At the Great American Beer Festival awards ceremony on Saturday, October 8, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper surprised the assembled crowd with an on-stage visit to honor Charlie Papazian. Papazian is the founder of the Brewers Association and the Great American Beer Festival, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year. Hickenlooper presented Papazian with an honorary medal as a standing crowd cheered and yelled Charlie’s name. The moment reinforced how far American beer has come in 35 years; how it’s grown from a superniche hobby to an economic force and, arguably, a cultural phenomenon. Papazian teared up a little. While that portion of the awards ceremony felt like one of reflection, the energy surrounding the rest of the festival was one of youthfulness and innovation. New breweries, new faces, new beers; it becomes larger and harder to take in every year. A few themes, however, did emerge.
Fruit beer is here, and there’s more coming. Citrus and tropical fruits show no signs of falling out of favor with brewers, but long gone are the days when “fruit beer” was synonymous with berry wheat beers. Citrus and tropical fruits mesh incredibly with darling hops like Mosaic and Azacca, so expect more fruited IPAs for 2017 (Boston Beer Co. will soon launch a year-round mango and citrus version of its Rebel IPA line called Rebel Juiced.) Stone fruits like peaches and apricots also invaded a good portion of American wild ales and sours, rounding off acidic edges and adding a touch of soft sweetness. (Cascade Brewing’s Kentucky Peach, a blend of sour blondes and quads aged in bourbon and wine barrels with peaches and cinnamon was a standout at Denver Rare Beer Tasting.)
Coffee has moved beyond stouts. Coffee turned up in a solid number of beers poured on the festival floor, from light styles like kölsches to coffee IPAs and sours. At Crooked Stave’s What The Funk?! Invitational on the Tuesday before GABF began, Black Project’s Lunex blew me away: Ethiopian coffee beans roasted by Corvus Coffee contributed a nearly nutty aroma to the base golden sour, with integrated earthy and blueberry notes on the sip. It’s clear that brewers are working more closely with roasters on such projects, selecting not just quality beans but also considering the best extraction method to capitalize on coffee’s complex flavors.
Craft lager is growing. Bohemian Pilsners were especially plentiful on festival floor this year, with excellent showings from Bagby Beer Co., Gun Hill and Societe, among others. Even breweries more often associated with hoppy ales, Belgians or sour beers are putting out excellent, quaffable but still flavorful American, German and Czech-style pilsners (looking at you, Almanac, River North and Bayou Teche). While we’re all about an easy-drinking, light pilsner built to mimic mainstream lagers, it’s refreshing (pun intended) to find brewers turn their attention to other, perhaps more flavorful ends of the lager spectrum. Wibby Beer’s dunkel was a highlight in this regard. The abundance of lagers this year not only provided diversity to round out the IPAs and barrel-aged everything on the floor, but they don’t pack as much of an alcohol punch⏤which is especially welcome during GABF.