Scouting GABF 2015: Eric Gorski previews the Mountain region

Now up is a familiar face in this part of the Internet — Eric Gorski, former Denver Post scribe who helped found First Drafts and was the main contributor and editor for many years. Gorski just a few weeks ago left The Post to become bureau chief of Chalkbeat Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit news site covering education. His work has appeared in BeerAdvocate, Draft Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler magazine. You can still follow Gorski on Twitter at @egorski.

Not surprisingly, no state is better represented on the GABF floor than host Colorado, with 155 breweries pouring. All the more stunning — that’s only half the Centennial State’s breweries.

Some of Colorado’s beer-geekiest breweries skip the sprawling festival for a number of reasons. So if you are searching your GABF program or mobile app for Crooked Stave or Casey Brewing and Blending, you will be disappointed. Those guys (and others) are pouring around town in other venues, though, so check out the First Drafts GABF Week calendar to find out where.

Colorado’s beer scene is so rich, it’s a tall order to pick just a half-dozen to try on the floor.

While the state’s big-name flagship breweries are always worth checking out, these recommendations spotlight newer breweries that might not be familiar to out-of-towners.

The Rockies are more than Colorado, of course. Wyoming represents! In fact, the Jackson brewery featured below is one of the first places I will be headed for my IPA fix. On to it:

Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales, Denver. (Booth O21)
An offshoot of Former Future Brewing, James Howat’s passion project is bold, unique and gaining deserved attention. Howat uses only microbes captured from the environment. Come winter, a rooftop coolship cools the wort, where it collects wild microbes. The beer is then put directly into barrels for 6 to 24 months, and the result is what Howat calls “spontaneous” beers. The wild beers are kept in large vessels called soleras that Howat never completely cleans. Three Black Project beers will be pouring at GABF — Dreamland, a light sour golden ale born from the coolship into wine barrels; Blueberry Dreamland, the base beer pulled at maturity then aged in a red wine barrel with blueberries, pouring a violet purple with light pink foam; and Lancer, a sour blonde ale fermented with Colorado wildflower honey and aged in oak with a Brett funk. I asked Howat if he had enough of these labor-intensive beers for the GABF crowds. He said he’s been kegging in anticipation for the festival and depending on demand may set some aside on a per-session basis.

Cannonball Creek Brewing – Golden, Colo. (Booth P3)
Some breweries are calculated in devising their entries for the GABF competition, targeting low-volume categories as their best chances for glory. Not Cannonball Creek, the respected community-oriented brewery helmed by alums of the local Mountain Sun brewpubs. Co-owner Brian Hutchinson says the crew entered the beers it is most excited about, essentially “swinging for the fences” with a hop-heavy lineup in some of the hardest-fought categories. Thankfully for GABF revelers, those same beers will be flowing at the Cannonball Creek booth. The Featherweight Pale is a reliable favorite, a rejuvenation of what had become a dated style. But don’t miss Project Alpha No. 4, part of a series of experimental IPAs that stood out at an IPA fest earlier this year staged at stellar local beer bar Hops and Pie. So many newer breweries have rushed to can and distribute en masse, but Cannonball Creek is keeping it close — and fresh — at its tasting room. This is a chance for everyone to get a taste.

Comrade Brewing – Denver. (Booth P13)
Superpower! No Colorado brewery has made a splash with a single beer in the last couple of years than Comrade and its Superpower IPA, which sits at the leading edge of putting big hop aroma and flavor up front. Credit the talents — and connections — of head brewer Marks Lanham, whose Pacific Northwest resume has him dialed into sought-after hop varieties Citra, Simcoe and Amarillo. The original Superpower and a wet-hopped version with organic Colorado hops will feature at GABF (last year’s wet-hopped Superpower won GABF silver). Also worthy of attention is the latest Honeyman IPA, a research and development IPA with a constantly changing hop bill, which Comrade concocted because of challenges sourcing the Superpower hops. If you like spice, the Yellow Fever Jalapeno Blond Ale takes Comrade’s Citra blonde ale and infuses it with hand-cut jalapenos. Co-owner David Lin points out this is the first year that chili beer will claim its own GABF category, and Comrade hopes to join the party with this beer.

