As any brewery will tell you, the difficulty level of winning a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival is already a mile high. Bringing home a fifth medal, and a second gold, at that, after only being in the business for six years, is a pretty phenomenal achievement for a small brewpub. At the 2022 GABF awards ceremony this past Saturday, Rowley Farmhouse Ales did just that.
With 2,154 breweries and 9,904 beers entered into the competition, and only 300 medals awarded, it’s only natural that quite a few breweries would go home empty-handed. Even if they had entered excellent, finely-tuned beers in the competition, each beer had to make it past panels of expert judges (235 of them in total) looking to eliminate a brew at the first sign of any flaws. It’s no wonder there’s a ton of tension in the air at the Bellco Theater leading up to the medal announcements.
On Monday, I sat down with brewmaster John Rowley, head brewer Jennifer Treu, and assistant brewer Mark Dawson to find out how they felt about this year’s gold medal win for Grandissant Flor Montmorency Cherry.
“It’s pretty cool. It feels really good to be up on stage,” Rowley said.
But, this year was a little different for him.
“I felt nervous,” he recalled. “I don’t know. It just felt like I had this nervous energy the whole time.”
Perhaps it’s because this was the first time that GABF had returned to an in-person event since 2019, with all the judges and over 40,000 attendees back in Denver.
Or, perhaps it was because in 2020 and 2021, RFA played it a little more conservatively with their entries.
“During COVID, I wanted to just submit cans of our core beers,” Rowley said. “Because I thought if a core beer wins, that would mean a lot. We were really focused on our Fields of Rye entries. And, you know, a lot of them made the final table, but they were the bridesmaid, never the bride.”
This year, RFA won in the Belgian Fruit Beer Category, taking top honors of the 66 entries, and Rowley explained to the Crew how that came to fruition.
“We brewed some Grandissant in 2017,” he said. “I believe we took two barrels of that. And, I think it was Tyler (King) and I that brewed it. I don’t know if Jami (Nordby) was in on that one. I don’t think he was; we’d have to look at the notes from that day. But, I’m pretty sure that it was Tyler and I that brewed that batch. It was a large batch. We sequestered two barrels and Gruet casks or barriques. And then, we pitched our normal mixed culture, but then we added the cherry Flor yeast. And then, we let it age for 40-plus months. And, I tasted it a few times over the period, the rest, if you will, and I kept trying it here and there. I don’t like to mess with them too much.”
As for the Flor yeast, RFA had been planning to do a boxset for one of their upcoming anniversaries. They made a beer with just the Flor, one with Rainier cherries, one with Montmorency cherries, and one with a blend of the two.
It was the Monmorency varietal, however, which was chosen as the GABF entry.
“I wanted to brew beer with (Rainier cherries),” Rowley said. “That beer is really good, but it wouldn’t be a competitive beer, because it’s really a delicate set of flavors. Those flavors would not shine in the competition where bigger, bolder things tend to stick out.
“I think the (Rainier) is one of my favorite ones. But, I thought the Montmorency cherry version of those would be the best entry, because it’s a very prototypical cherry type of flavor. The tart pie cherry, maybe a little bit like a cinnamon kind of note to it. It’s a little bit like that. So we entered that as a kriek, (a) Belgian-style lambic on fruit, so I’m not sure how they filter those out, but it ends up being a Belgian fruit beer. Of all the beers we had ready to go, I thought that was one of my favorites that I thought had a shot at winning.”
When asked what he thought made this beer stand out at the judges table, Rowley replied, “I thought as a kriek, it would do really well. It had all of these long barrel-aging notes. The Flor yeast gives it an extra level of complexity. It really does taste like a lambic. You can’t really use that word, right? The base beer, I think, is very close to it. A lambic, not quite a geuze. It has a lot of age on it, so I thought it would do well in that category.”
I asked if, as a judge himself, if it is easier to choose his entries for the competition and if he had any advice for new breweries entering beers.
“I think it helps, because I have usually a better understanding of the guidelines than the average brewer,” Rowley said. “Here’s the problem that a lot of brewers have, and here’s some advice for brewers read the (expletive) guidelines! It really helps you put your beer, the one you spent a lot of money on entering, in a good category. And, if you had read that guideline precisely and spent five minutes, you’d realize, oh, this doesn’t fit, because there’s these restrictions, limitations that you have to follow. A lot of breweries think, ‘Oh, that’ll fit here.’ Just read the title. Go a little deeper, because I think that will help you as a brewery, it’ll help with your investors, they won’t be mad at you for wasting money. It’ll help get your beer into a better spot.”
For this medaling beer, and all beers at Rowley Farmhouse Ales, it’s a team effort. John and Tyler brewed the original batch, and former head brewer Mike Donovan fruited the beer after the long rest. RFA crew members Jen Arvizo and Mark Dawson also labeled and helped package it. Everyone who had a hand in the production of this beer, put the same level of care at each step along the way, and it paid off.
For team members Arvizo and Dawson, their ticket to GABF took them all the way up on the GABF stage.
“I’ve been on stage before (as a musician),” Dawson said. “But, that’s a different animal. There was definitely a lot of excitement in the air, a lot of nerves and jitters. Hugs all around, and I think I even got a high-five from Jeffrey (Kaplan).” (Laughs)
Collectively and personally, it feels good for team RFA to be recognized by their peers and judges at the Great American Beer Festival.
“I mean, we put a lot of heart into what we do,” Rowley said. “This is a passion thing for us. We’re not making hand-over-fist money here. You know, quite the opposite. We’re involved with beer and especially the beer we make, we make because we love to. And, to get recognized for that means a lot. You know, I think it feels really good, like, okay, people respect your beer. And, everyone wants some kind of respect. It doesn’t matter who you are. You’re the homeless dude walking down Cerrillos. You don’t want to be yelled at, you know? Everyone wants just a little bit of respect. And, if you can get anything, you know, that’s good.”
“I think it’s kind of cool,” Treu added. ”I’ve never really participated in GABF before. This is my first time going and submitting beers. Just because bigger breweries like John was saying, it’s not the same. But, I think it’s pretty cool that this beer won specifically, because so many people over the years did have their hands in it. And, it is like a true testament to what this place does produce, and the care that everybody that comes on has shown, because that’s part of working in breweries, too. Sometimes you have to start something and then let it go, and hope that it’s taken care of by the next person with the same amount of care.”
Looking ahead to the next year, I asked Treu if she had to choose beers to send to the 2023 GABF now from the next few batches and barrels, what she would send.
“Well, we have a lot of barrels that we need to start going through and packaging” Treu replied. ”I think it’d be interesting to see where the (spontaneous fermentation beer) is. And, I think it would be fun to see, kind of like what John was saying they did during the pandemic, to enter some more cores, and try to dial those in and see how those can do, maybe like Petit Blanche.”
Current and Past RFA Medals:
Congratulations to John Rowley and the whole team at Rowley Farmhouse Ales. Special thanks to their brew crew for chatting with me, as always, and I’ll see you in the brewhouse soon enough for an upcoming Dark Side collab. To all the New Mexico breweries (and their hard-working teams) making great beer every day for us, whether it’s recognized on the stage or just enjoyed in the glass, we raise ‘em up!