Now, I'd like to present five picks for my favorite beers from my tasting session this year.
But let me first put that in perspective: More than 2,700 beers from 580 breweries were on hand, so there's no possible way that an attendee could try even a fraction of all of them in the allotted tasting time.
And to put those numbers in perspective, the Brewer's Association now estimates that there are 2,126 breweries in the U.S. with 1,252 more currently in planning.
The Denver Business Journal's Ed Sealover, author of Mountain Brew: A Guide to Colorado's Breweries, now counts 162 breweries in Colorado, though I'm not sure if that factors in soon-to-open spots such as Greenhorn Brewing Co.
But back to the tasting: My strategy's pretty simple. I cruise the aisles fairly quickly and don't stop for the common beer styles, like blond, amber, brown or even my general favorite, IPA. I only stop for the odd and weird stuff, plus almost any pumpkin beer that I see, because that's also a big favorite of mine, perfect for the season.
For instance, it was almost worth getting in a long line again just to try more of Dogfish Head's bizarre brews, including a chocolate lobster beer — which wasn't very fishy, for the record.
Dig the full menu:
And if you think lobster is odd, earlier in the day, at Wynkoop Brewing Company, I tried the much-hyped rocky mountain oyster beer. I'll refrain from making one of the many nut-jokes already dropped by the sampling public, but I will say it's a plenty drinkable beer with a pleasant smokiness with a slight meaty tinge — nothing as dramatic as the swine flavor of Rogue's Bacon Maple Ale.
I digress again. OK, focus — on to my favorites.
The single most impressive beer I stumbled upon came from San Diego's Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits. It's the Indra Kunindra, an "India-style export stout" made with curry, cumin, cayenne, kaffir lime leaf and coconut — and holy hell, do those spices show up nicely in the finished product.
As Firestone Walker's David Walker told Bryce Crawford earlier this summer at a special Blue Star beer dinner, San Diego "is arguably the most vibrant craft beer market in America. You could argue it could be the most vibrant beer market in the world. It’s creative; there’s 60 or so breweries, and climbing. They’re just very, very different places. It’s hard to compare them."
And the Indra Kunindra proves this beautifully.
Next up is Tampa-based Cigar City's Cucumber Saison, which went on to win a bronze medal in the Field Beer or Pumpkin Beer category.
Last year, I fell for Cigar City's Oatmeal Raisin Cookie beer, and the year prior, I sampled an amazing Humidor Series IPA at the media luncheon. I also sampled a delicious Good Gourd Imperial Pumpkin beer this year.
So this brewery was in no way new to me, but I knew that waiting in its long line would certainly pay off with a worthwhile sample. Sure enough, the cucumber essence came through strongly in the bouquet and in the flavor, reminiscent of a lovely summer cocktail (subbing beer for the spirits, obviously).
Third, I was very impressed with four samples I tried at Conestoga, Pa.-based Spring House Brewing Co. , pictured here:
As you can see, the company is clearly having fun with the naming stage of the beer-making process, but what it also executes really well is delivering on the flavors of the ingredients. A lot of times, you'll read something strange but not really taste it (like the lobster in Dogfish Head's beer), but at Spring House, it all comes through.
The noses on the beers impress, and you can easily smell and pick out ingredients: the peanut butter, mint and coffee in particular are quite big. Of the four, the Satan's Bake had to be my favorite, with a superb sweetness.
Fourth, a fellow attendee we bumped into (literally, I recall) randomly recommended that we head for Chicago's Goose Island Beer Company, and we regretted not that decision to do so.
Though its Gingerbread Dream was a rather enjoyable beer, the Xocolatl stole my attention. As the gentlemen comments in his mini review in the above link, the beer is wonderfully chocolaty and creamy. (Goose Island's IPA, by the way, earned a gold medal this year in the English-Style India Pale Ale category; I didn't get to try that one.)
Speaking of chocolate and Chicago, I lucked out in sampling Las Vegas-based Chicago Brewing Company's Cocoa for Coconuts, which went on to win gold in the Chocolate Beer category.
Second to Odell Brewing Co.'s Coconut Milk Cutthroat Porter, which I sampled and fell in love with at this year's Firkin Rendezvous, Cocoa for Coconuts is the most lively coconut beer I've tried, with a dried coconut flake and slightly nutty flavor up front, followed by back notes of mildly bitter and sweet chocolate.
Once again, here's the full list of this year's winners:
Lastly, a few more fun facts gleaned at our media luncheon (with special guest Gov. John Hickenlooper) this year, courtesy the Brewers Association:
• Of tickets sold this 31st year, 55.3 percent were to out-of-state attendees.
• The 2012 GABF is estimated to bring $7 million of economic impact to Denver.
• The most-entered category this year was the American-style IPA, with 206 entries; it's been the top-entered category consecutively since 2001.
• According to the American Homebrewers Association, there are now more than 1 million people in the U.S. now making beer or wine at home.