Great American Beer Festival: Counting up the medal haul

Left Hand earns three golds as GABF smiles on Colorado

Crowds on 14th Street in Denver after the Oct. 12 afternoon session.
Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Clarification: Beers served at Boulder’s Mountain Sun and its other establishments, Southern Sun and Vine Street Pub, were restricted during the Great American Beer Fest. However, the brewpub was still allowed to pour its beers at the festival. The story appears below as written and published Oct. 17.

Is bigger better? This year’s Great American Beer Festival didn’t provide a clear answer.

The annual event’s judged competition is widely cited as the most prestigious award in craft beer, either above or equal to the World Beer Cup. GABF awards are without a doubt the most coveted in the U.S.

And after the Oct. 10-12 festival, the award-winners are a mixed bag.

The top medal recipient at this festival, for instance, wasn’t Avery or New Belgium or any of the large breweries that turn out dozens of widely loved beers. It was Devils Backbone. You know, Devils Backbone? The 30-barrel brewer in Roseland, Va.?

Actually, GABF watchers might remember Devils (no, no apostrophe; it’s driving me crazy too) Backbone for its eight awards last year. This year, the brewer brought home seven, including small brewing company of the year, given to the small brewer that wins the most awards for its beers. A pilsner, a dark lager, a Baltic porter, a mild British ale, a Belgian: Devils Backbone flexed its muscle across almost every style there is.

In a sense, the brewery is a cousin to Colorado establishments: On the staff page of its website, each staff member describes what he or she loves about the outdoors, and the brewery is named for a nearby state forest.

To put the production of Devils Backbone in perspective, 30 barrels is twice the size of Twisted Pine and about a fifth the size of Left Hand.

Westerners disturbed that an East Coast brewery took the most awards can relax. A count of the awards reveals breweries west of the Mississippi River still dominate the scene, totaling 181 awards to the Eastern U.S.’s 76. No Alaskan or Hawaiian breweries received an honor this year.

But enough about the beer in the rest of the nation. Colorado’s haul this year was 48 awards, falling just shy of California’s festival-leading 52.

More than 49,000 people attended the Great American Beer Festival this year. | Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Within Colorado, the Denver area excelled, as Aurora-based Dry Dock Brewing led Colorado breweries with five awards. Dry Dock’s SS Minnow Mild Ale and Wee Heavy Scotch Ale took gold in their categories, while the Extra Pale Summer Ale and HMS Victory Amber won silvers and the year-round USS Enterprise IPA won bronze.

Also outside Denver proper, Yak & Yeti, with locations in Arvada and Westminster, earned a silver in the hotly contested herb and spice category, which had 134 entries, for its Chai Milk Stout.

Colorado’s second most decorated brewery this year is really more of an afterthought in the minds of thousands who see it every day: The SandLot, which occupies a corner of Coors Field, grabbed gold in two categories, bronze in another and was named the large brewing company of the year, which, like small brewery of the year, is given to the brewery with the most awards in its group. SandLot, a 10-barrel brewery, competes in the large brewery category because it’s a part of MillerCoors. SandLot took gold in the smoke beer category for Second Hand Smoke, gold for its Move Back German-style Oktoberfest, and bronze for its Goat Rancher bock.

Another semi-corporate brewery also owned by MillerCoors, Blue Moon — which in fact was created by SandLot brewers as Bellyslide White before taking off as its own entity — won gold for its fruit beer Golden Knot Chardonnay.

Saint Arnold Brewing Company of Houston constructed a chapel at its booth at the festival and held weddings and renewals of vows for attendees. | Photo by Steve Weishampel

Elsewhere in Denver, style sticklers Prost Brewing, which specializes in German styles, took gold for its Keller Pils. Meanwhile, downtown Denver’s Great Divide Brewing took gold for its Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti, a variation of its popular imperial stout.

Three very different breweries around Denver took bronze medals for their releases; Bull & Bush Brewery took a bronze for its Release the Hounds Barley Wine, Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project won for its HopSavant American-style Brett beer, and Renegade Brewing earned a medal for its imperial stout, Hammer and Sickle.

In the not-exactly-Denver-area category, even conservative little Castle Rock got into the action as Rockyard Brewing won bronze for its Scottish-style ale Redhawk, which can be found in some Boulder liquor stores in bottled six-packs.

Boulder County breweries pouring at the festival included Avery, Boulder Beer, BRU, Bootstrap, Crystal Springs, Oskar Blues and others. | Photo by Jefferson Dodge

Boulder County, meanwhile, didn’t take the festival by storm but did turn in a strong showing, led by Left Hand Brewing. Left Hand’s malt mastery was on display, as it earned gold for three beers: Sawtooth won ordinary or special bitter; Fade to Black Volume 1 won foreign-style stout; and the famous Milk Stout won sweet or cream stout.

Upslope’s Oatmeal Stout — brewed with homebrewer Derek Ordway of Fort Collins homebrew club Liquid Poets Society — won a bronze in the Pro-Am competition.

