As thirsty drinkers eagerly queued up to enter the Colorado Convention Center for Saturday afternoon’s session of the Great American Beer Festival, representatives from nearly 2,000 breweries waited with even greater anticipation downstairs in the Bellco Theatre. Following a multi-day evaluation that saw a panel of 264 judges sample 7,227 entries, the Brewers Association handed out medals in 96 different categories. Here’s a recap of what happened at the world’s largest commercial beer competition.
The awards philosophy for the Great American Beer Festival states that medals are only given when they’re deserved, which means that most years have at least one category that doesn’t get three winners. Bronzes go out to beers that exemplify the style with minor deviations, but silver and gold are held to a much higher standard. Despite having 10 entries in the new category of Pumpkin or Squash beer, judges awarded a bronze for Butt-Ah Nut by BTU Brasserie in Portland, Ore., but nothing else.
For the 15th year in a row, American-Style India Pale Ale drew the most interest with 312 entries, and the West Coast swept the style that put the Pacific states on the beer map. Knee Deep Brewing Company (Auburn, Calif.) took bronze for Breaking Bud, Riip Beer Co. (Huntington Beach, Calif.) won silver for Super Cali IPA and Georgetown Brewing Company (Seattle, Wash.) got top honors for Bodhizafa IPA.
The competition for Imperial India Pale Ale was nearly as fierce with 211 submissions, and the victors were spread all over the map. Gold went to Überbrew (Billings, Mont.) for Humulus Insani, Noble Ale Works (Anaheim, Calif.) took silver for Nobility and Fat Head’s Brewery (Middleburg Heights, Ohio) rounded out the field with a bronze for Hop JuJu Imperial IPA.
As this year marked the 35th anniversary of the Great American Beer Festival, the Brewers Association took time out of the proceedings to pay tribute to the founder of the festival and organization, Charlie Papazian. After 37 years as president of the advocacy group, Papazian stepped aside in January to take on more of an emeritus role while still being on hand to offer his trademark fist bumps to competition winners. Colorado Governor and Wynkoop Brewing Company Co-Founder John Hickenlooper was on hand to give an oversized gold medal and recognition award to the man who assuaged the concerns of so many beginning brewers with the simple credo of “Relax. Don’t worry, have a home-brew.”
Along with individual style awards, the Great American Beer Festival also hands out honors for top breweries and brewpubs of the year. The judges named Fat Head’s Brewery as the mid-sized brewery of the year while giving the corresponding brewpub award to Karl Strauss Brewing Company (San Diego, Calif.).
Unfortunately for the crew from Middleburg Heights, Karl Strauss incorrectly self-identified its San Diego location as a brewpub instead of a production brewery. After recalculating results with Karl Strauss thrown in, the mid-sized brewery of the year award went to Karl Strauss, which left Fat Head’s Brewery with three individual style medals but no overall prize for their business. To their credit, they reacted to the mix-up on social media with an appropriate Steve Harvey meme.
Rounding out the awards, Pabst Brewing Company (Los Angeles, Calif.) took the top spot for Large Brewing Company of the Year while The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company won the Large Brewpub award. Boxing Bear Brewing Company (Albuquerque, N.M.) took Karl Strauss’ place as the Mid-Sized Brewpub winner and ZwanzigZ Brewing (Columbus, Indiana) got top honors in the Small Brewpub competition. Überbrew won in the Small Brewing Company category, and Brown Truck Brewery (High Point, N.C.) finished things off by winning Very Small Brewing Company of the Year.
With a dwindling number of unique beer names in our overly-litigious society, it’s worth commending when brewers come up with clever monikers for their wares. Cannonball Creek Brewing Company (Golden, Colo.) took top honors in the Session IPA category and also got a big laugh for Trump Hands, which is the perfect name for a brew that’s slightly smaller than the normal version of the style. Figueroa Mountain Brewing (Arroyo Grande, Calif.) drew chuckles for Once You Go Schwarz…, which won bronze in the German-Style Schwarzbier competition, and South Street Brewery (Charlottesville, Va.) channeled Bon Jovi with the bronze-winning Slippery When Wit.
See the full list of winners from this year’s GABF here.