THE GREAT American Beer Festival awards are such a tease. Like brazen tarts, the judges tempt us time and again with medals for seductive, mouthwatering brands that just beg you to take a drink.
But we can only look, never taste.
These award-winners are one-offs. Brewpub seasonals. Special blends.
They come and go, peeking out at you like a Maxim magazine nip-slip.
Beers like Two Brothers Sour Beer #2, from Illinois, named the best wood-aged beer in America.
I’m sure it’s a fine beer; it outpolled more than 100 other entries in the category. But other than the lucky ones who enjoyed it at the three-day Denver festival last week, I’m not sure anyone has ever had it in his mouth.
There’s no sign of the beer on the brewery’s website. It has never been reviewed by any blog or online rating site. Untappd, the smartphone beer-tasting app, shows a grand total of 17 people have registered the sour – all of them apparently at one of the GABF’s public sessions.
Two Brothers brewed so little of it, they didn’t bother to give it a real name.
And so it goes with so many others.
Oddball beers, like Dogfish Head Choc Lobster, a silver medalist made with cocoa and lobsters that’s available only a few weeks each summer in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
Or rare releases, like Broken Tooth Darth Delirium, a bold, Belgian-style strong dark ale that you’d taste only if you had a dogsled and a team of Huskies that could make it to Anchorage in the middle of February.
“It’s kind of frustrating,” said Gene Muller, founder and general manager of South Jersey’s Flying Fish Brewery. “It’s like, ‘Hey this beer just won a gold medal – and you can’t have it! ‘ “
Which makes this year’s Philadelphia-area award winners an exception. Most of the region’s 15 medalists are either widely distributed or available year-round on tap, offering beer enthusiasts a no-holds-barred, full-frontal view.
Three in particular are so exposed, in fact, many of us no doubt take them for granted. Their awards this year are a sign that they deserve a new look.
Flying Fish HopFish: Gold medal, classic English-style pale ale.
The top-selling brand at Flying Fish is not one of those in-your-face California IPAs, Muller readily acknowledges. “We don’t make any pretensions that it has any kind of West Coast hopping, so don’t stand it next to a Sierra Nevada Torpedo or Stone IPA. “
Instead, judge it as a more traditional, balanced English-style IPA, with an American, English and German malt bill and generous dry-hopping for delicate aroma.
The medal was no surprise to me, and not just because the ale also won a bronze medal at the World Beer Cup last spring. Flying Fish has stepped up its game across the board since moving to its new facility in Somerdale, N.J., with all of its brands exhibiting more depth and complexity.
Muller predicts that it will only get better as head brewer Barry Holsten continues to fine-tune the facility’s high-tech equipment with lab-quality analysis of samples.
Victory Golden Monkey: Gold medal, Belgian-style tripel.
A skeptic would guess that Monkey is Victory’s No. 1 seller because it appeals to young drinkers seeking a big bang for their buck. A 9.5 percent alcohol cortex cleanser at 12 bucks a sixpack is a darn good bargain.
But is it really that good?
A medal in the always competitive tripel category – one that attracts the likes of Weyerbacher Merry Monks, Allagash Tripel and Russian River Damnation – should put doubts to rest. While it may be a bit boozy for some, its fruity sweetness is complemented with a peppery bite and relatively dry finish.
Remarkably, this is Victory’s first medal for an ale. Its previous honors came to a pair of lagers, Prima Pils and Festbier, which are closer to the brewery’s German roots.
Troegs Troegenator Double Bock: Gold medal, bock.
Troegs owns this category with seven – yes, seven – medals since 2006. Outside of Alaskan Smoked Porter (which has been around since the invention of smoke), I can’t think of any single brand that has dominated so thoroughly at GABF.
If you’re from Philly, it’s easy to take Troegenator for granted. So step back and consider:
1. Troegenator is the Hershey brewery’s second-biggest seller (behind Perpetual IPA). In these hop-centric days, it’s a rare brewery that depends so heavily on beer drinkers’ demand for a malt bomb. (And that includes Spoetzl, of Texas, whose Shiner is a bock in name only.)
2. It’s available year-round. The rest of the world has to wait till spring to enjoy double bock. We don’t.
3. It comes in 16-ounce cans. Pounders. That’s just unheard of for a beer of this quality.