Beer Baron: Was peak beer on display at Great American Beer Festival?

DENVER — There are a lot of places to get a sense of how awesome the craft beer world is right now: the bottle shops, overflowing with new beers; the business pages, with story after story of expansion; the want ads, burgeoning with new positions in small breweries; a barstool, one of my favorites.

But nothing brings it home like the Great American Beer Festival.

The ultimate beerfest, put on by the Brewers Association, this year featured more than 3,500 beers being poured by more than 750 breweries Sept. 24-26. The judging portion of the festival saw more than 240 judges evaluating more than 6,800 beers and bestowing honors in 92 style categories, including eight Wisconsin brews. In a letter in the GABF program, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock described it as “the largest collection of beer on tap in the history of the world” — again — and about 60,000 people passed through the doors of the sleek downtown Colorado Convention Center.

So, it’s a big deal, and this year I discovered just how big, firsthand, for the first time. (GABF granted me a media credential that allowed free access to two sessions of the festival.)

I knew all those big numbers going in, but the sheer scale of GABF still took some getting used to. There’s block after block of brewery booths, hosting 25-35 breweries each. These are lettered, literally A to Z, and grouped primarily by region — Pacific Northwest, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, etc.

You could spend a couple hours drinking your way through any one of those blocks, and there are 26 of them.

To sift and winnow that kaleidoscope of beer, I relied heavily on the fantastic GABF app, which offers nearly complete beer and brewery rosters that you can use to build a custom map to drink your way through.

I had a few well-known breweries that don’t sell beer in Wisconsin that I knew I wanted to visit: Yazoo (Tennessee), Russian River (California), Great Divide (Colorado), Boulevard (Missouri). But for the most part I populated my app map with the help of a series of Denver Post blogs by beer writers from across the country offering their picks for their region, spotlighting hidden gems like Barley Brown’s (Oregon), Oasis (Texas) and Otter Creek (Vermont).

The big picture all of these pixels created was amazing. From the smallest brewpub on up to semi-national, name-brand craft brewers, the quality and diversity of beer right now, is extraordinary and — according to people more knowledgeable on the subject than me — unprecedented.

There was Dreamland, a spontaneously fermented, sour blonde ale with layers of complexity among its lactic embrace, from Denver’s own Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales. There was Coachella Valley Brewing’s Black Widow, a massive 17 percent ABV barrel-aged imperial stout that did something I didn’t think possible: rival Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout. There was Firestone Walker’s XVIII, an absolutely decadent malt-bomb blend of strong beers released for its 2014 anniversary.

But it wasn’t all out-there beers. Also impressing were straight-ahead but superbly executed versions of classic styles like Irish dry stout (from Beara Irish Brewing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire) and märzen (Pedernales Brewing of Fredericksburg, Texas).

It’s small breweries like these that are driving the growth in the beer industry. The day after the festival closed, the Brewers Association announced the number of breweries in the United States had passed 4,000 for the first time since probably the 1870s.

But this joyous scene at GABF took place in a context that some see as storm clouds gathering over the utopians reveling in this big bang of beer. That spectre: big business.

Buyouts in craft beer and predictions of ill effects from them are nothing new; the State Journal’s own George Hesselberg may have begun this craft beer tradition with a column that bemoaned Miller’s purchase of Leinenkugel’s in 1988.

But non-craft-brewing interests’ interest in craft brewers has risen dramatically as GABF neared. Consider the action in September alone: Craft big boy Lagunitas entered a 50-50 partnership with international giant Heineken. MillerCoors bought out San Diego’s Saint Archer Brewing, which is about the size of Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery. Anheuser-Busch InBev continued its string of small-brewery acquisitions by buying out well-respected Los Angeles’ Golden Road Brewing, from which I took a GABF pour of a pretty nice IPA called Point the Way. It’s a beast of a different sort, but it seems certain any acquisition of MillerCoors by Anheuser-Busch InBev would affect the distribution networks and retail environment those giants share with craft brewers.

The news continued in GABF’s wake. I high-fived Dogfish Head Craft Brewery founder Sam Calagione on the GABF floor about 36 hours before news broke that he had sold a 15 percent stake in his brewery to private equity firm LNK Partners.

But there will be time for more on that in future columns, surely. Let’s close with some smaller-picture observations from Denver, many of which come from having been to GABF once and the Great Taste of the Midwest, another premier beer event, many times.

SMALL POURS: One major departure was the pour size at GABF — one ounce, rigorously enforced — versus Great Taste’s 2 ounces, which is regularly 3 or even 4 in practice. One ounce is fine, perhaps preferable, for drinking by yourself, but those larger pours make it much easier to share beers among festival friends.

SOURS: The trend I touched on in this year’s Great Taste recap is happening on an even larger scale nationally. Many of the breweries who feature or focus exclusively on sour beers or those fermented with wild yeasts had some of the longest lines at GABF. For my second session I overcame my aversion to lines and zeroed in on such beers and ended up with outstanding pours from Maine’s Allagash, Colorado’s Avery, Tennessee’s Yazoo and AlmanacRare Barrel and Lost Abbey, all from California.

PERSONAL TOUCH: While the GABF volunteers at many of the brewery booths were passionate about beer and did their best to educate themselves on what they were pouring, there’s just no replacing the knowledge and passion that comes from actually putting your hands on the beer day in and day out. It made me grateful for the brewery reps, actual brewers or even brewmasters who pour across the board at Great Taste.

VENUE MATTERS: The Colorado Convention Center is a very nice convention center, and organizers do a nice job of laying it out and putting on a good beer festival, but how can any indoor space compare to Olin Park in August? It’s one huge reason the Great Taste is special — you just don’t have beer of that quality and quantity in that beautiful of a setting.

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