By Eric Gorski, for Denverite
It’s worth your while to do at least a little homework before attacking the Great American Beer Festival. With 4,000 beers from 800-plus breweries, those 1-ounce pours add up fast.
The following are 12 beers that stood out on our spin through the festival hall on night 1. Some were on our homework list, others we just stumbled onto. That’s the fun of the festival — striking up conversations with friends old and new, asking favorite brewers what they’d recommend from their neck of the woods, finding gems that haven’t been discovered by the masses.
Beachwood Blendery: Dia De Los Mangos. Sour and spicy is not something that should work, but this does, splendidly. At 6.9 percent alcohol-by-volume, this Belgian-style sour ale is aged on mango and tamarind and then infused with a wicked stew of hot chilis. The brewery describes it as inspired by Mexican candies. One of the truly one-of-a-kind beers we tried.
Wakefield: Miami Madness. Six years ago during GABF Week, Jonathan Wakefield debuted his beers in Denver before he even had a brewery of his own. Then brewing on Cigar City’s system, Wakefield wowed the crowd at Crooked Stave’s What the Funk!? Festival with his bright, fruity south Florida take on the berliner weiss style of sour beer. Now he is perfecting some of those same recipes. Wakefield said he considers this year’s Miami Madness the best yet, thanks to a bumper crop of local mangoes, passion fruit and guava.
Lawson’s Finest Liquids: Maple Tripple Ale. All right, you can only get this beer at PAIRED, the GABF beer and food pairing event that requires a separate admissions ticket. For those who do, this is a one-of-a-kind, sought-after beer from a top-notch New England brewery. What makes this once-a-year treat unique: It is brewed without water — only Vermont maple syrup. Lawson’s is pouring other beers in the main hall and is absolutely worth a visit.
Maplewood Brewery: Mr. Shakey Strawberry. Chicago’s brewing scene has come a long way since it was just Goose Island, and Maplewood is one to watch. The so-called “milkshake” IPA style — a hazy IPA brewed with lactose — is an acquired taste. All right, that’s a not very subtle way of saying I really don’t like them. This was a smooth, fruity winner.
Ology Brewing: Juice Lab. Another name to watch from Florida. This Tallahassee brewery is a kindred spirit of J. Wakefield and does the hazy IPA and berliner weisse styles right. Best in show was Juice Lab, a purple-red 5 percent ABV berliner loaded with passionfruit, blood orange and raspberry. (Yep, that’s PBR).
Orpheus Brewing: Fragmentation of Silence. Where to begin … Just drink all the beers. Every year you’re wowed at GABF by a brewery you’d never tried before, and Orpheus, out of Atlanta, fits the bill in 2019. Sours and barrel-aged beers are the calling cards here, and this lambic-style beer is sourced from cherries from Serbia. Thanks to Tristan Chan of PorchDrinking for recommending this 5½-year-old brewery making its second appearance at GABF.
Friem: Pilsner. Sometimes you just need a good, clean, classic beer. The flavors of GABF can be overwhelming, and traditional styles can be overrun by the hype train. Hood River, Oregon-based Friem can do no wrong. This is one of the country’s best examples of the style.
Pure Project: Corylus. This San Diego brewery gets well-deserved praise for its hazy IPAs (they prefer the term “murky”). But the beer that really grabbed our attention was a special late-night tapping: a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout with hazelnuts, cacao and coffee. Clocking in at a wee 16.5 percent ABV, this stout should have burned hot but was incredibly drinkable. Go to the booth (and try the Rain pilsner!) and find out what special barrel-aged tappings are planned.
Russian River: Intinction series. Cheers to Russian River, a pioneer in West Coast IPAs and barrel-aged sours. You can’t go wrong with anything, but this series stood out for its sheer range — from a pilsner aged in sauvignon blanc barrels to an ale aged in merlot barrels. Plus, late in the evening, when many breweries were out of beer, Russian River was going strong. This wasn’t for lack of demand. Some breweries just bring more beer than others.
Societe Brewing: The Pupil. A classic West Coast IPA from a brewery that doesn’t fuss around. The San Diego brewery is locked in and this Pupil should graduate with honors.
WeldWerks: Extra Extra Juicy Bits and Medianoche Premier: The Greeley sensation brought a whopping 13 beers to GABF, and the lines are going to be looooong. If you have to pick two beers, go with one of its signature hazy IPAs and one of its award-winning Medianoche barrel-aged stout variants. Our picks here are the biggest, boldest of the bunch. The Medianoche Premier is a thing to behold: a blend of nine different barrels, from five different types of spirits, and ranging in age from 15 to 23 months old, Just wow.
Eric Gorski is a Denver-based journalist. He co-founded The Denver Post’s First Drafts blog and has written about beer for BeerAdvocate, Draft Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and PorchDrinking.com.