East vs. West at the Great American Beer Festival

Let’s face it. For all of its prestige, for all of its variety, for all of its cachet, it's hard work to have fun at the Great American Beer Festival.

There are lines to get in, lines at many of the beer stands, and masses of people every way you turn. You only get one ounce of beer at each stop and it’s impossible to chat with anyone from the breweries since a) most of the pouring staff are local volunteers who know nothing about what they are pouring, and b) there are three drunk guys in hops hats and pretzel necklaces urging you to move your ass out of the way so that they can get a beer, too – and three more guys with hops hats and pretzel necklaces behind them.

No, the Great American Beer Festival is more of a labor of love. It’s something you do because you enjoy beer, because you want to try brews that typically aren’t available locally and you want to find out what kind of crazy concoctions are being brewed beyond Colorado’s borders. It’s also something you do to make beer-loving friends who live in other states jealous. And there's a lot for them to envy here in Colorado.

Here’s what I discovered this year:

With few exceptions, there’s really no reason to venture any further east than Papillion, Nebraska, because the best beers in the nation – maybe the world -- are made in Colorado, California, Alaska, Oregon and rest of the West.

Sure, Delaware’s Dogfish Head makes great beers, and the line was ridiculously long to try one. Luckily for square staters, several of this brewery’s beers can be found on liquor store shelves and at bar taps around town. Sam Adams is good, too, and ubiquitous (they also had a sweet but tasty Belgian Dubbel I’d never tried before, poured by staffers in monk outfits). I’ve heard that New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewing Company is quite good, but it wasn’t at the festival.

But generally, I just didn’t get down with the East Coast (and by the East Coast, I mean anything on the other side of the Mississippi). Among the beers I tried was Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Brewing’s Celtic Rose (disgusting) and milk stout (average). What is the Celtic Rose? I asked the pourer. “Six or seven people have asked me that, and I can’t tell you,” he said. Okay. “Maybe you can tell me after you drink it.” Nope. I tried something that I think was the Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyn Blast, but the possibly tipsy pourer didn’t seem to know for sure. And it didn’t taste good, anyway. Sorry, Brooklyn. And there was a not-so-good black ale from Haverhill Brewing in Massachusetts.

On the other hand, California turned in a typically magnificent performance. Breweries like Stone, Sierra Nevada, Anderson Valley, Green Flash, Ballast Point, Mission Brewing, Port Brewing, Firestone Walker and Oggi’s make incredibly good beers.

So do the dozens of quality beer makers in Colorado, of course -- and I don't have to wait in lines to try them at local brewpubs.

Props also go out to the Nebraska Brewing Company in the aforementioned Papillion, a suburb of Omaha, according to googlemaps. As I headed out into the cold evening, I wanted to try one last beer, one from someplace I will most likely never go.

NBR seemed to fill the bill. I tried the brewery’s IPA and its Rye IPA – both were great. Nice job, Nebraska. Who knew? – Jonathan Shikes

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes