My journey to The Great American Beer Festival - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

My journey to The Great American Beer Festival

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At this time a week ago I was boarding a bus to tour all of the Oskar Blues properties. This was an extraordinary opportunity that I am glad I had. Of course this was just part of my adventures in Colorado at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Let’s back up another day before getting into the Oskar Blues Ordeal Gospel Brunch.

Day 1: Opening Session

arrival beer

Me and my Pliny to kick off GABF

The day before I had just arrived in Denver. The day was going exactly as planned. I checked in at the festival, checked in at the hotel, and was now off to the legendary Falling Rock Tap House. Upon my arrival at Falling Rock Tap House, it was apparent this was one of the places to be. Loaded with beer geeks and brewers, it was packed with people that knew beer and knew how to make beer. Of course my objectives were clear. Get a Russian River Pliny the Elder and some food before heading to the convention center for the opening session of GABF. While I have had Pliny the Elder before, I had never had the opportunity to have it on draft. I figured this would be the right way to kick off my time at GABF.

After a nice meal while chatting with other media types and brewers it was time to get to the convention hall. Of course now it was raining, but I luckily had already arranged an Über Taxi to get me to the convention center.

Upon arrival, I found a significant amount of confusion with what entrance should be used, and how to get to that entrance, I had arrived. Immediately I am greeted with throngs of people streaming in from every entrance to a vast amount of booths setup to serve all of us beer. I was intimidated. I thought that I had done some planning, but I had seemingly, in an instant, forgotten everything I had planned. My first instinct was to get a beer, but it seemed that I didn’t know which one. I only had a few thousand to choose from. But in my disorientation, I couldn’t figure out where to go. So I decided I would stop by the Drink Tanks booth. They were releasing a new Growler that appeared to be both well-made and more feature filled than anything else on the market. I attempted to purchase one, but they were relying on a wireless internet connection that had become suddenly flooded with the onslaught of convention goers. So I decided I would go and look for some people I knew, a place of comfort if you will. So I made a b-line for the Northeast Region to visit my friends at Full Tilt and Flying Dog.

Full Tilt was taking part in their inaugural GABF. Unfortunately while they were able to pour, they were unable to compete in the competition. But in some ways this was probably good for them. I found there was a large learning curve for a festival attendee, so I could only imagine it was even greater for a participant. After chatting with Nick from Full Tilt for a while I was off to find some great breweries I had not had before. I didn’t have to look long.

First glimpse of GABF

Only a few spots from Full Tilt was a brewery that really impressed me, Forest & Main Brewing Company. Located obviously at the corner of Forest & Main in Ambler, PA is a small quirky restaurant and brewery producing some very interesting and world class beer. First I sampled their St. Mary’s Reserve, a 7% ABV, Saison with Brettanomyces. A fruity and zesty saison with just enough funk to make it really interesting. Next was Solarie, a hoppy saison brewed with malted spelt and wild yeast. Not quite as good as the St. Mary’s Reserve, but still a very palatable and solid saison.

The next saison I had from them I really loved. Their Palomino saison is brewed with local honey, and is then aged in used oak wine barrels. I am a sucker for saisons aged in wine barrel, so this was wonderful to me. It had floral notes from the honey woven with tartness and buttery wood flavors from the wine barrel, finishing with a dry funk from the honey and brett. Last I had Omphalos, the interpretation of an English Barleywine. This was also excellent. English Barleywines are very difficult to pull off, and this was done very well. Nice complex flavors and just a little too sweet (typical for English Barleywines) with lots of dark fruit flavors. It seemed to be begging to be placed in a used Port barrel or Brandy barrel.

Matt Brynildson talking to nice non-douchey people

Matt Brynildson talking to nice non-douchey people

I soon made my way to the Firestone Walker booth. Was a little disappointed that they didn’t have anything too special on at the time I stopped by, but I was excited to see Matt Brynildson was pouring. So I waited in the line that made it to him. But once it was my turn to stand in front of the great brewmaster from Firestone Walker, I turned into a babbling douchebag. Yep. This was supposed to be the highlight of my trip, and instead it was a moment I hope to forget. Maybe I’ll get to meet him again someday, and won’t be such a douche.

