Another year down and another Great American Beer Fest in the book for me. This year was truly a testament to how little sleep I can operate on and how well I can maneuver through the Lyft and Uber apps while trying charge my phone anywhere I can. This year, I thought it would be fin to not only pick my favorite beer tasted, but to also log and rank my top 10 I had on the Friday night and Saturday afternoon sessions. It took a lot of personal debate with myself and further research on Beer Advocate, but I feel safe with this list of my favorite 10 out of the maybe 100-150 beers I tasted over that long, long weekend. Without further adieu, here are those beers:
10. Avery – Rumpkin: Even though I look 100% white, I am actually half Puerto Rican via my Mom. Throughout the week I jump between identifying as either white or Boricua, which I’ve learned is a constant struggle of mixed race children. But something that I will never turn my back on in Puerto Rican culture is my love of the taste of rum. Yes, the cultivation of sugarcane ruined a strong portion of the Caribbean, but I’ll be damned if the distilled product isn’t delicious. As for the white side of me? Well, that dude loves pumpkin flavors and missed out on the Rumpkin released last year. When I saw the release this year, I knew that I had to hit it up at GABF before buying a bottle when I got back home. Legit, this beer is amazing for me.
This beer brings some heat with it, so be prepared. You can’t hide this kind of abv. This ruby colored mistress is concealing sweet pumpkin pie notes mostly covered by the sweet bitterness of the full rum barrel aging that it takes to perfect this beer. This pumpkin beer is a pumpkin beer for people who don’t know they like pumpkin beers. It is a malty and rum based bomb of pumpkin that can drag anybody in. Rumpkin is my new favorite pumpkin beer.
9. Our Mutual Friend – Cherry Gose: Something that i guess I should knock out of the way here is a bit of a disclaimer. The brewmaster at Our Mutual Friend is my real life mutual friend Jan. My wife and I have been friends with him and his wife Rachel for a few years now. When I first met them in person at GABF a few years ago, Jan was new to the small, Denver brewery. Since I first had their beers then, the creativity and adventurous of their beers has grown leaps and bounds that I once thought a brewery of their size was not capable of. Luckily, I ran into Rachel randomly by the port-a-potties this year and was able to follow her back to their brewery’s booth at the Friday session.
Once at the R5 booth, Rachel and Jan offered to take me behind the table and give me a guided flight through their beers. The first (or second? besides tasting notes, my GABF memory bank is a blur) was their Cherry Gose. The name alone lets you know the caliber of beers Our Mutual Friend is tackling. This pinkish, amber offering isn’t as over carbed as other fruited goses I’ve had, but the nose is the light tartness of a fresh cherry skin. Behind that is the familiar light salt. The taste is a combination of both fruit and salt, with a clean finish. Basically, they nailed everything this beer was supposed to be.
8. The Bruery – Black Tuesday: The Bruery became one my my top 3 craft breweries when I first went to GABF years ago. To say that I was unfamiliar with out of state craft breweries then would be an understatement. But something about the Bruery stuck with me. Since then, I make it a point to stop by there at least twice a session to express my love (I literally tell them that I love them every time) and to try the beers that I can never quite afford to trade for in my local beer market. Though I mostly skew towards the Bruery Terreux sour and wild offerings, I was finally able to try Black Tuesday during their tapping during the Saturday afternoon session.
To say that Black Tuesday is a big beer is almost a disservice to everything the beer offers. This 19+% abv bourbon barrel aged imperial stout is a decadent journey in coffee, tart dark chocolate, and heavy heat. Though some big bourbon beers are subtle with it, Black Tuesday wants to punch you in the face with everything. The smoked, almost burnt wood beneath it throughout is a nice accent. I can imagine this being a perfect beer on a nice snowy day in the mountains, or at least as much as I can being a South Carolinian living in Texas. Black Tuesday will keep you warm at night and it only further cements my love for The Bruery.
7. The Rare Barrel – Home Sour Home: The friends that I stay with in Denver are unabashed sour supporters and advocates. If I’m being honest with myself, my love of sours has definitely been influenced by them and their taste in styles. That’s why I can tell you that we sought our beers from The Rare Barrel pretty much immediately. The line was long, but as with all long lines at GABF, it was extremely worth it. The Rare Barrel is quietly making some of the best beers in America. My first offer from them was Home, Sour Home.
This beer, as the name describes, is a textbook sour beer in and of itself. You get a golden to slightly amber-golden pour of all it’s lacto filled goodness. Beneath the yellow gold, you taste vanilla, canned peach, candied sugar, other flavors, and most importantly followed with a crisp tart afternote. This is a beer I would introduce friends to in order to see if they liked sours, because the answer would always be yes. If you’re not paying attention to the California craft sour scene, you should be. Because The Rare Barrel is straight up nailing it.
6. Goose Island – Vanilla Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout: Admittedly, I have a love/hate relationship with AB InBev that skews heavily on the hot burning hate side. Besides the macro beer at a tailgate every now and then, what keeps me going back to the AB InBev side of the beer world is the greatness of the Bourbon County Brand series from Goose Island. Until this GABF, I had only tasted the regulars of the stout, coffee stout, and barleywine. I was admittedly surprised that not only was Goose Island pouring Vanilla Rye pretty much all day on the Friday night and Saturday afternoon, but that the lines weren’t overly long. So, I thought, what the hell? Let’s see what everyone has been trading for.
Vanilla Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout is one of those beers that lives up to the hype, if you let it. It is a thick, dark beer you can almost chew your way through. The bourbon notes are balanced and not overpowering. And the vanilla sweetness is something that begins the story that the stout and bourbon finish. But, unlike other bourbon barrel beers that sometimes turn me away from the genre, you aren’t blown away with heat. This jet black beauty will seduce you.
