These days, there are more than enough respectable craft beer festivals dotting the Southern California landscape year-round. But, ultimately, nothing compares to the Great American Beer Festival, held annually in Denver, Colorado. There, the three-day extravaganza features thousands of beers from across the country, with untold additional events taking over the copious bars and pourable spaces surrounding downtown Denver's convention center. It's truly a beer party unlike any other. And then there are the awards.
Don't be fooled by all the smiling faces and happy brewers walking around, the Great American Beer Festival is a cutthroat competition featuring more than 80 different categories, as well as special designations for professional/amateur collaborations (titled ProAm) and style points for new and existing brewpubs as well. How important are these awards to the brewing industry? Plenty. Being able to label your beer as medal winner in internationally-recognized competition against some of the best and strongest breweries in America is a feat well worth the PR blasts of any good brewery. Not to mention the boost in sales, the marketing possibilities and the acceptance among peers and festival attendees alike. While a brewery's odds of winning are certainly better than cashing in on a lotto ticket, the old mantra still applies: Many will enter, few will win.
This year, the state of California cleaned up at the Great American Beer Festival. Throughout all categories, California pulled down 49 total medals, far more than any other state -- including Colorado, the oft-considered craft beer ground zero, which mustered 15 fewer total medals. Suckers. The wide range of winners span from small operations as far-flung as Eel River Brewing in Fortuna or Mad River outside of Eureka, to San Diego favorites like AleSmith, Lost Abbey and Green Flash. And the best part about all these medal winners? Most winners are within a few hours' drive from the heart of Los Angeles, making this city a pretty special place for anyone looking to crack open a craft beer or two.
So where can you go locally to taste some recently-award-winning beer? If you're heading north for a quick jaunt, Buellton's tiny Figueroa Mountain Brewing pulled in three bronze medals: their Danish Red Lager won in the Vienna-Style Lager category, the Stagecoach Stout won for Oatmeal Stouts and Wrangler Wheat took home third in the American-Style Wheat Beer with Yeast category. Further north, Firestone Walker pulled two golds for their popular DBA and Wookey Jack, an American-Style Black Ale.
If you're headed south, you're quickly entering the Southern California craft beer heartland, with TAPS, Lost Abbey, Pizza Port, Green Flash, The Bruery, AleSmith, Beachwood BBQ, and The Beer Co. all representing as winners. Popular beers to try include The Beer Co.'s gold-winning Manhattan Project from the Wood-and-Barrel-Aged Strong Beer category, the Green Flash Trippel in the Belgian-Style Abbey Ale arena, or The Lost Abbey's Saint's Devotion, a gold winner for French-Style Ale. No matter which beer you choose, there's never been a better time to be a craft beer lover in Los Angeles.