Beer in Review 2015: James Howat of Former Future Brewing Co.

As 2015 comes to a close, we’re once again asking leading figures on the Colorado beer scene to reflect on the past year and look ahead to next.

This next installment in our 5th annual Beer In Review features James Howat, the mad genius behind the brews at Former Future Brewing Co. and Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales. The latter, an offshoot of Former Future Brewing, won a bronze medal in this year’s Great American Beer Festival in the experimental beer category. Howat’s project now features a “rooftop coolship” that chills the wort while collecting wild microbes to create spontaneously fermented beers. He said he is looking for a second place for the coolship so he won’t have to keep climbing on the roof.

Now, on to James’ picks:

Favorite beer of the year: It’s so hard to pick one beer as a favorite, because what I prefer depends heavily on my mood and the season. That being said, one beer really notable to me this year was Single Tree Hickory from Scratch Brewing in Ava, Ill. It is a lightly sour, smokey beer that’s brewed with all the parts of the hickory tree. This sounds absolutely weird, but was a really complex and interesting beer once you dive into it a little deeper. Absolutely well-executed and great execution is even more impressive when a brewery is doing things that have basically never been done.

Colorado brewery of the year: It is really hard to pick just one because in the State of Craft Beer we have so many breweries that are absolutely killing it in so many different realms. I think, given the above I’m going to go with Avery Brewing Co. Not only do they excel in pretty much every style of beer from barrel-aged stouts to sours to the more standard styles, they moved into a new facility and as far as I can tell the beers have gotten even better, across the board, from day 1, which I imagine is no small feat when opening a completely new facility. It goes to show the massive amount of talent that is behind the scenes at this organization.

New Colorado brewery of the year: I’m going to go with Call to Arms Brewing. I’ve been to CTA multiple times, despite it being completely across town from my home and my brewery, which should say something about how much I like their beers and their taproom. I’ve tried most of their offerings and every single one is unique, well thought-out, balanced, and of superb quality.

Colorado brewery to watch in 2016 Without a doubt, Bill Eye and Ashleigh Carter’s Bierstadt Lagerhaus. Great craft lagers are something I enjoy, something I think we need more of in Denver, and there is nobody that I could imagine who could do it better than these two. I cannot wait. The bonus being I will also be able to eat Rackhouse mac-and-cheese in the same building, something I’ve been missing for too long.

Most notable craft beer news or trend of 2015: Macro brands (predominantly one of them) leveraging their size to put a squeeze on craft beer in ways that have never happened before. Excellent craft brands are being bought out, and I see people concerned about the quality taking a hit. It seems to me that line of thinking is silly. The quality has stayed the same but the prices are dropping on excellent beers. Prices that are approaching points where even regional craft breweries can’t easily compete.

Then on top of that we have distributors being given incentives to drop craft brands and penalties if they keep them in the portfolio. These are distributors that in most cases legally required to be independent entities. This use of shear scale to make things much more difficult for craft brewers (especially regional or super-regional craft brands) is concerning.

The good news is I’m starting to see more consumers taking a stand and saying, for example, “Bourbon County Breakfast Stout is a great beer but unfortunately the people who own that brand are doing things that may jeopardize the hundreds of smaller independent craft brands that I love year-round — I will no longer purchase it and instead look for independent or local options”. I’m looking for more retailers to start taking the same position.

Craft beer trend to watch for in 2016: As the craft movement grows the average craft beer drinker has been enjoying great beer longer, on average. As the consumer palate matures, I think consumers are increasingly looking for subtlety and complexity and starting to understand what that looks like in beer. There will always be a place for the strongest, the most bitter, the most sour, the most alcohol, for sure. However, the growth of more subtle styles in recent years like farmhouse ales, is an indicator to me that people are starting to realize subtlety isn’t a bad word and that often in order to have great complexity in beer you need to have both balance and subtlety.

Here are previous entries:

Troy Casey from Casey Brewing and Blending.
Lauren Salazar from New Belgium Brewing Co. 
Darren Boyd of Spangalang Brewery.
Andy Parker of Avery Brewing. 
Nick Nunns of TRVE Brewing.
Drew and Leah Watson of Hops and Pie Pizzeria & Craft Beer Taproom.
David Lin of Comrade Brewing Co.
Matt Thrall of Left Hand Brewing.
Eli Kolondy and Tony Rau of Odell Brewing. 
Jesse Brookstein of Call to Arms Brewing. 
Tommy Bibliowicz of 4 Noses Brewing. 
Sam Scruby of Upslope Brewing.

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    Beer in Review 2015: Brian O’Connell of Renegade Brewing

    As 2015 comes to a close, we’re once again asking leading figures on the Colorado beer scene to reflect on the past year and look ahead to next.

    This next installment in our 5th annual Beer In Review features Brian O’Connell, founder and owner of Renegade Brewing in Denver. Renegade has been a stalwart in Denver, opening in 2008 when there were only eight craft breweries in the city. Now, the brewery continues to grow, adding a new facility and releasing more products.

    Now, onto Brian’s picks:

    Favorite beer of the year: When I’m not drinking beer I love to have a Manhattan. I was out in Portland for the Craft Brewers Conference and went to Cascade Brewing and found a beer that mimicked the qualities of a Manhattan. The aroma alone from that beer was almost enough to satisfy, but of course I had to have a couple of them just to be sure I liked it.

