Oregon brewers are no strangers to award stages and the 2018 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) was no exception.
“We are in arguably one of the greatest states to be a brewer,” says Dustin Kellner, brewmaster at Worthy Brewing in Bend, whose Strata IPA won silver. “Our peers in the greater Portland area, the Gorge, the Willamette Valley, and Central Oregon are some of the best brewers in the world. That keeps you on your A-game for sure.”
Held in September in Denver, the 37th GABF judged 8,496 entries from 2,404 breweries across 49 states and Washington D.C. (Mississippi had no entries). Out of 306 medals awarded in 102 different categories, Oregon’s craft breweries took home 22 medals. Only two states earned more: 72 for California and 30 for Colorado. Oregon breweries received five gold medals, 10 silver medals and seven bronze medals. Among the accolades, Hood River’s pFriem Family Brewers received Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year. In addition, Eugene’s Alesong and Bend’s 10 Barrel were two of only three breweries nationwide to win more than two medals.
Since its founding in 2012, pFriem has racked up many awards and accolades from around the world for its innovative Northwest and Belgian-inspired beers.
“We do not make beer to show up on a judging table,” says Josh Pfriem, co-founder of the brewery. “When beer judges see our submissions as a whole beer, we normally do well at competitions. Judging lined up well with our beers at GABF this fall, as well as some good luck and chance.”
Located next door to King Estate Winery in the rich wine country of the southern Willamette Valley, Alesong has medaled at GABF every year since the brewery’s opening in 2016. For 2018, Alesong’s beer/wine hybrid Terroir farmhouse series incorporated wine grapes, blurring the boundaries between beer and wine — and GABF judges took note with two silver medals, plus a bronze for the brewery’s dry-hopped brett saison Touch of Brett: Mandarina. Terroir: Pinot Gris was ale-aged and conditioned with King Estate Pinot Gris juice, and Terroir: Pinot Noir underwent a second fermentation on Pinot Noir must from Benton-Lane Winery — both silver medalists.
“By virtue of location, we probably have better access to high-quality wine grapes than almost every other brewery in the nation,” says Alesong co-owner Doug Coombs. “Our work with mixed-culture fermentation and barrel-aging makes us well-suited for forays into wine-grape-centric beers. This emerging style is something we’re really passionate about.”
It doesn’t hurt that Oregon is home to Oregon State University’s extensive brewing sciences and hop breeding programs. Kellner designed Worthy’s Strata IPA to showcase OSU’s new Strata hop, released last year and grown by Indie Hops. “We knew its tropical fruit profile would show well in the category we medaled in,” Kellner says.
Many categories in the competition can be highly competitive. Out of 91 entries in the robust porter category, Lompoc’s Lomporter took gold, the brewery’s second GABF medal win after receiving a silver for 2015’s Proletariat Red.
But Oregon brewers often keep a humble perspective about competing and winning. “Beer competitions are subjective,” says Bryan Keilty, head brewer at Lompoc Brewing in Portland. “In every category, there are dozens of beers that could medal. There is so much good beer out there.”
It’s a sentiment pFriem Family Brewers echoes. “We got into the beer business because we wanted to make great beer and push the envelope,” Josh Pfriem explains. “It is important for us to keep this mantra at the soul of the journey and let everything else fall into place.”
Oregon’s GABF winners also cite Oregon’s beer-loving populace as driving their medal-worthy brewing excellence.
“Consumers and brewers have high standards and that pushes everyone to improve,” says Coombs. “With a more mature beer scene and such a concentration of breweries, there’s constant experimentation and evolution that results in pushing the boundaries to create new styles and flavors.”
Brewers also see competitions such as GABF as opportunities to see what competitors are doing and continue raising their own brewing game.
“I’m always excited to read the judge’s notes on the beer, win or lose,” says Keilty, a sentiment repeated by Coombs. “You get real, blind feedback on every beer from highly trained palates,” he explains. “A suggestion to simplify a blend of spices that came across as muddled was one useful piece of feedback. Another was a positive comment we got about elements we were able to create by using some non-traditional techniques with Terroir: Pinot Noir, which tells us ‘keep doing what you’re doing.’ That can be extremely useful feedback.”
For Kellner, like most Oregon brewers, it comes down to always improving. “Whether we win or not, the objective feedback is worth the pursuit,” he says. •
Find a full list of winners at greatamericanbeerfestival.com/the-competition/winners