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There are now more than 4,000 craft breweries in the U.S., per the Brewers Association. Great American Beer Festival, the largest single-event pouring of craft beer in America, rounded up 60,000 beer fans over three days this year at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Craft beer accounts for 1 in 5 U.S. dollars spent on beer.
Given those numbers, it’s difficult to distill the enormity of GABF. Ever facet of American beer was on display: the big, the little, the bold, the subtle, the weird and wacky. To wit: We took note of a few gin and tonic beers (the silver-medal winning Melt My Brain from Shorts Brewing as well as a beautiful, layered gin-barrel aged kolsch brewed with juniper berries from MadTree Brewing). We delighted in citrusy, juice-packed IPAs including medal-winning Old Town Brewing’s Shanghai’d IPA; the American IPA category this year tallied 336 entries, making it GABF’s largest category ever. Kolsches, cream ales and steam beers are the subject of renewed love from craft breweries, and we were glad to see continued interest in goses, contributing to 111 German sour entries in that judging categories. Both O.G. and new-school breweries won big at the awards ceremony: Firestone Walker, Fat Heads, Sun King and Port City cleaned up, each racking up multiple medals.
Having attend all four sessions, though, plus the awards ceremony and numerous incredible events outside of the festival proper, a picture of a few larger trends begins to emerge like a photograph from its developing liquid:
1. Craft lagers are here. We’ve identified the rise of American craft lagers, and GABF only confirmed it. We saw whiskey barrel-aged pilsners including Holy City’s bourbon barrel-aged Smells Like Rick pilsner; clean, classic pilsners like pFriem Family Brewers’ Pilsner (the silver medalist) and Champion Brewing’s Shower Beer (the gold medalist) prove there’s nothing boring about the style; and even adjunct lagers (like Confluence’s Blue Corn Lager) aren’t off-limits to craft breweries. We especially enjoyed Miner Brewing’s Spruce Tip Pale Lager, made with locally grown spruce tips from the Black Hills.
2. Prepare for hoppy sours and hoppy wild- and Brett-fermented beers. Crooked Stave’s What The Funk? festival on Wednesday night introduced us to delicious versions from TRVE Brewing and Prairie Artisan Ales, and we saw further versions on the GABF floor from NOLA Brewing (don’t sleep on the Galaxy dry-hopped Lowerline if you find it). The best versions match citrusy, earthy or spicy hops with their complimentary Brett or wild yeast strains, yielding funky-sour-bitter profiles that should appease Americans’ insatiable taste for wild ales and IPAs.
3. Local ingredients help beers stand out. From the gold-medal winning (Field Beer) Beets, Rhymes and Life saison from Fonta Flora to Scratch Brewing’s buzzed-about pours (a few made with all parts of trees: branches, leaves, acorns, etc.), local/foraged ingredients helped distinguish certain beers both in competition and on the floor. Sense of place is increasingly important to brewers, and drinkers responded enthusiastically at the festival. Because of the difficulty in sourcing these ingredients, beers made with them mostly remain small-batch offerings for now.
4. Coffee beers span the spectrum. A good coffee porter is still delicious, but breweries have expanded what coffee additions can bring to a beer. Alaskan Brewing’s Heritage Coffee Brown Ale is brewed with malts roasted right in with the coffee, creating a seamless fusion of deep malt roast and coffee bitterness. Adroit Theory saw a hit with its Imagination Atrophy caramel macchiato milk stout. Coffee and peanut butter proved a popular combo; we spotted lines for Listermann’s Peanut Butter Coffee Porter as well as was Evil Genius’ Purple Monkey Dishwasher coffee and peanut butter stout.
After all the beers we drank, great conversations we had and engaging stories we heard, one message is clear: American craft beer is a prism of people, preferences and styles. Sure, IPAs are popular; sours are a big deal, too. But there was a beer for everyone at GABF, from the newbs to the veteran attendees.