    Colorado brewery of the year: Cannonball Creek Brewing: Brian Hutchinson and Jason Stengl are great brewers who are quietly making awesome beers. Everything they make is consistently good. They are super nice people who are making a solid professional and creative contribution to Colorado brewing.

    New Colorado brewery of the year: I have to go with Spangalang Brewery. Taylor Rees, Austin Wiley and Darren Boyd are making some great beers and their brewery is a really fun place to hang out. Plus there is a great sense of vindication you get from relaxing and drinking a beer in the former Division of Motor Vehicles office.

    Colorado brewery to watch in 2016: Former Future’s Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales is definitely one to watch. They have had a lot of success, including winning a Great American Beer Festival medal in 2015. They are fast becoming a leader in Colorado in wild and sour ales.

    Most notable craft beer news or trend of 2015: Big money! Wow, Heineken paid an undisclosed amount (but likely at least $400 million) for 50 percent of Lagunitas, Constellation (makers of Corona) paid $1 billion, yes with a B for 100 percent of Ballast Point, not to mention the handful of other purchases carried out by ABInBev. There is big money coming into the “craft” beer industry. It is getting harder and harder for beer drinkers to know if they are purchasing from an independent brewer or a large corporation. Additionally, a federal judge ruled that any beer from any brewer can be referred to as a “craft” beer. All of this leads to a dilution of the term craft and confusion for beer drinkers.

    Craft beer trend to watch for in 2016: Big is the trend for 2016. The number of small breweries opening up is slowing down and will continue to slow in 2016. Several breweries in our state recently completed big expansions or are in the midst of big expansions. Big money will continue to enter the “craft” beer industry and will take the brands they purchase to national and international markets. It will become common to see large scale advertising for brands that are being purchased by large corporations. You don’t spend $1 billion dollars without some plans for big returns on that investment.

    Here are previous entries:

    Troy Casey from Casey Brewing and Blending.
    Lauren Salazar from New Belgium Brewing Co. 
    Darren Boyd of Spangalang Brewery.
    Andy Parker of Avery Brewing. 
    Nick Nunns of TRVE Brewing.
    Drew and Leah Watson of Hops and Pie Pizzeria & Craft Beer Taproom.
    David Lin of Comrade Brewing Co.
    Matt Thrall of Left Hand Brewing.
    Eli Kolondy and Tony Rau of Odell Brewing. 
    Jesse Brookstein of Call to Arms Brewing. 
    Tommy Bibliowicz of 4 Noses Brewing. 
    Sam Scruby of Upslope Brewing. 
    James Howat of Former Future Brewing Co.

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    Thirty-one Colorado breweries score medals in GABF 2015

    Thirty-one Colorado breweries earned 36 medals Saturday in the Great American Beer Festival competition this weekend in Denver’s Colorado Convention Center, including six gold medals, 15 silver medals and 15 bronze medals.

    For the third year in a row, Left Hand Brewing of Longmont took home three medals, including a gold for its Fade to Black Vol. 1 in the Export Stout category. The brewery also earned two bronze medals for Sawtooth in the Ordinary or Special Bitter category and Blackjack Porter in the Brown Porter category. The brewery has now earned a total of 12 medals in the past six years.

    Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales took bronze in the GABF competition for experimental beer. (Photo by John Frank, Denver Post)

    More than 6,600 beers were entered by 1,552 breweries from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, searching for medals in 92 categories covering 145 different beer styles. A total of 275 medals were awarded to 242 breweries across the country, plus three GABF Pro-Am medals to teams of amateur brewers paired with professional brewers.

    In the Pro-Am category that had 91 entrants, two Colorado breweries brewed medal-winning recipes — Odd13 Brewing out of Lafayette that earned the silver medal for brewing Mike Froehlich’s recipe and FATE Brewing of Boulder for the bronze for brewing Ryan Lotter’s recipe.

    Aside from Left Hand’s gold medal, other Colorado gold medal winners were: AC Golden, Coors Brewing Co., Fort Collins Brewery & Tavern, Prost Brewing, Spangalang Brewery and Wiley Roots Brewing Co.

    Fort Collins Brewery won the gold for its Oktoberfest at the 2015 Great American Beer Fest. From left is Taylor Krantz, Thomas Barnett,
    Vicki Rubinstein and Shaun Salyards. (Courtesy of Fort Collins Brewery).

    Spangalang’s win is notable because the brewery in Denver’s Five Points has been open for only three months. The Brewers Association, which puts on the fest, said 38 first-time breweries won awards in the competition. Wiley Root’s gold is also the first for the brewery from Greeley that earned a bronze two years ago after it had just opened.

    Also notable are the medals that went to Cannonball Creek Brewing from Golden and Ska Brewing from Durango, which each won bronze medals in extremely competitive categories. Ska Brewing’s Ska Face won in the wood and barrel-aged strong beer category that had 179 entries (the fourth most entered) and Cannonball Creek’s Featherweight Pale Ale placed in the American-Style Pale Ale category that had 160 entries (the fifth most entered).

    Here are Colorado’s medal winners, including the name of their beer, the brewery, city and style:

    “Ctayt,” AC Golden Brewing Co., Golden, Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout
    “Coors Banquet,” Coors Brewing Co., Golden, American-Style Lager or Light Lager
    “Oktoberfest,” Fort Collins Brewery & Tavern, Fort Collins, Dortmunder or German-Style Oktoberfest
    “Fade to Black, Volume 1,” Left Hand Brewing Co., Longmont, Export Stout
    “Weißbier,” Prost Brewing, Denver, South German-Style Hefeweizen
    “Spangalang Table Beer,” Spangalang Brewery, Denver, Other Belgian-Style Ale
    “Super 77 Wheat.” Wiley Roots Brewing Co., Greeley, American-Style Wheat Beer

    “White Rascal,” Avery Brewing Co., Boulder, Belgian-Style Witbier
    “Wreak Havoc,” Bootstrap Brewing Co., Niwot, Imperial Red Ale
    “Statik,” Brewery Rickoli, Wheat Ridge, Barley Wine-Style Ale
    “Via Chicago,” CODA Brewing Co., Aurora, American-Style Strong Pale Ale
    “Fresh Hop Superpower IPA,” Comrade Brewing Co., Denver, Fresh or Wet Hop Ale
    “Wild Wapiti Wheat,” Elk Mountain Brewing Co., Parker, South German-Style Hefeweizen
    “No Name,” Glenwood Canyon Brewing Co., Glenwood Springs, English-Style Brown Ale
    “Fearless Youth,” Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, Loveland, European-Style Dark/Münchner Dunkel
    “Lone Tree Mexican Lager,” Lone Tree Brewing Co., Lone Tree, American-Style Lager or Light Lager
    “24 Frames Per Second,” Our Mutual Friend Malt & Brew, Denver, Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer
    “Mexican Logger,” SKA Brewing, Durango, American-Style or International-Style Pilsener
    “Colorado Kölsch,” Steamworks Brewing Co., Durango, German-Style Kölsch
    “Whacked Out Wheat,” Telluride Brewing Co., Telluride, American-Style Wheat Beer
    “Red Swingline IPA Primitif,” Trinity Brewing, Colorado Springs, Brett Beer
    “WeldWerks Hefeweizen,” WeldWerks Brewing Co., Greeley, American-Style Wheat Beer With Yeast

    “Friar Chuck,” Black Bottle Brewery,Fort Collins, German-Style Kölsch
    “Ramjet,” Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales, Denver, Experimental Beer
    “Coconut Porter,” Broken Compass Brewing, Breckenridge, Field Beer
    “Featherweight Pale Ale,” Cannonball Creek Brewing Co., Golden, American-Style Pale Ale
    “Night Watchman,” City Star Brewing, Berthoud, Robust Porter
    “King Ink,” Denver Beer Co., Denver, American-Style Black Ale
    “Pilsner,” Dry Dock Brewing Co., Aurora, German-Style Pilsener
    “Apricot Blonde,” Dry Dock Brewing Co., Aurora, American-Style Fruit Beer
    “Snow Drop,” Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, Loveland, Historical Beer
    “Black Jack Porter,” Left Hand Brewing Co., Longmont, Brown Porter
    “Sawtooth Ale,” Left Hand Brewing Co., Longmont, Ordinary or Special Bitter
    “Altbier,” Liquid Mechanics Brewing Co., Lafayette, German-Style Altbier
    “Peacemaker Pilsner,” Pug Ryan’s Brewing Co., Dillon, Bohemian-Style Pilsener
    “Ska Face,” SKA Brewing, Durango, Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer

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    Beware the kettle sour beer

    A small battle has erupted in the craft beer world over one of the hottest styles of beers — sours.

    The conflict is over how the beers are created — kettled versus aged.

    The former is a trendy way to make sour-tasting beer. It is much quicker, doesn’t require any special equipment and is less expensive to make. The latter is an age-old tradition that involves careful production, long periods of fermentation and use of bacteria or wild yeast that if left unchecked can contaminate other beers. Traditionally aged sours can be expensive both to make and drink.

    (This section was edited for clarification.) The relatively inexpensive kettle souring technique produces a clean, tangy beer high in acidity that can be brewed in a few weeks without the fear of contaminating the brewhouse. In quick-style souring, the beer can be soured during the mashing process when lactobacillus bacteria eats the sugars and converts them to acids to produce that sought-after pucker. It also can be soured in the boil kettle before the heat is turned up and the bacteria is killed off or pasteurized. The latter process is called kettle souring. (We are using a catch-all term of “kettle-souring” in the place of “quick souring.”)

    Traditional sours often are inoculated with lactic acid bacteria (multiple strains of Pediococcus and Lactobacillus) and sometimes use Brettanomyces yeast after the boil for extra fermentation. They can then ferment up to two years until poured. To simplify it, kettled sours are infected before the boil. And traditional sours are infected after the boil.

    Breweries throughout the country and in Colorado are kettle-souring beers — from Denver Beer Co. to Odd13 Brewing in Lafayette. Nationally, breweries making kettled sours include Boulevard Brewing Co. from Missouri and Breakside Brewery from Oregon, among a whole slew of others.

    To purists, however, quick souring is a bastardization of a noble brew.

    “There are people whose families run breweries for hundreds of years,” said Chad Yakobsen, founder of Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project that produces world-renowned aged sours. “There is tradition to be upheld. It is important to say how beers are produced. For us to say that we produce aged-sours, it justifies the beer and production and character.”

