One of the best things about the Great American Beer Festival, aside from having more than 2,800 beers in one place, is that you can try brews that you might not be able to taste anywhere else outside taprooms or homebrewers’ kitchens. Many of the more than 600 breweries in attendance don’t distribute outside their home states — quite a few don’t distribute at all — so GABF is the best way to try their beer without hopping in the car and crisscrossing the country.
That said, if you do aim to take a beer-centric road trip any time soon, as close to home as Denver or as far away as New York, here are some breweries and beers you wouldn’t want to miss.
Squatters Outer Darkness and Wasatch Pumpkin Ale
Squatters shares a brewery with Wasatch in Salt Lake City, which allows both breweries to share costs and increase distribution, but the real joy of the arrangement is that the close proximity allowed someone to discover the Black O’ Lantern, a mix of Squatters Outer Darkness and Wasatch Pumpkin Ale. Outer Darkness comes from Squatters’ Reserve series of beers and is listed as the biggest beer the brewery has ever made at 10.5 percent alcohol by volume. It’s a Russian imperial stout with huge flavor, so we were surprised when the brewery rep recommended that we mix this bottle-conditioned beauty with the pumpkin-pie-spiced ale from Wasatch.
The result was a flavor explosion of pure pumpkin, roasted barley, molasses and licorice root that threw our taste buds on a wild ride and had us attempting to lick the bottoms of our tasting glasses.
Avery Thensaurum Barrel-Aged Sour Ale
It’s no secret that barrel-aged beers are our weakness, and sours rank among our favorites time after time because we have such a huge appreciation for the patience and attention they take to produce. Thensaurum is No. 17 in Avery’s barrel-aged series, and a limited edition of only 276 cases was bottled in one day on Aug. 15. The beer is aged in first-use rum barrels, meaning this brew had the first shot at soaking up the boozy goodness remaining in each rum barrel.
Avery does a fantastic job of balancing its sours so the tart component doesn’t outweigh the rest of the subtle barrel flavors. Thensaurum weighs in at 10.89 percent ABV, so it’s a sipping beverage. Still, it takes more than a few ounces to fully appreciate its complexity, which is why we hopped back in line for second and third helpings of this one.
Crooked Stave HopSavant
Crooked Stave won a bronze medal at GABF for its HopSavant in the American-Style Brett Beer category. Brett is short for Brettanomyces, a style of yeast that produces acetic acid when fermented and can give beer acidic or sour flavors, and Crooked Stave uses its own strain in its beers. HopSavant is a continuation of Crooked Stave’s Wild Wild Brett Green hoppy ale, with a perfect balance of acidity and hops. Beers in this judging category aren’t allowed to have any traces of flavors left behind by the barrel, so you won’t find any bits of liquor residue or hints of vanilla or oak in this bad boy. The Crooked Stave brewery is housed at The Source, an indoor artisan market in Denver where the beer is created on a 20-barrel pilot system before being packed off to the barrelhouse.
Bull & Bush 4.0 GPA Grapefruit Pale Ale
The ridiculous reps for Denver’s Bull & Bush always make a big showing at the Great American Beer Festival. Last year, they were all wearing suspenders supporting plastic kiddie cars complete with cup holders for beer samples and pretzels. This year, they came roaring in rocking helmets affixed with real bull horns and full motorcycle garb. Despite the outlandish behavior, the brewery is serious about its beer, taking home a bronze medal for its Release the Hounds barleywine. Our favorite brew of the Bull & Bush bunch was the 4.0 GPA, or grapefruit pale ale. The tart grapefruit paired surprisingly well with the hoppiness of the pale ale without the cloying sugariness of most fruit beers.
Ommegang Three Philosophers Quadrupel Ale
There were long lines at the Brewery Ommegang end-cap tent all weekend at GABF, mostly composed of people wanting to get their hands on the new Take the Black Stout, second in the brewery’s Game of Thrones series of beers. The stout was tasty, but the beer that was really memorable for us was the bronze medal-winning Three Philosophers Quadrupel Ale. This beer is 98 percent Ommegang Quadrupel Ale and 2 percent Liefmans Kriek, a sweet-and-sour cherry beer that adds a super subtle acidity and barely distinguishable cherry flavor. The beer is very complex and scarily easy to drink at 9.7 percent ABV. Ommegang specializes in Belgian beers brewed with a strain of yeast the brewery has been propagating in New York since 1997 and all of its beers are bottle conditioned.
Neshaminy Churchville Lager
Neshaminy Creek Brewery has only been open for 17 months, and already it’s come away with a GABF gold medal. The Churchville lager won in the Viennese-style lager category, and on tasting it, it’s no surprise why. The flavor tended toward the malty side, with a smooth mouthfeel and the slightest hint of honey.
Zipline Copper Alt
As a large fan of copper and red ales, we were already a little bit biased toward this style, but Zipline’s Copper Alt stood out among the rest. The alt is an ale/lager hybrid, and the result is something that lager lovers and ale enthusiasts can come together over to celebrate. The alt has, of course, a coppery hue and goes down smooth, with hints of hazelnut and chocolate, complemented by a bitter tingle of hops. Zipline’s just over the border in Lincoln, Neb., and definitely a stop to make on a roadtrip.
Pumphouse Wildland Sour
Pumphouse Brewery is a Longmont microbrewery, locally owned, with plenty of beers to be proud of. At the GABF, one of its brews on offer was the Wildland Sour, which was popular enough to merit returning twice to the Pumphouse booth. This was one of the best sours we’ve had, a perfect blend. The sour flavor was just enough so it didn’t overwhelm, with just the right touch of sweetness to complement and not submerge with a sugary rush. With Longmont not too far away, Pumphouse is worth the stop if you’re on the Front Range.
Maui Coconut Porter
Porters are great beers to drink in winter, when it’s cold outside and you want something substantial to warm you up. The great thing about Maui Brewing Co.’s porter is that it also gives you a taste of the tropics. We’ve tasted so-called “coconut” beers before that were completely overwhelmed by sweet fake-coconut flavor. That is not the case with this coconut porter. It retains its delicious, dark porter flavor, with just the hint of coconut to transport your mind to palm-filled beaches and calm, crashing waves.
Pinthouse Jaguar Shark
The Pinthouse Pizza brewpub can be found in Austin, Texas, with its fantastic lineup of delicious brews. Pinthouse describes its brewing as a “hop-forward, American-fusion style.” It has a great list of names, too, like Calma Muerta, Man o’ War and, of course, Jaguar Shark. We were very impressed with the smoothness of the Jaguar Shark. While it had the typical malty flavor, there was also plenty of hoppy bite, like with an IPA, which fits with the Pinthouse brewing style.