Great American Beer Festival

The Future of Beer, as Foretold by the Great American Beer Festival

Photo: Chris Lehault, of the excellent site I Drunk That.

My liver has finally cried uncle. The culprit, as it is every fall, is the Great American Beer Festival. I liken the annual Denver celebration to the Super Bowl of Beer. It brings together nearly 600 breweries from across the country, who come to the Mile High City toting more than 2,700 IPAs, sour ales, barrel-aged imperial stouts and other delicious oddities. Can I interest you in Burnside Brewing’s Sweet Heat, a wheat ale flavored with apricot purée and incendiary Scotch bonnet peppers? Or perhaps you’d like RedRock Brewing’s Paardebloem, which is made with dandelion greens and wild Brettanomyces bacteria? And the Kudzu Porter from Back Forty Beer Company might interest you as well.

Brewers brought out their most wonderful beers this year, and I made it my point to drink as many as possible. You may call this drunkenness. I call it research. As I sipped my way through hundreds of beers — a beer drinker should swallow, not spit—a few trends began to take shape.

Sours and Wild Ales Are Going Gangbusters For the last few years, sour and wild ales have been craft beer’s rising stars, as drinkers have learned that there’s pleasure in that pucker. At the GABF this year, the festivals longest lines were reserved for brewers like Maine’s Allagash, California’s Russian River and San Antonio’s Freetail that dabble in souring Lactobacillus bacteria and wild, unrulyBrettanomyces yeast that, like stinky cheese, can create flavors as challenging as they are charming. Also big: versions of Germany’s sour, salty gose and tart and quenching Berliner weisse.

The Class Is in Session Hoppy IPAs show no sign of slowing down, as drinkers are still craving bitter, floral palate-wreckers. And while there was no shortage of double or even triple IPAs on display (Knee Deep’s Simtra and Bear Republic’s Café Racer 15, were devastatingly drinkable), I liked the turn toward hoppy, low-alcohol beers that boast plenty of bitterness without the alcohol that’ll make your head spin. A few great examples to seek out are the 21st AmendmentBitter American, Founders All Day IPA and, though it was not at the fest, the LagunitasDaytime. You can drink the not-so-boozy beauties from afternoon until last call.

Fresh Is Best This year at the GABF, the newest competition category was fresh-hop ales. A quick primer: When hops are harvested in the late summer, they are typically dried ASAP. Like cut grass, they rapidly lose their aromatics and rot. But if the hops are used right away, typically within 24 hours after plucking, they deliver a fresh, delicate, green aroma and flavor. Fresh-hop ales are fall’s fleeting delicacy, and boy, were they on display in 2012. In particular, theTommyknocker Colorado IPA Nouveau, Yazoo Fresh Hop and 10 Barrel Fresh Hop were knockouts. At your beer shop, be on the lookout for Great Divide Fresh Hop Pale and Chasin’ Freshies and Hop Trip, both from Deschutes.

Five Breweries to Keep an Eye On Each year, a few breweries generate plenty of buzz — and that’s before you even take a sip of their beer. Here are five to keep an eye on in 2013 and beyond.

1. Destihl If you’re ever driving through central Illinois, stop in Normal or Champaign to visit Destihl, which is quietly making some of America’s most interesting wild and sour ales. Its rotating, evolving Saint Dekkera Reserve Sour Ale series of barrel-aged, spontaneously fermented beers is brilliant. At the GABF, I dug the Sour Hawaii Ale, Gose and Sour Strawberry Ale.

2. Funkwerks In just a few short years, this Fort Collins, Colorado, brewery has earned an outsize reputation for its excellent Belgian-inspired ales. In particular, the Saison is a masterpiece of citrus and black pepper, and the lemony Deceit is just about the best Belgian strong ale you’ll sip all year. Funkwerks was also named the Small Brewing Company of the Year.

3. Crooked Stave Wild and sour ales were the undisputed star of the GABF, and few breweries burned through their beer faster than Denver’s Crooked Stave. Founder Chad Yakobson made the wild yeastBrettanomyces the subject of his Masters dissertation, and his expertise was on display in standouts such as the blueberry-spiked Wild Wild Brett Indigo and sour Surette saison.

4. Thai Me Up Brewery Each year at the GABF, a few breweries come out of left field to knock the judges’ socks off. This year’s award goes to Thai Me Up, a brewpub based in Jackson, Wyoming. It won three medals, including a gold for its strong, citrusy Melvin IPA and its 2x4 imperial IPA. I'll bet hop heads will soon make a pilgrimage to Wyoming. Also of note in Jackson: the Paintbrush Pilsner and Zonker Stout from the first-rate Snake River Brewing.

