DENVER – Oregon is still Beervana, at least in the eyes of the judges at the Great American Beer Festival. Over the weekend, 2400 beers from 450 breweries were judged in 69 style categories. Oregon brewers earned 14 of the 207 medals awarded, topping last year’s medal take of eight.
The 25-year-old Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is really two events: a brewing competition, and a sampling smorgasbord for the beer enthusiast. The competition is like the Oscars of the beer world. As for the tasting extravaganza, it is nothing shorter than the largest selection of American beers gathered together in the United States.
The Enthusiast’s Side
Held over the course of four days at the Denver Convention Center each year, the sampling side of the GABF is simply a huge room filled with beer. And people. 40,000 people. Beers are arranged regionally (i.e. Midwest, Northwest). A flat admission fee of $35-$55 allows you to sample 1668 beers from 383 breweries in a four-hour session. Considering that the Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF) serves up 72 craft beers, you can see how this festival got its name!
I walked into the massive convention center, beer as far as the eye can see. Like the proverbial kid in a candy store, I began to get all giggly. And then I got scared. I only have a few days and so many brain cells…I can’t possibly taste them all. I can’t possibly taste them all. But. I. Can. Try.
Not surprisingly, the Northwest area is packed. I walk by our local Pacific Northwest breweries, not sampling yet, as I have tasted all of these beers, but people watching. The crowds around our boys are tremendous. I overhear beer geeks wax poetically about beer I drink routinely every day. Most of our local breweries just sent what they regularly have on tap, and people just drank it up. I got a little tear-y thinking to myself that everybody really loves Portland beer.
I did sample a few from our area. Ninkasi Brewing was at its first festival with their line-up, most notably, the Total Domination IPA. All of Ninkasi’s beers are great, I just wish they would get more distribution here in PDX. And I couldn’t resist tasting the 2006 Jubelale. All I can say is, For me? Aww, you shouldn’t have! It’s a great year for this Christmas beer. Deschutes was also pouring Mirror Mirror, a barrel-aged barleywine, which, I understand, will be bottled as well as on tap selectively throughout the Northwest.
Like any beer festival, there are the buzz beers: the beers that you overhear people talking about in glowing terms and unlimited hyperbole. You rush over to those booths to sample. At the end of the first night of the festival, Sam Adams had a secret tasting of Utopias, a 24 % ABV which defies categorization. It’s more like an after-dinner drink than a beer: strong, rich, dark and smooth, almost no carbonation. To taste that single beer alone was worth the entire trip. Its availability is limited to 24 oz. bottles at $100 a pop.
Several buzz beers came from Dogfish Head Brewing, with charismatic founder Sam Calagione himself pouring. Two that I tasted, the Black & Blue and the Red & White, will get distribution in Portland later this year. Both are Belgian styles. Black & Blue is a golden brewed with more than 300 pounds of blueberries and blackberries, and Red & White is a 12% ABV ‘wit’ beer.
Another favorite of the festival is a beer that I tasted a couple of years ago in Chicago, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. I tasted this alongside our local winner, Full Sail’s Black Gold Imperial Stout, and this one is a close second. It has a full, oaky bourbon essence with a vanilla finish. Just lovely. Goose Island beers have slowly been gaining distribution in the area since Widmer has a stake in them, and I hope that they will send some of this black beauty our way.
Also in the Midwest section is New Glarus Brewing, the Midsize Brewing Company of the year for the second year running. They brew two fruit beers that are really fantastic, the Raspberry Tart and the Wisconsin Belgian Red. Their size notwithstanding, they don’t distribute outside of Wisconsin. They grew 35-40 % in the past couple of years, just in Wisconsin, brewing 55 thousand barrels. To give you an idea of how much beer that is, Widmer (who distributes to nearly every state in the country) won the same award in 2004. I asked the founder and president, a suds sister named Deb Carey, how they managed become Midsize Brewery of the year and not distribute outside of Wisconsin? The former Portlander said that she didn’t want to sacrifice quality by expanding too fast.
In addition to tasting at the festival, I made the rounds to a few local taverns and breweries. The Sandlot is a brewpub located in Coors Field, but don’t let that dissuade you. They won the 2005 GABF Small Brewing Company of the Year award. With at least 20 of their own taps, this is one hell of a place to watch the ball game.
Also in downtown Denver is Great Divide Brewing. They don’t have a pub, but they opened the brewery for an in-house tasting. Most of their beers are available by the bottle in Portland. On tap was an oak-aged version of the St. Bridget’s Porter that was out of this world. I asked the brewer what the distribution was going to be, and he replied, “oh, about 20 feet,” meaning just for us right now! I go gaga for their really big beers: the Oak Aged Yeti and the Hercules Double IPA.
We stumbled into Falling Rock Tap House. More than 50 taps? Is that even possible? At this point, it’s hard to recollect all of the wonderful beer they have on draft. Wait, is that Portland publican Don Younger over there chatting with a local brewer? Is this Horse Brass West? I have heard that some people come to Denver for the GABF and never leave the Tap House.
Everywhere I went, people would ask, “where are you from?” When I tell them, Portland, Oregon, a hushed reverence would fill the room, “oooh, Portland. I love Portland.” I tasted quite a bit at the festival and discovered one true thing: most breweries can only brew one or two really good beers while the rest of their line-up remains ordinary. Yes, there are spectacular beers here and there, but mostly you dump out the rest of your glass and move on. It seems to me that no one region brews with the consistent quality over many styles like Portland breweries do.
I encourage all of you Portland beer geeks and beer snobs to go to Denver next year and taste what the rest of the country has to offer. You will have a great time sampling hundreds of beers, some of which may be the best thing to ever pass between your lips, and you will walk away with a smug pride over Portland. Because, frankly, when faced with a smorgasbord of options, you will find that the best beers are brewed right here at home.
Oregon was the fourth largest medal-earner at this year’s festival, and most of those winners are in our own back yard.:
Last year’s Small Brewpub of the Year, Pelican Pub and Brewery was this year’s Large Brewpub of the Year. Its Kiwanda Cream Ale, Tsunami Stout and Doryman’s Dark Ale won golds. The MacPelican’s Scottish-Style Ale and Stormwatcher’s Winterfest won silvers.
Widmer Brewing brought home the gold for its Hefewiezen, a silver for its Brewmaster’s Pale, and a bronze for its Widmer Export Lager.
Other medal winners include a gold medal for Laurelwood’s Organic Deranger; silver medals for Full Sail’s Black Gold Imperial Stout and Alameda Brewing’s Black Bear Stout; and a bronze for BJ’s Lasto’s Oatmeal Stout.
The big news on the medal front is that venerable Rogue Brewing, who has been at the festival for 20 years, was shut out and that relative newcomer Bend Brewing won the gold for American-Style IPA with its HopHead Imperial IPA. Described by a reviewer on BeerAdvocate.com as, “hugely hoppy with a feminine finesse,” HopHead (at 8.7%ABV and 100 IBUs) prevailed over 93 other entries (the largest category at GABF). Of course it’s no shock that the best IPA came from Oregon, but I’ll come right out and say it: It is a big deal that this brawny and balanced beer was brewed by a woman, Tonya Cornett. You can find HopHead on tap locally (for a very limited time only) at Concordia Ale House.