Two weeks ago, I went to the Great American Beer Festival in lovely Denver, Colo., with a simple directive: Drink at least one beer from each state.
That’s 51 beers (I threw in Washington, D.C.) from the same cup, mind you. Once you enter the GABF event hall, you pick up a small, plastic, easily breakable tasting cup. “YOU ARE ONLY ALLOWED ONE!” they warn you when they hand it to you, “SO DON’T LOSE IT OR BREAK IT.” Walking around, you hear wave after wave of loud, gleeful, but unmistakably cruel roars. These are in reaction to someone dropping—and breaking—his or her cup.
That cup represents an $80 ticket, plus airfare and/or gas money, not to mention a hotel room, cab fare (hopefully!), and likely months and months of gleeful excitement at the prospect of immersing yourself in this three-day festival’s 3,700 beers. They will not pour the beer directly into your mouth. That cup is everything.
You also get one ounce per beer, which is deceptive and nefarious. So you go up to a booth with six beers on offer, and down your first ounce in 30 seconds and ask for the next, and suddenly you’ve imbibed the equivalent of half a 12-ounce beer in about four minutes, most of them much stronger than your average Bud. This system works fine for about an hour.
Factor in long lines for the most popular breweries and a hard 10 p.m. cutoff—whereupon GABF staff implore hundreds of drunk people to “PUT THE GLASS DOWN! PUT THE GLASS DOWN” as if it were a weapon—and it’s clear you’ve got no chance of trying everything, or even one-fifth of everything (which would be roughly 740 beers), or even a 10th (which would be roughly 370 beers).
Me, I drank somewhere around 200 to 250 beers in an attempt to find one beer per state worth noting. And though both my taste buds and my liver took a beating; my psyche is feeling just fine.
Here are those beers, in roughly ascending order of preference, though keep in mind that any beer appearing on this list at all means it was my favorite from that state. Also, as previously noted, I like stouts. So don’t act surprised.
51. Pig Trail Porter (Diamond Bear Brewing, Ark.)
50. F5 (Double IPA; COOP Ale Works, Okla.)
This was an aggressive double IPA that packed a hell of a hot punch, but finished with a nice bit of sweetness. I tasted this and immediately wrote, “Why don’t I drink more IPAs?” Maybe I just like them doubled, or should drink two single IPAs at the same time.
49. Bourbon Barrel Porter (Big Timber, W. Va.)
48. Sodbuster (Porter; Fargo Brewing, N.D.)
47. Alpha Force Tactical IPA (Uberbrew, Mont.)
46. O’Sullivan Stout (Beara Irish Brewing Company, N.H.)
45. Double Whammy (Imperial stout; Kalona Brewing Company, Iowa)
44. New Mexico State Fair Cream Ale (La Cumbre Brewing Company, N.M.)
43. Hell’s Belle (Belgian pale ale; Big Boss, N.C.)
I tried a vanilla porter from North Carolina; obviously, I figured that’d be my favorite. But no! This really solid Belgian pale ale stole the crown instead, though it’s notable that by this point, I’d been through around 200 beers. Tasting notes: “good.”
42. Powerline (Porter; Latitude 42, Mich.)
41. Sow Your Wild Oatmeal Porter (Wrecking Bar Brewing, Ga.)
4o. Imperial Mexican Chocolate Stout (O.H.S.O. Eatery and NanoBrewery, Ariz.)
39. Dark Matter Wheat Porter (Logboat Brewing Company, Mo.)
I got really excited at the thought of a porter made with Dark Matter coffee, but this, uh, isn’t. BUT, it was really good anyways. I love porters, even if even the ones I like don’t stand out too much from each other. That just makes it much better when one does.
38. St. Charles Porter (Blackstone Brewing Company, Tenn.)
37. Pistolero (Porter; Payette Brewing Company, Idaho)
36. The Temptress (Milk stout; Lakewood Brewing Company, Texas)
35. Barrel-Aged Hipster Breakfast (Oatmeal stout; Southern Prohibition, Miss.)
34. Knuckle Head Red (The Knuckle Brewing Company, S.D.)
33. Red Whitey (Raspberry white ale; Swamp Rabbit Brewery, S.C.)
32. Wolaver’s Organic Pumpkin Ale (Otter Creek Brewing, Vt.)
31. Hawt Blonde (American blonde ale, Salty Nut Brewery, Ala.)
I rarely go negative, but let me say that Salty Nut’s beer names are terrible. For instance, the #Busted Nut (yes, with a fucking hashtag) was an enjoyable brown for sure. But the Hawt Blonde (terrible name for a couple reasons) was fantastic. FANTASTIC. Also consider that I’m rarely interested in a blonde ale, especially at an event like GABF, when there’s so many different extreme and rare styles. But this was fantastic. The flavor was unexpectedly floral and bright, unlike the person charged with naming these things.
30. Saison En Regalia (Roadhouse Brewing Company, Wyo.)
29. Vanilla Bean Blonde (Infusion Brewing Company, Neb.)
This was a standout beer and a real surprise, too, as I had never heard of Infusion or their beers. But this was excellent, because while a lot vanilla beers are of the heavier, sweeter variety, this was light and dry. It reminded me of eating a really thin Nilla Wafer.
