As I observed last year after attending my first-ever Great American Beer Fest, the mere idea of going to the festival—even for multiple sessions, because I went to THREE of them—and then compiling a list of the “best beers” there is on some level a ludicrous notion. There’s simply too many beers. Oh, you tried 200 of them over a few days? Well, besides the fact that your drunk ass would be way too intoxicated to provide adequate notes, that’s about 1.5% of the total beers in attendance. So good job—you tried a statistically insignificant portion of the whole. Here’s your medal.
Still, it’s not entirely hopeless. Seasoned beer geeks will of course arrive at the festival seeking out beers with reputations. Even though the most pleasant surprises typically involve tasting great beers from breweries you’ve never heard of, most people ultimately end up spending the majority of their time in line for the world’s most touted brews, and understandably so—where else can you just walk down an aisle and be handed Founders Kentucky Breakfast and Firestone Walker Parabola in rapid succession? It’s an embarrassment of riches.
Here, then, are simply my favorite beers that I tasted over the course of two days at the festival, along with some selections from Paste beer writer Don Ayres, who was also in attendance. These are the beers that, for one reason or another, made an impression on us.
Overall Best IPA
Todd the Axe Man
Surly Brewing Co. – Minneapolis, MN
Might as well start with the category that GABF held until very last at the awards, right? And by the way—there’s few ways to disappoint a crowd of beer geeks more thoroughly than by the gold medal winner of a 336 American IPA field not being in attendance at the event, and thus not sample-able. BNS Brewing & Distilling Co., the winners of that most prestigious category, surely must have been equal parts thrilled and regretful to not be able to celebrate their win in Denver, nor show off their gold medal IPA to thousands and thousands of other brewers and journalists who would have written reams of copy about it. But I digress.
This was gearing up to be a very difficult choice for me, including some excellent IPAs from the likes of Three Weavers, Fat Heads, Breakside, Boneyard and others, but then I walked up on Surly brewmaster Todd Haug pouring his namesake IPA and it became a forgone conclusion. Todd the Axe Man earned the highest rating I’ve ever given a beer in a Paste review, and I swear that when compared to all the other great IPAs at the event its greatness is only magnified rather than diluted. It is a hop flavor bomb unlike any other, all tropical and stone fruit. People who love peachy/apricot hop flavors; this is your holy grail beer. It honestly bears so little resemblance to “classical” American IPA that you might think you were drinking a fruited beer. It’s a thing of beauty that I would drink every single day if I could.
Double Duckpin IPA
Union Craft Brewing – Baltimore, MD
This beer has everything that I expect out of a Double IPA. While a copious amount of hops give off juicy tropical fruit aromas and flavors, there’s a sweet malt backbone that complements the bitterness. This is an exceptionally-balanced example of the style that’s very easy to drink, despite its 8.5 percent alcohol content. – Don Ayres
The Heiress, Czech Pils
Societe Brewing Co. – San Diego, CA
San Diego’s Societe took home one of the more interesting medals of the festival for Session IPA, a category that set a record as the largest first-time category ever. I particularly enjoyed a different hoppy beer from the popular, up-and-coming brewery, their classical Czech pils. Pilsner in general tends to be an misunderstood style, and seeing the results of the medals makes this fairly clear. There are still many, many more German-style pilsners on the market than there are true Czech pils, and accordingly there’s still plenty of beer geeks who haven’t really come to this realization: That Czech pilsner is essentially the IPA of the lager world, as long as you like noble hops. Here, those lovely Saaz aromas are in full effect, and it’s buzzingly spicy on the nose, with perfectly calculated crackery maltiness and spicy/herbal hops. I drank this right after a sample of some sort of imperial porter, and it was precisely what I needed in that moment.
Best Beer Under 4% ABV
The Session Gap, ordinary bitter
MacLeod Ale Brewing Co. – Van Nuys, CA
I had some interesting conversation with the brewers from MacLeod, which will appear in my upcoming feature on some of the festival’s interesting young breweries, but suffice to say these guys specialize in classic British beer styles with modern twists to the brewing process. They had multiple sub-4% beers on hand, including a great “brown stout” that uses their own take on classical brown malt, but the one that beer drinkers should really familiarize themselves with is The Session Gap, an ordinary bitter/”pub bitter.” This is simply a style not well understood in the U.S., where only the stronger version, ESB, has ever really made an impact. I’ve always preferred the more quaffable version of the style, however, and The Session Gap makes an argument for exactly why that is—it’s surprisingly flavorful, with a rounded, almost nutty maltiness and balancing floral/earthy hops. And at 3.5% ABV, it’s nearly 17 percent lighter than a Bud Light. In terms of flavor per unit of intoxication, you can’t beat it.
