This past weekend, I attended my fourth Great American Beer Festival, the largest beer festival in America. It’s held annually in Denver, and has been steadily growing in size over its 37-year history. This year, more than 800 breweries poured more than 4,000 beers. Approximately 62,000 people attended over the course of three days.
To say it can look and feel overwhelming is an understatement. So it’s a daunting task to summarize the “trends” at GABF, because with 4,000 beers on offer, you could find any type of beer you want. I had a pistachio cream ale on nitro (from Short’s), a barrel-aged American wild ale with vanilla beans and black currants (from Une Année), and I saw a jalapeno oyster porter (from Bull Island) that I just didn’t get around to trying. Does this mean jalapeno oyster porters are a trend? Probably not.
But what I can do, based on years of attending this festival and spending the other 362 days a year writing and thinking about beer, is highlight what looked and felt different to me this year. Taken as a whole, the beers poured did offer a glimpse into where American craft beer is in 2018, and possibly where it’s headed in the distant future. Here are a few of my take-aways.
Sour beers (or wild ales, or whatever term you prefer) are no longer a novelty at Great American Beer Festival. You’ll find versions brewed with every type of fruit under the sun, from passionfruit to lime to peach. But what was new to me this year was a handful of savory-tasting sours brewed with vegetables.
One of the most buzzed-about beers—and not necessarily in a positive way—at this year’s event was Spaghetti Gose from Weldwerks of Greeley, Colorado. Better known for their decadent, flavorful stouts, Weldwerks blew some minds this year with a savory sour that borrowed inspiration from, yes, spaghetti. A gose is a lightly tart German style of wheat beer, to which Weldwerks added roasted tomatoes, fresh basil, oregano, sea salt and yes, spaghetti pasta. The latter flavor was indiscernible to me, but the rest of the ingredients came through. It was savory, lightly salty, herbal, and reminded me of a Michelada. Do I need a full pint of it? Probably not.
I also sampled Fried Green Tomato Sour Ale from Arnaudville, Louisiana’s Bayou Teche. The brewers there told me they sous-vide about 40 pounds of green tomatoes before adding them to the beer (and no, there’s no fry batter in there). I thoroughly enjoyed this beer, and could have overlooked the subtly sweet tomato flavor if I wasn’t searching for it. Next up, I tried Humulus Kalecumber—a sour beer brewed with cucumber, mint, and kale—from Odd 13 out of Lafayette, Colorado. Bottom line on this one: I couldn’t taste the kale per se, but the overall effect was botanical and slightly on the earthy side.
Two years ago, I saw the proliferation of hazy or New England-style IPAs emerge at GABF. This year, brewers still brought those by the dozens, but it was the first year I noticed a significant showing for brut IPAs and milkshake IPAs. Brut IPAs are intended to mimic champagne (hence the name), and are brewed with a special enzyme that makes them quite dry—you can read more about the brut IPA style here. Milkshake IPAs are on the other end of the spectrum; brewed with copious amounts of fruity hops and lactose for a full, sweet sip, they’re designed to evoke, well, milkshakes.
I counted at least eight IPAs with “milkshake” in their name, plus a few more that were close to that style but didn’t explicitly reference the word. Chicago’s Hop Butcher For The World poured its Blazed Orange Milkshake IPA, which tastes exactly like a melted Dreamsicle. Wild stuff. On the brut side, I counted at least 15, including my first-ever spotting of a brut double IPA (from Denver’s Jagged Mountain), and my first-ever spotting of a brut IPA fermented with Brettanomyces yeast (from Chicago’s Middle Brow).
Where will IPAs go in the next couple years? I can’t even imagine. At my first GABF, hazy/juicy New England-style IPAs weren’t yet understood to be their own sub-style. Now, just four years later, they were the most-entered category—with more than 400 beers submitted—in the GABF awards competition.
It’s hard for brewers not to see GABF as an opportunity to share their best and boldest, the most flavorful, in-your-face, rare beers they make. And most do bring those, which leads to a bit of a challenge for drinkers in attendance: you move from one barrel-aged stout to the next, or from a double IPA to a super-tart sour beer. Your taste buds are quickly exhausted and overwhelmed, not to mention you find yourself kinda drunk pretty quickly.
This year’s GABF saw a slight course-correction. Yes, those double IPAs and 12-percent ABV stouts were still there, but I noticed more breweries devoting a spot or two in their roster to easy-drinking beer styles like amber ales, helles lagers, and pilsners. Durango, Colorado’s Ska Brewing ran out of its Oktoberfest lager when I tried to sample some (probably because it won a gold medal in the competition earlier that day), and brewers from Miami’s The Tank told me kegs of their amber ale were the first of their beers to “kick.”