GABF 2014 Colorado medal count: The kids are all right

The depth and breadth of Colorado’s brewing scene was on display Saturday at the Great American Beer Festival awards, with medals going to the state’s largest and most legendary brewer, independent craft brewing trailblazers and, perhaps most notably, an impressive number of small breweries making their festival debuts.

In all, Colorado breweries brought home 39 medals (40 if you count the pro-am medal shared by Westminster’s Kokopelli Beer Co.), in the most wide-open GABF competition ever. Ten of them were gold.

The glut of new breweries in the U.S. and increased interest to compete at the prestigious festival prompted organizers to limit entrants to five beers in most cases, leading to unprecedented parity on the podium.

At Saturday’s ceremony, 234 breweries shared in the medal haul, said Chris Swersey, the competition manager for the Boulder-based Brewers Association, the trade group that stages the annual beer festival and competition.

Last year, Colorado breweries won 46 medals; in 2012 the total was 35.

As has been the case in recent years, Colorado trailed only California in the medal count. The Golden State claimed 47 this year.

In an interesting analysis, Brewers Association staff economist uses statistics to argue those two states lead the way not because of favoritism or superior beer but because of sheer volume of entries and categories entered.

Without a doubt, Colorado has a home-field advantage entering the competition with little to no travel comparatively, so the state is over-represented in number of breweries pouring in the hall and competing for medals.

The GABF 2014 Large Brewing Company and Large Brewing Company Brewer of the Year award went to 12-employee AC Golden, which competes in that category because it is part of the MillerCoors corporate family.

“Our partnership with MillerCoors gives us the ability to source the best ingredients and brewing equipment in the world – and then they get out of the way to let us experiment with a wide variety of beers, including Colorado Native,” AC Golden president and co-founder Glenn Knippenberg said in a statement. “They’ve let us grow our business the right way and, in a world where a lot of folks are focused on immediate returns, they take a long term view.”

AC Golden’s medal winners were brewed exclusively with Colorado ingredients. Colorado Native Amber Lager and Colorado Native Golden Lager won gold and silver, respectively, in the American-style amber lager category.

The golden lager will be coming to six packs next spring, part of an expansion of the Colorado Native brand, AC Golden brewer Ben Knutson said. Earlier this year, AC Golden began packaging an India Pale Lager as a Colorado Native beer, but not before removing out-of-state Simcoe hops from the recipe that disqualified it as being a 100 percent local product.

Knutson said AC Golden’s win demonstrates that Colorado is a great barley-growing state. While AC Golden and Coors have a corner on Colorado’s small but growing hop market, “The only reason Colorado has Colorado hops is AC Golden,” Knutson said. “We buy 80 percent of the hops and pay a premium.”

Coors Brewing, which competes separately from AC Golden at GABF, won silver and bronze in the American-style lager or light lager category for Coors Light and Coors Banquet, respectively. Despite independent craft brewers making inroads with their own light lagers, the big boys still rule the category. Miller Light won the gold medal.

By our count at least eight new Colorado breweries competing in their first GABFs won medals on Saturday. That’s a seal of approval for the brewing class of 2013/4 as many industry officials worry about questionable quality coming out of start-up breweries potentially harming the craft beer segment as a whole.

Comrade Brewing Company owner David Lin, a silver medal for his fresh-hopped IPA draped around his neck, made an important point.

“The breweries may be new, but look at their brewers,” Lin said. “It’s going to go back to what (Stone Brewing Co.’s) Mitch Steele says – ‘For God’s sake, hire someone who knows what they’re doing.’ So we did.”

Comrade opened this year in Denver with a veteran and decorated brewmaster, Marks Lanham. He won three GABF medals while head brewer at Grand Teton Brewing in Idaho, then moved to well-regarded Boneyard Beer in Oregon, then Barley Brown’s Brew Pub in Baker, Oregon, which last year won honors as very small brewing company of the year.

Consider other medal-winning breweries new to the scene in the past year that employ experienced hands:

– Station 26 Brewing, which opened in December in Denver, won a bronze in American style cream ale, the domain of the likes of Pabst. Brewer Wayne Waananen was the first head brewer at the SandLot, the tiny Coors incubator that racks up competition medals (including a GABF bronze this weekend in Dortmunder or German-style Oktoberfest).