Melvin Brewing – Jackson, Wyo. (Booth Q31)
Devoted hop heads know Melvin, which has been racking up competition medals with its huge IPAs produced on a tiny 3-barrel brewhouse in the most unlikely of settings — connected to a Thai restaurant in the shadow of the Tetons. Melvin is bringing its fantastic 2×4 double IPA, a wet-hop IPA brewed with Colorado hops and Chchchch-Cherry Bomb, which has medaled at the most recent GABF and World Beer Cup competitions. Very shortly, Melvin will be small no more. A new 30-barrel, four-vessel system arrives the day the team arrives home from GABF, and it will nestle into a new 20,000-square foot brewing facility on six acres a few miles south of Jackson, said Melvin’s Jeremy Tofte. The new era includes a familiar Colorado face — veteran Dave Chichura, late of Oskar Blues and Eddyline Brewing, signed on as head production brewer. Here’s a little news to go with your preview, Colorado people: Denver/Boulder will be Melvin’s first distribution market, with kegs arriving in November and cans in early 2016, Tofte said. The first releases will be Melvin IPA, 2×4, Hubert Strong Pale and Clinic India Session Ale. Rejoice!

Odd13 Brewing – Lafayette, Colo. (Booth R3)
Opened in 2013 in the Boulder County town, this brewery that names beers for comic book characters and superheroes is quietly making some of the most inventive beers on the Front Range, from sours and Belgian-inspired beers to hoppy offerings. Be adventurous and try the Humulus Kalecumber, which takes a traditional berliner weisse grain bill and sour profile, tosses a mixture of juice from kale, cucumber and mint to the whirlpool, then gets Brett fermentation. Owner Ryan Scott calls it a “highly drinkable salad sipper.” One of my big discoveries this year is Papa Silenus, a double IPA packaged in tallboy four-packs. It boasts a lengthy hop bill of Amarillo, Simco, Centennial, Comet, Citra and Columbus hops. Odd 13 is in expansion mode, too, gearing up to grow into a 30-barrel production facility.

Ratio Beerworks – Denver. (Booth X4)
The standout Colorado brewery so far in the class of 2015, Ratio brings a balanced, solid, accessible lineup of beers named for rock tunes. The RiNo brewery has a surefire winner in Dear You, a saison with French instead of Belgian yeast, and Citra hops both in the brew and dry-hop. This is a beer that can unite the snootiest of beer snobs and those who aren’t even sure they like beer. Another good reason to check out Ratio — the brewery is among those pouring in GABF’s new “Meet the Brewer” section, which features larger tables and brewery staff always on hand (most GABF booths are manned by volunteers). These guys will also be pouring Coffee Hold Steady (a dark Scotch ale infused with Novo cold-press coffee) and the summer seasonal New Wave (a kettle-soured strawberry berliner weisse).

Station 26 Brewing – Denver. (Booth M20)
Another crowd-pleasing newer addition to the scene, as evidenced by the “For you for all” slogan. Housed in a renovated brick firehouse, Station 26 is another veteran-helmed operation you can count on. After a session of high-octane or out-there beers, grab a Colorado Cream Ale as a palate-cleanser. The crisp, light beer brewed with barley from Alamosa took GABF bronze last year in a category dominated by the likes of Pabst. For a twist on hop-forward, the Intergalactic Dingo is a tropical treat with aromas of pineapple, papaya and melon, thanks to Australian barley and hops. Finally, smoked beer might be an acquired taste, but Station 26 has given its Halfie Birthday Beer a boozy kick. It’s a cottonwood smoked porter with Colorado-grown barley and hops, aged six months in a Law’s Whiskey barrel from the Denver distillery. Hey, if you are going to brew in a former firehouse, a smoked beer fits.

Others breweries from across the country I’m eager to visit:

J. Wakefield Brewing, Miami, (Booth A29)
Two years ago, former Cigar City brewer Jonathan Wakefield wowed the crowds at the inaugural What the Funk?! festival with his tropical fruit-packed Florida weisses. And this was before his namesake brewery was even open. Drink anything pink.

Brasserie Saint James, Reno, Nev. (Booth K17)
I probably would have walked right past this brewery last year had Porch Drinking’s Tristan Chan not pointed me toward this up-and-comer pouring Belgian-style beers, saisons and a memorable plum lambic. Then on Saturday, everyone knew when Brasserie St. James won best mid-sized brewpub honors.

Lawson’s Finest Liquids – Warren, Vt. (Booth N12)
For Sip of Sunshine IPA.