Best Wheat Beer
Weldwerks Brewing Co. – Greeley, CO
Look, when I go to GABF, I don’t spend a lot of time drinking wheat beers. I just don’t. But when you’re walking down the aisles and you see some of the little stickers that denote that this brewery is pouring a medal-winner, you at least stop for a moment to see what it is. Such it was with this hefeweizen from Weldwerks, a new brewery from Greeley, CO that has been open for less than a year. Hefeweizen in name but winner in the American wheat beer category, Weldwerks splits the difference between the two in an interesting way by using a hybrid American-German yeast strain. You end up with the best of both worlds—restrained German ester character of banana/clove as expected, but also the crispness, drinkability, citrus and doughy malt of really good American pale wheats. It’s a beer that calls for the largest glass/serving size in any given bar, because that’s how you’ll want to consume it.
Best “Experimental Beer”
Melt My Brain
Short’s Brewing Company – Bellaire, MI
The Short’s Brewing booth at GABF is always a fun place to visit, as they usually have an elaborate setup with friendly people in matching costumes (this year it was a pseudo-lederhosen look with olive green shirts, suspenders and matching shorts). When you get beyond the décor, they always seem to have some interesting beers from their experimental lineup, such as the pistachio cream ale and key lime pie. The standout in this group was Melt My Brain, which is a gin-and-tonic-inspired golden ale brewed with coriander, juniper berries and lime that they blended with a splash of tonic water. It may not be for everyone, but it accurately mimicked the flavors of that refreshing cocktail, which made it the most unusual beer I had all weekend … in a good way. – Don Ayres
Best Blended Sour
Avery Brewing Co. – Boulder, CO
This was one of those big, crazily complicated sours where you’re in the curious position of knowing that it’s packed with flavor but being at a loss of how to describe any of them because there’s so much going on at once. And I’m not really ashamed to admit that, because this beer is madness. It’s an American wild ale, with 44% aged in madeira barrels, 31% in cabernet sauvignon barrels and 25% in carcavelos barrels—which Google tells me is a style of Portuguese fortified wine, as it turns out. The result is dazzlingly complex and puckeringly tart, clearly wine-infused but redolent in so many different fruit influences. You’ll get red berries, you’ll get tropical character, you’ll get creme brulee-like burnt sugar and some woodiness. It will punch you in the face with tartness, let’s not forget that. Breweries so often hate having their beers described as “advanced” or “challenging,” but if they don’t want to hear those things, they shouldn’t make a beer like III Dolia. If you served this to someone who only drinks Bud Light, they’d burst into flames.
Best Fruited Sour
Valley of the Heart’s Delight
Almanac Beer Co. – San Francisco, CA
I’ve had some pretty good fruited and blended sours from San Francisco’s Almanac, but this is probably the overall best beer I’ve had from them to date. An apricot-infused sour made in collaboration with a non-profit called Garden to Table, it’s certainly more of a crowd-pleaser than the last beer from Avery, but that’s not a bad thing by any means. Rather than melting your face off, the tartness is present but supple, and the apricot shines via clean, stone fruit flavors. The resulting beer is white winey and crisp, without too much residual sweetness, and a bit of funk. It compares favorably with other great apricot sours such as Wicked Weed’s Golden Angel.
Best Stout, Period
Barley Brown’s – Baker City, OR
It’s funny how the medals awarded at GABF don’t always match up with your taste. At this year’s awards ceremony I watched beers receive medals that I didn’t just feel neutral toward—I saw beers win medals that I genuinely disliked. But then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, as in the Disorder Stout from Barley Brown’s. This year’s GABF gold medal winner in American-Style Stout feels like it was designed specifically to appeal to my own personal taste. If I was giving a “best thing I smelled this weekend” award, it would also be a strong contender. A true “roast bomb,” it pushes the envelope of dry, bitter roastiness while still managing drinkability. Sitting just shy of imperial stout territory, it’s in some respects like a miniaturized RIS, but with some of the dark fruity character traded off for more of that wonderfully ashy, espresso-esque roastiness and a charge of American hops. American stouts, for all their misunderstood nature as intimidating to non-craft drinkers, are all too often bland or simply wallowing in residual sugar. This one reminds me of everything I love about under-8% American stout—it’s both comforting and assertive, uncomplicated but decadent.
