It's shortly past noon, and I'm drinking in the middle of a grocery store again.
I've ordered a pint of beer made with something called Buddha's hand fruit, an Asian variety of citron known for its odd appearance and lemony fragrance. In fairness to Buddha (and neglecting the fruit's use in religious ceremonies), it looks more like a dormant yellow octopus, hiding poorly among the produce. (With a respectful nod to H. P. Lovecraft, others call it "Cthulhu fruit.") These are the sorts of things you learn while drinking in the middle of a grocery store by yourself.
The beer itself looks perfectly normal: copper-orange in color, the slightest haze, a perimeter of light tan bubbles gracing the edges of the glass. This particular version of Buddha's Hand pale ale is poured from a cask (naturally carbonated, modestly cool) and "dry hopped" with Simcoe hops, a technique by which hops are added significantly later in the brewing process than usual, leaving aromatics more than bitterness. We're dealing with some fancy shit here.
The individual who orchestrated the squid-fruit beer is standing behind the bar. He's Tyler Smith, tap master and homebrew specialist in Coddingtown's Whole Foods tap room. The pale ale sitting in front of me, originally a homebrew created by Smith, has since been brewed commercially by Bear Republic Brewing Company in Healdsburg. It's only available here, at Bear Republic, on a few select tap lists and soon—and most importantly—in Denver.
Smith knows me. I know him. He knows why I'm here.
A small amount of Bear Republic's Buddha's Hand pale ale is already on a refrigerated truck headed east. It will compete against upward of a hundred other award-winning brews that, like Smith's, were originally conceived by homebrewers before being chosen and scaled-up for production by a professional craft brewery. These beers will compete within the "Pro-Am Competition" of the Great American Beer Festival, itself the largest annual showcase of American craft beer in the world.
The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is held annually in Denver, spilling across three-plus days and bringing together over 50,000 beer lovers from around the world. This year, in a demonstration of enthusiasm rampant across the craft-beer industry right now, the festival sold out in approximately 45 minutes. The craft breweries of the North Bay have already been preparing for the event for months—finalizing beer entries, prepping kegs and bottles, planning pre-GABF events—all leading up to three beer-soaked days starting Oct. 11.
And North Bay craft brewers are bringing their A-game.
Even without one's nose in the glass, Smith's Buddha's Hand pale ale readily offers up notes of grapefruit peel and the forest-invoking pine, grassiness and citrus of American hop varieties. Any contribution from the Buddha's hand fruit (for better or worse, depending on what you're looking for) is seamlessly tucked away in the layers of hop character. Beneath the bitter, aromatic approach is a biscuity core, rounded red fruits, some crystalline sugar.
With Buddha's Hand as the only area craft beer in the Pro-Am competition this year, Smith will be traveling out for the event for the first time, where Buddha's Hand pale ale will be available to festivalgoers through the GABF Pro-Am booth.
My wife and I are heading to the festival for the first time as well this year, though (as always) with plenty of "work" to get done. In speaking with Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company about his brewery's preparations for GABF, he jokingly suggested that I might want to condition myself ahead of time for the effects of alcohol at higher altitudes.
So, in a sense, I too am preparing.