Event Recap | Avery’s 15th Annual Boulder Strong Ale Fest Showcases Innovation
No matter the pedigree or esteem, for a beer festival to continue to thrive in today’s crowded beer landscape after 15 years of existence, it must be able to evolve, and iterate. Steeped in tradition, and rich in popularity, Avery’s Boulder Strong Ale Fest has found a way to remain one of the elite mid-sized festivals in the country by showcasing innovation in beer both internally and through the industry friends they invite each year.
Cassics like Firestone Walker’s Stickee Monkee, Great Divide’s Barrel-Aged Old Ruffian Barleywine, Melvin’s 2X4, The Bruery’s Melange #3, Dogfish Head’s Old School Barleywine, Wicked Weed’s El Paraiso and The Lost Abbey’s Cuvee De Tomme and Track #8 all once again served as welcome reminders of why those nationally acclaimed breweries continue to attract such a cult following.
However the larger prevailing themes from Saturday’s celebration of high octane beers included young rising breweries that have taken up the banner for innovation in Colorado’s craft beer scene, Avery’s continued focus on moving the needle when it comes to big barrel-aged beers with Willy Wonka-esque flavor profiles, and coconuts… lots and lots of coconuts.
At a festival so well dominated by big barrel-aged stouts, barleywines and Double IPAs, it can be pretty hard on the palate to hone in on variable nuances before tanking into the oblivion that is indiscernible inebriation. That said, Colorado’s rising crop of young breweries in many cases outshone the old guard invitees by showcasing creativity versus overloading tasters with heavy handed booze-bombs.
Atom Brewing’s Stillness was the classic example of such nuance, by fermenting an Imperial Stout in oak fermenters with a wild yeast and presented in an un-carbonated form. This wild take on a traditionally big beer highlighted bright, funky notes with a dry finish, while still maintaining familiar roasty characteristics. Along a similar vein Call to Arms took a Vienna Style Lager and infused tremendous notes of vanilla and caramel for a harmonious blending of flavors through the use of Deerhammer whiskey barrels.
City Star’s French Roast Widow Maker showcased one of the better uses of coffee infusions in a stout, shining a light on truly bold coffee flavors while wading through big Imperial Stout base. Ratio’s Continuous Thunder, a deceivingly drinkable Double IPA imparted awesome fruit forward notes a welcome change of pace (full disclosure I do work for Ratio, but these sentiments still ring true regardless of affiliation). Gravity Brewing’s Kepler-16B ranked among the best barrel-aged mixed fermentation sour offerings at the fest, providing not just a much needed break in style but also a revelation as a beer itself. Verboten’s already acclaimed Coffee Cinnamon Mountain Man, which won a bronze at the 2014 World Beer Cup didn’t disappoint.
And once again the two Greeley contingents in WeldWerks and Wiley Roots once again lived up to the hype. WeldWerks put on a display with its Single Barrel Medianoche, selecting their favorite, and what was apparently their most balanced barrel of their popular Medianoche Imperial Stout. Neil’s team also brought out their Barrel-Aged Mexican Achromatic, which still rang true as one of my personal favorites at the fest. Wiley Roots’ Somethin’ Came in the Mail For You Today’s series of variants wouldn’t be outshone either with coffee, cinnamon and coconut varieties all holding their own. and Eh? Royale went full Canadian with one of the sweetest, most maple syrup-y beers Ive ever come across.
While it’s always exciting to sift through the multitude of exciting new breweries eager to show off their biggest and brightest, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Saturday’s Strong Ale Fest was the display put on by Avery, the gracious host of the entire spectacle. No stranger to innovation in beer, Avery was also bent on introducing unique flavor profiles include the likes of Charizard which was essentially a smoked porter, with an added dose of peat-yness brought on from touching scotch barrels. Also impressive was the First Lady of Song, a Double IPA who’s hoppiness blended beautifully and became more balanced with the infusion of green tea, flowers and fruit. On two opposite ends of the flavor spectrum fell Chupacabra which boasted some serious heat from its use of habaneros and Banana for Scale, an incredibly sweet take on banana’s foster that yielded a tremendous aroma and pleasant dessert beer finish. But Avery’s most inventive and wildly popular offering of the day was their Bug Zapper, a rum barrel-aged sour with mint, lime and fresh pressed ginger juice that hit first with mint flavors akin to juleps, then giving way to bright refreshing lime notes on the finish. To cap things off, Avery showed off hourly tappings straight from the barrel as they’ve done the past two years at GABF serving up Rumpkin, Tangerine Quad, Uncle Jacob’s and Tweak in their rawest and often smoothest forms.
And now to those coconuts, as a beer drinker who is admittedly an all-around fan of coconut beers, Strong Ale Fest was my wet beer dream come true. Starting with Avery’s Coconut Porter extending to Powder Keg’s Coconut Telegraph, WeldWerks’ Coffee Coconut, which while it may seem a bit blasphemous to say, I found just a hair more enjoyable due to its drinkability over WeldWerks’ bigger barrel-aged brethren and finally Wiley Roots’ aforementioned Coconut SCITMFYT. That said, perhaps the most impressive coconut revelation came from Horse and Dragon’s Scottish Tradesman Coconut Porter, who’s base beer served as the perfect compliment in allowing those vanilla and coconut notes to shine through.
As the sun set on a beautiful 70 degree day, attendees could hazily reflect back on a festival wrought with brilliant bold beers, and more importantly, the underlying notion that Avery continues to remain true to its identity, while also building up and inspiring young like-minded breweries that share a similar pioneering spirit. Colorado beer is thriving and this was the ultimate display of it’s growing might.