Over a dozen L.A.-area craft brewers traveled to Denver last week to compete in the 30th annual Great American Beer Festival -- arguably the oldest and most prestigious national beer competition outside of Europe. This year, 526 breweries submitted 3,930 beers to be judged in 83 categories. And the event itself attracted 466 breweries, 2,375 beers (a GABF record), and nearly 50,000 attendees. On Saturday, the three-day festival concluded with the announcement of this year's 84 gold medal winners. Among the sixteen or so local brewers who entered the competition, only two came away with GABF gold: The Bruery and TAPS Fish House & Brewery -- both from North Orange County.
Eagle Rock Brewery of Atwater Village entered the competition for the second time this year -- the only commercial brewery to ever represent the City of Los Angeles at GABF. Last year, Eagle Rock brought attention to L.A.'s burgeoning craft beer scene when it won GABF gold, taking top honors in the festival's fourth annual Pro-Am competition with its Red Velvet, an Imperial Red Ale brewed in collaboration with local homebrewer Donny Hummel.
Eagle Rock brought Red Velvet back again this year, entering it in the Imperial Red Ale category. The young brewery also brought its Solidarity (English-Style Dark Mild Ale), Revolution (American-Style Pale Ale), Manifesto (Belgian-Style Witbier), Populist (American-Style India Pale Ale), Stimulus (Coffee Beer), Yearling (Belgian-Style Flanders Red Ale), Jubilee (Herb and Spice Beer), and Dortmunder (Pro-Am: Dortmunder or German-Style Oktoberfest). Unfortunately, none of its beers placed among the top three in any of those nine categories.
But the two local breweries that did win medals at this year's event did so in multiple categories. In addition to wining gold with Papier in the Old Ale or Strong Ale category, Placentia's Bruery took silver in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer and the German-Style Sour Ale categories with The Wanderer and Hottenroth Berliner Weisse respectively. Those three medals brought the three-year old brewery's all-time GABF medal count up to four (they won gold last year with Oude Tart in the Belgian-Style Lambic or Sour Ale category).
TAPS Fish House & Brewery (with two locations: a primary location in Brea, and a secondary location in Corona) had a strong showing once again this year, further solidifying its place as the L.A.-area's GABF medal monarch. In addition to the gold medal win in the German-Style Schwarzbier category, TAPS and brewmaster Victor Novak brought home two silver medals -- one for their Altbier in the German-Style Altbier category, and one for their Biere de Garde in the more general Belgian- and French-Style Ale category. They also took home the award for Brewpub Group and Brewpub Group Brewer of the Year for the second year in a row. This weekend's wins brought TAPS' all-time GABF medal count up to 12, and its gold medal count up to 5.
"I'm massively gratified on the Biere de Garde win," Novak told us over the phone. "I've found that the best way to brew true to style is to go to the source -- not to drink the beer here in the bottle, but there at the brewery. Two years ago, I traveled to northern France and tasted the Biere de Garde at La Choulette near the Belgian border, came back, and refined the recipe. Winning silver was a huge surprise just because it's an interesting category. It's always harder to win in a broad category because you can make the best Biere de Garde, but three other brewers might really nail three completely different beer styles, and take the gold, silver, and bronze."
TAPS' ongoing GABF domination should come as no surprise. Novak is renowned for brewing traditional Old World beers extraordinarily true to style. So when you place him in a competition that judges beers by how well they conform to established style guidelines, he's practically guaranteed to excel. And while the more experimental Bruery remains a perennial favorite among the region's beer geeks, its cult status makes this year's trifecta that much more surprising; At a competition that values style conformity, you'd expect the more traditional brewer to fare better, and the more experimental brewer to fare worse.
That's why, when we spoke to Benjamin Weiss -- The Bruery's Sales & Marketing Manager -- prior to the competition, he downplayed his own expectations going into GABF.
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"Our beers are pretty much all brewed out of style," he said. "So we enter [GABF] without too much hope of winning, unfortunately. The winning beers are prime examples of certain styles, not just overall good beers. So adding Brett [Brettanomyces -- a wild yeast that creates a sour flavor in beer] to our Berliner Weisse, or making a stout that is 18.3% alcohol sort of messes with our chances. We did win a gold medal with Oude Tart last year, however. That's one of the few beers we make that is fairly traditional."
Surprising, then, that The Bruery's Hottenroth Berliner Weisse took silver at this year's competition. The Bruery's CEO and Founder, Patrick Rue, did seem pleasantly surprised, but not at all shocked.
"We've submitted Hottenroth three or four times before," Rue said. "And each year the Brett always comes out as being the issue. This year we actually had four different batches to choose from, and we went with the cleanest, most sour batch with the least Brett. So that was good."
All but one of this year's GABF award-winning L.A.-area brews are available locally, though your best bet is to follow Novak's advice, and seek them out at the source. The Bruery's Placentia tasting room is open every Friday and Saturday between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m., and every Sunday between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. They also have an Old Towne Orange bottle shop and tasting room -- The Bruery Provisions -- that's open every Monday and Tuesday between 12 p.m. and 8 p.m., every Wednesday and Thursday between 12 p.m. and 10 p.m., every Friday between 12 p.m. and 12 a.m., every Saturday between 11 a.m. and 12 a.m., and every Sunday between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. TAPS Fish House & Brewery's Brea location is open ever day between 11 a.m. and 11:30 p.m.