Despite the tantalizing temptation to taste rare or otherwise not-available-locally beers from the other states, I made it a point at this year’s Great American Beer Festival to sample the wares of the Golden State, chiefly the new ones — or least the ones I hadn’t tasted yet. But I almost always drink beers I’ve not had before, so it was no real ordeal. Actually, once you’re on the floor of Denver’s Colorado Convention Center during GABF with a taster glass in your hand, the only real ordeal is trying to sample all the beers on your bucket list.
So it was all good, but following are the dozen or so best (to my palate) of the new (to me at least) offerings from California breweries, listed alphabetically by brewery name:
1. Almanac Beer Co., San Francisco. Dogpatch Sour, a 7.5% abv entry in the brewery’s famed Farm to Barrel series, is another winner. A tart Flanders Red aged in wine barrels with California Rainier cherries added and fermented with wild and sourdough yeasts, this classic sour tastes of all that, and resides in the rarified Russian River arena of sublime sours.
2. Anchor Brewing, San Francisco. Harvest One American Pale Ale, No. 5 in Anchor’s Zymaster series, premiered at the beer festival before it was officially released this week. A new, yet unnamed, experimental aroma hop was utilized and provides a unique tangy bitterness with berry and melon notes to this 7.2% brew.
Another almost-as-new-beer from Anchor is BigLeaf Maple Autumn Red, in which hops and maple flavor mix and mingle in a tasty take on a Fall beer at 6.0%. The sweetness of the Big Leaf maple syrup adds to the malt complexity, and the dry hopping with Nelson, Citra and Cascade make for a different kind of red ale.
3. Beachwood BBQ & Brewing, Long Beach. Denver Jackhammer, another hop monster from the brewery known for creating them, clocks in at 9.3%. A dense, almost syrupy elixir, it was originally brewed late 2012 after last year’s GABF, where brewmaster Julian Shrago came up with the title as a joke. But Shrago had the last laugh because, although the beer was entered but did not place in this year’s competition, Beachwood — with its five medals and Midsize Brewpub of the Year title — proved itself to be the Denver Jackhammer in 2013.
4. Black Market Brewing Co., Temecula. 1945, the year the Nazis lost WWII and Hitler popped a cyanide capsule in his Berlin bunker, seems an odd year to name a domestic Berliner Weiss beer after, but Black Market has done the style proud, if a bit stronger at 3.9%, with this beer. Made with a sour mash rather than fermented with Brettanomyces, the beer is lemony-citrus sour with evident lactic acid, yet refreshing. It is one of the nicer local examples.
5. Brävery Brewing, Lancaster. Bartto, brewmaster Brian Avery’s Double IPA, is the strongest beer (9.5%) his two-year-old brewery makes, and the keg at GABF was fresh, aggressive and amazing. Piney, grapefruity and tropical notes from the hop overload don’t so much lead as they assault your olfactory senses. Still, the creamy, caramel malt is present and helps to balance.
6. Calicraft Brewing Co., Walnut Creek. With Wild Wit, an impressive beer-wine hybrid the brewery calls a sparkling ale, the twains definitely meet. Brewed with Cali-grown oranges, coriander and wildflower honey and fermented with Sauvignon Blanc yeasts, this wit wine is a complex, sessionable beverage at 5.4%.
Almost as good was the brewery’s other sparkling ale, Buzzerkeley. This 7.0% hybrid is spicy and fruity, due to its California starthistle honey and fermentation with both Belgian and Champagne yeasts. The moniker derives from the fact that the recipe was originally a homebrew — or more accurately dorm-brew — that originated on the UC Berkeley campus, much to the authorities’ chagrin.