The Great American Beer Festival is upon us, and it brings an opportunity to try something new for many beer lovers. Whether that’s sipping a Sweetwater Brewing Company beer for those of us who live in Colorado, or trying one of Crooked Stave’s funky specialties if you’re from Maine, or even having Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery fame pour your sample, GABF is, for many beer enthusiasts, that “kid in a candy store” moment that we’ve all dreamed of.
However, the hype that some breweries receive leading up to the festival (justified or not) creates an opportunity for those willing to wonder off the beaten path. Sure, Cigar City Brewing makes amazing beer, but why not try that next booth over featuring a brewery no one has ever heard of? I’m certainly not discouraging you from stopping by the big draws that you may not be able to get in your home region. Instead, I’m encouraging you to seek out some of the smaller breweries – those that are taproom or local packaging only – that you most assuredly won’t be seeing anytime soon in your local beer case.
To help things along, we’ve put together a list of 10 breweries under 10 barrels that are worth trying out at this year’s festival. For easy identification, we’ve included the booth assignment with each brewery below.
BRU Handbuilt Ales (E3) – Taking the concept of a nanobrewery to perhaps a whole new level, BRU Handbuilt Ales launched in Boulder in the converted garage of founder Ian Clark on a half barrel system. Clark now has things running on a three barrel system and churning out pleasers like Citrum IPA with juniper and a Belgain Style Imperial Stout with Colorado peaches and bitter cocoa.
Fate Brewing (F5) – A relatively new entry into the growing Arizona craft beer scene, Fate Brewing (Ariz.) is not to be confused with Fate Brewing (Colo.). Yup, you guessed it – there was another naming conflict in craft beer. Anyway, the Arizona-based Fate operates on a seven barrel system that churns our a variety of beers ranging from the Super Session Ale and a Flanders Sour Brown to a Smoked Porter and an Imperial IPA.
The Commons Brewery (N3) – This Portland, Ore.,-based brewery garnered some attention last year for it’s Flemish Kiss, an American Pale Ale hit with a dose of brettanomyces bruxellensis, that took home a GABF Silver Medal for American-Style Brett Ale. Another of the brewery’s core beers – Urban Farmhouse Ale – has racked up awards from the Portland Tribune’s Best Beer of 2012 to a World Beer Cup Bronze Medal.
Laughing Sun Brewing Company (Pub21) – Located in the Brewpub Pavilion, Laughing Sun is the only brewery from North Dakota at this year’s festival. The brewpub has only been open for about six months, so it’s still working to accumulate a collection of awards, but this is a great chance to try out a relatively new brewery bringing the craft beer movement to North Dakota.
TRVE Brewing Co. (A23) – TRVE rocks, literally and figuratively. TRVE is Denver’s first heavy metal brewery and consistently pumps out a great product. Last GABF, TRVE showed up with one of my favorite festival beers – Prehistoric Dog, a Salted Wheat beer that is named after a Red Fang song. If you’re in town a day or two early and dig heavy metal, it would be well worth your while to squeeze in a taproom visit before you head home.
Piney River Brewing Company (T24) – Founded in 2010, Piney River Brewing Company aims to produce craft beers that celebrate life in the nearby Ozark Mountains. The brewery, which is located in an old barn now dubbed the BARn, started brewing on a 10 gallon SABCO before graduating to a seven barrel system in 2011. While Piney River makes some of the standard brews you expect in all breweries nowadays, its Sweet Potato Ale that sounds like an interesting take on the typical pumpkin inspired seasonal offering.
Strange Brewing Company (E30) – One of Colorado’s originators in the nanobrewry space, Strange Brewing Company just squeezes into our list with its 10 barrel system. Originally starting on a one barrel system, Strange has pulled in two GABF medals – one gold for the Gluten-Free Lemon Pale, and one bronze for its Dr. Strangelove Barleywine.
Wit’s End Brewing Company (A33) – Just down the street from Strange is another of Denver’s famous nanobreweries and possibly the only to claim its picture in the New York Times. The tiny brewery churns our slow beer for fast times, including a Belgian Oatmeal IPA named Wilford and Kitchen Sink Porter.
Cambridge Brewing Co. (P3) – Founded in 1989 the Cambridge Brewing Company is the oldest brewery-restaurant in the Boston area and currently plies its trade on 10 barrel system in Kendall Square just off the campus of MIT. CBC’s Summer Barleywine took home a GABF Gold Medal in 2008 in the Experimental Beers category, and its Heather Ale, an ale brewed with fresh heather flowers, is a multiple GABF medal winner in the Herb & Spice category.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery (B18) – Yes, I cheated. I’m aware that Dogfish is one of the biggest craft brewers in America, but it’s well known that Sam Calagione started Dogfish on the half barrel SABCO Brew Magic before building the brewery into what it is today. Who knows if any of the breweries above will become the next Dogfish, but wouldn’t it be cool to say you sampled its beer and talked with the owner/brewer before it hit it big?
Give the little guys a shot this week and you may find something worth talking about with your friends back home. What are some sub-10 barrel systems we should try this week?