Every fall the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) takes place in Denver and, among other things, serves as a crow’s nest from which to observe the big-picture trends in the beer world. Now in its 32nd year, the festival represents the largest and longest-running gathering of American brewers. This year’s event featured more than 700 breweries sampling nearly 3,500 beers. As a testament to the exploding popularity of craft beer, the festival’s 49,000 tickets sold out in just 32 minutes.
The trends reflect a reversing of the tide of the past few years, with lower-alcohol and less hoppy beers making a comeback. Once a rarity in the festival hall, easy-drinking pilsners were available this year in abundance.
Beer drinkers can also look for sour beers to take off. Fermented with wild yeast strains and acid-producing bacteria, these puckering ales showcase tart acidity along with earthy, leathery and funky barnyard flavors. There were more and better examples at this year’s festival, several from breweries that specialize in wild-fermented brews.
The GABF also hosts the world’s largest commercial beer competition. This year 222 judges from 10 countries evaluated 5,507 entries encompassing 145 different styles. If you needed proof that Minnesota-made beer was among the best, six of the state’s breweries took home medals — three bronze, one silver and two gold.
Summit Extra Pale Ale is so ubiquitous that it sometimes gets overlooked. But this often underrated ale nabbed bronze in the classic English pale ale category, adding to a string of recent competition wins that includes two World Beer Cup medals.
Extra Pale Ale is indeed a world-class English-style ale. It features a balanced blend of toffee and biscuit malt with herbal flavors and a dry, bitter bite from English and American hops. Subtle notes of orange marmalade round out the profile.
Duluth’s Bent Paddle Brewing Co. brought home the bronze with another exceptional English-style ale, 14° ESB, an Up North take on the extra special bitter. It is built on the classic toasted grain and earthy/grassy hop profile that defines the style, but the addition of citrus/piney Ahtanum and Amarillo hops give it an unexpected American twist.
Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery took bronze with Buffalo Bock, a strong doppelbock-style beer aged in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. This warming, snifter-worthy brew absolutely bursts with the luscious flavors of caramel and whiskey, joined by secondary layers of vanilla and raisins. Sadly, Buffalo Bock is no longer available at the brewery, but we can look forward to next spring when Town Hall’s annual Barrel Aged Beer Week brings a slew of new wood and whiskey-tinged delights.
Indeed Brewing Co. is the anchor of the growing northeast Minneapolis brewery district. They won GABF silver with their limited-release Mexican Honey. The brewery calls this an “imperial lager” — think Corona on steroids. It weighs in at just over 7 percent alcohol and showcases the honeycomb-nectar sweetness of Mexican orange blossom honey. High notes of fresh oranges and tangerines infuse both the aroma and the flavor. Mexican Honey is done for this year, but look for it to return next July.
Top honors went to Badger Hill Brewing of Shakopee and Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park. Badger Hill’s gold-medal White IPA is a curious blend of Belgian-style wheat beer and American IPA. Belgian wheat beers — called witbier — are typically brewed with dried orange peel and coriander. Orange is a prominent note in the Badger Hill beer, but the impression is of fresh oranges rather than orange pith. The floral notes of coriander stay in the background. Bitterness is high for a witbier, but lower than expected for an American IPA. Grapefruit hop flavors nicely complement the orange.
The luxurious Wee Heavy Scotch Ale earned Steel Toe a well-deserved GABF gold medal, following on a gold medal win at last year’s World Beer Cup. Rum, raisins and caramel make up the core of this malty treat. Hints of bread crust, biscuits and even cinnamon add layers of complexity. Sweet in the middle, it finishes dry, helping to boost the low level of hop bitterness. Look for the seasonal Wee Heavy to be released sometime in November or December.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.