In an earlier era, beer styles were pretty easy to understand. Stouts were dark and roasty, while lagers were light and crisp. But as craft brewing continues to grow, it seems like a new style is developed nearly every day. At Denver's Great American Beer Festival this year, there are 90 official categories (145 if you include sub-styles), many of which didn't exist a decade ago. That means you, American-Belgo-Style Ale and American-Style Sour Ale.
But many of the festival's 3,500 beers, hailing from more than 700 breweries across the country, defy simple categorization. After several days spent wandering the sprawling festival floor and events around Denver, here are some of the more deliciously odd beers that are worth trying.
The Avant-Garde IPAs
As the IPA continues to blaze a bitter path across the country, brewers have continued to create crazy new offshoots. Among the quirkier subsets, the coffee IPA shows particular promise. It partners a java-like jolt with a bitter bolt — morning meets night. Particularly excellent versions were Magic Hat's Hop Drip, Fate's Coffee IPA, and Adroit Theory's Zero. Also keep your eyes peeled for the wild IPAs. These have Brettanomyces yeast that creates a fruity, funky platform that lets citrusy hops sing loud and clear.
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Brewing with Food
American craft brewers have always been daredevils, dumping in everything from algae to coffee beans digested by civet cats in the almighty quest for flavor. This year, brewers dug even deeper into the pantry to create mash-ups that would be right at home on the dinner table. New Mexico's B2B Bistronomy turned out the refreshing Cucumber Cream Ale, while Oregon's 10 Barrel also added cukes to its tart Berliner weisse, Cucumber Crush. Up in Michigan, Right Brain's Spear Beer was loaded with asparagus, and the Thai Peanut is packed with chiles and that namesake nut. As for Dogfish Head, they might've outdone everyone with the crustacean-filled Choc Lobster.
One of the weekend's more compelling beer events took place far off the festival floor. Over at Wynkoop Brewery, Eric Steen orchestrated the ambitious Beers Made By Walking, in which brewers go on nature hikes and then craft beers packed with the plants discovered on the journey. The results were compelling beers born of a specific seasonal moment. Elevation Beer's Porcini Mushroom Ale, Fonta Flora's Salted Sunflower Saison, and Scratch Brewing's 105, which contains 105 different plants and fungi, were more than just beer: They were nature condensed into a pint glass.
Made with 100 percent smoked wheat malt, this low-alcohol ale was for centuries one of Europe's distinctive beers, especially in a region that included Poland. Though the style had just about died by mid-1990s, brewers have lately been reviving the Grodziskie. Hailing from Austin, Live Oak's version was a revelation. Clocking in at around 3 percent ABV, the grodziskie was gently smoky and compulsively crushable, the ideal beer for drinking all day long. This could be a breakout style in 2015. (Note: The style was also brewed in Germany, where the smoky beer was called Grätzer.)
Cruising around the festival, drinking myself into oblivion one ounce at a time, I kept seeing one word crop up again and again: milk. When added to beer, lactose — a.k.a. milk sugar — cranks up the body and imparts a luscious sweetness, making ales drink silky-smooth. Former Future's Salted Caramel Prim & Porter, Pinthouse Pizza's Big Lebarrelski, Yak & Yeti's Chai Milk Stout, and Belching Beaver's Peanut Butter Milk Stout were all excellent examples of lactose used well.