Our man at the Great American Beer Fest

DENVER -- Although no local brewers entered the competition, Pittsburgh was well-represented at this year's Great American Beer Festival.

I was invited to go to last weekend's mega event by my friend Matt Cole, who now is head brewer at Fat Head's Brewery & Saloon, the suburban Cleveland franchise of Fat Head's on the South Side. Matt and I started home brewing together in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s and turned our hobby into our profession.

My first trip to America's biggest beer blast -- there are some 2,000 brews to sample on the floor of the Denver Convention Center -- had come last year, when I was working as brewery manager for Penn Brewery on the North Side. I went with co-workers Nick Rosich and Dennis Ratliff, and we came home with a gold medal for our Kaiser Pils and a bronze medal for Oktoberfest. To get to hear your beer called out and to walk on stage with your fellow brewers/competitors patting you on the back and cheering for you is really a thrill.

I wanted to support Matt and hoped he would have that thrill this year, as he was going with eight beers from his new Fat Head's Brewery & Saloon in North Olmsted, Ohio.

I couldn't represent Pittsburgh because early this year I was laid off by Penn Brewery when it stopped brewing its own beer. The brewing situation in Pittsburgh has grown bleaker, and with only Church Brew Works, East End Brewing and the Hofbrauhaus brewing in the city, there aren't too many places for me to find work.

So I've been giving Matt a hand when I can, transporting empty kegs back to him from the Pittsburgh Fat Head's. On one such trip, Matt suggested that he could get me a pass to the Great American Beer Festival and that I could crash in his hotel room. After cashing in my frequent-flyer miles and explaining it to my understanding and wonderful wife, I was set to go!

I met up this past Thursday morning with contingents from Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the Denver airport. Coming from Fat Head's Pittsburgh was owner Glenn Benigni and two of his employees extraordinaire, Geoff Stober and Averill "Apple" Grimes. Cleveland was represented by Matt, brewer Rick Skains, assistant brewer Mike Zosack and chef Derek Wilson. We all scrambled to pick up rental cars and head into town.

Geoff and I were in one car that seemed to take the long way around town. This was OK because once we did manage to find Denver, we headed straight to the second most important place during GABF week: the Falling Rock Tap House. This small bar has 69 beers on tap as well as 140-some bottles. This is where the brewers go to get the latest and freshest beer from all over the country. Geoff and I settled into some selections from Russian River Brewing out of Santa Rosa, Calif.: Pliny the Elder double India pale ale and the Blind Pig IPA. A very good way to start off what would be a very hoppy weekend.

The first session of the GABF was to start at 5:30 p.m. and go to 10:00 p.m.. Everyone met at the Fat Head's booth. Fat Head's was a brewery sponsor, which meant they got a larger space on the end of the row in the massive convention hall, where breweries are set up by region. There would be more than 30,000 people attending four sessions over the next three days.

Many friends and family joined the growing group from Cleveland, along with many Beer Camp fans from Pittsburgh. Everyone took turns pouring beers for attendees while others went out to explore the unlimited amount of wonderful beers.

At the GABF, one must come up with a strategy for choosing beers. You can look at the list and pick a certain style you like -- maybe look at the winners from last year and try their beers. You can try brewers you know and see if they offer anything different. Or you can be totally random and bop around from booth to booth. So you never know what you'll run into and that's half the fun.

After Thursday's session, we got some eats and some much needed rest, and then on Friday, our groups split up and went different directions. Some headed to the parks and mountains that are just an hour from Denver. My group headed north to Fort Collins to check out Odell Brewery, a medium-size one just down the road from the fabulous New Belgium Brewing Co. On a day when the area is mobbed with brewers and beer geeks, we managed to get into Odell early and try out a sampler of their beers on tap, including a great beer that was actually a mistake. It was two beers blended together and put in an oak barrel to age; they called it Crimson Shenanigans. It's a complex, 10.3-percent alcohol brew with some woody tones and a bit of sourness. We also took a tour of the brew house, packaging area and the work being done on a major expansion. The brewers couldn't have been nicer, answering all our questions. It was great to compare notes. The craft brewing community is really a unique bunch of individuals all trying to make the best and most creative beers they can. Sharing information not only helps each other but also the industry.

After Odell we hit a cheese importer that one of the brewers suggested. We stopped and loaded up on various cheeses and breads to sample later back at our hotel room. After getting mocked by our female GPS voice, we went to Oskar Blues' new production brewery. Oskar Blues packages their beer, such as their popular Dale's Pale Ale, in cans. A new can movement is slowly growing in the craft beer industry, with about 50 small breweries now using cans. After a few samples we managed another tour of its canning line and new brew house -- a very nice space with the tap room being somewhat open to the brewery, and with the biggest ceiling fan any of us had seen.

Then it was back to Denver for Friday's GABF session. Having gotten our bearings, we were able to better search out beers. I followed Matt, who was looking for beers that his would be competing against. (I did the same thing last year.) Along the way we talked with more brewers. Matt ran into several of the many friends he's made in the industry and they shared information about techniques and troubleshooting things in his brewery. It opened in April and they are still working out the kinks.

We shared beers, too.

Iron Hill from Wilmington, Del., had an Imperial Coffee Porter with an aroma that was out of this world and a mellow and deep flavor. Carlsbad, Calif.'s Pizza Port had one of the best IPAs with their Poor Man's IPA and a great Icky Sticky Stout. Some of the other breweries we enjoyed were Pelican Pub & Brewery from Pacific City, Ore.; Piece Brewery, Chicago; and Marin Brewing, Larkspur, Calif. It is impossible to sample all the beers but it sure is fun to try.

There are two sessions on Saturday. The early one is for members of the Brewers Association and American Home Brewers Association. This is when the awards are given out.

The brewers have a quiet nervousness about them on Saturday. They're confident in their beers and hoping to get some bling to take home.

But this year there were 3,308 beers from 495 breweries entered in the 78 categories.

Matt and Fat Head's won a silver medal, the only award for the state of Ohio, for their Up In Smoke Porter. Not bad for a brewpub that only has been open for five months. Matt was glad the Up In Smoke won because they had been smoking more than 80 pounds of malt -- an hour at a time for every 5 pounds -- on two electric BBQ smokers on the back loading dock. "The extra love and hard work we put into it paid off!" Matt said.

Glenn Benigni was happy for Matt. "He's a great brewer and works very hard," he said. "He deserves the recognition." The whole Fat Head's group was understandably excited.

Pennsylvania breweries made out well this year. The state was No. 5 with 12 medals, behind Colorado (45), California (39), Oregon (22) and Washington (13). The lone Western Pennsylvania winner was Erie Brewing Co., which took gold for its Railbender Ale. Troeg's of Harrisburg was the state's big winner, taking gold for Troegenator, silver for Dead Reckoning and bronze for Sunshine Pils. (Find the full list of winners and more at greatamericanbeerfestival.com.)

On Sunday before we headed back to the airport we stopped back where it all began. Back to Falling Rock Tap House for a burger and one last beer or two. Owner Chris Black stopped by to say, "I love GABF weekend, but I also love to see you guys go!"

Andrew Rich, who lives in Dormont, is the former brewery manager at Penn Brewery and hopes brewing will resume there. He will work for beer. He says, "You should make the trek for the next year's GABF, Sept. 16-18, 2010." Contact him at andyrich3@gmail.com .


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