We watch the results for the Great American Beer Festival's competition like a hawk. The festival is the biggest and most prestigious of its kind, and combing through the list of past winners has turned us onto some great beers. You can find the full list of winners at the GABF website, but here are twenty winning beers that caught our eye. Some are old favorites, and some are beers that have just now caught our interest. Most are widely available in their distribution areas, but a few are surely destined to join the ranks of white whale beers that seem to exist more in legend than reality.
20. Devil's Backbone Brewing Company – Schwarzbier – (Gold) German Style Schwartzbier
Virginia's Devil's Backbone is no stranger to success at the GABF, they were named the Small Brewpub of the Year in 2012, and in 2013 their production brewery was named Small Brewpub of the Year. This year they successfully defended that title. We were able to try their Gold Medal winning Schwarzbier earlier this year, and its roasty flavor and easy drinking absolutely exemplify the style.
19. Logsdon Farms – Peche N Brett – (Silver) American Style Brett Beer
Although beers brewed with Brettanomyces yeast are a centuries old phenomenon, brewers historically spent more time trying to eliminate the scrappy wild yeast from their beers than they did trying to accentuate its flavors. We haven't had the opportunity to sample Peche N Brett yet, but we loved some other beers we tried from Logsdon Farms including the Seizon Bretta which formed the base of this brett beer aged in oak with Peachs.
18. Telluride Brewing Company – Face Down Brown – American Brown Ale
On our last trip to Colorado we had a nice IPA from Telluride, but missed their Face Down Brown. We're big fans of the American Brown Ale style which mixes the chocolate and nutty malt character of the British style with a more assertive hopping. While Telluride took the gold this year, Colorado breweries actually swept the gold this year with Diebolt Brewing Company and Upslope Brewing Company taking Silver and Bronze respectively.
17. Breakside Brewery – Breakside IPA – (Gold) American IPA
Given the way American beer drinkers are clambering for hoppy beers, it should come as no surprise that American Style IPA was the most competitive category with an enormous 278 entrants. That's some brutal competition, so tip of that hat to Breakside Brewery for fighting their way through it to capture the gold. Breakside isn't sold in our end of the country, so anyone that wants to share a (very fresh) bottle of this hoppy goodness, please let us know.
16. Peekskill Brewery – NYPA – (Silver) American Pale Ale
American Pale Ale was another bear of a category with 145 entries. While Gold Medal winning Ballast Point shouldn't be sneaking up on anyone, Silver medal winning Peekskill Brewery isn't on a lot of radars. It should be. Brewmaster Jeff O'Neil has been churning out great beers from this Hudson Valley based brewpub for a couple years now and their Amazeballs Pale Ale took a silver medal in 2013 last year. NYPA is brewed with Citra and Mosaic hops for bright tropical flavors, and it's fantastic.
15. The Rare Barrel – Cosmic Dust – (Gold) American Style Sour Ale
A lot of the bleeding edge of brewing innovation is happening in the sour ale category with more and more breweries laying down their beers in all manner of wine and whiskey barrels where they're allowed to mature and sour over a period of years before being blended and released in small batches to the public. Done wrong these beers are sharply acidic and buttery. Done right they're a revelation. We've yet to taste our first beer from the Rare Barrel, but we've heard plenty. Cosmic Dust is a Golden Sour with Hibiscus, and it sounds great, but unfortunately, it's available only to their Founders Club members.
14. Blue Corn Cafe and Brewery – Gold Medal Oatmeal Stout – (Gold) Oatmeal Stout
Blue Corn Cafe and Brewery brews on a pretty small seven barrel brewhouse in Sante Fe, New Mexico, but what they lack in size they make up for in chutzpah by naming their oatmeal stout Gold Medal. They've effectively called their own shot and the beer won Gold in 2007, Silver in 2013, and Gold again in 2014. They clearly know their way around a container of rolled oats, and it makes you wonder what else they're brewing up down there.
13. Founders Brewing Company – Porter – (Silver) Robust Porter
Is there anything Founders doesn't do well? They captured the Silver medal for their Porter this year, but we had the opportunity to visit the brewery earlier this summer and found the quality across the board compared favorably with any brewery we've ever sampled. Look for big chocolate roast flavors in their porter.
12. Russian River Brewing Company – Pliny the Elder – (Bronze) Imperial IPA
Why highlight the Bronze Medal winner? Consistency. Pliny virtually defines the Imperial IPA style. Brewmaster and owner Vinnie Cilurzo pioneered the use of piny Simcoe Hops in this monster which keeps showing up in winner's lists despite the brutal competition (135 entries this year). Pliny also took the Bronze in 2004 and the Gold in 2005 and 2006.
