Regarded as the Super Bowl of Beer, the Great American Beer Festival, which wrapped up its thirty-second iteration in Denver the first weekend in October this year, offers a chance for brewers to showcase their stuff at the nation’s largest tasting competition. On the floor of the convention hall, however, GABF—which hosts more than 700 brewers and nearly 50,000 visitors annually—the competition devolves into a mutual admiration society a la the Academy Awards, and there’s no question that Texas brewers were on the receiving end of a lot of that love.
Fourteen breweries were awarded sixteen medals (last year, Texas brought home ten medals), including six golds. There were surprises aplenty, with many of the winners clustered around North Texas—as opposed to Austin, which is in danger of losing some of its luster as Texas’ craft-brewing capital. Moreover, of the six gold-medal winners, nary a one conformed to the hop-heavy, alcohol bombs that have been dominating beer sales nationwide the past couple of years. In fact, five of the six MVPs that won gold this year show the heavy influence of British brewing traditions. That was enough to make Texas the fourth-winningest state behind only California, Oregon, and Colorado.
To celebrate, here’s a look at Texas’ gold medalists—with the caveat that about half of these beers are limited releases you will be lucky to find on tap even at the breweries themselves.
Gold: Aged Beer
Peticolas Brewing Co. — 2012 Great Scot!
(6.8% alcohol by volume; 24 international bitterness units)
Last summer in Dallas, attorney-turned-brewer Michael Peticolas had a hunch that his aged Great Scot!, a coppery Scottish-style ale built on roasted malt flavors popular in the United Kingdom, might be ready for prime time. “Scotch ales are known to age well,” says Peticolas, who in 2012 also earned a gold medal with his Royal Scandal English Pale Ale. “We did a vertical tasting [when each vintage is tasted], and we were blown away. We were like this ‘2012’ is doing something interesting. It has a lot of chocolate.” With the aged category wide open for any brew older than one year, according to GABF rules, Peticolas wisely grabbed the chance to add to his GABF hardware with this limited-release brew.
Gold: Belgian-Style Lambic or Sour
Real Ale Brewing — Benedictum
(5.4% ABV; IBU n/a)
Wild Texas yeast and sour cherries combine to make this entry from Real Ale’s draft-only Mysterium Verum (“true mystery”) product line an irresistible draw for GABF judges. Tasters are instructed in contest paperwork to judge for “low hop aroma,” “cheesy or floral character,” and “characteristic horsey, goaty, leathery… flavors.” Got that? Well, Erik Ogershok, who joined the Blanco-based company from Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania, certainly did. But Ogershok says ingredients are only part of the magic on this concoction, noting that the beer was fermented in the collection of wooden wine and whiskey barrels Real Ale saves especially for all Mysterium Verum releases, which are typically aged six years or more.
Gold: English-style Brown Ale
Grapevine Craft Brewery — Sir William’s English Brown
(4.9% ABV; 21 IBU)
One of the newest North Texas breweries, Grapevine just started canning this September, and, for now, its distribution is limited to the DFW area and Austin. Meanwhile, owner Gary Humble, a former pastor, is anything but when it comes to his 2014 win: “That essentially makes us the best English-style brown in the country,” Humble says. According to the GABF tasting, a proper English Brown emphasizes roast malt flavors—Grapevine relies on English imports—and avoids the strong hops aroma associated with IPAs. “It’s the opposite of what’s going on in most of the beer world,” says Humble, noting that Sir William’s also has relatively low alcohol. “But frankly, I founded the brewery, and this is what I like to drink.”
Gold: Extra Special Bitter
Community Beer Company — Public Ale
(5.5% ABV; 38 IBU)
Inspired by popular British import Fullers ESB, this is the second consecutive year Public Ale has garnered gold in Denver—all the more impressive given that Community just starting selling beer eighteen months ago (and managed a bronze medal this year for its Ascension coffee beer as well). Community relies on all English ingredients. Acknowledging his debt to the British pub tradition, founder Kevin Carr anticipates being a standard-bearer for American ESBs for years to come. “We have it pretty well dialed in,” he says. “We haven’t changed it since it was first released.” GABF describes the style like this: “The residual malt and defining sweetness of this richly flavored, fullbodied (sic) bitter is medium to medium-high … The overall impression is refreshing and thirst quenching.” Sounds like a winner.
Gold: Imperial Stout
Armadillo Ale Works — Quakertown Stout
(9.2% ABV; 50 IBU)
Named for Denton’s historic Quakertown Park, Armadillo’s boozy award-winning brew is a little strong for a breakfast beer, but the inclusion of a heavy dose of oats and a touch of maple syrup make it a tempting way to start the day. The brewery is still new—brewing, for now, under a cooperative agreement with Dallas’ Deep Ellum Brewing—but the GABF-winning stout was the result of extensive tweaking and experimentation, says brewmaster Bobby Mullins. “We did a lot of tasting for friends and families,” Mullins explains. “It was sort of no brainer to come out with this as our first release.” GABF describes Imperial Stouts as having “Hop aroma … very low to medium, with qualities such as floral, -citrus or -herbal. Extremely rich malty flavor, often characterized as toffee-like or caramel-like.” Mullins acknowledges that the heavy flavors and dark complexion may be a change for Texans accustomed to a lighter warm-weather beers, but Quakertown is sure to find its fans.
Gold: Ordinary or Special Bitter
Oasis Texas Brewing Co. — London Homesick Ale
(4.9% ABV; 27 IBU)
Another newcomer busts out with another English-style ale—this time London Homesick from a five-month-old Hill Country operation on Lake Travis that replaced the ill-fated Billy’s Brew and Que. Veteran brewmaster Spencer Tielkemeier, formerly with Austin’s 512 Brewery, takes his “best bitter” as he refers to the style, seriously. In fact, the brewer’s proudest moment prior to GABF was reports from Londoners at the Oasis that this a crisp, light brew designed for easy drinking tasted exactly like something they might find in England. “A lot of Americans find it a little bland or boring,” he acknowledges. “So it was special for us to win, and to have the judges recognize our effort.” Success is due, in part, according to Tielkemeierto the liberal use of imported English Challenger hops and UK yeast strains, and then tuning the mineral content of the water used to match London’s. With London Homesick now being canned—we’ll take him at his word and skip the flight.
OTHER GABF WINNERS:
St. Arnold’s, Weedwacker (German-style wheat beer)
Austin Beerworks, Fire Eagle (American-style strong pale ale)
Thirsty Planet Brewing, Yellow Armadillo (American-style wheat beer)
Pedernales Brewing Co., Lobo Negro (German-style schwarzbier)
5 Stones Artisan Brewery, Aloha Piña (Herb and spice beer)
St. Arnold’s Summer Pils (Munich-style Helles)
Spoetzl Brewery Shiner Bock (American-style Dark Lager)
Rahr & Sons The Regulator (German-style Dopplebock or Eisbock)
Pinthouse Brewpub Jaguar Stout (Wood- and Barrel-aged strong stout)
(Photo: Brewers Association and Jason E. Kaplan)