The seasonally available West Bound Braggot from Twisted Pine took bronze in the specialty honey beer category, while Avery’s summer brew Lilikoi Kepolo won a bronze in the fruit wheat beer category. New Planet, meanwhile, got a bronze for its Gluten Free Brown in the gluten-free beer group.

In all, Boulder County’s winners tended to be the well-established breweries; Upslope and New Planet are the newest at 5 years old. Since 2008, when both were established, at least 13 new breweries have been established in the county.

More than 3,100 different beers and more than 48,000 gallons of beer were served during the Oct. 10-12 event. | Photo by David Accomazzo

But new breweries weren’t the only ones to leave GABF without medals. Some big-name Boulder County favorites left GABF without decoration, among them Oskar Blues, Boulder Beer and BJ’s. All have earned medals in the past.

Speaking of brewery chains, several had success in the competition. The top medal-earner, Devils Backbone, is technically a chain as it has opened a second location, but other, more established chains pulled in quite a few medals. Broomfield’s Rock Bottom Brewery — a chain that has locations from Seattle to Arlington, Va. — grabbed a gold (Robust Porter), a silver (The Hammer Baltic-style Porter) and two bronzes (Ragtop Red and Longboard Brown) at the competition. Rock Bottom also won for brewpub group of the year.

Count the silver for Gordon Biersch’s Czech Pilsner in with Rock Bottom’s wins, if you want to: Both establishments are owned by CraftWorks, which also owns Old Chicago and the ChopHouse franchises.

A representative of Speakeasy Ales & Lagers in San Francisco behind their tables at the festival. | Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Then there’s CB & Potts, a Colorado chain that took gold for its Big Horn Hefeweizen. CB & Potts is owned by Midwest chain Ram Restaurant & Brewery, which itself won three silver medals, although those medal-winning beers may not be available at Colorado CB & Potts establishments.

Mountain Sun, meanwhile, was not eligible to pour at the festival or enter its beers in the judged competition. In an email, Mountain Sun partner Paul Nashak said Colorado regulators halted Mountain Sun’s entries into the festival amid concerns about liquor regulations. Nashak said inspectors from the Liquor Enforcement Division told Mountain Sun it was not adhering to laws about moving beer from one Mountain Sun location to another, limiting each Mountain Sun location (Mountain Sun, Southern Sun, Under the Sun and Vine Street Pub) to serving only the beers brewed on-site. Nashak said this precluded the Sun from entering beers at GABF.

Many GABF attendees buy or make their costumes for the festival. | Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Golden did well at the festival; AC Golden — yes, another subsidiary of MillerCoors — took bronze for its IPL, an international-style pale ale. Cannonball Creek Brewing, which opened this January, won silver medals for its Featherweight Pale — selected among 124 American pale ales — and for its Battlecat Stout.

Fort Collins, typically a craft beer Mecca as respected — well, nearly — as Boulder, had a tougher time at this year’s GABF. Odell Brewing took a gold for its 5 Barrel Pale Ale in the English-style pale ale group, and New Belgium’s Charlie’s Brown earned a silver in the Pro-Am competition. Also in Larimer County, City Star Brewing in Berthoud took a gold for its Bandit Brown ale and a bronze for its Mule Kick strong ale. Grimm Brothers in Loveland won a bronze medal for Fearless Youth Dunkel. And nearby in Weld County, Echo Brewing in Frederick won a bronze medal for its Echo Amber. Greeley’s Wiley Roots Brewing, on tap in just three locations in Weld County, won bronze in the American-style wheat category for its Super 77 Wheat.

Colorado Springs brewers didn’t have a huge showing, but TRiNiTY Brewing took gold in the field beer or pumpkin beer category with its Elektrick Cukumbahh, a cucumber and lemon zest ale based on a saison.

Ryan Welch, Cody Payne and Kelly Payne, decked out in beer kegs, sport their product on their helmets: a multi-spout keg tap. Their company, Octopus Tap, is based in Superior. | Photo by Jefferson Dodge

Among other breweries across the state, Durango came out the best from the festival. Steamworks Brewing took gold for its aptly named Slam Dunkel, a German wheat. Fellow Durango brewers Ska Brewing also earned gold in the English-style summer ale category for True Blonde, which can be found in cans in Boulder-area liquor stores. And the area tacked on one more gold, as Carver Brewing scored a medal for its Munich Dunkel. In all, that’s three golds for just five breweries in the city of Durango, and three for three in breweries that entered GABF.

If Durango’s just a little too far away, Pagosa Brewing in Pagosa Springs also brews a gold-medal winner. Its Peachy Peach took the top spot in the fruit wheat beer category.

In Ridgway, 20-year-old Colorado Boy won silver for its Irish Ale, and in Glenwood Springs, Glenwood Canyon Brewing won a silver for Hanging Lake, an English-style summer ale.