11. Gun Hill Brewing Company – Void of Light – (Gold) Foreign Style Stout
One of the few unhappy consequences of an exploding number of breweries is that you often miss promising new ones even when they're right in your backyard. Gun Hill Brewing Company in the Bronx, NY is only a year old, but brewmaster Chris Sheehan paid his dues at the now defunct Chelsea Brewing Company. Clearly he's doing something right up there with his Void of Light Foreing Style Stout in the Bronx and he's now got our attention.
10. Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant (Annapolis, MD) – Rauchbier – (Gold) Smoke Beer
Beer that tastes like bacon? Sign us up. That's basically the idea with smoke beers that have had a portion (or all) of the malt smoked prior to brewing. The German style smoke beers are the most classic examples and they're remarkably hard to find considering how popular bacon and barbecue are in this country.
9. Tröegs Brewing Co – Troegenator – (Gold) Bock
You might be tempted to dismiss the accomplishment of winning one of the more lightly contested categories like Bock with just 27 entries, but in the case of Troegenator you can forget it. Most craft brewers shy away from lagers, particularly strong ones because they take so long to brew and they require absolutely pristine fermentations. Troeg's delivers with a pure malt bomb that pleases every time.
8. Beachwood BBQ & Brewing – Un Atout (Sliver) French- and Belgian-Style Saison
Long Beach, California–based Beachwood BBQ & Brewing has gained most of their notoriety for their hoppy beers. We've had a few that were great, but haven't had the chance to sample the Un Atout farmhouse style ale. We're on the hunt.
7. Firestone Walker Brewing Company – Pivo Pils – (Gold) German Style Pilsner
Firestone Walker is another brewery that isn't sneaking up on anyone at this point, but each medal that they win cements their place amongst the best breweries in the world. Their accomplishment with Pivo is particularly notable. This is the second year that Pivo has taken home the gold in the German style Pilsner category. Like any good German Pils, Pivo boasts a firm bitterness and a lightly spicy hop flavor to go along with its golden complexion.
6. Union Craft Brewing – Old Pro Gose – (Silver) German Style Sour Ale
Union Craft Brewing is another new-to-us brewery although they've been brewing since 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. The gose style is as unusual as it is obscure. A gose is a sessionable wheat beer boasting sourness from a bacterial fermentation as well as a saltiness. It sounds weird and it is weird, but it's also incredibly refreshing and the light brininess can keep you going back for drink after drink, provided it doesn't also taste like baby diapers which is a common pitfall with this high risk, high reward brewing style. We'll take our chances with an award winning example.
5. McHale's Brewhouse – Scottish Pride – (Gold) Scottish Style Ale
Tennessee isn't on anyone's list for must visit beer destinations, but these days a great beer can come from anywhere and apparently this Scottish-Irish Brewpub in Chattanooga, Tennessee is turning out a killer 80 Shilling Scottish Ale. Scottish Ales in this style are typically malty and dry, sometimes exhibiting a bit of peat smoke character.
4. Kane Brewing Company – A Night to End All Dawns – (Gold) Wood and Barrel Aged Strong Stout
New Jersey based Kane Brewing Company makes their splash at GABF in the Wood and Barrel Aged Strong Stout category where they beat out 108 other entrants to capture the gold with their Night to End All Dawns Stout. The beer which was aged for over a year in Four Roses bourbon barrels weighs in at a hefty 12.4% so buckle your seatbelt (and make sure someone else is driving).
3. Funkwerks – Raspberry Provincial – (Gold) Belgian Style Fruit Beer
We're big fans of this tiny Colorado brewery and wish we could source their beer more regularly. Raspberry Provincial is new to us and a testament to how talented brewers can turn accidents into opportunities. When an attempt at a Berliner weisse failed to dry out properly, they added raspberries to see what would happen and stumbled upon (another) Gold Medal GABF winning beer.
2. Flying Fish Brewing Company – Hop Fish – (Gold) English Style Pale Ale
Occasionally beer competitions produce some head scratching results. Flying Fish markets Hop Fish as an IPA and their website states that they use some assertively American hops, so we're not clear on why they entered — or how they won a gold medal in — the far more restrained English Style Pale Ale category. Time to taste one and find out.
1. Brasserie Saint James – Daily Wages – (Gold) French and Belgian Style Saison
In addition to winning gold for Daily Wages, Brasserie Saint James took home the title of Midsized Brewpub of the Year. We had the opportunity to taste their offerings on the floor of the GABF, and they stood out amongst a sea of bigger and more sophisticated breweries. Time for a trip to Reno.