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Oct. 17, 2008 | Leaving the comfort zone at the Great American Beer Festival
"A KELLERBIER from Texas?"
Bill Covaleski, president of Downingtown's Victory Brewing, was shaking his head in disbelief following the awards ceremony at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.
A kellerbier, or cellar beer, is a smooth, cloudy, unfiltered German-style lager, produced by exceedingly few craft brewers, mainly in the East and Midwest.
Everybody got a laugh when the judges announced the most politically incorrect beer name of the festival, the silver medalist Hell in Keller from Uncle Billy's Brew & Que in Austin.
But when the chuckles subsided, beer fans noticed that Bubba had swept the category: Gold went to Fredericksburg Brewing in central Texas and bronze was awarded to Chama River Brewing, of New Mexico.
"The craft brewing bar has been raised," Covaleski said. "We're starting to see breweries delve into styles they wouldn't normally pursue."
Mark Edelson, head of brewing operations at the suburban Iron Hill brewpub chain, had the same reaction: "Craft brewing is getting better everywhere. We're seeing breweries step out of their comfort zone."
There was evidence of the trend across the vast convention center floor where 46,000 beer drinkers sipped more than 2,000 different brews:
-Firestone Walker, a renowned California ale brewery that dominated the pale ale categories, also won a medal with a malty Vienna-style lager.
-Bear Republic, known mainly for its hoppy ales and meaty stouts, won a bronze for its clear Bohemian-style pilsner and another for an easy-drinking amber lager.
-Alaskan Brewing, whose rep was earned with its "manly" porters and bitters, won silver for its "girly" raspberry wheat.
-Locally, Stewart's Brewing in Bear, Del., known mainly for beefy lagers and strong ales, won gold for its delicate kolsch.
Some things don't change:
-Pennsylvania dominated with its German-style pilsners (Penn Kaiser took gold, Victory Prima Pils got bronze).
- Iron Hill, which has excelled with its lambics, won two more with its Lambic de Hill and Cassis de Hill.
-Dogfish Head, known for unique (OK, bizarre) varieties, hit the trifecta with medals for its unclassifiable Pangaea, Palo Santo Marron and Red & White ales.
-And, as usual, I "sampled" too much.
The Philadelphia area had its best showing, with 17 medals. Iron Hill brought home six of them, giving the seven-pub chain 27 total GABF medals, the most for any local brewery (Stoudt's, with one brewery, has 26). (You can see the list of locals at Beer Radar.)
Additionally, the festival also named area beer writer Lew Bryson its trade and specialty print journalist of the year, the third straight year a Philly writer has brought home the award.
No one asked me, but here are some of my own awards:
-Longest line: For New Glarus, whose beers are sold only in Wisconsin. Most were hoping for a sample of its Raspberry Tart.
-Warmest feelings: For Cherry Hill's Flying Fish, which finally won its first GABF medal, a silver for its Belgian Style Dubbel. It's a long time coming for founder Gene Muller, who was inspired to launch his brewery after a 1993 visit to the GABF.
-Best beer names: Miami Weiss and Organic Pompous Ass IPA from Orlando Brewing, Legacy Dear Abbey Dubbel and my favorite, Yep, Still Boneheads pilsner from Denver's Sandlot brewpub.
-Biggest surprise: The tart Grand Cru from Upstream Brewing in Nebraska. While this funky, complex Belgian-style ale from the Plains didn't win any medals (the brewery's Gueuze-Lambic took a silver), I found myself recommending it to every beer geek I met in Denver.
-Biggest surprise (local division): Sly Fox Rauch Bier. The fiery beer from Phoenixville took gold and smoked perennial favorite Alaskan Smoked Porter.
-Biggest surprise (macro division). Coors Pre-Prohibition Lager, discovered while watching the Phillies win Game 1 on the widescreens at the Coors booth. It was golden with much more flavor than the watery stuff they bottle for the masses.
-State to watch: Michigan. The Philadelphia region already sees several excellent varieties from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, including Jolly Pumpkin, Arcadia, Founders and New Holland. I spent an hour sampling extraordinary brews from smaller guys, including Short's, Redwood and Detroit Brewing. Dark Horse, from Marshall, Mich., paced the bunch with its strong (10.5 percent alcohol) imperial stout, called Plead the 5th.
_ Best T-shirt: The crew from Iron Hill declared, "Our beer snobs can beat up your wine snobs."
Notes from back home