    The process is very, very different than aged-souring, Yakobsen said.

    “You put them into a fermenter or oak and the natural organisms and Brettanomyces take their time to create the complex characteristics,” Yakobsen said. “The other is very one note. It is directed at the acidity. It doesn’t have the time and artistry in it. It is not my thing.”

    Crooked Stave put on Wednesday night’s What the Funk Invitational — a glorious event for sour-beer lovers. Few quick-soured beers were poured because all beers at the event must be barrel-aged, Yakobsen said.

    James Howat, owner and head brewer at Former Future Brewing Co. and Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales, is known to wear a T-shirt that says “Death to Kettle Sours.” He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t like kettled sours. At Former Future, customers are immediately informed on the leaderboard that the sour beers are not produced through kettling.

    “I don’t abide bad beer,” he said (another T-shirt slogan?)

    “My main thing is a lot of brewers have seemingly suddenly decided to make sour beers and yet don’t have the ability to have the patience, investment or knowledge to make aged sour beers,” he said. “They are saying, ‘OK. Sours are popular now. We want to make a sour now.’ … And they are making a lot of bad sours.”

    He acknowledges not all kettled sours are bad. But the ones that are, are putrid with major flaws, producing beers that smell like vomit or hot Dumpsters.

    “Not only does the souring happen quickly, but the bad stuff can happen quickly,” he said.

    He worries people who are just starting to explore sours will be immediately put off by the poorer versions.

    “The public, I think, hasn’t had enough good sour beer and doesn’t understand the difference between barnyard funk of a traditional sour beer and the taste of a kettle sour,” he said. “Vomit is not a thing that should be in there.”

    Traditional aged-sours can transform those bad flavors and tastes. Vomit, for example, can become a pineapple smell.

    “But that doesn’t happen in two weeks.”

    Brandon Boldt, head brewer at Odd13 Brewing, makes both traditional sours and kettle sours and believes there is room for both. He said you wouldn’t make a complex Oud Bruin sour with the kettling process. But a lighter Berliner Weisse works well with kettle souring, if done right, he said. The other issue is storage. Fermenting traditional sours takes up a lot of space, and smaller breweries aren’t able to hold the fooders foeders for such a process.

    “To me, the main point should be to judge on product, not process,” Boldt said. “The reason we incorporate souring wort as a technique is not only a function of space or expedience, but another tool for exploration and creativity. We are synthesizing brewing techniques to try and approach new flavor and aroma combinations, which is at the heart of ‘traditional’ Belgian brewing philosophy.”

    Boldt would like to end the “Death to Kettled Sours” movement and push, instead, for a “Death to Hyperbole” slogan.

    “Or maybe slightly less ironic yet wordier, ‘Let’s work together to improve upon the collective quality of both soured and non-soured beers,'” he said.

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    GABF 2015: Tips to get the most out of the festival (and stay standing)

    The Denver Post is sending a mix of veterans and newbies to this year’s Great American Beer Festival, Sept. 24-26 at the Colorado Convention Center. Be sure to check out our calendar of other beer-focused events during GABF week and our contributors’ regional scouting reports on breweries to check out. Here’s what our staff is looking for and how they’re strategizing to make the most of the festival.

    John Frank
    State politics reporter and craft beer writer
    On Twitter: @ByJohnFrank

    Best bottle shop to visit while in Denver: For out of towners, a trip to the local bottle shop is a must. The place to go is Mondo Vino, 3601 W 32nd Ave. Beer manager Foster Ramsey can point you to all the good stuff, including a few hard-to-find offerings from Cascade and Russian River, as well as can’t-miss local beers from Crooked Stave, Trinity and more.

    Colorado brewery you can’t miss at the festival: Black Project Spontaneous and Wild Ales. This Former Future Brewing spin-off rarely releases beers, and they sell out in minutes. Brewer James Howat is making some of the state’s most interesting wild beers.

    Under-the-radar beer bar: Falling Rock Tap House on Blake Street is the big draw, but Terminal Bar in Union Station offers 30 Colorado craft beers on draft — and one of the most unique drinking experiences anywhere, in the middle of a train station.

    Most under-appreciated region at GABF: I’m an evangelist for southern beer. So much good stuff. So visit the Southeast Region and check out my write-up on the best places to visit.

    GABF pro tip: Don’t drink every 1-ounce pour. Dump the ones you don’t like.

    Jenn Fields
    Travel and fitness editor
    On Twitter: @JennFields

    First brewery booth I’ll visit: Spencer Brewery, to try America’s first official Trappist ale.

    GABF Pro tip: Drink plenty of water to delay drunkenness and stave off tomorrow’s hangover. For those coming from sea level, this is a good counter to the advice from medical professionals not to drink heavily when you arrive at altitude.

    GABF strategy: This will be my first GABF, so I’m worried about decision fatigue setting in if I go without a plan — even though I hear beer really helps alleviate decision fatigue. I’ll mine our regional guides for a list of beers and/or breweries I don’t want to miss and then stick to it, even when inebriation sets in. No, really. Why would you doubt that? OK, so maybe some beer wanderlust will be part of my plan.

    Favorite beer style to browse at GABF: Stouts. No wait, Belgians. No wait, sours. Smoked porters. Dang! Are we seriously supposed to choose just one? Who wrote this questionnaire?

