot has happened at the Summit brewery since I interviewed their brewers at the 2011 GABF. A pilot brewing system was installed, allowing their brewers to test recipes and get a little experimental. The taproom has opened for business and is going gangbusters. Ground was broken on a massive cellar expansion that will allow them to nearly double production. In this interview with brewers Eric Blomquist and Gabe Smoley at the 2012 GABF we talk all about these changes and what it might mean for the future of Summit.

As I was editing the interview I realized that I kept referring to the pilot system as the “toy brewery.” It made me laugh, but it also made me wish that I had explained myself. It almost sounds as if I am mocking the new mini-brewhouse. I meant “toy” as in a really cool thing that allows the brewers to play, much as a 1965 Mustang might be a “toy” to a car enthusiast. The Summit pilot system is REALLY cool. I want one in my basement.

2012 GABF Interview with Surly’s Todd Haug

2012 has been big for Minnesota beer. It’s quite possible that as many as 17 new breweries will have opened their doors by the end of the year. That’s right, SEVENTEEN! Crazy!

It could be said that Surly Brewing Company was the start of the boom. When it rolled out the first kegs of Furious and Bender in 2006, Surly was the first new brewery in the state since 2002 when the Minnesota Brewing Company ceased operations in the old Schmidt building. Surly quickly gained an almost fanatical following as their outrageously-bitter Furious became an unlikely gateway beer that brought a whole new generation into the craft beer fold. Surly’s opening was followed quickly by Flat Earth, Lift Bridge, and an ever accelerating proliferation of budding beer-makers.

I pinned down Surly brewer Todd Haug for an interview during the opening minutes of the Great American Beer Festival in October. In the interview he talks a bit about site selection for the planned “destination brewery” and has some things to say about the current Minnesota brewery boom.

2011 GABF Interview with Summit Brewing Company brewers Nate Siats and Sam Doniach

Summit Brewing Company. What more really needs to be said? Summit was one of the pioneers of craft brewing, not just in Minnesota, but in the whole Midwest. Since turning 25 last year they have been making a lot of changes at the brewery. Old brewers have left for other opportunities and new ones have come on board. They released Saga, a new American-style IPA to accompany the original India Pale Ale, an English version of the style. A pilot system was installed in the brewery that allows the brewers to experiment with small-batch releases or test new recipes. And on September 28th they had the official opening of their long-awaited taproom.

At last year’s GABF I caught up with brewers Nate Siats and Sam Doniach (one of the brewers who has moved on). In the interview they talk about some of these changes; at the time still changes-to-be. While in Denver they were researching other breweries’ taprooms to get ideas for their own. They were also eagerly anticipating using the new small-batch system. It’s fun to look back.

2011 GABF Interivew with Mike Hoops of Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery

Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery is my favorite brewpub in the Twin Cities. Not to knock all of our other great brewpubs; I just enjoy everything about Town Hall from the beer to the food and ambience. It’s all there for me. It’s also the source of some of the most inventive and interesting beers in the metro (or even the state for that matter). Aside from a great lineup of year-round beers, including the nationally sought-after Masala Mama IPA, Mike Hoops and his brew crew turn out a slew of seasonals and one-offs. There’s a beer release of some kind every week.

In this interview we are sampling one such one-off beer called LSD, a strange concoction made with honey, lavender and an assortment of odd-ball ingredients, created by brewer Josh Bischoff. Shortly after the interview was completed Hoops learned that the beer had won a silver medal in the GABF competition. Shortly after the GABF ended, Josh Bischoff left Town Hall to become the head brewer at Indeed Brewing Company. Just one example of the weird and wonderful things happening in the MN beer scene.

Additionally, I get Mike Hoops’ take on the direction the Midwestern beer scene is taking and the defining character of the region’s beer.

2011 GABF Interview with Cory O’Neel of Granite City Food & Brewery

Think what you will of the Granite City brewpub chain, my trip to their worthouse in Ellsworth, Iowa was one of the most fascinating brewery visits I have ever done. If you have driven along I-35 between Ames and the Minnesota state line, then you have passed by the brewery and probably didn’t know it. A small grain silo on the side of the building is the only thing that even remotely identifies it as a brewery. It’s a tiny, non-descript place in a tiny, non-descript town, but it supplies unfermented wort to 26+ stores in several states.

Granite City’s “fermentus interuptus” method of transporting unfermented wort to the locations for fermentation on site has advantages in terms of efficiencies of scale and consistency of product. But for anyone who knows about the brewing process, it’s a cringe-worthy proposition. Wort is an ideal growth medium for all sorts of beer-spoiling bugs. Brewmaster Cory O’Neel is the man to manage the situation. His background is in brewery quality control. Once he came on board at Granite City he instituted a set of strict protocols intended to head off problems. He built a lab at the worthouse (actually the lab was already there he told me, but it was mostly being used to heat up pizza). Wort is tested numerous times along its journey. Yeast is propagated in house in a sterile yeast lab. Fascinating stuff about an interesting way to brew.