2014 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) California Winners Recap

Julian Shrago and Beachwood Brewing win the Large Brewpub and Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year 2014 (Photo (C) 2014 Jason E. Kaplan)

Julian Shrago and Beachwood Brewing win the Large Brewpub and Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year 2014 (Photo (C) 2014 Jason E. Kaplan)

Each year, the Brewers Association hosts the quintessential celebration of beer in the United States, the Great American Beer Festival (the "GABF") in Denver, Colorado.  Coinciding with the Festival, the Brewers Association organizes the world's largest commercial beer competition, awarding medals to beers across 90 different beer-style categories.  The competition is always fierce, and this year, entry was limited and structured in a way so as to maximize the number of breweries that could participate (for example, each brewery was limited to five beer entries).  All said and done, the competition included 1,309 participating breweries this year, with a total of 5,507 beer entries (that is one beer a day for fifteen years).

During the judging last week, a panel of 222 skilled industry professionals—think Mitch Steele, Shaun O'Sullivan, Lee Chase, et al—came together to award 268 medals to the beers that were exemplary to style and were determined to be deserving of Bronze, Silver, or Gold medal recognition.  The state of California boasts more than 450 breweries, and the California brewers saw success at the competition, bringing 46 medals in all back to the Golden State (44 medals if you do not count the two medals awarded to Pabst Brewing Co., purportedly from Los Angeles, CA).  The success of California's brewers was well balanced too, as awards were handed down across 36 different beer-style categories (again, 35 if you do not count the two medals awarded to Pabst for "American-Style Cream Ale").

As a huge proponent of California beer, and as someone who drinks predominantly fresh and local California beer, it was fantastic to see these breweries earn some recognition for the hard work that goes into brewing some world-class beer.  Here is a look at some of the stories behind California's 2014 GABF success...

San Diego Sweeps Up in Session Beers

There is perhaps nothing hotter or more trending in the beer industry these days than the "session" beer.  The "session" IPA is most likely the predominant example in this style category, with an onslaught of these beers being released lately from the big players: "Go To IPA" from Stone Brewing Company, "Easy Jack" from Firestone Walker Brewing Company, "Daytime" from Lagunitas Brewing Company, and "Nooner Session IPA" from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.  At the GABF Awards this year, San Diego demonstrated not only does it own this category, sweeping Bronze, Silver, and the Gold, but the brewers in San Diego proved that not every Session Beer needs to be an IPA.

Only one of the three winning beers in this Category was hop forward, the "Mosaic Session Ale" from Karl Strauss Brewing Company, winner of the Bronze medal.  For a brewery that has historically seen astronomical success with "Red Trolley" in competitions in the less glamorous Irish-Style Red Ale category, it was refreshing to see the brewery earn recognition for this beer in one of the more "sexier" style Categories.  The Silver medal winner, "Guillaume" from Ignacio "Nacho" Cervantes and the crew at Pizza Port Ocean Beach, is a beautifully balanced and crafted witbier that is herbal, airy, and delicious.  This beer is a marked departure from the "hop teas" that are often times the result of a brewery's attempt at a sessionable strength hoppy beer.  The Gold medal winner in the category absolutely puts the session IPA to bed, "Oatmeal Stout" from Benchmark Brewing Company.  This beer is what beer should be: complex, flavorful, full bodied, session strength (at 4.8% ABV), chocolate, bready, roasty, and beautiful.  Matt and Rachael Akin deserve every bit of recognition for this "life-changing" Oatmeal Stout.

The sweep of the Session Beer Category marked the first three of the fourteen medals ultimately awarded to San Diego breweries throughout the day, a tremendous accomplishment for one city in this venerable competition.  Interestingly, the Session Beer Category was also swept by California breweries last year in 2013, with Pizza Port Ocean Beach, 21st Amendment Brewery, and Kinetic Brewing Co. winning the Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals, respectively.  California is even home to its own Annual Session Beer Festival, hosted by Drake's Brewing Company each year in Northern California in San Leandro, California.  Look for California to continue to innovate and lead the way with Session Beer.

Napa Produces World-Class Wine, And California Brews World-Class Barley Wine

From one end of the ABV and flavor-profile side of the beer style spectrum to the other, the California brewers also swept the medals in the Barley Wine-Style Ale category.  The video game-inspired "Galaxian" from Bootlegger's Brewery in Fullerton, California was awarded the Bronze medal in the Category.  This American style barley wine is hop forward and boozy, coming in at 11% ABV.  Campbell Brewing Company in Campbell, California was awarded the Silver medal for their "Mastiff Barleywine."  This brewery also won a Gold medal in 2013 for their "Scottish Ale."  And, San Diego struck Gold again with AleSmith Brewing Company's "Old Numbskull" barley wine.  A year-round offering from AleSmith, Old Numbskull tends towards the American side of the beer style, with an assertive hop profile that supports a toffee malt sweetness.  This is a delicious beer that is terrific fresh but it also cellars and ages with the best of them.

