Among the annual events beer geeks get their beard hairs in a twist over, The Festival, put on by beer importer Shelton Brothers, is right near the top. Few other fests offer the chance to meet European brewing legends like Cantillon’s Jean Van Roy and Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen’s Armand De Belder. And hey: The beer ain’t bad, either. This year’s festival, held in Atlanta, Georgia, boasted more than 100 of the world’s most renowned breweries pouring their most buzzed-about beers. Almost all of it was mind-blowing; these were our absolute favorites.
Allagash Brewing Co.
Allagash’s famed coolship (a large, shallow pan in which beer is cooled overnight and inoculated with naturally occurring yeast and bacteria floating in the breeze) does triple duty in this beer: It’s a blend of one-, two- and three-year-old wild ale brewed using the method. Intense flavors of cheesecake, muscat grape pumice, merengue and pear slices pluck the palate like guitar strings, leaving behind a soft straw reverb. A skillful blend keeps the acidity present yet manageable, like white wine vinegar cut with fruit juice.
Holy Mountain Brewing
The song “Raspberry Beret” was inspired by this wild ale aged on raspberries (fact); it wears a pretty pink cap atop a deep mauve and is absolutely stuffed with the fruit. Pressed raspberries and spoonfuls of sugary jam lead each sip, while oak aging imparts notes of French vanilla. Earthy, seedlike swallows shift toward straw and wheatgrass, and the berry-level acidity is perfect. Holy Mountain’s velvet-smooth, slightly smoky barrel-aged imperial stout, Midnight Still, was also a highlight for us. Theirs was probably the most consistently stellar booth of the whole festival.
Burial Beer Co.
Nine months of rest in Willet bourbon barrels transformed Burial’s 8% ABV Skillet Donut Stout into a 10% beast that tastes like a maple Long John dipped in a vanilla latte. The whiskey character is mild and contributes a dark turbinado sugar note before the extremely pleasant aftertaste of super-nutty mocha comes sizzling in.
NW DIPA Citra BBC Simcoe
Cloudwater Brew Co.
The best New England-style IPA we tasted at The Festival was brewed in … Manchester, England. We shouldn’t have been surprised: Cloudwater is one of the breweries revolutionizing IPA in the U.K., and this double IPA may just be its peak achievement. A tornado of hop flavor swirls across the tongue with each sip: honeydew, pineapple, wet grass, the lightest hint of blue cheese. It leans grassy up front, with bursts of tangerine Julius and mango purée midpalate; bold, pithy bitterness arrives toward the back and is much larger than usual for the style, though not unwelcome.
Okay, it’s not a beer, but this cherry wine is one of the most unique alcoholic beverages we’ve ever tasted. The French term ‘sur lie’ refers to wine left to rest on its own yeast sediment, which produces a richer, deeper-tasting product. Seems to have worked: The nose is well-worn leather, plum, peppercorn and mint dark chocolate, while the flavor adds a raspberrylike tartness and rotund port note. A tart black currant and black peppercorn finish is at once warm, smooth and savory. Incredibly complex.
Han Shot First
J. Wakefield Brewing
In true Wakefield fashion, this bourbon-aged imperial stout with cocoa nibs, vanilla bean and smoked ghost peppers is like liquid cake. A huge fudge front contains rich threads of vanilla, while the swallows are where the peppers reign; earthy, smoky and just a little spicy, with warmth that tingles the palate amid bursts of hazelnut and maple syrup.
Prairie Artisan Ales
By blending a two-year-old, whiskey-aged version of Okie imperial brown ale with Pirate Paradise rum stout and spiking the melange with toasted coconut and vanilla, Prairie created our favorite barrel-aged beer of The Festival. Toasted hazelnut, nougat and graham crackers dance up front alongside a hint of creamy peanut butter. Swallows reveal toffee, dark cherry and vanilla as well as finishing bursts of anise and spicy wood. Plus, the component beers balance each other so well that there’s hardly a hint of the 12% ABV.
Resisting the Obvious
Kent Falls Brewing Co.
Talk about a palate cleanser. Resisting the Obvious is a saison, and as such it boasts mild, crackery malt flavors, hints of cracked white and black peppercorns, and even a little dried pear, as well as champagnelike levels of carbonation and a bone-dry finish to wipe the palate clean like a squeegee. But the most pleasant aspect of the brew was its intense clover honey aroma, which the brewer said was all from the local malt. “It’s pretty much the only thing I ever want to drink,” he added, and we had no argument.
Side Project Brewing
You didn’t think this list wouldn’t include a Side Project beer, did you? Fuzzy is a wild ale fermented in chardonnay barrels and aged with Missouri-grown white peaches, and it is absolutely dripping with the fruit. But it’s the beer’s intense custardlike oak character that takes it to levels beyond human comprehension. Hints of almond, pear and mint add to the complexity. The tartness is bracing, but the wave of flavor that washes over the palate is so dense and balanced it matters little.
Oude Gueuze Honing
Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen
A lot of work went into this beer: It’s a blend of one-, two- and three-year-old lambics, each of which was infused with linden honey while cooling off in the legendary lambic-maker’s coolship. The honey additions are noticeable, imparting flavors of rich, dark sugar and wildflowers while smoothing the edge off the acidity and harmonizing with earthy bacterial tones.
Cherry Funk Metal
Jester King Brewery
Funk Metal is Jester King’s imperial stout fermented with farmhouse yeast, aged several months in oak barrels with bacteria, and then blended with other barrel-aged beer. Cherry Funk Metal is that beer refermented on Balaton cherries. Dark toast crumbles and cherry skins ply the nose; the flavor is more intense, with rich cherry-plus-noyaux character and bracing acidity like the best cherry lambics. There’s a well-aged balsamic note in there, too, plus pours of cabernet. The actual stout is very soft, its roasted malt flavor well below the cherry and funk, more a toasted bread bitterness than a chocolatey flavor. Graham crackers and mixed nuts, however, do rise up between swallows. Good thing we got some before this sign went up: