Top 5 Beers: Great American Beer Festival

Not since that misguided night in college when I decided to double-fist 40-ouncers of Phat Boy, a thankfully discontinued malt liquor made with ginseng, has my liver felt so swollen and abused.

I've just returned from four days at Denver's 30th annual Great American Beer Festival, a massive celebration of fermentation that attracts brew fans as fervid as religious devotees flocking to Mecca. And for good reason. Each year, hundreds of breweries from all corners of the country descend upon the Mile High City en masse, toting thousands of different beers. Some are good. Some are bad. But with each brew served by the one-ounce pour, you have ample opportunity to try any and every beer.

Consider it drunkenness by a thousand tiny cups.

Of course, sampling every beer is foolhardy, especially this year. Scattered across the floor of the sprawling Colorado Convention Center were more than 460 breweries, which doled out some 2,400 dark stouts, sour ales, bitter IPAs and carbonated oddities so curious, so strange, I wasn't sure whether to dump them out or greedily ask for another glass. Freetail Brewing, I'm looking at you and your green and cloudy Spirulina Wit.

As far as trends to spot, brewers are still riding high on IPAs, with a swell of black-tinted takes on the style — I particularly liked the Blacktop IPA, from New Glarus Brewing, as well as Bear Republic's Black Racer. Barrel aging continues to sweep the industry (I swooned over Foothills Brewing's Bourbon Barrel Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout and the wood-flavored treats from Florida's Cigar City), but what's got me most excited is the surge of sour ales.

Increasing ranks of brewers are deploying wild yeasts and bacteria with a dedication that would impress a microbiologist. Breweries to keep an eye on include Captain Lawrence, Cambridge Brewing, Upland, Brugge Brasserie and Illinois' Desthil brewpub, which wowed the crowd with its wild creations.

Though it's impossible to highlight all my favorite ales and lagers—and my many, many skull-blasting hangovers—a few ales and lagers stood out from the sudsy, crowded field. Here are 5 beers to look for the next time you decide to tie one on.

  1. Kern River Brewing: Citra Double IPA

The California brewery relies heavily on the Citra hop (remember your lesson?). It gives the hazy, potent double IPA a lush and fresh tropical bouquet that's backed by sweet malt and juicy bitterness.

  • Right Brain Brewery: Mangalitsa Pig Porter
  • Vegetarians, beware: This porter does, indeed, count swine as an ingredient. The Michigan brewery includes four cold-smoked Mangalitsa pig heads—brains removed, mind you—and bags of bones in each batch of porter. The result is slightly smoky and curiously, compulsively drinkable.

  • Fat Head's Brewery: Head Hunter IPA
  • While the Pacific Northwest and West Coast are known for over-the-top IPAs, this northern Ohio brewery proves that the West doesn't always do hoppy best. Head Hunter smells of gobs of grapefruit and pine resin, and it drinks with a sturdy bitterness complemented by prickly bitterness and a bit of orange-meat sweetness.

  • The Bruery: Hottenroth Berliner Weisse
  • This might just be your favorite new low-alcohol brew. The Hottenroth is a riff on the Berliner weisse, a tart German wheat beer that, in the best way possible, tastes like the offspring of champagne and unsweetened lemonade.

  • Nebraska Brewing Co.: Melange à Trois
  • My, this is one sexy beer: A strong, Belgian-style ale is consigned to used French oak chardonnay barrels, which imparts a delicate fruitiness as well as luscious oak notes. The result is a soft, buttery delight more at home in a wine glass.

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