Best Imperial Stout to Ruin Your Palate for the Next Hour
Firestone Walker Brewing Co. – Paso Robles, CA
Not living on the West Coast, it had been a while since the last time I tasted Firestone Walker’s Parabola, but it’s still one of those beers that makes people go “woah.” I know this because I had some people taste it, and they went “woah.” It’s like a perfected template of the whiskey barrel-aged American imperial stout. It’s huge, it’s brash, it’s in your face, and yet it’s the more refined qualities that make Parabola the type of next-level beer that got FW awarded (yet again) as the best mid-size craft brewer in the country. Yes, there are bourbon barrels involved, but their presence is seamlessly integrated—you don’t taste stout and whiskey as separate experiences. Rather, you don’t know where one ends and the other begins. Is that burnt caramel flavor via crystal malt or a charred oak cask? The same goes for the beguiling dark fruit. Or the velvety vanilla sweetness. And on, and on. The only trouble is heading to the next table and trying to taste someone’s kellerbier—or worse, their inferior Russian imperial stout. Good luck tasting anything as it was meant to be tasted anytime soon.
Best unorthodox RIS
White Russian Imperial Stout
Sun Up Brewing – Phoenix, AZ
I could make the obvious connection between the name of this brew and The Dude’s beverage of choice, but that would be cliché. Although this big Russian imperial stout doesn’t taste exactly like that cocktail (they don’t add half-and-half or anything crazy like that), it’s a portmanteau of drinks that combines the big chocolate flavors of a stout with the coffee you’d expect from the Kahlua in Jeffrey Lebowski’s signature “Caucasian” (sorry, I had to). One of the Brewers Association’s Beer Geeks steered me towards this one, and I’m glad he did. – Don Ayres
Best Brunch Beer
Southbounder Coffee Stout
Three Weavers – Inglewood, CA
I’ve tasted plenty of delicious coffee stouts where I end up thinking “You know, this ultimately tastes more like coffee than beer,” but Three Weavers’ Southbound is like the Ur-example of the phenomenon. There’s just so much coffee flavor—and it’s really, really tasty, mind you—that it blurs the line between “beer” and “alcoholic carbonated coffee.” It’s exactly the kind of product that I’m sure some will criticize for being one-dimensional or unbalanced, but if you’re obsessed with coffee that criticism becomes an attraction. I truly believe you could pour this beer into a glass with ice and tell your hipster, brunch-loving friend “Hey, try this new nitro iced coffee,” and they would be perfectly unaware they were drinking a beer. Even their chalkboard drawing at GABF for this beer was a pint glass full of iced coffee. COFFEEEEEEEEE.
Best barrel-aged Belgian ale
Tie between Barrel-Aged Lazarus by Southern Prohibition Brewing (Hattiesburg, MS) and Barrel-Aged Quad by Wynkoop (Denver, CO)
I actually managed to have two great barrel-aged quads in the span of 15 minutes—only at GABF do these things happen. The interesting thing is that it came from two states that have had very different places in the annals of American brewing. While Wynkoop (Co-founded by current Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper) is from a state that has always been on the forefront of the beer industry, Southern Prohibition’s home state of Mississippi was one of the last two to legalize homebrewing (in 2013!). Wynkoop’s quad, aged in whiskey barrels, offered those great burnt sugar and raisin flavors that you expect from a solid quad with just the right amount of burn to keep it from being cloying. Lazarus, an Abbey-Style quad, was a bit boozier, but it had a bitter edge that reined in the sweetness. – Don Ayres
The “yep, there’s some alcohol in this” Award
Cigar City Brewing – Tampa, FL
I still have no idea what the ABV actually is on this brandy barrel-aged barleywine, and that information doesn’t seem to be available anywhere online, but it tasted like the God of Booze had just descended from the heavens to choose it as his new herald, Galactus-style. Even after hours of tasting other high-ABV bombs, it was still enough to make my eyes widen. Let it never be said that Cigar City holds back when it comes to pushing the boundaries of tolerability in the name of science. This is some rocket fuel.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he’s already depressed reading about all the beers he still missed out on during these three sessions. You can follow him on Twitter.