The debate between the beer scenes in Oregon and Colorado has overflowed for years, and word of mouth continues to fall short of an explanation as to which one is the best. That's because an open-minded alcoholic craves more than just hearsay, which may be why the Great American Beer Festival has become so epic. Continue reading for our take on the booze feud.
Personal bias: I'm from the south and moved to Colorado to work in the craft beer industry; and did so for five years; during which time I also visited friends in Oregon; and enjoyed myself quite a bit there beer-wise.
For an inquisitive beer drinker, GABF seems to be the perfect opportunity to resolve such matters. But upon entering the fest, you're immediately faced with an overwhelming conundrum -- how do you sip through it and still maintain the peace of mind to determine anything? I was told to have a plan, and mine was to tackle a long-standing argument between two well-established beer states. But after meandering through the westerrn region of the massive layout for, like, an hour (without a pour), I began to realize how counterproductive that is.
For those who have never witnessed GABF, know this: It's fucking nuts.
So, I had to rely on instinct and convenience for my assignment; which, in retrospect, is a pretty fair perspective. I decided to visit the most reputable (in my mind) booths from both Oregon and Colorado, as well as one from each state that I was unfamiliar with, and take notes on my findings. Herewith is my account...and conclusion.
First up was Deschutes from Oregon, because it was the closest station to quench my thirst. I've always loved this brewery, and I hoped it was pouring something special for the fest. (It wasn't, really.) But I grabbed a splash of the Chainbreaker: A "white" IPA brewed with wheat and spices that had a nice, fruity finish. The two-ounce analysis: interesting.
Portland's Bridgeport Brewery was close by and also not showcasing anything particularly intriguing. I settled on the Hop Harvest: a fresh-hopped pilsner that was a total let down -- watery, bland, with very little hop profile. At this point, Oregon was definitely losing the battle.
And then to Full Sail, probably my favorite Oregon-based, nationally distributed brewery. I stole two sips of beer there -- a quaffable and smoky black bock; and a two-year-old Black Gold imperial stout. The stout is oak-aged, and one of the best around, and I was, at last, thoroughly impresssed.
I stumbled upon Hop Works, an "urban" brewery from Portland specializing in organic beers, because of the look of its booth. I hadn't heard much about it, but the clumsy volunteer attempted to enlighten me and offered a taste of Hop Works's double IPA. It was lackluster in the hops department and quite boring considering its alcohol content, unfortunately.
Oregon's Rogue Brewery happens to be one of the largest craft breweries in the country, but I think it's safe to say that most beer nerds don't hold that against it. At least I don't. The volunteers at the table recommended its long-standing chocolate stout, which is a good example of why Rogue skirts the big-brewery hate. It's a solid, well-executed version of what I consider to be a very difficult style.
Speaking of huge craft breweries, the display at New Belgium's table welcomed me to the Colorado-side of the debate, where I muscled through the crowd to grab a sample of its fresh-hopped ale. Here's a quote from my notes: "Nice!" Despite what purists might say about a certain bike-themed beer from this hugely-succesful brewery, it's hard to deny that New Belgium definitely knows what it's doing.
Fair warning: I used to work at Great Divide and was considering avoiding its beers to be completely objective. But since the downtown establishment was a trailblazer in Denver's neighborhood brewery movement, and because it makes a chocolate stout that I could compare to Rogue's, I stopped by and visited with old colleagues. Of course the chocolate Yeti was good, but I was more impressed with the setup -- which, from what I could tell, was fully staffed by brewery reps.
If you kidnapped my girlfriend and made me choose a favorite Colorado brewery to get her back, I would most likely say Odell's and feel good about it. As of this writing, I can't say I've had a bad beer from the brewery. But if you also required the name of the sour brown ale I enjoyed at its booth, I'd be in serious trouble. At any rate, it was balanced and had a wonderful mouth feel, like everything from the Fort Collins outlet.
I had yet to taste a beer from Trve Brewing -- which opened over the summer on South Broadway -- and was very much looking forward to visiting its station. Upon arrival, I was quickly offered a sample of the Prehistoric Dog: "an American wheat beer with Hawaiian black lava salt and coriander." The beer was subtle and quite pleasant, as was the entire staff behind the table.
Avery Brewing Co. was my last stop at the festival -- which comes to a close way sooner than you might think. Even before I lived here, I knew that the Boulder brewery was a must-taste. At this point in the night, it's likely all of the brewery staff members were more than ready to break down their pouring station and get hammered themselves before the next session. But owner Adam Avery was surprisingly willing to keep the beer flowing, which allowed me to steal a few moments to pick his brain regarding the predicament of naming Colorado or Oregon as the definitive beer state (as I sipped on the brewery's lovely, tart and medal-worthy Oud Floris).
"I think Oregon is going to kick our ass," he said as I looked at him in astonishment. "We're talking about college sports, right?" He flashed a grin and went back to pouring beer for the rest of the eager masses -- at which point I realized what a ridiculous question I had just posed and called my girlfriend to ask for a ride home.
And while waiting outside the Colorado Convention Center for her, I concluded that the inexplicable explosion of crafted beer in this country needs no scrutiny, no matter what region. There's only cause for celebration, which is what the Great American Beer Festival is essentially all about.
But I still can't wait to find out how which state wins more medals.
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