28. Double Stout (Green Flash, Calif.)
27. Jalapeño Cream Ale (Wasatch, Utah)
26. Smoked Porter (Alaskan Brewing Company, Alaska)
25. Yellow Wolves of Thailand (Double IPA; Alameda Brewing Company, Ore.)
Security was yelling, “LAST CALL, PEOPLE,” and they were clearly not kidding. So I slammed a bunch of Oregon beers, including Jubelale from Deschutes, and obviously that ruled. But I already knew that. And then I got to try this double IPA I’d never heard of before that had all kinds of interesting stuff going on, including ginger and basil, which I was somehow able to discern even while under enormous pressure.
24. Buffalo Sweat (Stout; Tallgrass Brewing Company, Kan.)
23. Morning Joe (Kolsch; Banger Brewing, Nev.)
22. Sweet Action (Cream ale; Sixpoint, N.Y.)
21. Dark Star (Imperial stout; Grey Sail, R.I.)
20. Brewer’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout (Central Waters, Wis.)
19. Sacred Hop (Double IPA; Der Blokken Brewery, Wash.)
18. Imperial CoCoNut PorTer (Maui Brewing Co., Hawaii)
17. Lambic Series: Gueuze (Two Roads, Conn.)
For the most part, I am not a sour beer guy, but I tried and dug a lot of these during the fest—maybe because I could go an ounce at a time. Here, first I took a sip, and then after my vision returned, I picked my shriveled tongue off the floor and happily had another. This is a great, bracing beer, but maybe don’t go back for seconds.
16. Royal Farmhouse Double IPA (Union Craft Brewing, Md.)
15. Smoked and Oaked (Belgian strong ale; Epic Brewing, Colo.)
Epic started in Utah and maintains a corporate HQ there, but they’re big on their dual-state citizenship these days: Most of their brewing is now done in Colorado. And their stuff is great, to the point where it took a lot of will power not to call their Big Bad Baptist my favorite Colorado beer. But this one’s just so true to its name: smoky, oaky, strong, distinct, and killer.
14. Shut Up, Meg (Saison; Evil Genius Beer Company, Penn.)
13. Vlad the Conquistador (Russian/Mexican imperial stout; Hailstorm Brewing Company, Ill.)
12. Black (Belgian black ale; Allagash, Maine)
11. Bourbon Street Baltic Porter (Abita, La.)
10. Crasher in the Rye (Imperial oatmeal/rye stout; Clown Shoes, Mass.)
9. Marshal Zhukov (Imperial stout; Cigar City Brewing, Fla.)
8. Ornette (Farmhouse ale; Right Proper Brewing Company, Washington, D.C.)
7. Darkness (Imperial stout; Surly, Minn.)
6. Hippy Sippy (Imperial stout; Fat Head’s, Ohio)
Is Ohio the next amazing craft-beer state? I’ve been drinking a lot of fantastic Ohio beers lately. Punk and alcohol go together, maybe: We’re talking about the state that gave us DEVO, New Bomb Turks, Gaunt, the Pagans, Pere Ubu, and even Pet UFO (deep cut!), so why shouldn’t they also dominate when it comes to beer? This one’s another example of how an amazing imperial stout can be a big, heavy-hitting, smooth, sweet, complex proposition that gives you all kinds of dessert notes, despite not being brewed with a single adjunct.
5. Solitude (Belgian Strong Ale; Kane, N.J.)
These guys apparently know exactly how to make a Belgian, despite hailing from my distinctly un-Belgian home state. I’m very proud.
4. (Beer for Breakfast (Imperial stout; Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Del.)
I know. Dogfish Head. Of course. And a stout to boot! Yeah, well, if I went with anything else, I’d be dishonest. Dogfish Head do great work. They just do. They have all kinds of crazy ideas for beers, and they actually pull them off. Reading the description for Beer for Breakfast, you might think this is a little too over-the-top, considering it includes maple syrup, coffee, applewood-smoked barley (a nod to bacon), and fuckin’ scrapple (which is a mixture of pork and cornmeal). However, it’s right on the money, and perfect anytime.
3. Snake Cake (Imperial Stout; West Sixth Brewing, Ken.)
Yeah. SNAKE CAKE. From a brewery I’ve never heard of. And yet, this is pretty much a decadent masterpiece. Huge on chocolate, huge on vanilla, huge on the bourbon barrel, and huge on alcohol. I loved this so much that I got angry when I was informed there weren’t any plans to put it into regular production. Find this beast. It’s worth it.
2. Oscillate Wildly (Blueberry Wild Sour Age; Strangeways Brewing Company, Va.)
Smell this beer first. Seriously. Just stick your nose in the glass and start huffing. I know, I know, it’s embarrassing. But KEEP SMELLING IT! It smells SOUR. It smells like it’s going to turn your tongue into a shriveled-up nub. NOW, take a sip. Your tongue is fine! In fact, your tongue is thanking you! This beer is sour, yes, but it’s also absurdly pleasing and dynamic. Tons of blueberry. Nice earthiness. Nice tartness. Perfectly balanced.
1. Wig Splitter (Imperial coffee stout; Three Floyds Brewing Company, Ind.)
A lot of breweries were bragging to me about how much coffee they put into their brews: “It’s got 85 cups of coffee per ounce of beer!” But that somehow turns out boring; in an effort to be EXTREME, the end result just tastes like ... a cup of coffee. Here, you get the best of both worlds, and after 300 beers, the best of any other world was sounding pretty good.
David Obuchowski plays guitar for Publicist UK, whose album was recently released by Relapse Records. He’s also a freelance writer who covers beer for Deadspin and books for Gawker. He tweets from his band’s Twitter account @PublicistUK.
Art by Sam Woolley.