Lager Brewing...in California (!?)

When you think about lager brewing in the United States, California is not necessarily the first brewing region that comes to mind.  Instead, you might think of the amazing lagers being brewed in Pennsylvania, at breweries like Victory Brewing Company or Troegs Craft Brewery.  You might think of Colorado breweries like Prost Brewing, an award winning German beer brewery in Denver.  But California brewers took home medals in the Pilsner, Vienna Lager, Dunkel, Dark Lager, and Baltic Porter styles.  If you are looking for an awesome example of an American brewed lager, you will likely find one being brewed in California.

In what might have been the most patently appropriate award of the day, "Pivo Pils" from Firestone Walker Brewing Company was awarded the Gold medal in the German-Style Pilsner Category.  Pivo Pils is the paradigmatic example of the new American Pilsner (think hoppy) and it epitomizes the clean, precise, spot-on brewing philosophy that Firestone Walker embraces with their line of clean beers (the Barrelworks program is another story in-and-of-itself).  Russian River Brewing Company, a brewery best known for sour beers and hoppy ales, was awarded the Silver medal in the same Category for its "STS Pils."

Other lager beer style winners from California included "Double Aught" from Bear Republic Brewing Company in Healdsburg, California in the Bohemian-Style Pilsner Category.  Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company won Gold for its "Danish Red Lager."  Rodger Davis at Faction Brewing Company was recognized with a Bronze medal for his Baltic-Style Porter, "Puddy Porter."  And an upstart brewery in Anaheim, California, Bottle Logic Brewing, was awarded a Gold medal in the American-Style Dark Lager category for "Lagerithm."  All-in-all, it was an impressive showing across the lager styles for California.

Multiple Breweries Winning Multiple Medals

In what is arguably one of the most difficult and stiff beer competitions in the world, it is an outstanding accomplishment to be awarded even just a single medal, alone.  In 2014, each brewery had the opportunity to enter only five beers into the competition, and with 5,507 entries total, those odds are not promising.  So to win multiple awards at this year's competition was a significant achievement, and California had multiple breweries pull this off.

Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits (the Scripps Ranch location, in San Diego) was awarded a Gold medal for their American-Style Pale Ale, "Grunion," and they also received a Silver for "Piper Down" in the Irish-Style Red Ale Category.  Incredibly, two other San Diego breweries also doubled down on medals—Pizza Port Ocean Beach (with a Silver for "Guillaume" and a Bronze for "La Flama Dorada") and Port Brewing Company (a Silver for "Hop 15" and a Bronze for "Shark Attack").

In addition to their Bronze medal for "Galaxian," Bootlegger's Brewery took another Bronze medal for "Rocco Red Ale in the American-Style Amber/Red Category.  High Water Brewing Company and Brewmaster Steve Altamari left Denver with two medals, a Gold for the insanely delicious "Campfire Stout" in the Specialty Beer Category and a Bronze for "Aphotic Imperial Porter" in the Other Strong Beer Category.  Perhaps one of the most underrated breweries in California, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company, earned both a Silver and a Gold.  And perhaps the most vaunted brewery in California, Russian River, won a Silver for "STS Pils" and a Bronze for "Pliny the Elder" (perhaps the most famous beer in the United States).

Julian and Beachwood Brewing

There was one other brewer from California to medal twice at the GABF competition this year, and Julian Shrago deserves a section all to his own.  In case you have not heard of Beachwood Brewing and Julian, they won the Large Brewpub and Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year award in 2013.  In 2013, Julian also medaled for "Foam Top" (Gold for Golden or Blonde Ale), "Kilgore Stout" (Gold for American-Style Stout), "Udder Love" (Silver for Sweet Stout or Cream Stout), "System of a Stout" (Bronze for Coffee Beer), and "Barrel Aged Full Metal Jacket" (Bronze for Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer).

This time around in 2014, Julian took home medals for "Mocha Machine" (Gold for Coffee Beer) and "Un Atout" (Silver for French- and Belgian-Style Saison).  He also repeated as the winner of the Large Brewpub and Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year.  This guy clearly knows what he is doing in the brewpub environment.  Including 2012's GABF competition, Julian has won nine GABF medals altogether, and the Champion Brewery Award of the year twice.  It's easy to say that Julian and Beachwood are leading the charge of the new-school of California brewers, and the Brewers Association and the GABF judges have thankfully noticed.

Last Call for GABF 2014

Overall, it was a tremendous showing for the state of California at the Great American Beer Festival in 2014.  As more and more breweries continue to open up in the state, the level of healthy competition and the overall quality of the beer being brewed in California will only continue to rise.  More and more brewers are realizing that if you want the acclaim and recognition, you need to brew alongside the likes of Russian River, Firestone Walker, Beachwood, Sierra Nevada, Anchor Brewing Company...

California is truly a state overflowing with award winning breweries and award winning beer.  Go enjoy a glass of your favorite Californian beer today

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