“Great” is a relative term. The first Great American Beer Festival, which took place in 1982 at the Harvest House Hotel in Boulder, Colo., was a modest affair compared to the shows that were to follow. A total of 22 attending breweries contributed 40 beers. There was no head-to-head competition. One of the most talked-about beers that year was a new release from Coors: Killian’s Irish Red.
That original beer blast, which attracted 800 aficionados, was successful enough to spawn 29 iterations. The 30th GABF, held last week, attracted 466 breweries to the floor of the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, where the festival has been ensconced for more than a decade now. A total of 522 breweries entered more than 3,900 beers in 83 categories in the annual blind tasting competition.
Virginia breweries put up a respectable showing, garnering eight awards (six from the “Brew Ridge Trail”), while Maryland breweries added three more. Without further ado, we present the honor roll:
Blue Mountain Brewery , Afton, Va.
* Summer Lovin’ (gold medal, English-Style Summer Ale, 33 entries)
* Blue Reserve (silver medal, American-Belgo-Style Ale, 43 entries)
The style guidelines describe English-style summer ale as well-balanced, “refreshing and thirst-quenching,” often brewed with wheat as an adjunct. Virginia owned this category, winning two of the three medals (see Mad Fox below). The Blue Reserve is a seasonal, draft-only offering for beers that combine the funky, lightly fruity character of Belgian ales with a more aggressive, American-style hopping.
Devils Backbone Brewery , Roseland, Va.
* Tommy Two Fists (silver, Dortmunder or German-Style Oktoberfest, 20 entries)
This lager is brewed twice a year, with the next batch due in spring 2012. Brewer Jason Oliver must be puffed up with pride if his chest isn’t sagging under the weight of the nine medals he’s won in GABF competition over the last three years.
Mad Fox Brewing Co. , Falls Church
* Kolsch Kellerbier (gold, Kellerbier or Zwickelbier, 48 entries)
* English Summer Ale (bronze medal, English-Style Summer Ale, 33 entries)
The Kolsch that won is a special version served unfiltered with yeast still in solution, a German equivalent of the Brits’ real ale. The German word “Zwickel” refers to the valve on a tank of beer that allows the brewer to draw samples to monitor the fermentation. These are Mad Fox’s first medals, but owner/head brewer Bill Madden won a slew when he worked for Capitol City, including a gold and silver for the Kolsch he formulated for the Washington-based brewpub chain.
Starr Hill Brewery , Crozet, Va.
* Monticello Reserve Ale (silver, Indigenous Beer, 31 entries)
* Smoke Out (silver, Smoke Beer, 43 entries)
* Jomo Lager (gold, Vienna-Style Lager, 32 entries)
Jomo Lager has won two previous medals in a different category (American-Style “Light” Amber Lager), proving that stylistic classifications are fluid.
Flying Dog Brewery , Frederick
* Horn Dog Barleywine (gold, Barley Wine-Style Ale, 42 entries)
This big bruiser (10.2 percent alcohol by volume) is more in the English niche (toffeeish and fruity) than the hoppier American substyle. A two-year-old version of this beer won a gold medal in the Aged Beer category in 2009.
Gordon Biersch , Rockville.
* Gordon Biersch Gose (bronze, German-Style Sour Ale, 13 entries)
This was the smallest of the 83 stylistic categories (the largest was American-Style IPA, with 176 entries). Brewer Kevin Blodger’s Gose, an in-between beer whipped up to fill the gap between the usual seasonal releases, contains coriander and salt, and derives its tartness from a fermentation with a lactobacillus.
Rock Bottom Brewery , Bethesda
* Brown Bear Brown (bronze, Scottish-Style Ale, 27 entries)
This malty, moderate-bodied ale is the little cousin of the Highland Courage, which won brewer Geoff Lively a gold medal in the same category in 2008 and 2010.
Read the complete list of winners here.
Note: The beers in the competition were brewed during the summer (or earlier) and shipped to Denver in late August/early September, so they might not reflect the breweries’ current offerings. Here’s what’s available of the local winners:
A filtered version of Mad Fox’s Kolsch is a mainstay at the brewpub. Starr Hill’s Jomo Lager and Monticello Reserve are sold year-around, although the latter (a barley-less brew that mirrors what Thomas Jefferson would have brewed) is available only at the brewery and a few outlets in the Charlottesville area. Blue Mountain’s Taylor Smack reports that his two winning beers, Summer Lovin’ and Blue Reserve (the latter made with 100 percent fresh Virginia hops), are still on tap at the brewery, though running out quickly.
Coming soon: Brewer Blodger of the Gordon Biersch in Rockville yanked his Gose off-line to make way for his Festbier, but says the Gose will return on Oct. 24. Lively of the Bethesda Rock Bottom probably won’t brew his next batch of Brown Bear until next year, but he planned to offer one-liter jugs of his Highland Courage (a past medalist) beginning Oct. 10.
The 2011 edition of Flying Dog’s Horn Dog won’t hit shelves until January, but brewery spokesperson Erin Biles advises beer lovers that older vintages sometimes pop up at better-stocked taprooms and retail stores.
As for the others, they’re on indefinite hiatus and won’t likely return until spring or summer of 2012.