Breaking down the 2015 GABF medalists

Awards were handed out this past weekend at the Great American Beer Festival.  I was working at home on my computer and decided to put the live feed on in the background.  It was surprisingly compelling and before long before I wasn’t getting much work done.

In total there were 6,647 beers entered in the competition by 1552 breweries from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Out of that sea of beer only 275 beers, roughly 4%, were recognized with a medal.  Here are some random thoughts on the beers, breweries and styles that showed up in the awards. A full list of the winners can be found by clicking here.


Bounty for the Buckeye State

Thing started off well for Columbus when Elevator scored the very first medal given out at the awards ceremony, a bronze for Mogabi Wheat in the American-style Wheat Beer category. Unfortunately 274 medals later the medal count for central Ohio breweries was still stuck at one.  Nonetheless it was a good year for Ohio with a record setting total of 10 medals coming back to the Buckeye state. The most impressive win came in the highly competitive Imperial IPA category where Fathead’s Hop Juju took home the gold.  That makes three years in a row that Ohio has won gold in that category (CBC Creeper in 2014 and Hop Juju in 2013).  In fact when you throw in the gold medal that Fathead’s Portland Brewpub won (Blitzkrieg Bock, Rye Beer Category) that’s an impressive haul of five medals for Fathead’s, matched only by California’s Firestone Walker.  Although Fathead’s won four gold medals and Firestone Walker only two.

White Rajah’s bronze medal means in the American-style IPA category means that for the second year in a row an Ohio beer medaled in the most competitive category of all (CBC Bodhi took bronze in that category last year).  JAFB medaled for the second year in a row, an impressive feat for the small but awesome brewery in Wooster. Congratulations to all of the winners.

  • Hop Juju, Fathead’s Brewery (Gold Medal, Imperial IPA)
  • Bonehead Imperial Red, Fathead’s Brewery (Gold Medal, Double Red Ale)
  • Midnight Moonlight, Fathead’s Brewery (Gold Medal, American style Black Ale)
  • Black Eagle Gratzer, Platform Beer Co. (Gold Medal, Historical Beer)
  • Rain Delay IPA, JAFB (Silver Medal, International-Style Pale Ale)
  • Sherry Ink, Rhinegeist (Silver Medal, Barrel-aged Strong Stout)
  • Black Knight, Fathead’s Brewery (Silver Medal, German-style Schwartzbier)
  • White Rajah, Brew Kettle (Bronze Medal, American-style IPA)
  • Mogabi Hoppy Wheat, Elevator Brewing (Bronze Medal, American-style Wheat Beer)
  • Smokie Robbins, Lagerheads Brewing (Bronze Medal, Smoke Beer)

Only five states won more medals (California-67, Colorado-36, Oregon-19, Texas-15 and Washington-13), but California’s medal count reminds us that we still have room for improvement.  In terms of less populated states doing well you have to tip your hat to Indiana with 10 medals (none by Three Floyds) and Wyoming with 3 medals.  On the other side of the ledger eight states were shut out of the medals altogether (Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah). I haven’t added it up but when it comes to beer it seems like the blue states are outperforming the red states.  Could this be an overlooked sign of a Bernie Sanders presidency?

FatHeads Taphandles

The Evolution of Style

Every year there are subtle changes in the style categories, new styles appear and unpopular ones are phased out.  There is a steady creep toward more styles rather than fewer. This year there were 92 different style categories, an increase of two from the previous year.  Is it just a coincidence that 92 is also the atomic number of uranium the heaviest naturally occurring element on planet Earth, or have we finally reached the magic number of sensible beer styles?

The five most popular styles based on number of entries are:

  1. American Style IPA – 336 entries
  2. Imperial IPA – 208 entries
  3. Wood and Barrel Aged Strong Beer – 179 entries

No big surprises here.  Winning a medal in one of these categories is like picking up the best actor/actress award at the Oscars.  This year the winners were Revolver IPA (BNS Brewing, Santee, CA), Hop Juju (Fatheads, North Olmstead, OH), and Melange A Trois (Nebraska Brewing, La Vista, NE).

