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Beer: Recognition never gets old

Repeats, threepeats and one fivepeat. That’s the story of local breweries returning triumphant from the annual Great American Beer Festival, which took place Sept. 16-18 in Denver.

Five Maryland and Virginia breweries brought home a total of 10 medals from the GABF’s blind tasting competition, which encompassed 3,523 beers from 516 breweries nationwide vying in 80 categories.

All of these breweries have stood in the winner’s circle previously, either at last year’s GABF judging or at April’s World Beer Cup, an international competition held biannually by the Colorado-based Brewers Association (the same group that runs the GABF).

Clipper City Brewing Co. in Baltimore is gaining a reputation for its higher-alcohol experimental beers (like the bourbon barrel-aged pumpkin ale I wrote about last week), but two lighter, everyday drinking beers took bronze medals: the delicately malty Heavy Seas Marzen in the Vienna-style Lager category, and the citrusy Heavy Seas Golden Ale in the Golden or Blond Ale slot.

The Marzen, notes brewery founder Hugh Sisson, “has gotten some sort of medal five years in a row now.” Both it and the pale ale are available in kegs and bottles year-around.

“It’s such a crap shoot,” said Sisson, not to disparage the judges (a panel of industry professionals) but to reflect on the abundance of first-class beers in the competition that inevitably results in a lot of hair-splitting when the judges render their verdict. He noted that the American-style India Pale Ale category attracted 142 entries this year (no local winners, though). “You can’t tell me at least 40 of those were absolutely outstanding,” asserted Sisson.

“You take it all with a grain of salt. If you win, great; but if you don’t, it’s no reflection on your company.”

Other local winners:

Geoff Lively, head brewer for the Rock Bottom brewpub in Bethesda, grabbed a gold for his Highland Courage in the Scottish-style ale category. This malt bomb of a beer won a similar award at last April’s World Beer Cup (the brew has also won before at the GABF). “It’s a great beer to have a couple quarts of before you run screaming into battle with your longsword,” laughs Lively, but being a winter seasonal, it won’t return to the tap until next February.

Four is Jason Oliver’s lucky number. He won a gold for his Gold Leaf Lager in the American-style or International-style category; a second gold for his Baltic Coffee in the Coffee-Flavored Beer niche; a bronze for Wintergreen Weiss in the South German-style Hefeweizen category; and another bronze for Ale of Fergus in the English-style Mild slot.

With the tapping of a new batch of coffee porter last weekend, all four medalists should be pouring at Oliver’s brewpub, the Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co. in Roseland, Va. Oliver, incidentally, also won a quartet of medals (though for different beer lineups) at last year’s GABF and this year’s World Beer Cup.

If the three-hour drive to Roseland is too much of a haul, wait until late 2011: Oliver intends to install a new brew house and packaging line that will allow him to peddle his brews in Northern Virginia and the District.

A bit closer in Afton, Va., Blue Mountain Brewery took home a gold for its Sandy Bottom in the American-style Wheat Beer category and a bronze for its Kolsch 151 in the German-style Kolsch category. The former, according to head brewer Taylor Smack, is available only at the brewery pub; the latter shows up sporadically in bottles and kegs in the Charlottesville area.

“It’s not one of my favorite styles,” says Smack of his American wheat beer, “but I put my heart into it.” American wheat beers lack the spicing of a Belgian-style wit or the fruitiness of a German-style wheat ale, and any flaw would show throw immediately. A substantially similar recipe by Smack, under the name Rockfish Wheat, won a silver medal at the World Beer Cup.

Finally, the Great American Restaurant group, which operates three Sweetwater Tavern brewpubs in northern Virginia, walked away with a gold for its GAR Pale Ale in the Extra Special Bitter or Strong Bitter Category. How does a strong bitter differ from a pale ale? “It’s not as aggressively hoppy,” answers Joe Schineller of Sweetwater’s Sterling, Va., branch, who brewed the winning batch but credits his boss Nick Funnel with formulating the beer. GAR Pale Ale is a year-round offering, available over the bar in pints or in growler jugs to go.

-- Greg Kitsock

By Greg Kitsock  | September 27, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock, beer  
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