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Monday, October 03, 2011

What Distant Northwesterners May Be Interested To Know About the GABF, Final Thoughts

Safe and sound and back under the soothing, wet clouds of Portland, my Denver adventure completed. In the manner of Pete Brown, whom I had the pleasure to meet on Friday, here are some final scatter-shot observations about America's national beer festival.

1. The Beer. I went to the GABF this year with a single goal: sample as broadly from as many different breweries as possible. The structure of the Fest was tailor-made for my purposes; samples were poured in one-ounce increments, and breweries were organized by region. This allowed me to finally taste the beer Lew writes about in Pennsylvania as well as delving deeply into the South. If your goal was to really get to know the beer of a few breweries well, the Fest would frustrate; if you wanted to be introduced in passing to a wide number of breweries, it was ideal. I discovered:
  • Cigar City (Tampa, FL). Yes, they're good in that "international extreme" vein.
  • Fat Head's (Cleveland). Stanky, catty IPAs aren't just for the West Coast anymore.
  • Destihl (Champaign, IL). Impressive experimentation with sours.
  • Freetail (San Antonio).
  • Uncle Billy's (Austin).
  • St. Arnold's (Houston). I've long wanted to try their beer, and they didn't disappoint. Great lagers.
  • Sly Fox (Phoenixville, PA). Brewer Brian O'Reilly puts out accomplished interpretations of Belgian and German styles.
  • Yards (Philadelphia). Well-made colonially-inspired beers

2. Wits. IPAs were easily the most common beers at the Fest, but the place was lousy with wits, too. I don't know if this is because they sell well on their own, or because Blue Moon and Shock Top have created a huge market for them. But everyone brews one.

3. Sours. I remember when New Glarus introduced Wisconsin Red--perhaps the first tart ale in America (certainly among the first). Brewer Dan Carey considered its production a state secret and I don't know to this day how he makes it. But the larger secret's out, and now scores--probably hundreds--of breweries funk up their beers. Most use wild yeasts and bacteria, and an increasing number are cultivating spontaneous fermentations with feral buggies. I admire the trend, but someone needs to point out that sour runs a continuum from the pleasant, beguiling tart to the harsh, industrial acetone. After muscling my way through some of the really aggressive ones (nearly always made admirably, with brettanomyces or by spontaneous fermentation), it was a revelation to encounter beers like Ommegang's Aphrodite, a stunning beer that swaddles its gentle tartness in sensual, sweet folds of raspberry sweetness. Like hop bitterness, we must learn to measure sours on a scale other than pure intensity.

4. Chaos. There's much to admire about the GABF. It is the one national event where brewers from around the country come together to celebrate their product. You get to see all the stars and taste all the much-lauded beers. The downside is that the invitation of 450+ breweries means a site of wild chaos. The Colorado Convention center would fill up with 12,000+ attendees, all full throat. The sound of their voices ricocheting off the cement floors and cinder walls was deafening. It's not a particularly pleasant venue aesthetically, either. So aside from the beer itself, the experience is a bit challenging.

5. Information. The one big quibble I have with the way the Brewers Association runs the Fest is the information available on the beers. In both the huge physical program and the iPhone app, breweries were listed alphabetically, and their beers were listed by name only. The beers weren't even identified by style. Typical entry:
Pittsburg, CA
Evil Twin
Evil Cousin
Since you had to fight your way through crowds even to approach each brewery's beer, it was impossible to target breweries based on thee styles they brewed. Ideally, I'd love information about every beer there, including style, stats, and description. At a bare minimum, though, each beer should have been described by style, and the app should have been sortable by style.

6. Cuisine à la bière. The Brewers Association is making a serious push to put beer on the best tables in the land. During the Fest, they held an event called Farm to Table which paired selections from award-winning breweries and well-known chefs from around the country. (Our own Paul Kasten from Wildwood joined Oakshire's Matt Van Wyk.) They held a similar luncheon for the media. Finally, the American Cheese Society had a booth set up to illustrate how beer--not wine--is the Ginger Rogers to cheese's Fred Astaire. (Agreed.)

7. Gold Medal Winners. A handy map.


The GABF is a force of nature at this point, and for four days it washes over the city of Denver in an unstoppable torrent. You either get on or you get run over. I would encourage everyone to go once to see the spectacle. For uber beer geeks, seeing the beerluminaries is a pleasure (meeting Pete Brown and Randy Mosher were among the highlights for me), and the heady experience of being surrounded by all that good beer is enough to make you lightheaded before your first sip. But it's also true that you need to rouse yourself to a state of energy, for the Fest is no place for the timid or weary.


  1. There was probably some great cask there as well.

    Oh, never mind.

  2. I too hope that more information is available on each beer next year. I would have loved to sort a list by style, or at least broad category like "sour."

    FYI- St. Arnold in Houston only makes one lager, the Summer Pils.

    Everything else is either their house ale strain, or a Kolsh strain.