As a food writer first and foremost, I don’t go to the Great American Beer Festival for the booze so much as for the grub in the booze.
Pretzel stouts, macadamia nut porters, kiwi and taro-root India Pale Ales, a kumquat-honey double wit and a Märzen made with grits — for me, the Brewers Association’s flagship event, held annually in the fall in Denver, is a multicourse banquet writ liquid.
Granted, the more experimental the adjunct is, the harder the beer generally is to make and/or sell. Take Two Roads’ Urban Funk, a zingy wild ale the Connecticut brewery made with yeast that the Sacred Heart University biology department captured during Hurricane Sandy, of all things. Most of the following, then, are one-offs or highly limited releases with little to no distribution. So consider this your inspiration for adopting the slogan “Must-Have Beer, Will Travel.”
The meat and seafood counter
Champion Clam Bake Gose and Mas Cerveza: Here’s Gose in a nutshell: a sour wheat beer originating in Germany that’s brewed with a touch of salt as well as coriander. Here’s Gose in a clamshell: delicious. Down in Charlottesville, Va., Champion head brewer Hunter Smith starts with the recipe for his Face Eater Gose but eschews the pink Himalayan sea salt he usually adds to the kettle in favor of whole Rappahannock Olde Salt clams, which lend a briny grace note to the light-bodied, gently tart base. Just for kicks, there are hemp seeds in the mash too.
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Smith has also collaborated with chef Tomas Rahal of Charlottesville’s Mas Tapas to make a beer tinged with the flavors of Spain — specifically the bones from one of the world’s great hams, jamón ibérico, and smoked pimentón (paprika) as well as smoked gray sea salt. The result: a distinctly savory and, yes, smoky but smooth ale that, at the festival’s Farm to Table Pavilion, beautifully complemented pan con tomate topped with sliced octopus, courtesy of Boulder, Colo., restaurant Basta.
Dogfish Head Choc Lobster: Its reputation for nuttiness notwithstanding, this Delaware pioneer hardly broke virgin ground when it began dropping Maine lobsters and cocoa powder into the boil for a robust porter two years ago. After all, chocolate porters and oyster stouts made with their namesake ingredients aren’t unheard of, and neither are dishes that pair shellfish with sweet elements like vanilla. That said, this summertime brewpub exclusive isn’t sweet at all. Imagine adding a splash of cocoa to some watered-down coffee and then drinking it in the proximity of sea spray. Somehow — and I’m honestly not sure how — it’s better than it sounds.
Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout: Speaking of oyster stout — this isn’t. Denver’s craft granddaddy took to brewing with roasted bull’s balls as an April Fool’s joke in 2012, and the response was such that it now produces a small batch once or twice a year. The bourbon barrel-aged version I tried at the festival had all the roasty, toasty, moderately creamy qualities you’d expect, with the bonus of a mellow yet unmistakable meaty savor.
Moody Tongue Cold-Pressed Paw Paw Belgian: What Jared Rouben, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef behind Chicago’s few-months-old “culinary brewery,” calls the “tropical fruit of the Midwest” — the indigenous, commercially scarce paw paw — rightly elicits comparisons to mango and papaya. In this ale, however, it shows as more crisp than juicy, more fragrant than downright fruity. (Better yet, Rouben’s also about to release — get this — a Shaved Black-Truffle Pilsner.)
Piney River Sweet Potato Ale: If you’ve had it up to here with pumpkin beer, this Missouri-made alternative could be your new jam. Forget candied “yam” — the palate is freshly rootsy rather than overly reliant on baking spice, while the initially creamy mouth feel finishes as crisp as the roasted skin of the real thing.
Jailbreak Made Wit Basil: Basil seemed to be the herb du jour at the festival, popping up at several booths, but this Laurel, Md., newcomer owned the stuff, loading a Belgian white with fresh, sweet, green notes without sacrificing the subtleties of wheat, citrus and coriander.
10 Barrel Cucumber Crush: Nabbing the gold medal in the Field Beer category, this Oregon- and Idaho-located brewery’s twist on a tart wheat Berliner Weisse absolutely bursts with lemon and cucumber, enhancing the effervescence characteristic of the style.
Scratch 105: The farm, the field, the forest: This Ava, Ill., outfit is leading the return to growing and foraging for ingredients, brewing one-offs that evoke their terroir as thoroughly as any wine. This year, Scratch brought only gruits — hopless, plant-based concoctions — to the table, including one that contained, yes, 105 ingredients, from several types of mushroom to wild bee balm and other flowers to various roots, yielding a gingery, savory, musky, wonderfully complex sensation.
Forbidden Root Shady Character: Like Scratch, this 3-month-old Chicago operation derives its inspiration from historical brewing practices, pledging allegiance to its botanical ingredients rather than conventional style. Take its porter, made with black walnuts and roasted chestnuts as well as licorice, star anise and black pepper — all of which express themselves in earthy, spicy harmony.
The complete dishes
Right Brain Thai Peanut: Heirloom beets, grilled asparagus, Mangalitsa pig heads. Traverse City, Mich., brewer Russell Springsteen will put just about any edible thing into his beer, but my favorite was this dead ringer for cold soba noodles. Made with peanut butter, Thai chilies, coconut oil and cilantro, it delivers a sharp kick in a velvet boot.
Short’s Bourbon Carrot Cake: I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that this Bellaire, Mich., brewery was the only one pouring three different beers made with marshmallows this year. Though its Key Lime Pie scored the gold in the experimental-beer category for its limeade-meets-lactose zest, the medal in my head went to the Bourbon Carrot Cake, with aromas of baking spice and dried fruit giving way to a mouthful of oak laced with cream — a boozy doozy.
Main photo: The Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout. Credit: Courtesy of Wynkoop