Four of Colorado's biggest and best-known craft brewers, Avery, Breckenridge, Odell and Oskar Blues, were shut out of last month's Great American Beer Festival awards ceremony, while several other major brewers in the state barely made the cut.
In fact, of the 41 medals awarded to Colorado beer makers, Odell, Avery, New Belgium, Breckenridge, Great Divide, Oskar Blues, Boulder Beer, Left Hand and Ska took home only five between them: two golds, two silvers and a bronze.
The lack of hardware among these mainstays opened the doors for some smaller breweries like Yak & Yeti, Rockyard, Equinox, Del Norte and Dillon Dam.
But the biggest winners in Colorado were the three craft-beer-styled breweries owned by MillerCoors and its new subsidiary, Tenth and Blake: Blue Moon Brewing, which won Large Brewing Company of the Year and two medals; the Sandlot at Coors Field, which won three medals; and AC Golden Brewing in Golden, which also took home three medals.
And while the beer geeks who make the beer at these places are just as good at their trade as the guys who toil away in hip waders at independently owned breweries, the results seem to contradict the goals of the Boulder-based Brewers Association, an organization that represents small craft breweries -- sometimes at the expense of mega brewers. But festival director Nancy Johnson says that's not the case. "Our goal is to pitch a big tent. If we had different rules for different sized breweries, it wouldn't make for an even playing field."
Also awkward is the fact that several of the beers that won have only rarely been sold commercially -- something that is required of every beer entered into the competition.
AC Golden, which is a tiny microbrewery located deep within the massive Coors plant in Golden, runs itself as an independent business, but its purpose is to serve as a beer incubator for MillerCoors, and it has access to some of the world's foremost beer experts.
Only three of its products are commercially available on a regular basis: Colorado Native, Herman Joseph's Private Reserve and Winterfest. The rest, including its award-winning schwartzbier and its dunkel, were made in limited batches in the summer of 2009 and sold only to Falling Rock Taphouse in Denver or the Barking Goat in Castle Rock.
"We don't police that. We are not going to verify 3,500 beers. But if the question comes up, we will go to breweries and ask them," Johnson says.
In fact, Johnson did ask Blue Moon when and where it sold its Chardonnay Blonde, which won the gold in the fruit beer category this year, and discovered that it was first brewed in 1996 at the Sandlot in Coors Field and his been sold there in limited quantities as well as at Falling Rock (it also won a silver medal at the 2006 GABF).
For its part, the Sandlot is only open 81 days a year, during Rockies home games, but the brewery operates year-round and occasionally offers its beers for sale at Falling Rock.
"Often I think we do not get a fair shake because of our ownership," says Sandlot brewer John Legnard. "In reality, we brew great beer in small batches." The Sandlot has won 36 GABF medals since 1995, "one of the best showings in the country over that time frame, but some folks still dismiss what we do as 'big corporate brewing.'
"I say drink the beer and judge the beer -- not who owns us," he adds.
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Johnson says that if the Brewers Association notices a trend in which breweries are skirting the rules, the organization will look into it. "We are always looking at eligibility rules, but to be honest, the small brewers take advantage of this more than the large brewers."
For instance, some beers are only served in tasting rooms while others, like Alaskan Brewing's 2001 Smoked Porter, "haven't been sold in meaningful quantities in years.
True, and while it could be argued that the Yak and Yeti -- which won the gold for its Himalayan IPA in the highly competitive American-style strong pale ale category -- makes less beer in a year than the Sandlot serves during a single extra-innings Rockies Game, the Yak is a small business and certainly more representative of the Brewers Association's membership.
But the Yak's medal goes to show that anyone can win any time, Johnson says. "It's no fun if it's always the same breweries winning, especially with so many breweries doing neat things now. It's always interesting to see the results, year after year."