The concept that a single person can walk around the floor of the Great American Beer Fest for a few days and objectively tell you what the “best” beers are is patently absurd. Simple math tells us as much—there were more than 3,500 different beers at this year’s festival, which wrapped up on Saturday. Even if you attended all three public sessions and had access to a magic elixir that nullified the effects of alcohol, trying everything would require you to sample one beer every 15 seconds for 15 hours straight. No matter how well you plan, it’s only possible to hit a fraction of all the great brews.
And yet, one of the great joys of attending the festival is being able to reflect on your discoveries and favorites afterward. Rather than act as if this is an authoritative group of the absolute best brews in 3,500, then, allow me to simply present the best beers I was able to taste while covering two days of the the festival for Paste. I’ve separated them into general and specific styles instead of getting into the apples/oranges paradox of ranking IPAs and stouts on the same list.
Best Overall IPA
Three Weavers Brewing Co., Los Angeles, Calif.
Might as well get all the IPA’s done first, right? To my great surprise, I was blown away by the Expatriate IPA from this brand new L.A. brewery, which hasn’t even had the public grand opening of its facility yet. Reflecting all the best aspects of current trends in IPA, this one is overflowing with tropical fruit flavors, ridiculously juicy and mildly sweet. If all the tastings were blind, this would become one of the most sought-after beers of the festival.
Most Classically “American” IPA
Head Hunter IPA
Fat Head’s Brewery & Saloon, Olmstead, Ohio
It’s easy to understand how this beer has won so many IPA awards. It might be the perfect choice for explaining the style to someone—a quintessential American-style IPA, full of flavors of sweet orange and pine, perfectly balanced and in check. It’s expertly crafted beer, and even as fads within the IPA genre come and go, it will always remain a delicious entry.
Best “eh, just carpet bomb it with hops, whatever” DIPA
Three Floyds Brewing Co., Munster, Ind.
My biggest complaint with DIPAs is often that the hop rate can’t keep up with the increase in malt and alcohol flavors, but Three Floyds’ Permanent Funeral is the kind of imperial IPA I can always get behind—a massive bouquet of fresh and dried fruit flavors, rich malt and wave after wave of contrasting bitterness and sweetness. Certainly one of the most intensely flavorful DIPAs of the entire fest, a big ‘ole candied fruit bomb if there ever was one. And what a lovely, tasteful label!
Achievement in Rusticness Award for Best Saison
Iron HIll Brewery, Newark, Del.
I thought maybe I would give this award to any brewery that didn’t use the word “rustic” in the marketing of their saison, but I’m pretty sure 100% of entrants felt compelled to do so. Regardless, the selection from Iron Hill was among the most heavily rustic I tasted, with a classical Franco-Belgian profile: Part spice, part citrus, light funk, crisp and drinkable. Everything you want a classic saison to be.
Oasis Brewing Co., Austin, Texas
Lagers are always going to play second fiddle at GABF while fest-goers line up 30 minutes in advance for barrel-aged stouts and sours, but they’re great as palate cleansers, without the troublesome rehydrating quality that drinking water can have. But seriously, try some lagers, because there’s some great stuff out there. Case in point, this “kellerbier” from young Austin brewers Oasis, an unfiltered German-style pilsner. It’s a near-perfect German pils that is only made better by the lack of filtration, which enhances the lightly doughy malt character and a zest of herbal and floral hops. Spectacular session beer.
Best Dry Sour
Wicked Weed Brewing, Asheville, N.C.
This highly decorated brew is simply classy, all about subtlety and a perfect balance. It’s simple, effervescent, sparkling, crisp, clean but nuanced all at once, letting its brettanomyces take a fairly simple recipe and guide it into refined territory worthy of great food pairings. This is a beer that could be taken for granted by someone who’s just starting to taste sours but salivated over by a veteran beer geek.
Best Sweet Sour
St. Dekkera Sour Quadrupel
Destihl Brewery, Bloomington, Ill.
These guys from Central Illinois have had buzz at GABF for several years, and it’s mostly because of their big, burly sours. The sour quad is intense, deeply complex beer, with all the qualities of a great abbey quad and an added shot of tartness that of course transforms the entire flavor profile. Honorable mention: I also feel like I should mention Three Floyds again, who were pouring a huge blueberry sour called Chevalier Bertrand that was both puckering and the best blueberry beer I’ve ever had.