More milling about led me to numerous other breweries. Some I knew like 3 Stars and Firestone Walker, some I knew of but hadn’t had before like Captain Lawrence, and some that I had never heard of like Texas Big Beer Brewery. Yes, everything IS bigger in Texas, and sometimes they make sure you know that by just the name. Texas beer was one of the up and comers this year at GABF, and Texas Big Beer had some tasty offerings. I found their Texas Crude to be the best of the bunch. A 7% ABV Robust Porter that honestly tasted a lot bigger than it was. Very feel bodied with lots of roast and balance.

What was apparent by the time the first session was shutting down, was that I had a little too much evening. And I had to be at Falling Rock Tap House at 8am to catch a bus.

Day 2: The Ordeal

After a restless night in my hotel room, I was a little disoriented when it came time to leave for Falling Rock Tap House. About ¾ of the way to Falling Rock Tap House, I started having fears that I was walking to the wrong place. I frantically pulled out my phone, searching through emails to quell my fears. Of course by now I was almost there, and when I got there I was able to see our hosts checking people in for the day. Phew.

On the bus

On the bus

Soon I was on a bus headed to Hops & Heifers Farm just outside Longmont, CO. This ride was not the most pleasant ride I had ever taken in my life, as I was not feeling that great, and I was starting to fear a day of beer. But the ride was interesting. We were travelling through many areas that had recently been devastated by flooding only a few weeks prior. Was amazing to see roads taken completely out, lakes that really shouldn’t have been there, and how normal life had already become in just a few short weeks. Although we were informed to not mill about the farm house, as it was currently housing 3 families that had just recently lost their homes in the tragic flooding.

When I got off the bus, I almost instantly began to feel better. Fresh air and a view that stretched for miles overlooking the Flatiron Mountains and . Hops and Heifers Farm is a working 50 acre farm. As the name implies they primarily grow hops, and raise cattle. The cattle raised here is raised in a sustainable model. They spent grains from the brewery are brought here to feed the 100% Black Angus cattle. And that cattle makes its way to the menus of the area Oskar Blues restaurants. But we were here for brunch.

Bucket of Oskar Blues Coffee Stout

Bucket of Oskar Blues Coffee Stout

As we made our way to brunch we could hear the sounds of Gospel music. When they told us the theme was Creole and gospel music, they weren’t kidding. The gospel group was incredibly talented, and they seems to cure me of any physical ails I had from the night prior. It could have also been the Mamamosa I had in my hand. In case you are wondering a Mamamosa is an Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils and OJ. Quite delicious. If that wasn’t your style, a Bloody Mary variant was available as well as a Coffee Stout. I wasn’t feeling up to tomato juice and spice, but the coffee stout was delicious too. While sipping on our morning libations and listening to Gospel we were able to snack on some fruit, pastries, and bagels and lox while the main course was being prepared.

Creole Brunch

Creole Brunch

The main course was an homage to Southern Cuisine and sustainable farming. Almost all of the foods were sourced on the farm. Goat Cheese and Spinach Frittata with homemade goat cheese, an interesting version of biscuits and gravy made with homemade sausage. The only thing I can say for certain wasn’t from the farm was the shrimp. Unless they somehow managed to farm shrimp from the on site pond.

After recharging with incredible food, it was time to explore the farm a little. Goat, pigs, cattle, and hops. All of which help make some of my favorite things. Each of the buildings on the farm had interesting character. Things that had seemingly been placed to form picturesque rustic art, but most likely it wasn’t purposeful, yet still beautiful.

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Hops & Heifers Hop Field

A stroll to the 2-acre hop farm revealed a few rows of vines that had hops past their harvest still hanging from the trellises. The floods that occurred a few weeks prior had come right in the middle of the hop harvest. While they had been able to harvest most of the hops, there were a few rows that remained inaccessible to their tractors. But even hops that were drying on the vine still had a nice wet core. Pull a flower off the vine and rub between your hands and a glorious hop aroma filled the air. After a quick hay ride back to the gathering area, it was time to depart for our next desination.

