The day had finally come and as I strolled around the open floors of GABF I knew the convention center would soon be filled with thousands of thirsty beer drinkers making their rounds and enjoying suds from all across the country. The lights were on and the first kegs were being tapped. Ornate displays were being hoisted above the small convention center tables and the first whiffs of beer filled the halls. The number of breweries topped 800 and if you had the illusion of sampling every beer, just know you’re looking at downing 325 twelve-ounce beers in under five hours (please don’t try this you would die). As I walked the barren halls there was an eerie sense of calm before the storm. I perused the twenty-foot-tall stills dotting the landscape and stayed near the sides of the isles as to stay out of the way of the stray forklifts and service carts. The excitement was mounting as the center stage started to tease the crowd of festivalgoers, brewers, and press that were ambling about waiting for the reckoning that is Great American Beer Festival (GABF) 2017.
If you’ve ever been to GABF before then you know full well that the madness that ensues inside the convention center is still navigable but at a cost. Every minute of weaving through crowds is precious minutes lost sampling beers from around the country that you may never get to try again. I’ve found out first-hand from over a half decade of making this beer drinker’s pilgrimage, that the best allocation of time at any GABF is to just go with the flow. When you find yourself in an isle and your friends are dawdling, simply pull over to the side and sample a brew. While I know many who come for special tapings and to see the latest and greatest from their favorite hometown brewery, I feel that going at it this way certainly limits the exploratory opportunities presented by beers from across the country. With this (I don’t know what to call it) mantra I set forth with my group to scout beers from every corner of the United States.
It’s no secret to beer drinkers what styles of beer are hot right now. All hazy craze beers aside, and much to the lament of many of my friends, the day and age of the sour beer is still upon us. With hundreds of breweries and thousands of beers, the sours were ready to be poured. Despite loving all beers, I will admit to a certain penchant for pucker-worthy varieties. Maybe it’s just a giant nostalgia trip from back in the heyday of sour warheads, or maybe it’s the way that they can convey fruit flavors like no other variety but I do love my sour beers (don’t worry IPAs, you’re still my true love). I had the unrealistic goal set for the night of finding the perfect sour beer. So, pucker up y’all and get ready to join me on a sour adventure at Great American Beer Festival 2017.
Odd Side Ales: Tarte Rouge
Odd Side Ales has been brewing up a large variety of different brews based out of Grand Haven, Michigan. Their Tarte Rouge was also the very first beer to start my GABF this year and it was exceptionally pleasant. This tart and fruity beer goes through a hell of a process with pounds of local red grapes and roughly a year of oak barrel aging. This is a beer that’s not too sour and not too sweet.
Right from Cincinnati, Ohio Rhinegeist has been brewing up some hauntingly delicious beers and ciders like their GABF tapped Maracuja (passionfruit) Sour Ale. This beer was insanely sour and got my pucker muscles working early in the night. Despite the nigh-overwhelming sour profile of this beer, the sweet notes and fruity flavors of the passionfruit still managed to shine through.
Crazy Mountain: Blueberry Vanilla Petite Sour
Crazy Mountain is a new Denver staple, and they brew some beers that have always made them stand out. Their Blueberry Vanilla Petite Sour was no different. This light and fuzzy bubble-gum-colored brew was somewhat mild on the sour notes, but brought to the table a delightfully fresh fruity aroma and zing that was balanced out with a hint of vanilla that seemed to come along at the end of each sip.
Pollyanna: Passionfruit Gose
Pollyanna Brewery is located in Lemont Illinois and was another testament to how spectacular Midwest brews have become. While not a true sour the high salinity content of their Passionfruit Gose was balanced out with the slightest hint of sour. This is a sour beer for people who are in it more for the fruit flavors and unique mouth sensations than the real pucker seekers.
Speciation Artisan Ales: Rhubarb Vanilla Incipient
Just to the north of Grand Rapids Michigan you’ll discover Speciation Artisan Ales. Their big deal at Speciation is their open and wild fermented sours. Their Rhubarb Vanilla Incipient was proof positive that they know what they’re doing when it comes to sours. The overall body of the beer was very well balanced between dark and light, and the mild hints of tart rhubarb were an amazing accouterment to the rich vanilla flavors on this sour beer.
