Lakewood Brewing Company at the 2013 GABF

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

2012 GABF Interview with Solemn Oath Brewery in Naperville, Illinois

In the race to open the most breweries in the shortest time, Chicago is giving Minnesota a hard run for its money. I count something like 13 breweries that have opened in the Chicago Metro alone since the beginning of June. And there is a whole gaggle of them just weeks away from making beer. When I moved from there in 2002 there wasn’t much going on beer-wise in the city, but in the intervening years Chicago has become a sort of beer-brewing Mecca.

One of the more interesting Chicagoland newcomers is Solemn Oath Brewery. Solemn Oath is located about 45-minutes west of the Chicago “Loop” in the town of Naperville. Tucked into a non-descript, industrial strip on the west side of town, the brewery is unassuming on approach. When you enter the taproom you find yourself practically in the center of the brewery. As owner/brewer Joe Barley told me, “If someone holds your chair you can reach out and touch our hot liquor tank.”

Solemn Oath is making beers with some interesting flavor profiles. My favorite when I visited was Sweet Sweet Whisper Kisses, a 9% saison brewed with honey. One of their flagship beers is called Khlörost, a Belgian witbier infused with coffee of different origins. A witbier with coffee sounds like a bad idea, but it works. If you’re in the Chicago Metro, a visit to Solemn Oath is worth the trip out to Naperville.

A More Personal Description of the GABF Experience

There is something to be said for nursing a pint in a quiet pub.

The Great American Beer Festival is a beast. This makes my fourth festival. Saturday afternoon marked my 13th session – a small number in comparison to some beer writers I know, but still enough to be able to form a few impressions.

GABF is an exercise in pleasurable self-abuse; too much beer, too many too late nights, and definitely too much heavy food. The weekend – or week if you go for all of the surrounding events – will beat you up. But you’ll have a great time taking the whupping.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the GABF. The hall is immense; rows of brewery booths and vendor stalls seem to stretch to the horizon. And then there are the 12,000 people that fill it and the noise that comes from the voices of that many drunken people. As attendees try to hear and be heard they talk louder. This raises the decibels, necessitating an even louder shout. The self-perpetuating crescendo gives one the sense of standing inside of a jet engine. The roar is punctuated by the scolding hoot that moves from one end of the hall to the other every time someone drops a glass. The noise alone is exhausting.  Add buckets of beer and unpleasant yellow light that is always just a bit too dim and you have a recipe for sensory overload, at least to a homebody such as myself.

People talk about having a plan of attack at GABF. Some focus on particular beer styles, others on hitting certain breweries. I made a plan the first year, but found that my plan disintegrated shortly after entering the hall, succumbing quickly to the “empty-glass” syndrome; “my glass is empty, I’ll just fill it at the nearest booth.” I guess I lack self-control. These days I take more of a free-for-all approach. I have some vague notions of places to go and beers to taste, but mostly I just wander the aisles until I see a beer or brewery that looks interesting. I tend to focus on breweries I’ve never heard of in search of undiscovered gems. I avoid the most popular booths – places like Dogfish Head and Russian River. They have perpetually long lines. I don’t believe in waiting in long lines for beer, especially when there are 2690 other beers available.

The most frequent question one gets asked at the fest is, “tasted any stand outs?” This is such a difficult question for me to answer. Pour after one-ounce pour makes it hard to keep track. Along with planning, taking notes was another first-fest casualty. But it’s not entirely a blur. There were a few beers that rose above attention deficit and overconsumption. All the German-style beers from Live Oak Brewing Company in Austin, Texas were great. They make a hell-of-a hefe. La Cumbre Brewing Company’s Elevated IPA paired with a mighty hunk of lamb at Friday’s media luncheon was fantastic. And Founders’ Blushing Monk paired to Buratta cheese with pear brulée and cranberry jam was a definite highlight of the weekend. There were others, but mostly they all sort of blend together – and that’s okay with me. The festival to me is really about enjoying beer, not about picking it apart and checking it off. I’ll do that in other settings that aren’t so mind addling. Or maybe I’m just a bad Cicerone…

I do better at the GABF when I have a task to do there. I’m like that with events in general; I’m more comfortable working an event than just attending one. Without a purpose I tend to feel a bit lost. On Thursday night our task was to shoot video interviews with brewers from the upper-Midwest. We shot a bunch; almost an hour of video. I caught up with Todd Haug of Surly, Dave Hoops from Fitger’s, Gabe Smoly and Eric Blomquist from Summit, Matt Potts the Brewmaster at DeStihl, Joe Barley from Solemn Oath in Naperville, Illinois, and a few others. Those will go on up on this blog at some point. Hopefully this year I’ll get that done sooner than the week before next year’s festival.

After a day of beer lunches and brewery tours, Friday night’s session was all about the Farm to Table Pavilion. This is a little piece of heaven. Off in a side hall, it is a welcome relief from the thunder of the main hall. And it’s all about great beer paired with great food. Brewers and chefs are teamed up to create miraculous combinations. Small plates and small pours – you just stay in there all night and revel in it. Where to even begin? How about Firestone Walker Pale 31 paired to lemon-roasted chanterelles with cannellini beans and chardonnay grapes? Or maybe Sun King Oktoberfest with butternut squash mousse, sesame beer brittle and toasted celery marshmallow is more your speed. And of course there were oysters – lots of oysters.  You couldn’t go wrong with any of the 24 pairings in the room. I didn’t want to leave.

Saturday morning we sat through the awards ceremony and then headed back into the hall. Here’s where that task-less confusion set in. After two solid days of drinking and eating I walked into the crowded hall and immediately thought, “Is this really where I want to be?” Of course after a few samples it was all good. But how to manage this my last session of the weekend? Sample all the medal winners? Without a written list, that was beyond my mental capacity at this point. And so I wandered, tasting as many of them as I could remember or as had signs indicating their medal status. And so it was that the official fest ended for me.

The drinking and eating of course did not. A fancy dinner Saturday night was followed by pints at Prost Brewing, a new Denver brewery specializing in German-style lagers. There I accidentally stumbled upon a meeting of beer writers from all over the US, as well as a couple of scribes from Canada and the UK. Interesting conversations did ensue. Look for a piece inspired by this meeting in the next issue of The Growler.

Ah, Sunday! Sunday is the best day at GABF, mostly because GABF is over. Everyone has left town. All is quiet. We always like to stay this extra day. It’s a day to unwind from the chaos with a long hike in the mountains. That’s always followed by beer. This year we took in Funkwerks in Fort Collins. A number of people who I respect had recommended this tiny brewery that specializes in saison. I had long wanted to visit. The beers didn’t disappoint. Every beer in the sampler was top-notch. An experimental witbier temporarily called Nit-Wit, a Berliner-weiss kind of think called Leuven, and a Green Tea Saison were particularly good. Finally a nightcap of beers and appetizers in the nearly-empty Falling Rock Taphouse.

There is something to be said for nursing a pint in a quiet pub.


A Few Takeaways from the 2012 GABF

The 2012 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is over. The 31st installment of this showcase of the American beer industry was bigger and badder than ever before. 49,000 people attended four sessions that featured 2700 beers from 580 breweries. In a testament to how popular craft beer has become, those 49,000 tickets sold out in about 45-minutes – and we thought selling out 700 Winterfest tickets in under a minute was impressive. The festival and accompanying full week of surrounding events brings 7 million dollars of economic impact to the city of Denver.

The GABF competition is the largest such competition in the world. This year 185 judges evaluated 4,338 entries from 666 breweries. The upper-Midwest region fared pretty well in the medal count.


Category: 19 American-Style Sour Ale, 34 Entries
Bronze: Fitger’s Framboise, Fitger’s Brewhouse, Duluth, MN
Category: 30 Bohemian-Style Pilsener, 53 Entries
Silver: Summit Pilsener, Summit Brewing Co., St. Paul, MN
2012 Great American Beer Festival Pro-Am Competition
Bronze: Classic American Pilsner, Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, Minneapolis, MN
Brewmaster: Mike Hoops, AHA Member: Kyle Sisco