A short bus ride back to Longmont and the Ordeal bus tour was making its next stop at Home Made Liquids & Solids. As you can see, Oskar Blues tends to be very literal in the naming of their venues. Hops & Heifers Farm, had just that, plus some pigs and goats. But that would make for an awkward name. Home Made Liquids & Solids has food sourced from their farm, and beer sourced from their brewery. They don’t just feature Oskar Blues beer here. They have 44 rotating taps featuring great Oskar Blues selections, as well as one of the best tap lists you can find. Lots of Colorado brews, brews from the east coast like Dogfish Head, brews from the west like Green Flash, and brews from unknown locations like Evil Twin. Our trip was focused on Oskar Blues, so we were given our choice of any two Oskar Blues selections before moving on. The confined space of this stop was a great way for everyone to start interacting with one another more. The alcohol didn’t hurt either. But this stop was short, or at least it felt that way. Back on the bus.

CHUBurger

CHUBurger

This bus ride was SUPER quick. In fact we probably only traveled a half dozen blocks before we arrived at CHUBurger. This is Oskar Blue’s rendition of fast food. Although they call it “craft casual.” The menu is primarily burger focused with your selection of patty. Your choice of beef, salmon, pork, bison, or veggy patty for your CHUBurger, or you can have a Hot Dog or Salad if you like. But we were here for the Handshakes. Upon entering we were all handed a Ten Fidy Handshake made with chocolate and Oskar Blues’ awesome Imperial Stout Ten Fidy. Talk about delicious. It was also about time to get lunch, so a signature CHUBurger was in order. Grass fed black angus beer, smoked American cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickle – I really wish I had a CHUBurger near me. Besides having delicious “craft casual” burgers, they have 8 rotating taps of beer too. Mostly OB stuff, but apparently guest taps pop up from time to time. With barely enough time for a CHUBurger and a beer it was time to get back on the bus for our final desination.

Once again, we had a bus ride where getting the bus parked took more time than traveling on the streets of Longmont. Upon debussing (is that a real word) we were at the Oskar Blues Brewery and Tasty Weasel Tap Room. No guest taps here. This is the

FIDY Friday Ten FIDY Flight

FIDY Friday Ten FIDY Flight

brewery. But what we did have was a very special Friday. This Friday happened to be TEN FIDY FRIDAY! Once a year, the Friday during GABF, Oskar Blues has 7 variations of Ten Fidy Imperial Stout that can be ordered as a Fidy Flight. And while I had indulged in quite a few brews already, I knew I had to at least taste the many variants of Ten Fidy. On the menu of Fidy we had: Nitro Fidy, Appleton Estate Fidy, Four Roses Fidy, Maker’s Mark Fidy, 2011 Vintage Fidy, Unfiltered Fidy, and Breckenridge Fidy. So with 7 – 4oz glasses of a 10.5% Imperial Stout in front of me, I had to promise myself that I wouldn’t even attempt to finish it. I’m glad I didn’t, or at least the bus driver, and other tour goers are glad I didn’t. But what I did drink was (mostly) wonderful. I found the Appleton Estate Fidy to be off, maybe something went wrong here, but it was not good. But the other six truly made up for it, and I wasn’t going to drink all of it anyway, so I knew which to avoid for sure.

The Tasty Weasel also features a great Oskar Blues merchandise store including everything from socks to spices. And if you are looking for ways to promote Oskar Blues by putting stickers on something, they offer a bin full of free stickers. Which to me makes sense; I never understand why breweries try to charge you to advertise for them.

Then the announcement came in, it was time to get back on the bus to return to Denver. A happy/sad moment.

Day 3: Members Only

Unicorns!

Unicorns!

On Saturday at GABF there are two sessions. The evening session is the one where the convention center fills with Pirates. (Pirates are attendees who’s goal is to drink fast and furious) However, the afternoon session is called the Members Only session. Black-tie formal attire is required, which is a little inconve…. Just kidding. We’re at a place where there are mannequins with Unicorn heads, no dress code. But what is required, at least to purchase a ticket, is a membership to either the American Homebrewers Association or the Brewers Association.