    Don’t forget: The Beer and Food Pavilion. I love beer pairings. It’s a great way to try both styles and breweries that might not otherwise have grabbed my attention. Plus, food is also part of my overall GABF survival strategy. It should probably be part of yours, too.

    Jeremy Meyer

    Editorial writer
    On Twitter: @jpmeyerDPost

    GABF Pro tip: Try the beers from the state guild groups. Often they are from brand new breweries that aren’t in their own booths at the festival and there can be some great finds. Also, try out the pro-am beers that feature homebrewer recipes made by professional breweries.

    First brewery booth I’ll visit: The Rare Barrel (Booth V16). It is an all-sours brewery out of Berkeley, Calif., that last year won gold medals in both the World Cup and GABF in the sour categories. Its brewmaster is from The Bruery. It is phenomenal.

    GABF strategy: One strategy that always seems to fly out the window after a few beers is to map out your attack. But don’t be rigid. Listen to what others are saying. The best part of the festival is finding those undiscovered gems, the ones that are part of the buzz in the hall. Hit them quick because that buzz often carries fast, and suddenly those breweries are out of beer.

    Favorite brewery region: Pacific. Some brilliant breweries are operating in California right now, such as these San Diego gems: Societe (Booth X12), Modern Times (Booth U5), Pizza Ports (Booth U24) and AleSmith (Booth S5).

    Five Colorado breweries to visit on the convention floor: Odd 13 of Lafayette just hired a new brewer from Allagash, and they are coming up with some wickedly interesting combinations, such as a kale and cucumber sour and a double IPA that’s one of the best on the market. Bootstrap Brewing of Niwot’s Insane Rush IPA is one of my favorite canned beers this year. 4 Noses Brewing of Broomfield, Tommy Bibliowicz’s thriving brewery near the Rocky Mountain Airport, is brewing experimental, barrel-aged and traditional beers (Ritual Rivers Porter, brewed with Ritual Chocolate and Two Rivers coffee beans, is a powerhouse). Kokopelli Brewing Co. of Westminster has 30 taps and most of them are pouring beers made in-house (Hop Slugger IPA is outstanding). Horse and Dragon Brewing of Fort Collins has solid traditional beers, some of the best of their styles coming out of one of Colorado’s best beer towns.

    Joe Nguyen
    Daytime online sports producer
    On Twitter: @JoeNguyen

    GABF Pro tip: Pretzel necklaces will help provide much-needed sustenance as the night continues. Bonus points for wearing soft pretzels. And remember that there’s a Chipotle just two blocks from the convention center, at 16th and California.

    First brewery booth I’ll visit: Dry Dock Brewing Co. from Aurora. Have to start with the home brewery.

    GABF strategy: Research, research, research. Are there must-visit breweries on the list? Hit those spots up first. Better to enjoy the really good beers before the inebriation kicks in later in the night. And stop by Samuel Adams early. Typically every year the brewery brings out a small batch of its alcohol-rich Utopias (the ABV was 28 percent last year). Either try it at GABF or buy one of the limited-edition bottles (they run about $200).

    Favorite Beer Week activity (outside GABF): Anything at Falling Rock that week. There are special tappings all week. Don’t like what’s being offered? There’s more than 75 beers on tap. Or go to Freshcraft, off 15th and Blake, offers 24 beers on tap and more than 125 canned and bottled brews. Plus, the food is delightful.

    Colorado brewery to visit during GABF week: Comrade Brewing. They’ll be there at GABF, but a personal favorite, the Koffee Kream Stout, is only available this year at the brewery in southeast Denver.

    Josie Klemaier
    Golden/foothills reporter and Denver page designer for YourHub
    On Twitter: @JosieKlemaier

    GABF Pro tip: Check out the unique events going on in Denver outside of GABF. Offensively Delicious: A Craft Beer Comedy Show, at Oriental Theater Sept. 23, sounds like a no-brainer, with tastings, pints and comedy from brewers and local comedians.

    First brewery booth I’ll visit: Scratch Brewing Company out of southern Illinois. I love their woodsy, foraged style. Just looking at their menu of eclectic sours, saisons and ales speckled with ingredients like hickory bark, sumac berries and cedar puts me back in a fragrant autumn woods in the heartland. Appropriately, they will also be at the Beers Made by Walking Denver Festival Sept. 23 at Our Mutual Friend.

    Best quick and filling place to eat near the Colorado Convention Center: I’m not a fast or filling eater, but if I had to I would grab a burger at 5280 Burger Bar. For a gotta-try spot worth the walk: Honor Society, near Union Station.

    Beer bar you can’t miss: Tivoli Brewing opened recently in the Historic Tivoli Union on Auraria Campus, a lovely short walk from GABF. They brew historic Denver beers and pour 52 taps, and the space offers great views of the city. Also, if you’re looking for a local German beer fix, skip the Oktoberfest debauchery and head to Prost Brewing.

