5 Standout Beers from the 2017 Great American Beer Festival

First things first: attempting to locate the most interesting beers from a collection of nearly 4,000 that were served during the annual Great American Beer Festival, held earlier this month in Denver, is an impossible task.

Even if you could sample that many beers, trying to recall the unique aroma and flavor attributes of the truly special ones would be hazy at best.

As someone who attends the GABF in search of business stories, and to connect face-to-face with brewery owners, it’s rare that I get the opportunity to spend a considerable chunk of my time canvassing the convention center in search of the most interesting suds.

But this year, I did a little bit of both and was able to stumble across a few remarkable beers that deserve some ink.

These aren’t the “best beers” in America – none of them earned a coveted GABF medal this year – but all of them are unique enough to accomplish something that so many beer executives have discussed ad nauseam for years now. In my opinion, these five beers have the potential to bring new drinkers into the category, something that is so desperately needed now that brewing companies have collectively lost 11 billion servings of beer to wine and spirits over the last 20 years.

5.) Woods Beer Co. – Islay Double IPA

Want to get a scotch drinker interested in craft? Hand him a pour of Islay IPA from Woods Beer Co., a small but steadily expanding, taproom-focused brewing operation out of the Bay Area. According to founder Jim Woods, who first launched onto the craft brewing scene back in 2006 with his yerba mate-infused IPA, MateVeza, the Islay IPA goes through primary fermentation in used Laphroaig barrels with Brettanomyces. The 9.5 percent ABV double IPA has an earthy and smoky character that is sure to win over the most serious scotch drinker.

4.) Avery Brewing Company – Ginger Sour

Pucker Up, because this incredibly tart barrel-aged ale brewed with fresh ginger juice, part of Boulder-based Avery Brewing’s Botanicals & Barrels series, stood out as one of the more memorable sour beers being offered at this year’s GABF. The beer’s noticeable ginger flavor helped cut through some of the sourness, and a subtle dryness made it approachable for more adventurous cocktail connoisseurs, who, with a little convincing, could be tempted to reach for something a little less potent.

3.) Almanac Beer Co. — Passion Project

If you read Almanac’s description of this beer, you might be left with more questions than answers. The mad chemists over at San Francisco’s Almanac Beer coaxed tropical aromas and flavors out of a special “Pichia” yeast strain and paired them with a blend of brettanomyces, saccharomyces, and lactobacillus yeasts as well as ginger, grains of paradise, cedar spirals and passionfruit. The finished product is both refreshingly tart and perfectly balanced. If this beer can’t convince a wine drinker to start exploring the fringes of the craft beer space, I don’t know what will.

2.) Forbidden Root – Fernetic

Last year, Chicago’s Forbidden Root convinced Italian amaro producer Fernet-Branca to collaborate on an imperial black ale that drinks so much like the spirit company’s namesake product, I’m not sure if I would want to order a shot of the real stuff ever again. Made with 20 different botanical ingredients, the flavor of Fernetic is so much like Fernet that you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the cordial and the craft beer if you were blindfolded. That seems like an awfully great way to get hipster mixologists in places like San Francisco and Boston, where a shot of Fernet is basically the equivalent of a secret handshake, to take beer more seriously.

1.) Madtree Brewing Company — Joon

This beer from Cincinnati’s Madtree Brewing Company was hands down the most unique beer I sampled during my trip to Denver. First released in 2014, Joon is Madtree’s attempt to redefine what a Kolsch can be. The beer is aged in twice-used Watershed Distillery barrels that were first filled with bourbon, then gin, and Madtree also tosses juniper berries and ginger into the mix, which adds notes of citrus and pine. The result is a delicately balanced offering that, at 4.7 percent ABV, will appeal to beer lovers and non-beer lovers alike. Joon is bubbly, clean, pleasantly tart and produced in limited quantities. Seek it out and share it with a friend.

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