Luckily for me, I am a proud member of the American Homebrewers Association. This session also happens to be the only one where you are allowed to drink from an actual glass. There are other advantages to this session other than glassware. Almost everyone attending this session not only knows who to drink beer, but they know how to make it as well. A lot of the brewers also return to their booths to pour on Saturday afternoon, and the medal winners are released during this session.

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Volunteers trying to get Cigar City’s booth ready

This session was one I was ready for. I hit the gym before coming, and I had a plan. Sort of. The first thing to do was seak out a brewery that had a line that was too crazy to wait in before, and get there just as the session opened. So I made a b-line for Cigar City Brewing Company. I was the first person in line, and I was happy to see some great selection on, including Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout. But there was a problem. The clock just past 12, and there was no one in the booth. That’s weird. A volunteer approached asking whether I had seen anyone. Of course I hadn’t. Soon, they were scurrying to get the right tap handles on the right taps and begin pouring. Then problem number two was discovered. All the kegs were empty. At this point there is a line about 50 feet long from the booth. And only the first five people or so knew the situation. We were told it would be at least 20 minutes before they would start pouring, and that they would remember us later so we could bypass the line. On this news I walked off in search of other goals.

My next goal was to find Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head Founder & President of the Brewers Association) to introduce myself, and thank him for helping Full Tilt Brewing get into GABF.  On my way to DFH’s booth I stopped at a few breweries, including my favorite Kosher brewery, Shmaltz. Shmaltz Brewing is celebrating their rebirth this year, with their newly constructed brewery. Their first 16 years, they spent contract brewing and never had a place to really call home. I also am a big fan of their Anniversary beers, and I wanted to get a chance to taste this year’s rendition. First I would try their celebratory beer for building their brewery. Death of a Contract Brewer Black IPA. So to receive this particular beer, I was invited to step inside of a coffin. Very creepy, but as the rep pointed out it made the convention center quieter, and smell better. I couldn’t argue with that, especially about the smell. The inside of this wood box smelled great. As with a lot of Shmaltz’s beers, they are based in numbers. I am not Jewish, so I wasn’t familiar with Jewish numerology before trying one of their anniversary beers a few years ago. So this beer is based on the number 7. 7 malts, 7 hops, 7% ABV. They feel there are a lot of positive things related to the number 7, and 7 is also the Divine number of completion, referring to the story of creation found in Genesis. The beer itself was quite good, although not extraordinarily so. It really becomes hard to stand out in a crowd of 3,000+ beers.

This year the Shmaltz anniversary beer, Jewbelation, also remarks on the theme of rebirth. But the traditional numerology of the anniversary beer continues with 17. You might have guessed that means, it has 17 malts, 17 hops, and 17% alcohol. They probably should have waited a year to move into their new brewery since 18 means life. But I am sure they will incorporate that into next year’s beer quite well. I really enjoyed Jewbelation Reborn as I enjoy their anniversary beers every year. It is my favorite Hanukkah beer by far.

Finally made it to Dogfish Head’s booth, and Sam is pouring indeed. Unfortunately the line is about 75 feet long. But that’s okay, these lines seem to move fast. In an awkward moment, I was able to thank Sam for getting Full Tilt into GABF. This wasn’t as bad as my Brynildson experience, but still awkward as Sam is very sought after, and there was a line stretching over the horizon. I did manage to get my hands on their Choc Lobster. This beer was the most interesting of their selection this year, as this was a brewpub exclusive. This beer is a robust porter made with chocolate, and live lobsters that were cooked in the boil kettle. I didn’t really get much lobster out of it, but with a lot of beers, not just Dogfish Head, the story behind the beer adds to what makes that beer interesting.

This session had an agenda, and I was determined to get as much in as possible. I needed to stop by ale and get some of their fine brews. And while I was going to Alesmith, I see a very long line right next to Alesmith. Considering how consistently great Alesmith’s beers are I was confused. Then I noticed it was Almanac Brewing company. At that moment I recalled reading an article in the Denver Post by Ashley Routson about them and other San Francisco Bay Area beers to try. This was going to be exciting. But first I had to get some Alesmith. Alesmith’s Old Numbskull was this year’s Gold Medalist in the Barleywine category, and while it was wonderful, I still preferred the rich decadent coffee and chocolate flavors of Speedway Stout.