Red Rock Brewing: Lady Ga Gose
For Red Rocks Brewing we head back West, this time to Salt Lake City, which is the perfect place to brew a salty gose-style beer. Again, while goses are not sour beers in nature, the tartness of Red Rock Brewing’s painfully punny Lady Ga Gose made it on my list. This beer was quite tart and but somewhat lacking in salinity. That didn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy every last drop.
Destihl Brewery: Metallurgy Sour Collection: Grape
Destihl Brewery is an Illinois brewery that I’m already very familiar and fond of. Their Wild Sour Series was my true gateway into sour beers from back in the day when there were very few canned options to choose from. I was new to their Metallurgy Sour Collection and I was not the least bit disappointed by their Grape beer. All the flavors of a good red wine mixed with the amazing effervescence of a grape soda and a tart and puck-worthy finish make this one of my favorite sours of the night.
Funkwerks: Raspberry Provincial
Funkwerks is another local Colorado brewery. Located out of Fort Collins, Funkwerks is northern Colorado’s king of crafting Belgian style beers. This provincial with its light wheat body and fruity initial flavor is perfectly complemented by a hint of sour in the finish. If you like Belgian beers and are reticent to dip your toes in the sour pool, this might be a perfect starting place.
Deep Ellum Brewing: Sour Blonde Ale
Deep Ellum hails from Dallas, Texas and it seems like every year I’ve seen their flashy endcap at GABF I’ve gotten their too late to try their sour (in past years going on Saturday night probably didn’t help). This year I was there in time to sample their Sour Blonde Ale, which was quite blonde but not very sour. I was also a little turned off by the salinity. I’m usually on board for salty beers, but the strong wheat from the style did not balance very well with the salt. Still, overall it was a solid sour ale.
Samuel Adams: Kosmic Mother Funk Grand Kru
A Sour beer from Sam Adams? This very special Grand Kru gave away the fact that it was barrel-aged before I even looked at the info or took my first sip. The initial flavor verged in the realm of a barleywine or some other potent style but finished with an insanely-exuberant and fluffy sour flavor. This beer is sort of an enigma to the pallet and I absolutely loved every sip.
Black Bottle Brewery: The Last Unicorn
Bringing back a hint of nostalgia for Schmendrick the magician, The Last Unicorn is another Fort Collins brewery that’s doing it right in my book. The Last Unicorn was a lambic-style beer that had the has the heart of a sour. While many lambics come off as being a little too sweet for me, The Last Unicorn (while still being sweet and mellow) wasn’t afraid to pull out all the sour it could muster. This is a well-balanced beer that perfectly walks the line between sweet and sour.
City Star: Belle
I finished with one last Colorado brewery, City Star Brewing in Berthoud. I can say I’ve never had the fortune of sampling any beers from City Star in the past, but after sampling their Belle Sour Oatmeal Pale Ale, I want to sample more. This beer smelled of strong and fruity whiskey but went down incredibly smooth. In the flavor department, the whiskey and fruit aromas take the backseat to a very pleasant middle-of-the-road sour flavor that isn’t too tart but certainly is still present.
So, I certainly soured myself out for the evening. The best part of it all was how level headed I was feeling by the end of the evening. Coming from someone who usually goes on IPA benders at GABF the sour ABVs ended up being a bit more forgiving on my brain. So now I’m sure you expect me to crown a winner of the sour beers. This is a tall order, but I think I would have to say my favorite sour I sampled of the night was either Rhinegeist’s Maracuja or Samuel Adams Kosmic Mother Funk Grand Kru. Keep in mind though, I sampled many other sours not mentioned and only sampled a small fraction of the sour beers available. I’ll be concise here at the end of it all. If you love sour beers and want to get your hands on every sour beer you can possibly imagine, there is still no better venue than GABF. Now I’ll sit back and wait, hoping that if things keep going the way they have been that next year I can look forward to a packed house of unfiltered New-England-Style IPAs. Until GABF 2018, keep puckering my sour friends!