August 27, 2013

Craft Beer is for Lovers: Top Picks from the VA Craft Brewers Festival

2013 VA Craft Brewers Fest 
Capping off Virginia Craft Beer Month and a successful "Love on Tap" campaign by the state of Virginia, brewers and craft beer fans gathered this past weekend for the Virginia Craft Brewers Festival and Virginia Craft Brewers Cup. The event was held at Devils Backbone Brewing Company's Nelson County brewpub and concert grounds.

The weather was incredible, surpassed only by the setting, with mountain views for 360 degrees. Devils Backbone Brewpub sits on a huge plot of land in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, with almost no other buildings in sight. There were a fair number of people in attendance, about 2,200, but there was plenty of space so it didn't seem crowded. A huge stage was set up on the property for music, but the main attraction was most definitely the beer.

More than anything else, the festival highlighted the fact that Virginia now features quality craft beer from end to end, and along every major interstate. There's no excuse for beer travelers not to try some Virginia craft beer when traveling through the state. (Check out the Virginia Craft Beer Map.)

In the furthest southwest corner of the state, in Abingdon, VA, is Wolf Hills Brewing Company. They picked up both the gold and the bronze medal in the American Ale category of the VA Brewers Cup for their Creeper Trail Amber Ale and Fightin’ Parsons Pale Ale. They also won gold in the Belgian Sours and Strong Ales category with their Tripel.

In the northern-most part of the state is the award-winning Mad Fox Brewing Company, who recently announced the opening of a taproom in DC proper.

Out towards the coast in Norfolk, VA, is O'Connor Brewing Company, who makes a mean Agave IPA called "El Guapo" as well as one of my all-time favorite Black IPAs.

At every point in between there are brewers crafting top quality beer. There were 131 entries in 14 categories for the 2013 VA Brewers Cup. These were some of my favorites.

Devils Backbone Smokehaus Lager
Devils Backbone Smokehaus Lager
wins the VA Craft Brewers Cup
Top Beers from the VA Craft Brewers Festival

Smokehaus Lager (5.3% ABV) - Devils Backbone Brewing Company

Having performed so well at GABF last year, it wasn't all that surprising that Devils Backbone took the VA Brewer's Cup, but their Smokehaus Lager was clearly deserving of the prize. The balance of the smokey character was spot on -- enough to please the more adventurous beer drinker, but not so much as to drive people away. The beer features beechwood smoked malt from Bamberg, Germany, home of rauchbier. 17 IBUs.

Native Son (6% ABV) - Lost Rhino Brewing Company

The "most local" beer at the event was without a doubt Lost Rhino's Native Son, brewed with Virginia water, Virginia-grown and malted barley, Virginia Cascade, Chinook, and Columbus hops, and a strain of yeast harvested from Ashburn, VA.

Via DCBeer.com:
On June 11, Lost Rhino brewed the beer with Virginia-grown barley and wheat. The floor-malted barley came from the Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville. The wheat came from the same farm where the distillery gets its barley, Bay’s Best Feed, in Heathsville.
Hops from the Sage Hill Hop Farm of Leesburg added bitterness to the beer. Filtered Virginia water is always used in all of Lost Rhino’s beers. And finally the yeast is a strain of wild yeast isolated and grown in Ashburn, Virginia.
The beer could be called a Belgian or farmhouse pale ale, with the unique yeast character speaking through the balanced hops bitterness and grainy mouthfeel. Native Son will be available starting September 4th at the brewery in Ashburn, VA, just about 30 miles northwest of downtown DC.

Williamsburg Alewerks Jubilee
Williamsburg AleWerks Jubilee - a bourbon
barrel aged Belgian tripel
Jubilee (11% ABV) - Williamsburg AleWerks

One of the best overall beers I tried at the festival was by Williamsburg, VA's AleWerks Brewing Company. 6th Jubilee is a Belgian tripel aged in 17-year bourbon barrels. While some barrel aged beers tend to hit you over the head with the remnants of the barrel's previous tenant, Jubilee had a sweetness that balanced the bourbon notes perfectly, accompanied by flavors of fruit, caramel, and green apple. Don't take my word for it. Untappd user Roos says, "Oooo, baby! Best beer at the craft brewers festival. We all had seconds to be sure."

Pear Lager (4.4% ABV) - Devils Backbone Brewing Company

The Pear Lager from Devils Backbone also stood out. In addition to being something unique, it was clean, balanced, and easy drinking at just 12 IBUs.