Me and Ashley Routson

Me and Ashley Routson

Now it was the time to sample Almanac. This brewery may have been my favorite at GABF. Their beer is based on the premise of local ingredients. What they call farm to barrel. This farm to barrel style means that their beers are brewed to convey Northern California agriculture in each barrel and in each bottle. Since I had just had a wonderful Imperial Stout, I thought I would start with their barrel aged Imperial Stout, Barrel Noir. Absolutely wonderful. Then what maybe the most interesting version of a pumpkin beer I have seen. They have a Heirloom Pumpkin Barleywine. This is a barleywine in which Heirloom Pumpkins are roasted and then added into the batch of Barleywine. Once that batch of beer is done, it is placed into Brandy barrels for 1 year. Then at the time of bottling, that batch of beer is blended with a freshly brewed batch of spiced barleywine. Much more subtle and complex than any other pumpkin beer I have had. They also were offering a wide array sour ales and wild ales. If the line behind me hadn’t been so long, I probably would have sampled them all, but I only had one more. The Farmer’s Reserve No. 4. This is an ale aged in wine barrels with cara cara oranges, meyer lemons, and buddha’s hand citrons. To be honest, I don’t know what cara cara oranges, meyer lemons, or buddha’s hand citrons are. But I do know that was one damn good beer.

On day 3 I also had the opportunity to meet the Beer Wench, Ashley Routson. If you don’t know who Ashley is you should check her stuff out. She is the founder of Drink with the Wench, and is one of the most well respected and influential beer bloggers out there. And unlike my Brynildson experience I don’t think I came off like a total douchebag.

Squirrels giving me the finger at last call.

Squirrels giving me the finger at last call.

Then the worst thing happened. I started to see signs stating last call. This was the best session of the week for me, and I was having the most fun, it can’t be over. So I had to make it to Black Bottle Brewery. I had met one of their brewers on my way out the door of Falling Rock on Thursday, and ran into him again at Friday’s session as I was leaving. I knew I had to get to Black Bottle and try their offerings before I was kicked out. Luckily I made it with only seconds to spare. They were one of the most interesting brewers from a decoration perspective for sure. Taxidermy squirrels drinking their beer or giving me the finger are always interesting. Of course when you have taxidermy your beers have a lot to live up to. And as it turns out I liked their beer quite a bit too. Their Hipster was a very nice IPA, and Dramamine was a really solid sour ale. But I really loved I’ll Sais It’s On. It was a barrel aged saison with lots of wood and funk. Rock solid. And that’s where it all ended.

Wrap-up

It’s pretty easy to tell that I had a memorable time at the Great American Beer Festival. There was a time while I was there when I thought, “I am not sure I would ever need to come to this again.” But as I easily retell my story of GABF I realize that I do. Maybe not next year, but it does need to happen again. I especially need to come again so I can utilize what I learned during the experience. So here is my tips section, where I tell you what I learned.

  1. Make a plan and stick to it.
  2. Don’t just look at the festival map on your phone, use a real PC to see a better map.
  3. Make sure to have a BrewCaddy
  4. Go out early Wednesday, and do the Oskar Blues Ordeal & Pig Roast
  5. Go to What the Funk Festival at Crooked Stave on Friday.
  6. Friday and Saturday night are fart and pirate sessions. Avoid them.
  7. The American Cheese Society table is awesome. Go there. Often.
  8. Try to exercise before going each day. It’s tough to do, but totally worth it.
  9. Don’t be a douchebag in front of your heroes.
  10. Don’t travel with CO2 canisters unless you want to be intimate with TSA
  11. Relax and have a beer.

 


About the author

John Thompson

John Thompson is a beer enthusiast who began evangelizing craft beer a few years ago on his blog thehoplocal.com. John has been homebrewing sporadically for almost 20 years, and also is a Cicerone Certified Beer Server. When not enjoying a cold malty beverage you will find John spending time with his spouse and two young children or working his day job in Financial Services Technology. Make sure to find John on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter @TheHopLocal and Untapped. at : http://untappd.com/user/thehoplocal Contact the author.
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