BJCP Award for Excellence in Style Guidelines
Funkwerks, Fort Collins, Colo.
I have a certain admiration for the brewery that can just craft a classical beer style that EXACTLY fits the Beer Judge Certification Program definition and reminds us of why we love that style. That was Funkwerks’ Oud Bruin, a tart Belgian/Flemish brown ale. It’s an expressively tart, fruity, malty mixture that sums up the style perfectly, committed to neither its dark beer or sour ale identity to the detriment of the other. Red fruit flavors blend in harmony with toasted nuts and light roast character. Well done, Funkwerks.
Best “Wheat Beer”
Fortunate Islands Hoppy Wheat
Modern Times Beer, San Diego, Calif.
Confession: I didn’t taste many wheat beers at GABF. Sorry, it just didn’t happen very often when there are so very many IPAs to be had. Still, I did target a few specific ones, and walked away impressed by this offering from Modern Times, which seems to get nothing but good press in San Diego. It’s just what you want in an Americanized (IE: “hoppy”) wheat beer: Citra and amarillo hops handle the citric and tropical fruit notes while the malted wheat supplies breadiness and a creamy body. A tasty daily drinker.
Best Coffee Beer
Coffee and Cigarettes, coffee porter
Cellarmaker Brewing Co., San Francisco, Calif.
This is a tough choice right here, but I have to give it to the small brew team at San Fran’s Cellarmaker for their spectacular, cold-extracted coffee flavors, and especially the subtlety and restraint they displayed in using smoked malt to complement the roast and complexity of those coffee flavors. There are a lot of people who want to make beer like this, but not many who make it a reality. Runner up: A very deserving mention to Pizza Port’s Dusk Till Dawn Coffee Porter, which was also wonderful.
Best Bourbon Barrel-Aged Beer
Assassin Imperial Stout
Toppling Goliath, Decorah, Iowa
Definitely your big boy—this batch of Assassin was aged in 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle barrels, so yeah, it’s safe to say this thing was in demand. And it just about lives up to that hype, being simultaneously intense in its flavors without going over the deep end of barrel character like, say, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. It stops just short of being cloying, but make no mistake, this is special occasion, brandy snifter beer.
Best Overall Stout, Period
Big Bad Baptist
Epic Brewing Co., Denver, Colo.
I could have made this the winner of the coffee beer category or the bourbon barrel category, but Big Bad Baptist is an imperial stout that deserves its own note. This stuff is unbelievable—insanely good. It’s so good that I sought it out after first having it last May to verify if it was actually as good as I remember, and it is. The barrel-aged character is so subtle and so perfectly integrated, as are its coffee flavors, that it melds into one of the most perfect, sophisticated wholes I’ve ever had. Epic Brewing Co. should rightly be considered one of the best breweries in the country on the strength of Big Bad Baptist alone, and yet you can walk in there on any weekday and buy bombers of it from the cooler. THIS IS INSANE. It’s like if you could walk into Three Floyds and buy Dark Lord on any given Tuesday.
Most Pleasant Surprise
Forbidden Root Brewing Co., Chicago, Ill.
I’m from Chicago, and I know Chicago breweries very well, and yet I’d never even heard of Forbidden Root before I ran into it on the festival floor. How weird is it, then, that these guys happened to be making some of the most creative, genre-busting beers in all of GABF? Take the namesake Forbidden Root, which is a beer meant to evoke the profile of a classic American root beer. It’s fascinating—for a moment it tastes just like a classic soda, and then suddenly that flavor profile transforms and dries out, letting you know this is beer. I don’t even particularly like root beer, and it still blew me away.
Single Most Assertive, Strongly Flavored Beer
Uncle Jacob’s Stout
Avery Brewing Co., Boulder, CO
Like a flavor bomb going off in your mouth. Don’t drink it before you plan on tasting anything else, because you could take a sip of straight whiskey after a swig of Uncle Jacob’s and it would probably come off as a bland, watery imitation. I can’t even imagine drinking an entire bottle of this stuff—one ounce is more than enough.
The “What the Hell am I Drinking?” Award
The Ticket Chocolate Beer
ZwanzigZ Pizza & Brewing, Columbus, Ind.
I have absolutely no idea what someone did to this beer to make it taste exactly like a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, but it tastes exactly like a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Exactly. I don’t think I want to know, but the prospect fascinates and frightens me in equal measure.