The three least popular styles based on number of entries are:

  1. American Dark Lager – 21 entries
  2. Gluten-free Beer – 24 entries
  3. German-style Doppelbock or Eisbock – 25 entries

Winning a medal in one of these categories is sort of like getting the Oscar for foreign language animated short.  Not that there’s anything wrong with sipping a gluten-free beer while watching the classic animated Russian short film Lavatory Lovestory (that’s a real film, I’m not making that up).

Going beyond the extremes of most and least popular, a closer look at other categories offers an interesting glimpse at prevailing trends in the world of American Craft Beer.

  • This was the first year Session IPA was a category and there were 161 entries, the fourth most of any style category.
  • In only its second year of existence, there were 149 entries in the coffee beer category.  When you add in 142 herb and spice beers, 79 chili beers, 65 chocolate beers, 56 pumpkin beers, 52 honey beers, and the various categories of fruit beer that’s a lot of adjuncts.  It’s safe to say the Reinheitsgebot is out the window.
  • While putting anything and everything into beer is on the rise that’s not to say German beers have fallen out of style.  In fact there was a surge in the popularity of some German-styles. There were 111 entries in the German-style sour category (read Berliner Weiss and Gose) up from 46 in 2013.  There were also 111 entries in the Kölsch category more than double the 51 entries in 2013.  Finally the number of entries in the German-style Pilsner category increased from 56 to 100 in just two years, a 79% increase.
  • The four categories of wood or barrel-aged beer went from 331 entries in 2013, to 513 in 2015 a 55% increase.  There’s a reason why whiskey barrels are becoming a commodity in short supply.
  • Can anyone tell me why there are separate categories for double red ales and imperial red ales?

scoresheet_king ipa

What’s in a name

Judging at the GABF is all done double blind so having a cool name doesn’t help your chances of winning one iota.  Despite that fact the list of winners contained some names that are so awesome they shouldn’t be overlooked.  Here are some of my favorites

  • Concrete Dinosaur (Silver Medal Rye Beer, Right Brain Brewing, Michigan)
  • Melt My Brain (Silver Medal Experimental Beer, Short’s Brewing, Michigan)
  • Ska Face (Bronze Medal Barrel Aged Strong Beer, Ska Brewing, Colorado)
  • Shower Beer (Gold Medal Bohemian Style Pilsner, Champion Brewing, Virginia)
  • Cherry Busey (Bronze Medal Belgian-style Fruit Beer, Sun King Brewing, Indiana)
  • Lagerithm (Gold Medal American-style Dark Lager, Bottle Logic, California)
  • Blitzkrieg Bock (Gold Medal Rye Beer, Fathead’s Brewpub, Portland)
  • Rock Out with Maibock Out (Silver Medal Bock beer, Hailstorm Brewing, Illinois)

The best brewery name may have been Lickinghole Creek Brewing out of Goochland, VA. Not the most obvious brewery to medal in the Chili beer category.

Sick of pumpkin beer

Every now and again the judges decide that no beer is worthy of the gold medal in a given category.  This year that only happened in one category, Pumpkin beer, confirming what most of us already know.

Pumpkin Beers 2

Think All Mass Produced Lagers Taste Alike?

Back when I was an undergrad in Idaho we used to have a beer vending machine in the basement. We weren’t exactly stocking it with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale either, just the bargain stuff like Schafer, Keystone, Hamm’s, or this year’s gold and silver medalists in the American-style Cream Ale category—Rainier and Olympia (both made by Pabst these days).  Just to keep people guessing we would sometimes mix in a 12 pack of something “premium” like the gold medal winning beer in the American-style Lager or Light-Lager category, Coors Banquet Beer.  Each category had over 50 entries so it’s fair to assume the big boys had to beat out a number of smaller craft brewing entries to take home the gold. Is it surprising that no craft brewery can make a cream ale better than Rainier or Olympia? I have to say it is to me, maybe we should give respect where it’s due.

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