5. Funky Buddha – Morning Wood: Now, this one was a beer and brewery that I did not expect to have in my top ten when I was preparing for my annual trip up to Denver for GABF. But obviously the rest of the people there for GABF did. The line for Funky Buddha in the new Meet the Brewer section at GABF was by far the longest that we saw at either the Friday night orSaturday afternoon sessions. Being the follower that I am and someone admittedly unfamiliar with the Florida craft scene outside of Cigar City, I hopped in line to see what the fuss was about.
After finally making it to the front of the line, I realized that I should have been looking their beers, so I knew what to pick. Once, there, the 12 year old in me picked Morning Wood, based on name alone. And looks like that 12 year old knows his beer, because Morning Wood was a home run. This is an imperial breakfast style coffee porter aged in bourbon barrels for 9 months. If you wanted to count the flavors available in it, you’d be there all night. And loving every second of that night. Coffee, saltiness, smokiness, sweetness, and above all in your face malt come at you in this dark pouring mixture of oak and bourbon goodness. The mixture of flavors might feel overwhelming at first, but stick with it slowly to enjoy them all. And then you will see why you waited in line for 10+ minutes for a 2 ounce sample.
4. Brasserie Saint James – Plum Lambic: While I was reading the local press in the day before my first GABF session, I saw that one of the top 5 out of state breweries recommended was a brewery out of Reno, Nevada of all places called Brasseries Saint James. I tucked that thought in the back of my mind alongside the dozens of other new breweries I was promising myself to try. As a sucker for all things lambics at this point in my beer life, I chose the Plum Lambic.
The beer is as close to a traditional fruited lambic as you can get, or at least as close as a 30 year old Texan who’s never been to Belgium can imagine. It’s a golden pour filled with the tastes of sour plums. There is a funk at the end that I cannot put my finger on. It may be just the brett settling into the bottom of the bottle with the rest of the sediment, or it could be that elusive taste of Belgian yeast that I still cannot describe. Whatever it is, this yellow beer packs a punch of fruit, tartness, and musk that makes you wish you were out on a cold harborside looking out on a windswept, grassy field. I expect to see big things in the future for this brewery.
3. Boston Beer Company – Utopias 2015: This beer is another that would have seemed confusing to me if you told me it would be on my top 10 last month. In total, I’ve had Utopias at 2 other GABFs and another time at the North Texas Beer Week Brewer’s Ball in 2014. But I can’t put my finger on why the one I tried this year was different.
Depending on who you ask, Boston Beer Company’s Sam Adams Utopias comes in around 27-29% abv. However, rather than tasting like pure heat, it drinks more like a sweet bourbon or strong brandy. The tasting this year was more like brandy than I’ve had before, and surprisingly with less heat than I was expecting. This could be my palate being properly acclimated to high abv beers, or there may be something special about this batch that I can’t put my finger on. This foam-less beer is a treat of sweet port wine, caramel, and alcohol heat that begs to be slurped with a taste of air so you can dance the flavors around to open them up. A true spirits drinker’s beer that must be tried more than it can be described. This beer is relentless against me and I love every moment of it.
2. Our Mutual Friend – 24 Frames Per Second: Remember that one time I told you about my friend Jan working for Our Mutual Friend? Good, then I don’t have to retell the story of how awesome and inviting he was when he took me behind the table to help guide me through a flight of everything they brought to GABF. Anyways, my final beer or the flight was 24 Frames Per Second, a barrel aged golden sour that was good enough to net this little Denver brewery a GABF silver medal in wood and barrel aged sour ales, a giganticly competitive category.
This beer is a doozy for the little brewery. It looks like your typical golden sour. That classic golden look with a slight haze to it, settling with a little head to let you know the yeast did its job. The taste is of dried fruit, apple peel, and singed oak. Oh, and you will definitely feel the lacto in there. If I remember my conversation with Jan correctly (post GABF memory is always a stretch,) they reuse all of their barrels for sour aging. That means that every beer after that batch has the ability to be slightly different. More lacto, more tart, more wood, possibly less wood. The future is unwritten with that kind of mad scientist mentality to beer. And you know what? It works. In a little small barrel brewery in Denver, some guys ended up making a world class barrel aged sour. Bravo, gentlemen. I’m happy to call you my mutual friends.
1. The Rare Barrel – Impossible Soul: We waited in line for The Rare Barrel at least twice, as did several others around me. That will let you know how popular their offerings were. People will dedicate a 10 minute wait in a line, something almost unheard of in today’s ‘give it to me now’ culture, MULTIPLE times for an ounce or two sample. But, it is all worth it. Breweries artfully crafting together beautiful creations the way The Rare Barrel does will keep people waiting, just like it did my group of 5 on that Saturday afternoon. The second offering we had from them was Impossible Soul.
This beer is a golden sour ale aged in oak barrels with a shit load of tart and sweet cherries tossed in. The color was deceiving, as this beer was full of everything wonderful about cherries. The tartness of the skin, the sweetness of the meat, and even the acidity of the freshness of the fruit. Mixed in between the fruit was the body of a powerful sour soaked in an earthy wood. My 2 ounce offering was something that I could savor for hours. A bottle of this could be enjoyed like a Bordeaux wine. Impossible Soul will make you feel more like a wine drinker in the Russian River Valley than someone stumbling your way through a Saturday session in a convention center in Denver. If God ever made a cherry sour, he made Impossible Soul. A possible new top 10 beer for me.
Lee Knox is the adventurous Travel Contributor for Beer Drinkers Society.
Rasy Ran is the amazing Head Photographer for Beer Drinkers Society and owner of Rasy Ran Photography.