Devils Backbone Head Brewer Jason Oliver explains the technique of incorporating the pear flavor into the beer:
We use pear juice concentrate which is like the juice concentrate in the freezer section of the supermarket, you know the stuff where you mix 3 cans of water to one can of juice concentrate to make juice. We use concentrate that is twice as rich where it is a six to one ratio of one part pear juice concentrate to six parts water. Here is where it gets fun (and why I use juice concentrate and not juice), we do not reconstitute the pear juice with water and add it to the beer, rather we use the low strength beer to reconstitute the pear juice concentrate, not watering the pear flavor down! We do this toward the end of fermentation so the pear flavor is not "blown" out of the fermenter with the CO2 from the main fermentation. We seal up the tank and capture the natural CO2 that is coming from the pear juice fermentation for natural carbonation (and retaining more pear flavor). I think the Pear Lager is a fun beer to think about as a brewer. It doesn't have the street cred as a hoppy double IPA, but it does use some fun techniques and has its own set of challenges.
Devils Backbone Pear Lager Jason Oliver
Devils Backbone Head Brewer Jason Oliver, with Session the brewery dog and DB Pear Lager
Virginia Draft (4.7% ABV) - Bold Rock Hard Cider

Devils Backbone and Blue Mountain have new neighbors in Bold Rock Hard Cider. Brian “Ciderman” Shanks, Bold Rock President and Cidermaster, is from New Zealand and has been making hard cider for 27 years! The experience was evident in both the Virginia Draft and the Virginia Apple varieties, but my girlfriend and I picked the Draft as our favorite.

Bold Rock "Virginia Draft" Hard Cider
Bold Rock "Virginia Draft" Hard Cider
Blackberry Wit (6.8% ABV) - Hardywood Park Craft Brewery

An intriguing take on the style, Hardywood's Blackberry Wit is dry with more wit characteristics than the color would suggest. It had a great blackberry nose, but the taste was more classic witbier. Brewed with a touch of rye and over 1,000 lbs. (per 40-barrel batch) of blackberries grown by Agriberry in Hanover County.

Hardywood Park Blackberry Wit
Hardywood Park Blackberry Wit
The event was a blast, reminding me why I love Virginia, the mountains, and craft beer. Ashevillians (and everyone else for that matter) would do well to stop through for a visit.

Check out more photos from the festival on the Local Beer Blog Facebook page.

Here are all the winners from the 2013 VA Craft Brewers Cup (not all were served at the festival):

Best of Show*
Gold: Devils Backbone Brewing Company – Smokehaus Lager
Silver: River Company Brewing – Wood Dog Porter
Bronze: Hardywood Park Craft Brewery – Gingerbread Stout

Light & Amber Hybrid
Gold: Blue Mountain Brewery – Kolsch 151
Silver: Center of the Universe – Main Street Virginia Ale
Bronze: Mad Fox Brewing Company – Mad Fox Kolsch

European Malty Lagers
Gold: Devils Backbone Brewing Company – Schwartzbier
Silver: Starr Hill Brewery – Jomo Lager
Bronze: Mad Fox Brewing Company – Elixer Maibock

Pilsner & Light Lager
Gold: Blue Mountain Brewery  – Classic Lager
Silver: Lost Rhino Brewing Company – Rhino Chasers Pilsner
Bronze: Legend Brewing Company – Pilsner

British Session Ale
Gold: Devils Backbone Brewing Company – Ale of Fergus
Silver: River Company Brewing – Timber Brown Ale
Bronze: Blue & Grey Brewing Company – Fred Red

American Ale
Gold: Wolf Hill Brewing – Creeper Trail Amber Ale
Silver: Extra Billy’s Smokehouse and Brewing – Midlo
Bronze: Wolf Hill Brewing – Fightin’ Parsons Pale Ale

Porter & Stout
Gold: Apocalypse Ale Works – 6th Seal
Silver: Port City Brewing – Porter
Bronze: Wild Wolf Brewing Company – Dry Stout

English & American IPA
Gold: Extra Billy’s Smokehouse & Brewery – Citra Ass Down
Silver: Center of the Universe – Pocahoptus IPA
Bronze: Legend Brewing Company - Hopfest

German Wheat and Rye Beer
Gold: Strangeways Brewing – Mixolydian Rag Rye Bock
Silver: Devils Backbone Brewing Company – Berliner Metro Weiss
Bronze: Lost Rhino Brewing Company – Final Glide Hefe

Belgian Sour & Strong Ales
Gold: Wolf Hill Brewing –  Tripel
Silver: Apocalypse Ale Works – The Lustful Maiden
Bronze: Wild Wolf Brewing Company – Blonde Hunny

Belgian & French Ale  
Gold: Port City Brewing – Optimal Wit
Silver: Blue Mountain Barrel House – American Hopped Blonde Ale
Bronze: Smartmouth Brewing Company – Alter Ego

Strong Ales
Gold: Three Brothers Brewing – The Admiral
Silver: Smartmouth Brewing Company – Notch 9
Bronze: Devils Backbone Brewing Outpost – Kilt Flasher

Smoked Flavored & Wood Aged
Gold: Devils Backbone Brewing Company – Smokehaus Lager
Silver: Blue Mountain Barrel House – Barrel Aged Big Blue
Bronze: Three Brothers Brewing – Bourbon Barrell Russian Imperial

Fruit/Spice/Herb/Vegetable
Gold: Hardywood Park Craft Brewery – Gingerbread Stout
Silver: Devils Backbone Brewing Company – Pear Lager
Bronze: Blue Mountain Barrel House – Spooky

Specialty
Gold: River Company Brewing – Wood Dog Porter
Silver: Blue Mountain Brewery – Rye Barchetta
Bronze: Strangeways Brewing – Wallonian Dawn Honey Saison

*Best of Show selected from the gold medal winner in each style category.