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.
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.
And just in case there isn't already a sufficient amount of hoppy competition in Denver for the GABF, there's always the off-site Alpha King Challenge. Organized by Hopunion, Brewing News Publications and Three Floyds Brewing Company (whose flagship pale ale gives the contest its name), this additional judged competition has, since 1999, annually proclaimed a single hoppy beer as "the holy grail of well-balanced and drinkable, yet highly hopped ales."
A California beer has won the competition nine out of 13 years, with Russian River's Pliny the Elder taking the crown in 2007 and Moylan's Moylander Double IPA earning it back to back in 2001 and 2002. Moylan's founder and owner, Brendan Moylan, recalls those early awards ceremonies: "The original year I won, I got a hundred dollars, a kiss from a pretty girl, and a hop crown, which was almost a Burger King–esque crown with hops around it." This year he and his team will be entering their new 10.4 percent Hop Craic in hopes of regaining that crown. (Another hundred bucks wouldn't hurt either.)
Moylan himself has been traveling to the Denver area for GABF festivities since shortly after they first began back in 1982. The craft-beer industry was still in its infancy, and the very first GABF involved a mere 22 breweries (compared to 676-plus today). "The best beer we could find in any bar in Denver was a Guinness," Moylan recalls. "How the world has changed."
GABF Sans Airfare
Perhaps most importantly for area beer lovers who aren't braving the crowds in Denver next month is that many of the North Bay brews being entered into GABF competition are also available locally. As of this writing, Russian River is pouring both the Row 2, Hill 56 and HopTime Harvest ale at the brewpub. Sonoma Springs indicated that it will be offering its Oak-Aged Green Purl both on draft and in bottles. And Third Street Aleworks already tapped its limited-release Cascadian dark ale and Melissa's cream ale, among others.
Bear Republic, in particular, tends to go all out for GABF. "We're thinking about GABF all year round," comments their media liaison Clay Grosskopf, who's also involved in planning the annual pre-GABF cellar party. Along with having multiple booths on the festival floor and packing up an actual Bear Republic–branded racecar to showcase out in Denver, it'll be hosting its fourth Cellar Party in Healdsburg Sept. 30. Both Bear's brewpub and its production facility in Cloverdale are sending the maximum 10 GABF beers, and these, along with Smith's Pro-Am Buddha's Hand pale ale, will be previewed at the event.
For those of us heading to GABF for the first time this year, Smith sums it up nicely: "I'm looking forward to seeing all the energy, with all those people into beer . . . and just joining in on the fun and trying to survive." In anticipation of those thirsty crowds, I'll cheers to that.
Ken Weaver is a freelance beer writer and editor based in Petaluma. He's the author of 'The Northern California Craft Beer Guide' (Cameron + Co.) with photographer Anneliese Schmidt.