GABF 2019: Some final musings of a festival gone by

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There’s really no way to capture the sheer size of GABF in a single photo.

The 2019 edition of the Great American Beer Festival came to a close Saturday night, with the bulk of the New Mexico brewing contingent (and me) flying back Sunday afternoon. It was a heck of a time, again, and I still highly encourage every beer geek to find a way to go at least once in your life.

Looking back on the competition, New Mexico fared exceptionally well. Consider there were nearly 9,500 beers entered from some 2,500 breweries across America, big and small, new and old, and that our state came away with another seven medals and the Small Brewpub of the Year award for Rowley Farmhouse Ales. That marks the third time in six years that a New Mexico brewery claimed a brewery/brewpub of the year award. Not bad for a state with a little more than 2 million people and 90 breweries (there are 100-plus in the Denver metro area alone, as a point of comparison).

Seven medals in a year is the second most for our state at GABF, trailing only the back-to-back years with eight that were 2013 and 2014. Add in four medals in 2015 and six apiece in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and that means New Mexico breweries have piled up 45 medals in seven years.

For those keeping score, Canteen/Il Vicino still leads the pack with 12 medals, followed by Marble with 11, the now-closed Chama River with eight, La Cumbre with seven, and Bosque and Sierra Blanca each with five. A total of 22 different breweries have won medals over the years.

Here are a few more highlights from 2019 GABF.

A slice of beer history courtesy of Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman talks about his original 1980 brewhouse.

One of the best things parked inside the Colorado Convention Center was the original brewhouse from Sierra Nevada Brewing. Cobbled together from used dairy equipment in 1980 by brewer/founder Ken Grossman, it was re-purchased last year and is now attached to a large trailer for the purpose of a 2020 tour across America for Sierra Nevada’s 40th anniversary.

“I started building this out of scrap equipment back in 1978,” Grossman said. “At that time there were only 45 breweries in this whole country. There was no internet.There was no resources on how to build a small brewery. This is quite crude, but it allowed us to get started brewing 10-barrel batches.

“I wrote a business plan in the late 70s that showed we could have a viable business if we could sell 2,500 barrels a year. We soon realized that that wasn’t really enough back in an era where we couldn’t charge much more money for our beer than what regular beer was charging at that time. But, we plugged away at it, we continued to grow. We eventually brewed 10,000 barrels a year out of this funky little brewhouse, going seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

The brewhouse was sold to Mad River Brewing in 1988, where Grossman said it produced another 13,000 batches of beer.

“We worked out a deal last year to get it back from them,” he said. “So I hadn’t seen it in nearly 20 years. But, it’s still my old handiwork and welding. It was cobbled from lots of parts and pieces, not very sophisticated, but it made really great beer.”

Now the old brewhouse is being retrofitted for a unique tour of America.

“We actually are celebrating our 40th anniversary (in 2020),” Grossman said. “We’re going to take this brewhouse on the road next year. We’re going to drive it around, set it up, and actually make beer on it. It’s set up so it’s got a propane tank that goes with it, so it’s fairly self-contained. We’re going to park in various places and either give away the wort to home brewers or partner with some breweries along the way to make beer. It should be a pretty fun road trip.”

A full look at the “Frankenstein” brewhouse that will be touring America in 2020.

Other than the San Francisco Beer Week, which will be its starting point, Grossman said no other sites are set in stone. There will be local laws to work around in many places, so there is no guarantee that the brewhouse will stop in New Mexico.

One person who did offer up his parking lot is Second Street owner/brewmaster Rod Tweet, who encountered the old brewhouse years ago.

“Back in the mid-90s I apprenticed out at Humboldt Brewing in Northern California,” Tweet said to Grossman. “I saw it in use at Mad River, and when I visited one day they made a big deal about that being the original Sierra Nevada brewhouse.”

Tweet also shared that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which he first tried in 1982 or 1983, was the beer that sent him on an eventual path to opening his own brewery.

Grossman thanked Tweet for his long-time support, and then went on to talk about one more special usage of the brewhouse last November.

“I did mashed potatoes in it last November,” Grossman said. “We put potatoes in it to feed displaced people from the Camp Fire. We did a free dinner for everybody who lost their homes. We made thousands of pounds of mashed potatoes in there. The last time it was used was for potatoes. We took the stainless steel baskets out of the hop torpedoes and dropped the potatoes in there.”

Good on you, Sierra Nevada.

All the darn good beers

The usual menu of glorious destruction from the folks at Avery Brewing.

One of the most frequent questions that an attendee of GABF gets, even from brewers, is what good beers did you try. Well, the answer is usually a lot.

Avery, as per usual, made some epic barrel-aged stouts, and tapped a barrel of Triple Barreled Maple Stout once per session. Other big stouts of note were made by Breakside (Portland, Oregon), Brickway (Omaha), Great Notion (also Portland), J Wakefield (Miami), and Orpheus (Atlanta). Since all were basically specialty one-offs, odds are if you travel to those cities they may not be on tap, but basically any stout from those breweries would probably leave you dark and happy.

On the lager front, Chuckanut (Washington state) and pFriem (Oregon) were tremendous as always. It was great to see Wayfinder (Portland) there, showcasing its medal-winning brews. There was also a fantastic barrel-aged barleywine from Smog City (Torrance, Calif.), which is still brewing on the original Marble Brewery system, at least for a little while longer, as they told me.

Away from the festival, there were plenty of worthy local breweries to visit. Bierstadt Lagerhaus continues to kick ass with its own lagers, ranging from the Slow Pour Pils to the seasonal Marzen. TRVE Brewing was as metal as ever, loaded with all sorts of mixed fermentation beers, plus a tasty batch of Stout O)))). Cerebral Brewing was loaded with collaboration beers, including a dynamic coconut imperial stout made with Moska called Impulse Purchase. Our Mutual Friend Brewing was packed to the rafters enjoying a wide variety of beers, from an Irish dry stout to some funky sours. I also dragged friends to Spangalang Brewery, where a delightful list of IPAs, lagers, and stouts awaited us.

Basically, Denver remains a city for beer lovers year-round.

It was not all about beer

Amon Amarth brought out all the stops for its concert during GABF.

We also went axe-throwing at a place called DAGNAR, which is located right above Jagged Mountain Brewery. Steel Bender’s Mario Caldwell and I actually fared pretty well, calling upon our inner vikings to nail a few bullseyes.

Oh, and speaking of vikings, after years of missing great metal shows by a week or two, there was an epic metal show in town during GABF. With the Second Street Brewery team in tow, I went to see Amon Amarth, Arch Enemy, and At the Gates at the Fillmore Theater. The show was beyond belief, with all three veteran Swedish bands defying their respective ages and commanding the stage with authority.

And finally …

A huge thank you to head brewer Tom Ludzia and the Second Street Brewery staff for letting me stay with them after my initial accommodation fell through. Rod, Mariah, Ben, Steve, and Todd were all excellent roommates for three nights, and I discovered that in addition to making great beer, Rod and Tom are quite the cooks when it comes to breakfast. It was also fun taking Rod to his first metal show (yes, he had fun).

But overall, thank you to the Brewers Association for the press pass, thank you to all the other New Mexico breweries for everything from hanging out to answering questions amid the thousands of people, and thank you to everyone back home for following along.

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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