Here for the Beer

Malty notes and more from the 2012 Great American Beer Festival

I had just 15 minutes alone with the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) before the doors opened to the hopped-up, pretzel-necklace-wearing masses. During that window of time, I realized a few very important things:

One, I would never, ever be able to taste everything. 578 breweries from all over the U.S. serving more than 2,700 beers to the nearly 50,000 attendees. I didn’t stand a chance. Not without a stunt liver anyway. Two, I needed a plan. I’d start with the Las Vegas’ breweries (Big Dog’s, Chicago Brewing Co. and Tenaya Creek), move on to Denver for some local flavor, then go regional, focusing on the gold-medal winners (if there was anything left to taste). Three, I needed the essentials: pretzels, a festival T-shirt, water. And more pretzels.

So equipped, I was ready for the wildly costumed attendees when they poured in. Presented by the Brewers Association, the GABF is held over three days at Denver’s Colorado Convention Center, about the only place that could accommodate such a feat. The beer flowed like, well, beer—an endless, bottomless river of craft brews, artisan barley wines and the nerdy project attempts of large commercial outfits to try to prove they’re down with the craft of craft.

The night before, I, a GABF virgin, joined some Las Vegas members of SNAFU (Southern Nevada Ale Fermenters Union, the homebrewer’s club) at Stranahan’s distillery for a little Denver-made whiskey, before tackling some dense, syrupy, single-barrel chocolate, vanilla and smoked isolated samples of the beers that make up Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout (Ill.) The deconstruction was eye-opening! I’d love to taste the composed beer, but, alas, says Nick Tribulato of Money Plays (“The New Kid on the Bock,” Sept. 13), we won’t be getting that in Las Vegas any time soon.

Also in the party: Matt Lisowski, director of operations at Joseph James Brewing Co.; Tenaya Creek’s Alex Graham; Aces & Ales’ Kris Wilke; and Jeremy Berkowitz from Khoury’s Fine Wine & Spirits. The guys let me tag along with them to Denver beer den Freshcraft, guided me to the social-networking site for beer aficionados (Untappd) and gave me my first milk stout (Left Hand Brewing Co.; Colo.) before guiding me to oddities such as Odell Cutthroat Porter (Colo.) that was aged in a barrel that formerly housed Leopold Bros. domestic fernet. Hey, you gotta walk before you can run, right?

And oh, how the oddities abounded the next day at the festival, such as Wynkoop Brewing Co.’s Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout (Colo.), made with—you guessed it—real roasted bull testicles. (If you’re curious, it was earthy, savory and good in small doses.) Hop-heads must have been in heaven, what with all the hop-tions; of those, Ninkasi’s Tricerahops Double IPA (Ore.) was my favorite—citrusy, bitter and refreshing. And I finally got to try the Kettle House Cold Smoke Scotch Ale (Mont.) that had Vegas Seven contributor Kurt Rice hitting the road for in the 2012 Beer Issue (“The Gospel of Cold Smoke,” Sept. 13). I can see why he drives to Missoula just for a taste.

I further sought out anything “black,” “rye,” “smoked,” “barrel-aged” or “toasted.” I also hunted for saisons (seasonal farmhouse ales), the best of which was the Utah sage variety from Epic Brewing Co., which I would visit just two weeks later in Salt Lake City. More on that another time.

As the hours and the IBUs wore on, I asked each booth rep to direct me to my next great beer. From Watch City Brewing Co.’s Beejezus Hop Crisis BPA (Mass.) I was dispatched to Highwater Brewing’s Campfire Stout (Calif.), who sent me to 21st Amendment’s Hell or High Watermelon Wheat (think tangy Nerds candies; Calif.), then the ambitious Ranger Creek Oak-Aged Rye Oatmeal Pale Ale (Texas) and so it went on.

In all, I tried more than 50 beers that day, some more than once. Congrats to Chicago Brewing Co. for taking the gold in the Chocolate Beer category with its Cocoa for Coconuts, and to Big Dog’s Brewing Co. for placing silver in the English-Style Brown Ale category with its Red Hydrant Ale.

Next year in Denver!