    Don’t forget: The Brews or Bust art exhibit this year at GABF, featuring some amazing artists.

    irst brewer boot ’l visi: f you spend a decade in Indiana and also love hops, you develop an attachment to 3 Floyds’ Zombie Dust, as close as you can get to citra-hops perfection, at least for my palate. (Yes, some mock me for my overzealousness when the GABF floor is flooded with great IPAs and pale ales.) So last year I started out a couple sessions in 3 Floyds’ queue. The Munster-based brewery’s booth is a consistent draw, so getting a taste of Zombie Dust or its other equally tasty brews means waiting in line early before they run out of that session’s allotment.

    GABF strategy: Steady as she goes, hard as that is. You’ll never sample more than a fraction of what’s on offer, so just make peace with that. Take time to savor what’s good. Don’t start with a lot of heavy beers. Use the GABF app to keep track of what you like, because it’s inevitable that it will all run together. And if you really, really like something, go back for a second pour later.

    Best quick and filling place to eat near the Colorado Convention Center: For proximity and tasty sandwiches, you can’t beat Which Wich, which is next door. Not fancy, but does the trick.

    Beer bar you can’t miss: Others here had great suggestions, but I say take a nice walk northwest out of downtown. Go across the pedestrian bridges and the South Platte River — and a quick jaunt over I-25 — and the Highland Bridge will deposit you at Ale House, at 16th Street and Central Avenue. It’s part of the Breckenridge Brewery’s restaurant portfolio but has a solid tap list, heavy on other Colorado brews.

    Don’t forget: To be ready for surprises and seek them out. Ask other fest-goers and brewery reps for recommendations. Last year, I was delighted to discover several great tastes from Bayou Teche Brewing, out of Arnaudville, La. It required little wait, consistently. Trends shift quickly in the hall, and the booths with long lines aren’t always the ones pouring the best stuff.

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    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.

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    Great American Beer Festival announces 2015 brewery lineup

    Soak it all in, craft beer lovers: the Great American Beer Festival this morning unveiled the roster of nearly 750 breweries pouring at this year’s event.

    The list was posted before the beginning of the mad rush that is ticket presale open to members of the Brewers Association and the American Homebrewers Association. We’ll be writing about that, too. (So far so good, according to the Twittersphere).

    Earlier this month, GABF organizers announced that more than 800 breweries would be represented. The list released includes 746.

    We’ve started combing through it for notable trends, omissions and new arrivals. Here’s what we’ve gathered so far:

    — Colorado is bringing big numbers as usual, dwarfing some regions. More than 150 Centennial State breweries will man tables at GABF, or roughly half of the state’s breweries. This will bring exposure to newbies such as Ratio Beerworks, Goldspot Brewing and a slew of other joining the mainstays of the Colorado craft beer scene. One participant that jumped out at us: The innovators at Former Future Brewing are pouring not as Former Future but as their even more experimental side project, Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales, a hit right out of the gates with local beer geeks.

    — Some of Colorado’s most buzzed-about breweries are absent from the list. You’ll have to venture out elsewhere to sample beers from Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project of Denver, Casey Brewing and Blending in Glenwood Springs, Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs, TRVE Brewing of Denver and Hogshead Brewery of Denver. At least some of these breweries — along with smaller artisans from across the country — will represent at the What the Funk festival begun by Crooked Stave a couple years ago.

    For Casey fans, all is not lost. Troy Casey has posted on Facebook that he’ll be pouring around town GABF week:

    Sunday September 20th – Something in Boulder
    Wednesday September 23rd – What the Funk?
    Thursday September 24th – Mini Tap Takeover – 5 pm TBA
    Friday September 25th – Denver Rare Beer Festival
    Saturday September 26th – Tap Take Over 5 PM TBA

    — One of the biggest disappointments is the omission of Toppling Goliath Brewery out of Iowa, one of the absolute standouts from last year’s fest. We’ll be in touch to find out what factored in that decision. Other past participants sitting out this year’s festival: The Commons out of Portland and Half Acre Beer Co. of Chicago, of Daisy Cutter pale ale fame. Dark Horse out of Michigan, which is featured on a History Channel show, is also sitting out this year.

    — One don’t miss GABF debutante: J. Wakefield Brewing out of Miami, which wowed the WTF?! crowds a couple of years ago with its Florida-style berliner weisses before the brewery even opened. Another to check out is Lawson’s Finest Liquids from Vermont, whose Sunshine line of IPAs are among the most heavily traded IPAs on the market.

    — Among the big-name breweries that skipped 2014 but return this year: Michigan stalwarts Founders and Minneapolis-based heavy-metal themed brewery Surly.

    — Returning are past favorites Cigar City Brewing, Russian River, New Glarus, Melvin Brewing, Dogfish Head, Almanac Beer Co., Bayou Teche Brewing, Pfriem Family Brewers, Brasserie St. James out of Reno (a new find last year) and North Carolina’s Wicked Weed Brewing, which is going all out with three booths.

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    Beer in Review 2014: Bess Dougherty of Wynkoop Brewing

    As 2014 comes to an end, we’re once again asking leading figures on the Colorado beer scene to reflect on the past year and look ahead to next. This next installment in our 4th annual Beer In Review features Bess Dougherty, a brewer at Wynkoop Brewing Co., the state’s oldest brewpub. Dougherty had quite the moment when she unexpectedly found herself talking beer with the president of the United States, who shot pool and drank beer with Governor John Hickenlooper in July at the historic LoDo watering hole while in town for a fundraiser. On to Bess’s bipartisan picks …

    Favorite beer of the year: Oh man, trying to pick just one favorite is damn near impossible. I have about three beers that I am compelled to get every time I see them. The first is Speedway Stout from AleSmith out of Cali. I had tried this beer on several SoCal trips but now that it is distributed to Colorado I’m going through at least a bottle a week. So damn tasty! My other go-to beers are the newish Rudie session IPA from Ska Brewing and Mongo IPA from Port Brewing, which Falling Rock has on tap fairly regularly.