– The brewer at Platt Park Brewing Co., Greg Matthews, previously brewed at the Rock Bottom outpost in Boulder County. On Saturday, the months-old brewery took a silver medal in the Vienna-style lager category. The Denver brewery just changed its name last month from Denver Pearl Brewing Co. after Denver Beer Co. and Pabst raised trademark concerns.

– Bryan Selders, who mans the kettles at The Post Brewing Co. in Lafayette, previously was head brewer at Delaware’s famed experimenter Dogfish Head Brewery. Selders brews more to style at The Post and was rewarded Saturday with a silver medal in the American-style or international-style pilsener category for his Howdy Beer.

– Two veterans of the Colorado-based Rock Bottom chain – Scott O’Hearn and Philip Phifer – are behind the beers at the new LowDown Brewery + Kitchen on Lincoln just south of downtown Denver. Keeping with that Rock Bottom tradition of brewing traditional styles to guidelines, the new brewery won a silver in Bohemian-style pilsener.

But the success was not limited to breweries with professional experience.

As is the case at many startups, the head brewer at Former Future Brewing Co. in Denver came straight out of homebrewing. James Howat is also a microbiologist, and his brewery strives to bring a modern twist to old beer styles with a hipster, vintage-vibed taproom. Former Future won bronze in the experimental category for Black Project #1.

Dan Diebolt, the head brewer at Denver’s family-owned Diebolt Brewing, is also a former homebrewer and oil-and-gas industry veteran in his first professional brewing role. The brewery won silver in American-style brown ale, part of a Colorado sweep of the category that brought gold to Telluride Brewing for Face-Down Brown and bronze to Upslope Brewing for Brown Ale.

Fellow GABF debutante CODA Brewing in Aurora, which won silver in the fruit beer category for a passionfruit beer, is another straight-from-homebrewing story. Brewer Luke Smith previously designed cancer drugs in the CU Department of Pharmacology.

Other relatively new breweries that won medals Saturday include FATE Brewing in Boulder, which has a strong reputation for its kolsch beers and won gold with its Laimas Kolsch in the German-style kolsch category; Cannonball Creek Brewing, which followed up on on two silvers in its rookie campaign last year with a gold in American-style black ale for its Black IPA; BRU Handbuilt Ales and Eats won its first GABF medal with a silver in Scotch Ale; and Crow Hop Brewing of Loveland took gold in Irish-style red ale.

Among Colorado breweries, Longmont-based Left Hand Brewing brought home the most medals Saturday, tallying three silvers in dark beer categories. The brewery, celebrating its 21st year, won hardware for Black Jack Porter (brown porter category), Smokejumper Smoked Imperial Porter (smoked beer) and its stalwart milk stout (sweet stout or cream stout)

Other Colorado craft beer mainstays that made the podium include Boulder-based Avery Brewing (silver in German-style doppelbock or eisbock for The Kaiser), Ska Brewing in Durango (gold for longtime favorite True Blonde in English-style summer ale) and Oskar Blues of Longmont (silver in chocolate beer for Death by Coconut).

Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora does not qualify as a veteran – yet – but the former GABF small brewery of the year took two bronze medals this year for its much-decorated Apricot (American-style fruit beer) and S.S. Minnow Mild Ale (English-style mild ale). Funkwerks, another former small brewery of the year, took gold for its bright pink Raspberry Provincial in Belgian-style fruit beer.

For the winning breweries, GABF medals bring added recognition, validation and opportunity.

Scott Witsoe of Wit’s End Brewing is celebrating winning a gold medal with one of his old homebrew recipes – Jean-Claude Van Blonde – brewed on his tiny one-barrel system in Denver. The same beer won bronze at this spring’s World Beer Cup.

The timing is great for Wit’s End, which is about to ramp up production on a new seven-barrel system and start distributing its kegs to retail accounts around Denver.

“The GABF has such notoriety not just in the industry, but because it’s such a consumer-based event, it’s just something that in some way validates our brewery,” Witsoe said. “The marketing power that comes with a GABF medal gets our name out there.”