Each year, Denver, Colorado, plays host to the brewing world's biggest party: the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Last weekend's event was the biggest yet, with 710 breweries serving more than 3,500 types of beer to about 49,000 attendees. The growth of the festival mirrors that of the craft beer industry as a whole: according to the Brewers Association, almost 75 percent of legal drinking age adults now live within 10 miles of a brewery.
GABF judges award medals—gold, silver, and bronze—to the beers that best match the style of their specific category. This year, more than 5,500 beers were considered in 84 categories, and 234 breweries went home with trophies. With so many awesome choices, it's tough to pick favorites.
America's Best Brews
True Blonde Ale: Ska Brewing Company, Durango, Colorado
A perennial favorite here at the office, this blonde ale from the Southwestern Colorado brewery is one of the best summer beers you'll find. The judges at GABF agreed: True Blonde took home a gold in the English-Style Summer Ale category for the second year in a row. While it's best enjoyed on a summer afternoon on the river, it is available year round.
Choc Lobster: Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, Delaware
Sam Calagione and the guys at Dogfish Head are known for experimenting with beer. Choc Lobster is a classic example of that—it's brewed with 10 lobsters per barrel, plus dark cocoa powder. Sound strange? It is, but it's also good enough to win silver in the Indigenous/Regional Beer Category.
Pivo: Firestone Walker Brewing Company, Paso Robles, California
We're big fans of this West Coast-based brewery. After winning a mid-size brewing company of the year award in 2007, 2011, and 2013, its Pilsner took home gold for the second year in a row in the German-Style Pilsner category. Refreshing and light-bodied, this is a must drink for anyone just getting into craft beer. Another reason to love Firestone Walker: they just announced they'll be contract brewing arguably the best IPA of all time, Pliny the Elder, while Russian River makes updates to its brewery.
Coolship Truck: Prairie Artisan Ales and Evil Twin Brewing, Krebs, Oklahoma
Okay, so they didn't win a medal for this one, but we couldn't resist adding it to the list. The beer gets its name from the traditional open-air vessel where it's fermented. The guys at Prairie and Evil Twin put their own spin on the brew by loading the coolship into the bed of a pickup truck and driving it around their brewery so the beer would ferment with wild yeast found in the Oklahoma night air. Result: a damn good beer.
Breakside IPA: Breakside Brewery, Milwaukie, Oregon
It takes a special beer to win gold in the American-Style India Pale Ale (IPA) category—the most popular category at GABF. Breakside beat 278 other entries to take this well-deserved win. The brewery obviously knows what its doing with hops: its Wanderlust IPA also took home a bronze in the American-Style Strong Pale Ale category.
Left Hand Milk Stout: Left Hand Brewing Company, Longmont, Colorado
A gold medal winner last year, Left Hand's famous milk stout delighted judges again in 2014, winning silver in the Sweet Stout or Cream Stout category. Left Hand must be doing several things right—it took home three medals this year. If you've never had a milk stout, do yourself a favor and try this one.
Le Freak: Green Flash Brewing Company, San Diego, California
Le Freak, an aptly named Imperial IPA, took home bronze this year in the American-Belgo Style Ale category. A mixture of a Belgian Tripel and an American Imperial IPA, this one is worth a trip to the bar for.
Samuel Adams Double Bock: Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
The ubiquitous Samuel Adams Boston Lager took first place (before medals were awarded) at GABF in 1985, and the brewery is still producing award-winning beer today. This year, its Double Bock took home gold in the German-Style Doppelbock or Eisbock category. A big beer with a bold, malt flavor, it's destined to become a classic.
Los Innovadores Kriek: Santa Fe Brewing Company, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Sure, we might succumb to a bit of hometown favoritism with this one, but try it and you won't blame us. Santa Fe Brewing Co. took home bronze in the American-Style Sour Ale category (one of our favorites) for their take on a Kriek Lambic. After aging the beer for over two years in oak barrels, they re-fermented it with Michigan tart cherries and sake yeast for an incredibly refreshing and sour final product.
Narwhal Imperial Stout: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Chico, California
With fall in full swing and winter quickly approaching, you'll need a good beer to pick you up after a day on the slopes. Here's a solid bet: Narwhal won bronze in the Imperial Stout category this year, and it comes from one of the most celebrated craft breweries of all time. Imperial stouts don't get much better than this, people.
Serenity: Wicked Weed Brewing Company, Asheville, North Carolina
Serenity didn't medal this year, but it did take home gold in 2013. Why should you care? It's a barrel aged, 100 percent Brett-fermented American Farmhouse Ale. Read: it's really freaking good. Wicked Weed is one of the most popular breweries in the country, and worth a visit if you're ever in Asheville. Co-founder Walt Dickinson told us they didn't set up shop in Asheville just for the beer scene—he's a big time climber, too.
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