    Colorado brewery of the year: Colorado brewery of the year for me is Great Divide. Twenty years plus a new facility, these dudes and ladies are killing it. Their standard lineup of beers is consistent quality beer, which I adore, but the past year or so I have been really impressed with their pilot system batches. The strawberry rhubarb kettle sour was absolutely delightful!

    New Colorado brewery of the year: Gotta go with Former Future Brewing for this one. James and Sarah are wonderful human beings and their beer is fantastic. Their win at GABF for a coolship beer was just ever so exciting. I can’t wait to try more spontaneous and pilot system beers from these cats.

    Colorado brewery to watch in 2015: I’ve got a good feeling about Cannonball Creek. These guys have been making incredible beers since the doors opened but being a little off the beaten path I think they have not quite gotten the recognition they should have from the beer community in Denver. I think their win at GABF for the black IPA helped put them on the radar a little bit more. I can’t imagine these guys not blowing up. I think it’s just a matter of when. As far as new breweries, I can’t wait for Call to Arms to open. With a team that talented and experienced I’m pretty sure it’s going to be tits.

    Most notable craft beer news or trend of 2014: I think that my favorite craft beer trend was the rise of more session beers. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore barrel-aged imperial stouts and barleywines and double IPAs. I am really digging the fact that I can get a full-flavored, complex beer and be able to have a few without getting knocked on my ass.

    Craft beer trend to watch for in 2015: I think that 2015 is going to see more buying and selling of smaller breweries. I don’t view this as a negative. At some point for some breweries this is the best way to grow the brand. As long as the beer being produced remains the same this is a-ok in my book. I’m curious to see who is going to be next.

    Beer in Review 2014: Branden Miller of Black Shirt Brewing

    As 2014 comes to a close, we’re once again asking leading figures on the Colorado beer scene to reflect on the past year and look ahead to next. This next installment in our 4th annual Beer In Review features Branden Miller, one of the owners of Black Shirt Brewing in Denver’s River North neighborhood. The brewery that riffs off a single red ale recipe just received three more fermentation tanks that will increase its capacity by almost 40 percent, meaning more BSB microphone tap handles at beer bars and restaurants around town, along with new beers and collaborations in store for 2015. Here are Branden’s answers:

    Favorite beer of the year: While vacationing in San Diego, I frequented the revered Toronado and was turned on to Prairie’s Funky Gold Mosaic on tap, a game changer for me. The balance of fruity, juicy aromatics and bright, beautiful acidity were just perfect.

    Colorado brewery of the year: I’d love to toot our own horn, as we’ve grown so much and introduced our beer to so many new faces, but I’ve also loved watching our friends at Elevation Beer Co. do well, Upslope continues to grow at a rapid pace and TRVE Brewing is getting metalheads drinking sour beer!

    New Colorado brewery of the year: I’d say Former Future Brewing has been a breath of fresh air for me. My visits there have been relaxed, interesting, and filled with great beer. Plus, Sarah and James are sweethearts!

    Colorado brewery to watch in 2015: Avery Brewing’s new facility has me pretty excited. They have long made some of the most interesting and well-executed beers in the country, now they’ll have a setting to match.

    Most notable craft beer news or trend of 2014: I’ve been fascinated with the rise of rustic beers, traditionally enjoyed only by those who either grew up with them or by seasoned beer geeks, finding their way into the commonplace. What so many people were viewing as a “trend” last year is showing itself to be the future of beer in America. I find people like Troy Casey, Jay Goodwin and Shaun Hill at the forefront of the movement but there are so many talented, ambitious and curious brewers right there shaping the scene. It’s a great time to be a beer drinker in this country, and it’s only getting better.

    Craft beer trend to watch for in 2015: As excited as I am about the variety of beers available and by so many people chasing their dream of opening a brewery, I am equally pessimistic of the trend and think we’ll start to see brewery closings become a reality. What’s interesting is that owning a brewery is so much more than brewing great beer, and I think a huge portion of new owners are naive to that. I could be wrong, but I see a lot of people with talent that don’t know the first thing about cash flow, and I also see a lot of dollar signs in people’s eyes that don’t have any passion for the craft, so I’d be surprised if used equipment isn’t on the rise by year’s end.

    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.”

    Does American craft brewing have a quality problem?

    In an auditorium filled with thousands of brewers Wednesday, Paul Gatza told a story about visiting a beer festival this year.

    He went out of his way to check out breweries he had never tried before, he said. Most had opened in the past two years.

    Gatza, president director of the Brewers Association, the Boulder-based trade association for small and independent American craft brewers, said seven or eight of the 10 breweries needed improvement. The brewers didn’t think so, he said. They thought their beers were awesome.

    “The truth is, they’re not – and we need to improve it,” Gatza said. He then offered a blunt assessment of the importance of maintaining quality in an industry that is growing crazy fast: “Don’t f*** it up.”

