Asheville breweries make a splash at this year’s Great American Beer Festival

GOOD AS GOLD: Hi-Wire Brewing Co. took home a gold medal from this year's Great American Beer Festival for its sour brown ale aged on palo santo. Brewery co-founder Chris Frosaker says the big win was "a humbling and amazing feeling." Hillman Beer also struck gold at GABF with its ESB. Photo courtesy of Hi-Wire

Every fall, brewers and beer lovers convene for a few suds-fueled days in Denver to be part of the Great American Beer Festival, the world’s largest commercial beer competition. During this year’s 33rd annual event, which ran Oct. 3-5, judges evaluated “9,497 entries from 2,295 breweries representing all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands,” according to the competition’s website.

North Carolina’s 12 participating breweries brought home a total of 12 medals — four gold, three silver and five bronze. Two of those gold medals were earned by Asheville breweries: Hillman Beer’s ESB earned gold in the extra special bitters category, while Hi-Wire Brewing’s sour brown ale aged on palo santo snagged a gold in the wood- and barrel-aged sour beer category.

This year marked Hi-Wire’s third time pouring at GABF, and co-founder Chris Frosaker says the brewery’s recognition at the event has steadily grown. “We now consistently have one of the busiest booths in the Southeast region,” he says.

Frosaker says Hi-Wire’s big win was “a humbling and amazing feeling,” adding that his favorite part of GABF is “trying rare beers from all around the country you don’t normally have access to, as well as meeting new brewers and building relationships.”

The festival has been going strong since 1987, with 2019 being the biggest year yet. Judges are made up of industry professionals from around the world whose objective is to identify the three beers that best represent each beer-style category. To determine the winners, five three-hour judging and tasting sessions are held before the festival, with judges evaluating beers based on their specific areas of expertise. The resulting awards “are among the most coveted in the industry and heralded by the winning brewers in their national advertising,” according to GABF.

Hi-Wire, along with Bhramari Brewing Co., also represented Asheville by pouring samples during the festival’s tasting event. Bhramari also participated in the festival’s Meet the Brewer event.

Several other Asheville breweries also submitted beers for the competition and made the journey to Colorado to experience GABF, including One World Brewing’s Lisa and Jay Schutz, who attended the festival for the first time this year. “I am not sure if we would ever pour beer there, but I would like to go back again next year,” says Lisa. “We enjoyed the experience because we went to a lot of great events and parties and made great connections at local breweries and with other brewers attending.”

The Schutzes also checked out the Denver beer scene and some of the 160 events, from beer talks to dinners to firkin nights, that happened during Denver Beer Week, which coincides with GABF. “It was a great time,” Lisa says, but adds that she still prefers some beer festivals that are much closer to home. “Our favorites are Burning Can and Rural Hill in Charlotte,” she says. “We like talking with people about our beers, and these festivals have great music as well. They are also outside at nice spots.”

Tim Weber of Twin Leaf Brewery has competed in GABF for the past six years and attended this year in part to spend time with fellow Asheville brewers. “I think the festival has a lot of history in the craft movement, and it has been eye-opening to see the changes in the industry over the last decade,” he says. “It also allows folks from around the world to taste and appreciate breweries from around the country that they would not have a chance to try otherwise.”

Weber also recently went to the second No Place Like Homeplace Beer Fest in Burnsville. He says he likes to participate in festivals because they “allow you to show off your best to folks who may not have had the opportunity to try our beer. It’s a marketing tool, but it’s also great to spend time with your friends in the industry.”

The big-name craft breweries that selected Asheville as their East Coast location — Oskar Blues Brewery, New Belgium Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. — slung beers at GABF and served as events sponsors, too. New Belgium was the only medal winner of the three, earning a bronze for its Chess with Checkers Belgian blonde ale as part of the Pro-Am competition, which paired up commercial and home brewers that have already won an award in a sanctioned American Homebrewers Association or Beer Judge Certification Program.

For New Belgium, being part of GABF is a no-brainer. “This is a great way to showcase some of our work to not only customers and fans but our fellow brewing colleagues in the industry,” says New Belgium spokesperson Leah Pilcer. The brewery, she says, gets involved in hundreds of festivals, community events, fundraisers and sampling opportunities all over the country every year. “For us, getting beer in people’s hands is the best way for them to continue to enjoy their favorite NBB beer or try something new,” she says.

For a full list of 2019 Great American Beer Festival winners, visit greatamericanbeerfestival.com.

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