5. Devils Backbone Brewing Company As if being named the Small Brewpub of the Year were not enough, the Virginia outfit also took home eight medals for beers including the sour Berliner Metro Weiss, dark and strong Danzig Baltic Porter, and pitch-perfect Vienna Lager. Simply put, Devils Backbone is making some of the best classic beers in America.

This story was originally published in Food Republic.

Great American Beer Festival Recap

Not since that misguided night in college when I decided to double-fist 40-ouncers of Phat Boy, a thankfully discontinued malt liquor made with ginseng, has my liver felt so swollen and abused.

I’ve just returned from four days at Denver’s 30th annual Great American Beer Festival, a massive celebration of fermentation that attracts brew fans as fervid as religious devotees flocking to Mecca. And for good reason. Each year, hundreds of breweries from all corners of the country descend upon the Mile High City en masse, toting thousands of different beers. Some are good. Some are bad. But with each brew served by the one-ounce pour, you have ample opportunity to try any and every beer.

Consider it drunkenness by a thousand tiny cups.

Of course, sampling every beer is foolhardy, especially this year. Scattered across the floor of the sprawling Colorado Convention Center were more than 460 breweries, which doled out some 2,400 dark stouts, sour ales, bitter IPAs and carbonated oddities so curious, so strange, I wasn’t sure whether to dump them out or greedily ask for another glass. Freetail Brewing, I’m looking at you and your green and cloudy Spirulina Wit.

As far as trends to spot, brewers are still riding high on IPAs, with a swell of black-tinted takes on the style — I particularly liked the Blacktop IPA, from New Glarus Brewing, as well as Bear Republic’s Black Racer. Barrel aging continues to sweep the industry (I swooned over Foothills Brewing’s Bourbon Barrel Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout and the wood-flavored treats from Florida’s Cigar City), but what’s got me most excited is the surge of sour ales.

Increasing ranks of brewers are deploying wild yeasts and bacteria with a dedication that would impress a microbiologist. Breweries to keep an eye on include Captain Lawrence, Cambridge Brewing, Upland, Brugge Brasserie and Illinois’ Desthil brewpub, which wowed the crowd with its wild creations.

Though it’s impossible to highlight all my favorite ales and lagers—and my many, many skull-blasting hangovers—a few ales and lagers stood out from the sudsy, crowded field.

Which ones did I like best? Check out my full story at Food Republic.

How to Meet Me at the Great American Beer Festival

Though it's early in the morning, I need a beer to calm down the butterflies in my stomach. More than 18 months after the journey to create Brewed Awakening began, the book is ready to be released to the world. Though it's not officially hitting shelves till November 1, I'm headed to Denver on Thursday morning to pre-release the book at the Great American Beer Festival.

If you've never been, the GABF will blow your beer-loving mind—or at least your liver. Over the course of three days, more than 400 breweries dispense more than 2,000 different kinds of beer. Trying them all is a foolhardy mission, not that some attendees don't give it the ol' college try.

Last year, I wandered the beer-soaked aisles sampling ales and lagers to my stomach's discontent. This year, I'm going to be signing books, submitting to interviews and hosting parties. If you're headed out to Denver and want to nab a book or just say hey, here's my schedule for the weekend:

Thursday, September 29: Denver, Colorado 8 p.m.–9 p.m. Brewed Awakening signing at the Great American Beer Festival

Friday, September 30: Denver, Colorado 5 p.m.–7 p.m. Brewed Awakening signing at the Ghost Plate & Tap. Come get warmed up before the GABF! We're going to be pouring a special dry-hopped ESB dosed with oak chips and raffle off a not-yet-released, barrel-aged Breckenridge brew.

Friday, September 30: Denver, Colorado 8 p.m.–9 p.m. Brewed Awakening signing at the Great American Beer Festival

Saturday, October 1: Denver, Colorado 3 p.m.–4 p.m.; 8 p.m.–9 p.m. Brewed Awakening signing at the Great American Beer Festival

Saturday, October 1: Denver, Colorado 4:30 p.m.–6:30 p.m. Brewed Awakening signing at the Corner Office, which is right around the corner from the Colorado Convention Center. New Belgium will be pouring special brews, and there will be dirt-cheap deals on delicious food. You will need to eat, yes you will.

Great American Beer Festival Wrap-Up

So. Much. Beer.

Heavens to Betsy, I just returned from a weekend trip to Denver, where I taxed my liver left and right at the Great American Beer Festival. The de facto Super Bowl of American brewing, the GABF features 2,000-plus beers -- all of which I aimed to try. No dice. But you can read my wrap-up at Slashfood. Drink it up!