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Earlier this month, Denver, Colorado was home to one of the greatest gatherings of beer under a single roof… over 400 breweries from over 40 states serving over 1,800 different beers to over 46,000 beer lovers! It was the 2007 Great American Beer Festival, and I was lucky enough to be in attendance.

Honestly, I must say, the entire experience was a bit overwhelming (in a good way!). And even by attending 2 of the 4 sold-out sessions, I couldn’t even attempt to take it all in. And while the line to get inside half-an-hour before the doors opened on Friday night stretched around nearly 3-sides of the convention center, I got inside relatively quickly, and with a few exceptions, rarely waited more than a minute at most brewery booths before being served. While certainly the largest beer festival I’ve ever attended (and probably the largest in the world), I’d also have to say it was also the most well-run and well-organized.

But enough about the organization… we’re here to talk about BEER. And there was some truly amazing beer to be had.  This blog entry will focus on some of the truly BIG and one-of-a-kind beers at the fest.  Probably one of the longest lines at the GABF was well worth the wait: New Glarus Brewing Company out of Wisconsin makes some absolutely outstanding fruit beers and barrel-aged beers. While the one-ounce samples were hardly enough for a full-blown detailed review, their Wisconsin Belgian Red brewed with a pound of local cherries in every bottle; the sweet and tart Raspberry Tart; the big and complex Quadruple with notes of warming alcohol and dried fruit; and their vanilla-tinged Bourbon-Barrel Aged Bock were just all outstanding. Unfortunately, they do not distribute beyond their home state, meaning I’ll just have to find an excuse to visit Wisconsin someday soon.

I also endured waits to try two perennial favorites at the fest… Alaskan Smoked Porter and Samuel Adams Utopias.  Alaskan Smoked Porteris the most-award winning beer in the history of the fest, and this year picked up two more medals…. And while medals are not always the best judge of a great beer, it is hard to argue with beer judges who keep recognizing this brew year after year.   A truly unique and delicious beer, you can read more about it in a previous blog entry here.

To sum up Utopias, I’ll leave it to the brewer I visited after savoring a sample to whom I explained I needed a drink of water to clear my palate before trying anything else.  He said to me “Utopias? That’s not beer!” And he meant nothing negative by that comment. It just really is unlike anything most people would call beer.  It is the strongest beer ever brewed at 25% ABV (alcohol by volume), which is equivalent to 50-proof spirits (some rums, whiskeys, etc.)  It is thick, syrupy, complex, with an alcohol bite, and no carbonation. It’s brings to mind whiskey, bourbon, even cognac. And at upwards of $100 a bottle, only occasionally brewed, and a very limited supply, it’s unlikely most will ever have the chance to try it again.

The entire lineup of about a dozen beers offered by Dogfish Head at the GABF consisted of brews of at least 9% ABV or greater.  Not that big beers are necessarily better beers, but brewer Sam Calagione really knows how to push the limits of the brewing process.  His World Wide Stout at 18% ABV is arguably the strongest dark beer in the world, and is incredibly dark, rich and tasty.  His Fort is brewed with over a TON of raspberries.  And his Red & Whiteis a 10% ABV witbier aged in Pinot Noir barrels, making for a very interesting merging of an earthy wine with dark fruit (cherries, raisins, berries) flavors and a light crisp beer with spice and citrus flavors.

 Next up, trends spotted (and sampled) at the GABF…

 Beer Quote:

“The Great American Beer Festival is the swirling, dynamic, luminous core of what is now the most exciting beer culture on the planet.”
                                                                                                – Garrett Oliver

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IslandThe last of our Santa Barabra-area brewery visits takes us south along the coast to Carpinteria, home to Island Brewing Company. Just a short drive off the 101-freeway, tucked into an industrial complex, we find a lively little storefront with a distant ocean view across the railroad tracks and over the green fields of a park just beyond. Dozens of patrons, a few bringing along their babies and dogs, congregate around 5 p.m. inside at a simple bar and outside on the asphalt patio wrapped in a bamboo fence. There is a laid-back vibe here, casual conversation over pints and pretzels (just about the only items served here), with the California sun and surf providing the only needed atmosphere.  You can just imagine Jimmy Buffet hanging out here after a hard day at work… wait a minute, does Jimmy really ever have a “hard day at work”?

Six beers are available on tap, with 22 oz bottles of most offerings avaible to take home. We skip the light lager, and start with the Kolsch, a relatively light German-style ale that with its light color and body most casual drinkers would mistake for a pilsner. Island’s version has an aroma nearly identical to Heineken (from the noble hops), but a richer taste of bready malt and clover-honey sweetness. A nice alternative to a lager on a warm summer evening.

ParadiseBoth their Paradise Pale Ale and IPA have a distinctive “tropical” taste with hints of guava and passionfruit resulting from similar hop varieties used in both beers. This flavor gives Island’s beers a signature character to make them memorable among literally hundreds of Pale Ales and IPA’s produced by most American breweries. While the pale ale is more balanced with biscuit and caramel flavors from the malt, the IPA is more assertively hopped with grapefruit flavor and aroma, and a more pronounced lingering bitterness.

JubileeAnd while the Pale Ale and IPA are all about the hops, their Nut Brown and Jubilee ales are where the malts take center stage. The brown has a deep rich caramel flavor, with a sweetness offset by roasted and bitter notes of walnut and peanut shells. The Jubilee is made in the style of an Old Ale, a big rich dark malty beer that one patron described as the extreme take on the Nut Brown. We found Jubilee to be extrememly smooth and very drinkable despite its relatively high alcohol content, and the best beer overall of this very fine bunch.

Definition: Old Ale

While many think of Barleywines when it comes to high-alcohol beers that are meant to be sipped and savored, and can be cellared much like wine, the British Old Ale style also falls under this definition.  Old Ales are big malty beers, often having flavors of dark fruit (dates, raisins, figs), and a noticable warming alcohol note in their finish.  Even with their high alcohol content, there is still plenty of residual sugar in these beers, and their low carbonation and somewhat syrupy mouthfeel make them ideal for slowly sipping out of a brandy snifter.

Beer Quote:

“Of hard old ale… according to my mind, is better than all the wine in the world.”

                                                                                           – George Borrow