Denver brings home the golds at Great American Beer Festival

Denver Beer Co. and Banded Oak Brewing won gold medals at the biggest beer fest in all the land.

Jason Buehler and Patrick Crawford of Denver Beer Co. (Eric Gorksi/For Denverite)

Jason Buehler and Patrick Crawford of Denver Beer Co. (Eric Gorksi/For Denverite)

Somewhere, knocking around Denver Beer Co.’s flagship brewhouse on Platte Street, is a sticky note bearing the original recipe for Graham Cracker Porter.

The recipe hasn’t changed much since 2011, when the sweet, rich riff on a classic brown porter became one of the very first beers the brewery produced — and a nearly overnight success story. Just a few months after Denver Beer Co. opened, Graham Cracker Porter won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival, the nation’s premier beer competition.

On Saturday, that same beer won GABF gold in the same category — specialty beer. That, paired with yet another gold, made Denver Beer Co. the big winner among Denver breweries vying for hardware that can bring recognition, respect and better sales.

“To me, it’s just validation of how hard our team works,” said co-owner Patrick Crawford, crediting everyone starting with staff who clean the glasses. “This is great for morale. We have a really fun team. Just to see the emails going around today, congratulating everybody … It justifies why we do this. One of our values is that life is fun, and it’s a lot of fun to win medals.”

In all, seven breweries from Denver won eight GABF medals this year — three of them gold. It was part of a total Colorado haul of 30 medals.

Denver Beer Co. has a big advantage in the competition: multiple brewing locations. Breweries face a limit in how many beers they can enter— a maximum of five, depending on how many beers are entered and judges’ availability. Denver Beer Co. has three brewing locations — two in Denver and one in Arvada — and entered three times the beers most breweries could. (We included the Denver Beer Co. haul in the Denver total because, well, it’s Denver Beer Co.)

The credit for the winning beers goes in large part to the guy who was wearing them around his neck Saturday afternoon — head brewer Jason Buehler. Before coming to DBC in 2015, he brewed at Rockyard Brewing in Castle Rock, Shamrock Brewing in Pueblo, and ran the research and development brewery at Oskar Blues in Lyons for three years.

A classmate of DBC co-founder Charlie Berger at the Siebel Institute of Technology, one of the nation’s premier brewing training grounds, Buehler said he was drawn to Denver Beer Co. for a number of reasons: the atmosphere of the original taproom, outstanding marketing and branding (you can’t beat “Denver Beer Co.” as a brand) and the family atmosphere of the team.

He described Graham Cracker Porter as a “great, classic brown porter with chocolate notes and a caramel background,” with a vanilla and biscuity flavor. The brewery won its other gold for Barrel Aged Japance Off, which was brewed in classic saison style with French ale yeast blended with sake yeast, dry hopped and aged five months in red wine barrels.

Buehler said the GABF medal wins — the fifth and sixth for Denver Beer Co. — will give the brewery’s sales team something to talk up. Crawford said sales already are up 30 percent this year at a time when many other local breweries are reporting flat sales or far more modest growth.

The feel-good win Saturday went to Wit’s End Brewing, which won gold in the Belgian-Style Blonde Ale or Pale Ale category for a beer that has brought it plenty of glory: Jean-Claude Van Blonde. Brewery founder Scott Witsoe shut down his taproom last year and stepped away from being actively involved in day-to-day operations. In an unusual arrangement, Wit’s End beer is being brewed at Strange Brewing, keeping the brand and its beers alive.

Witsoe credited head brewer Tyler Bies and Strange’s Tim Myers for bringing home the medal.

“It’s just my recipe,” Witsoe said. “They did it.”

“It’s been quite a year for me personally and professionally,” Witsoe added. “For me, when you look back at all the decisions I’ve made, good and bad, something like this tells me we are still doing a lot of things right … It’s a special win this year.”

Chris Kirk of Banded Oak. (Eric Gorski/For Denverite)

Chris Kirk of Banded Oak. (Eric Gorski/For Denverite)

The city’s brewing scene’s other gold went to Banded Oak Brewing, which opened in June 2016 in what is becoming a blossoming craft brewing cluster on South Broadway.

The brewery won in the “old ale” category for Drunkard’s Cloak, a malty 9.8 percent alcohol by volume ale aged six months in Pinot Noir barrels with a touch of Madagascar vanilla beans that head brewer Chris Kirk’s father hand-delivered from … Madagascar.

“It’s always exciting,” Kirk said of the medal. “We love the shiny things. It’s a huge competition. It’s huge for us, and spotlights us a little bit. It should help business. We might not have Drunkard’s Cloak on always, but it probably means we are making decent beers all around.”

The other medal winners from Denver breweries:

  • Comrade Brewing: Bronze in the Irish-style Red Ale for DEFCON Red.
  • Fiction Beer Co.: Bronze in the new category juicy or hazy pale ale for Madame Psychosis (which can be found around town in cans).
  • Thirsty Monk Pub Brewery, part of a North Carolina-based chain that moved into a defunct Denver brewery’s location: Bronze in the Belgian- and French-Style Ale category.
  • Not sure if this one counts, but it’s listed as a Denver brewery in the GABF awards tally, so … Honey Comb Cream Ale from Rock Bottom Brewery – Pittsburgh won silver in honey beer.

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