We're a solid week into a cross country road trip, having had a taste of the northwestern beer scene in Chico, California and basked in the sun with some San Diego IPAs. Our next stop is Denver, home to the Great American Beer Festival, the biggest beer festival – and competition – in the U.S.
"This bus is a mullet," says Colby Chandler of San Diego’s Ballast Point brewery. "It's all business in the front, and party in the back."
Indeed, Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman, his son Brian, and the communications team work full time on the road, answering questions for fans, handling the logistics of the festivals, and even editing video footage from excursions off the road – including a 40-mile whitewater trip and skydive in Longmont, Colorado.
In preparation for meeting up with Natalie Cilurzo, co-founder of Russian River Brewery and maker of one of the highest rated beers on the planet, the "party" half of the bus hooked up an Oskar Blues-invented "Crowler" machine. They poured some Pliny the Elder IPA into a 32oz can, gave it a spin on the Crowler, and announced that they created the first-ever Pliny in a can. The crew has a habit of outfitting the bus with new toys at each stop. In addition to the Crowler that's now operating like a mobile canning unit, there's a hand-built t-shirt cannon that made its first successful launch in the hotel parking lot. Justin Clark, VP of Cigar City, ran down a 32-pump launch like Denver's Emmanuel Sanders trying to pull in a long pass from Peyton Manning (or, for the Tampa-based fans from Cigar City, Vincent Jackson from Mike Glennon).
The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) draws together thousands of brewers and consumers each year to compete, share new and rare beers, and shop for brewing equipment. GABF was first held in 1982, and the first awards were handed out the next year. At the time, there was only one winner, a People's Choice Award, and Sierra Nevada took it home for Pale Ale. Thirty-two years later, there are now professional judging panels for each beer category, 90 in total, including many subcategories. The American pale ale category that Sierra Nevada practically defined received 124 entries in 2013. "People are approaching IPA levels of bitterness with pale ales," says Grossman. "I doubt we’ll win again if we’re competing with IBUs (bitterness units) in the 50s and 60s in the pale ale category."?
Today's festival in Denver brings together some of the most successful and rapidly expanding breweries in the country, including New Belgium and Oskar Blues, who are both, like Sierra Nevada, opening second locations in North Carolina. Blue Moon, produced by MillerCoors, will also be there (every brewery in the country with a brewers' license was invited). One of the largest new beer brands, Blue Moon was invented by Keith Villa, a brewer at the Denver-based Sandlot Brewery housed inside Coors' Field.
There will also be great representation by the region's upstarts, including TRVE, Upslope, Our Mutual Friend, Crooked Stave, and plenty of others — nearly 100 in total. Denver is smack in the middle of what the industry calls "the third wave" — a term stolen from the specialty coffee roaster movement and used to describe the generational differences between the old guard and the new wave of producers. Like any food and drink industry, the technology changes, new flavors are explored, and the art and science progress alongside each other to create truly unique and niche offerings. Chad Yakobson at Crooked Stave in Denver, for example, has become famous for its "brett" beers (almost all contain brettanomyces), which are often tannic, tart, or sour. Many brewers believe that for all the applause given to hops in craft beer right now, the future lies in yeast strains. We're here to find out.
MORE FROM THIS SUMMER'S BIGGEST BEER FEST:
- Stop 1: Chico, Calif. What Makes Northwestern Brews Great
- 8 Reasons Why the Northwestern Beer Scene Is America's Best
- Stop 2: San Diego, Calif. Show Off Its IPAs
- Why Southern California Has the Best Beer Culture in America
- Stop 3: Denver Displays Craft Beers Competitive Side
- Why the Rocky Mountain Region Has the Best Beer
- Stop 4: Chicago's Exploding Beer Scene
- 7 Reasons Why the Midwest Beer Scene Is America's Best
- ALSO: Sierra Nevada's Ken Grossman Throws the Summer's Biggest Beer Party