Brewpub Group and Brewpub Group Brewer of the Year
Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, Madison, WI
Category: 4 Fruit Wheat Beer, 38 Entries
Silver: Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., Chippewa Falls, WI
Category: 5 Field Beer or Pumpkin Beer, 63 Entries
Gold: Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale, Stevens Point Brewery, Stevens Point, WI
Category: 23 Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout, 65 Entries
Gold: Fourteen Fourteen, Central Waters Brewing Co., Amherst, WI
Category: 42 German-Style Doppelbock or Eisbock, 19 Entries
Gold: Uber Bock, Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., Madison, WI
Category: 37 American-Style Amber Lager, 45 Entries
Gold: Point Oktoberfest, Stevens Point Brewery, Stevens Point, WI
Silver: Staghorn Octoberfest, New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, WI
Category: 34 American-Style Specialty Lager or Cream Ale or Lager, 34 Entries
Bronze: Mickey’s Malt Liquor, Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, WI
Category: 33 American-Style Lager, Light Lager or Premium Lager, 51 Entries
Silver: Miller Lite, Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, WI
Category: 30 Bohemian-Style Pilsener, 53 Entries
Gold: Hometown Blonde, New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, WI
Category: 54 American-Style Amber/Red Ale, 87 Entries
Silver: Fixed Gear American Red Ale, Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, WI


Category: 3 Fruit Beer, 58 Entries
Bronze: Strawberry Blonde Ale, DESTIHL, Normal, IL
Category: 18 American-Belgo-Style Ale, 71 Entries
Bronze: A Little Crazy, Revolution Brewing, Chicago, IL
Category: 46 English-Style Summer Ale, 38 Entries
Gold: Cross of Gold:, Revolution Brewing, Chicago, IL
Category: 48 English-Style India Pale Ale, 54 Entries
Gold: India Pale Ale, Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago, IL
Category: 50 American-Style Pale Ale, 109 Entries
Gold: Brickstone APA, Brickstone Brewery, Bourbonnais, IL
Silver: The Weight, Piece Brewery, Chicago, IL
Category: 54 American-Style Amber/Red Ale, 87 Entries
Silver: Fixed Gear American Red Ale, Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, WI
Category: 70 Belgian- and French-Style Ale, 68 Entries
Bronze: Domaine DuPage, Two Brothers Brewing Co., Warrenville, IL
Category: 66 South German-Style Hefeweizen, 70 Entries
Silver: Ebel’s Weiss, Two Brothers Brewing Co., Warrenville, IL

I sampled so many beers during the four days of the fest that it’s really pretty impossible to pinpoint a favorite. But there are a few general takeaways:

  • Hops are still big – The largest category in the competition was American IPA with over 200 entries. The festival floor was filled with lupulin-loaded pales, IPAs and Double IPAs. That’s not to mention black, rye, Belgian and wheat IPA.
  • Big is still big – High alcohol beers were very prevalent. That’s rough when there are over 2000 beers to sample. Though many sounded good, I left a lot of those on the tables.
  • Odd ingredients are big – Herb, spice and vegetable beer was the second largest category in the competition. Brewers are experimenting more than ever before. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not.
  • Barrels are still big – Whisky, rum, wine, new oak, you name it; beer at the festival was put into every kind of barrel. As with odd ingredients, often that’s a good thing.
  • Sour is bigger than ever – As I wandered the hall, it seemed that nearly every brewery brought a sour or “wild” beer of some kind. DeStihl in Illinois must have had ten taps of sours. I tasted several sours from breweries across the country. Some were deliciously tart and delicate – champagne-like. Others tasted more like foot. Just because you can call it sour doesn’t mean you should serve it.
  • While all of this experimentation is exciting, it’s also resulting in a number of beers of dubious character.
  • If you go to the GABF, spring for tickets to the Farm to Table Pavilion. It’s like heaven. Beers from selected breweries are sent to chefs for pairings. Some of the pairings this year were simply phenomenal. I got totally stuffed on small-plates. The pavilion is in a side hall and attendance is limited. It’s a quiet refuge from the deafening roar and hubbub of the main hall.
  • GABF gives one perspective on who’s hot nationally. Long lines formed in front of booths like Cigar City, Russian River, and Dogfish Head. It was interesting to go to a festival and not see a long line at the Surly booth. This isn’t to say that lines didn’t form there, but they were relatively short in comparison. But frankly, in a hall with 2700 beers on offer, why wait in line for that one-ounce pour?