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While the atmosphere on the festival floor of the GABF is ultimately convivial—celebrating this country's rapidly evolving beer culture and sampling from upwards of 580 U.S. producers—the event's rolling-boil heart is its beer competition. It's a feast of numbers: more than 4,300 commercial entries, 84 categories, 185 industry judges and 676 competing breweries (nearly one-third of the nation's total). An additional constraint this year, to allow more brewers to participate in the judged portion of the festival, limits each brewery to 10 beer entries.
When I talked recently to Phil Meeker of Iron Springs Pub & Brewery in Fairfax, they already had their GABF beers packaged up and headed to San Francisco, where their entries will be hitching a ride to Denver with the San Francisco Brewers Guild's truck. Iron Springs will enter six beers this time around, including all of its regularly bottled beers (plus a chocolate bière de garde that sounds like it's worth a trip down to Iron Springs).
An important distinction that came up in our conversation was the importance of not only choosing one's most exceptional beers, but also those beers most appropriately tuned to the judging categories of GABF. "You may call it one style," says Meeker, "but it might actually fit better in a different style category." A case in point: Iron Springs' Kent Lake Kölsch, which last year was entered into category 43 (Golden or Blonde Ale) instead of 44 (German-Style Kölsch). It received a bronze medal: "a very, very welcome surprise."
The majority of GABF beer entries tend to be best shipped as fresh as possible, though Iron Springs brews an 8 percent ABV Sless oatmeal stout that warrants some additional scrutiny. With head brewer Christian Kazakoff and proprietor/brewer Michael Altman, Meeker sat down to taste through multiple batches of the Sless from the preceding year. "There's like a sweet spot with this beer: it's 8 percent, almost an imperial stout, but it's a big oatmeal stout. It kind of falls in between categories, so it can almost fit in a lot of them." Oatmeal? Imperial? Sweet?
"Too young. It's a little hot, it's not aged," Meeker reflects. "And the older one starts getting a little too rounded. So it's the sweet spot—that's where you still can get all that complexity without having it be too rounded, too melded, too married together." The group ended up choosing the Sless from two batches previous and entering it under American-Style Stout.
Some categories are more competitive than others, particularly those with plenty of hops in them. Whereas the American-Style Stout category saw 37 entries last year competing for three medals, the group that received the most (for the umpteenth year) was the American-Style IPA, with an intimidating 176 entries. (The average number across all categories was 48.) Brewers in the North Bay, not at all surprisingly, have historically fared quite well in such categories.
Most recently, Bear Republic was awarded bronze last year for its black IPA (Black Racer), while Napa Smith took the silver in the English-Style IPA category with its organic IPA.
Twenty twelve marks the addition of another hop-forward category as well, with Fresh Hop Ale being given its own official category instead of being lumped in with Experimental Beers. The fresh-hop ales are those that exclusively use "wet hops" straight from the harvest, preserving delicate aromatics and volatile characteristics that are generally lost through the process of drying hops for shipment (that is, the normal way of things). As one local example, Russian River will enter its seasonal HopTime Harvest ale into the Fresh Hop Ale category this year.