Colorado breweries won 38 medals Saturday on closing day of the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, with many of the most-sought-after honors going to newer and more under-the-radar breweries rather than the largest and most celebrated breweries that typically have headlined the awards count at the nation’s largest beer festival.
Just one brewery — Lone Tree Brewing, in the Douglas County city of the same name — won multiple awards, while beer makers in far-flung places like Fruita, Alamosa and Dillon brought home the same medals as those in more common beer destinations such as Denver and Fort Collins.
The total of 38 medals for Colorado beer makers was the second-highest total of any state, trailing only the 56 medals won by California brewers.
But while Colorado’s award count was similar to prior years, the recipients were not. Craft-brewing industry giants like New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins, Oskar Blues Brewery of Longmont and Great Divide Brewing of Denver went home without any medals.
Instead of them, beer makers like Ironworks Brewery & Pub of Lakewood, CO-Brew of Denver and Square Peg Brewerks of Alamosa, which opened earlier this year, ascended to the stage in the Colorado Convention Center to receive medals signifying they had made one of the three best beers in America in 98 different style categories or in the Pro-Am competition.
Andres Gil Zaldana, executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild, said that with so many breweries coming into the market — nearly 5,700 now dot the American landscape, 2,127 of which entered beers into the GABF competition — many new beer makers feel they have to make a splash to get noticed.
That leads to newer breweries being more creative than many entrants into the market were even 10 years ago, and it helps to explain why so many were recognized along with their older and more established peers on Saturday.
“When you open a new brewery, in order to get someone’s attention, you need to be cutting edge,” he said. “That combination is something Colorado brewers really recognize. And seeing a lot of these brewers win gold, we’re really proud of that.”
Judging 'is wild, wild west'
That said, some things had more an air of familiarity to them on Saturday.
Dry Dock Brewing of Arvada won a silver medal in the German-style pilsner category, marking the 10th straight year the former Small Brewery of the Year has won a medal, a streak that likely is among the longest in the history of the 36-year-old festival.
Co-owner Kevin DeLange noted that this was the third medal for pilsner and that all three had been won by different head brewers, proving that the secret to the brewery’s success is that he hires well and gets out of the way.
Grimm Brothers Brewhouse of Loveland, meanwhile, won a bronze medal in the German-style altbier category for its Little Red Cap — the fourth time in seven years it’s received a GABF accolade for the beer, including golds in 2011 and 2016.
Co-owner Russell Fruits said it is gratifying not just to win the honors but to reach the point where Little Red Cap is having a significant influence on the way that style of beer is made by U.S. brewers.
“The judging here is wild, wild west, and you can’t take too much from it if you win or if you don’t,” Fruits said. “But we’re super excited this is starting to define the style.”
Cannonball Creek Brewing of Golden won a medal for the fifth year in a row — all of the years the brewery has existed. Head brewer Brian Hutchinson said the silver medal for its Black 28, an American-style black ale, combined with its past victories, definitely helps to get the brewery attention.
Lone Tree Brewing, meanwhile, won a gold medal for its Mexican Lager in the American-style lager category two years after receiving silver for the same beer — an honor that showed that a craft brewery can best big brewers in a style they once were seen as dominating, founder and co-owner John Winter said.
But when it then took home a silver medal for its Hop Zombie, an imperial red ale, that sent an entirely different message that is likely to help the brewery grow its brand and sales more.
“It legitimizes us and shows our range, that we can go from an American-style lager to a big, hoppy red ale,” brewer and co-owner Jerry Siote said.
'Everyone's trying to push the envelope'
But more often than not, the day went to Colorado breweries whose selections as winners out of the 7,923 beers entered into competition might have turned some heads.