    So emerged one of the more compelling themes at the onset of the 31st annual Craft Brewers Conference, which has drawn more than 7,000 brewing industry people to Denver this week. The conference began Tuesday and runs through Friday.

    Gatza was taking cues from established brewers – BA members who have become increasingly vocal with concerns that some new start-up brewers lacking experience are creating inferior product and not investing sufficient resources into the testing and troubleshooting necessary to keep beer good and drinkers happy.

    Gatza said beer quality is at all an all-time high, especially at the top end of the industry. However, he said, “With so many brewery openings, the potential is there for things to start to degrade on the quality side, and we wouldn’t want that to color the willingness of the beer drinker to try new brands. If a beer drinker has a bad experience, they are just going to go back to companies they know and trust.”

    If there was any doubt this was an issue weighing on brewers’ minds, Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing Co. laid that to rest, affirming Gatza’s comments while picking up an award for innovation in craft brewing.

    “If you are starting a brewery,” Steele said, “please, for God’s sake, hire someone who knows what they’re doing.”

    Craft brewing also experienced a boom period in the 1990s, when many new players entered the field not out of passion for hops and malt but out of a desire to make a buck. This latest wave is different. Many new breweries are being founded by homebrewers with no previous professional brewing background. The passion is there but the experience is not.

    Veteran brewer John Harris said in an interview Wednesday that at a time when beer education classes are tough to get into, many homebrewers who have little to go on but the rave reviews of friends just open their doors and say, “Here we are.”

    He said new breweries should spend as much money on their quality control program as the brewing equipment.

    “If you are having problems with beer, ask others for help,” said Harris, who brewed at Deschutes Brewing and Full Sail Brewing and last fall opened Ecliptic Brewing in Portland. “Don’t be too proud. We can help each other make our beer better.”

    At a news conference that followed the opening conference session, Gatza said quality problems include off flavors, oxidation and the presence of dimethyl sulfide, a sulfur compound produced during fermentation that gives an unpleasant whiff of corn. He said many new breweries are not sending beer to labs for testing as they should.

    Bob Pease, the Brewers Association’s chief operating officer, emphasized the nonprofit trade group does develop materials for members on quality issue, many of which are low cost or free (including a best practices guide mailed to all BA members).

    Former Future Brewing opened in Denver this year. The head brewer, James Howat, is a microbiologist whose previous brewing experience involved homebrewing for seven years. His wife and the brewery co-owner, Sarah Howat, said the brewery has every employee taste the beer on a daily basis and is doing testing in-house on a very small lab system.

    Howat said Former Future has learned lessons. A beer it served in December at a festival before even opening, she said, had an off-flavor and “was not the best we brewed.”

    Although established brewers say they stand ready to help on quality issues, it’s notable people are going public with concerns about homebrewer-led breweries.

    Howat expressed disappointment in the tone of the recent criticism of new brewers.

    “I think people have a perception that because you are new you are not going to be good, which is disheartening,” she said. “For James never having brewed on large-scale system, I think we are knocking out some pretty good beer.”

    Gatza name-checked several newer breweries that are doing very well, including Sun King Brewing in Indianapolis, Surly Brewing in Minneapolis and Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida, all of which have quickly gained national reputations for not just quality but innovation. Gatza said the Brewers Association board wants to keep barriers to entry into the brewing world low.

    “This isn’t just a club where you got in early enough and you can reap the rewards and keep everyone else out,” Gatza said. “Some of the new brewers are going to have a lot to add.”

    And there will be many new brewers. With more than 1,700 nearly 1,900 breweries in planning, according to the BA, it is not surprising the quality is a greater emphasis of the trade association.

    Back to Gatza’s story about visiting that beer festival … During the news conference Wednesday, he noted that not every beer at that festival let him down. One brewer, he said, “knocked my socks off” with an imperial stout.

    I asked Gatza afterward who brewed that beer, and he said it was Elevation Beer Co. of Poncha Springs.

    Xandy Bustamante, one of the mountain brewery’s co-founders, was understandably happy to hear it. (The beer in question was Oil Man, an 11 percent alcohol by volume imperial stout aged in Breckenridge Distillery bourbon barrels).

    Bustamante said the brewery benefited from experience and “taking our time.” The head brewer, Christian Koch, had a couple of years’ worth of production brewing experience on his resume working at Tommyknocker Brewing in Idaho Springs.

    Elevation ships beer to an independent lab for testing now but is getting ready to install its own lab and hire a lab tech, he said. To get a sense of just how costly these things can get, Bustamante said one vendor at the Craft Brewers Conference expo hall was pitching a $40,000 testing machine. He said the brewery is more likely to spend $5,000 to $10,000 to test for yeast cell counts, cleanliness, diacetyl and gravity, basic stuff he admits “the guys at Coors would probably laugh about.”

    “You have to put your money where your mouth is with quality,” Bustamante said. “We have dumped batches, which is hard to do with a new brewery when you are trying to pay your bills.”

    Bustamante said Elevation also has sought out quality control advice from more established brewers including Avery Brewing in Boulder, Ska Brewing in Durango and Upslope Brewing in Boulder.

    He considers the comments from Gatza and others about quality “a good warning for everybody. Everyone wants to help each other make great beer. It only takes one bad beer to take people off craft beer.”