Tasting all of San Diego's GABF 2017 Medal Winning Beers
Twelve San Diego breweries won fourteen medals at the 2017 Great American Beer Fest. That significant-but-manageable number gave me the idea of trying all of them and writing about it.
Things didn’t work out as I'd hoped. For one thing, much of the beer has been very hard to find. A lot of it must have been brewed in very small batches. Some of it seems not to have been re-brewed very often, or at all, since the GABF announcements--that strikes me as a weird lost opportunity for the brewers, but I suppose they must have reasons.
The result is that after seven months I've only been able to find eleven of the fourteen beers.
You'll see from the descriptions below that there is no unifying theme among these beers, no "San Diego spin" that is what makes these beers particularly medal-worthy. What these beers mainly have in common is that they are very well made and they are brewed true to style--even though they are, in many cases at least, styles that today's consumers do not typically clamor for. That is largely an artifact of the competition's judging guidelines: only beers that are true to the style under which they were submitted stand a chance of winning. And, of course, medal-winning beers don't have any flaws. (Just like me.)
Preparing this post I noticed something I hadn't anticipated but which makes sense now that I think about it. Most of these beers do not have very high average ratings on Untappd. This partly reflects diverse personal tastes among beer drinkers, and perhaps a lack of beer rating expertise among some Untappd users, not to mention a lack of a standard for what star ratings are supposed to mean. But I think this is the main thing: An unflawed beer that is true to style is not necessarily considered a "great" beer by consumers if the style isn't great. Add to this the consideration of trends in beer preferences and you can see why even very well made beers (according to style guidelines) are not necessarily rated highly by the general run of beer drinkers.
What follows are descriptions of the eleven San Diego 2017 GABF Medal Winners that I have tried so far (plus a bonus beer); below, the three I have left to try.
San Diego's 2017 GABF Medal-Winning Beers
Legally Red, Silver in American-style Amber/Red Ale: my rating 4/5 on Apr 12, 2017; 4/5 on Nov 16, 2017 in North Park; had it again in cans May 2018. I always like red IPAs. This one has nice balance and good flavor, with a caramel sweetness to the malt. It is pretty aggressively hopped. Unfortunately it is an earthy hop that triggers a pretty bad nasal allergy for me, so after the first few sips my sinuses swell shut and I can hardly smell it any more. Thankfully, now that I'm not visiting breweries and tasting rooms at quite the pace I was (101 in the last twelve months), my allergic response to hops seems to be diminishing again. This averages 3.62/5 on Untappd with 1252 ratings. (FYI, all these Untappd stats are current as of 6/25/2018.)
Tabula Rasa, Gold for Robust Porter: 4/5 in cans in Oct 17, again in cans March and June 2018. This is the beer that convinced me that Second Chance is one of the best breweries in San Diego. The deep roast on the malts in this porter gives it a nutty flavor, which is in turn nicely complemented by subtle cocoa. Deep and satisfying. Better warmer. Black with a thick but temporary head. I love the can design: elegant and alluring, like the beer itself. This averages 3.83/5 on Untappd with 2550 ratings. There's a version of this with coconut--Coco Rasa, so far only available on draft--that is even better than the two-golds-in-a-row base version (I rated it 4.5/5, one of the highest ratings I have ever given a beer, in the top 3.5% of all beers I have rated). Go try it: the Second Chance Beer Lounge in North Park is awesome if you haven't been there yet.
Back in the ESSA, Silver in English-style Summer Ale: Sept 2017 at Third Avenue Alehouse--liked it, but wasn't especially wowed. Similar reaction to sample at Guild Fest during SD Beer Week 2017; 3.5/5. I liked Karl Strauss Liquid A/C much better. I've checked this in twice on Untappd, but by an unfortunate coincidence I was in social situations both times and didn't give a description I can copy here. This averages 3.58/5 on Untappd with just 227 ratings. By the way, if you would like to buy a GABF-winning brewery, this one is for sale.
Sour Wench Blackberry Ale, Silver in Fruited American-Style Sour Ale [no gold awarded]. I rated it 3.5/5 on October 11, 2017. Blackberry & vinegar/funky nose, a tad sweet on palate, only mildly sour, CO2 fizz. Reminds me of sour candies I had as a kid. To me, this seems like a beginner beer--that's not a dig, there is definitely a place for that. This averages 3.76/5 on Untappd with 39,028 ratings since the entry was created in 2010.
Manta Ray, Gold for Imperial India Pale Ale. I rated it 4.5/5 on October 11, 2017. I've had this on several occasions, both draft and bottle, and I've noticed that while it is always good, it is not always exactly the same. That's probably the hops falling off as it ages. At its best--a fresh batch on draft at the brewery--this is one of the best west coast IIPAs out there. Bright citrus nose with a piney background, clean crisp first sip, balanced, with a bitter finish but not overly so. Just “wow”: a worthy GABF17 Gold. This averages 3.91/5 on Untappd with 51,244 ratings. Some craft beer nerds will chafe at the fact that Ballast Point is not a craft brewery according to the Brewers Association definition since it was purchased by Corona's owner, Constellation Brands. But the fact that Ballast didn't just win two GABF medals this year (an extremely impressive feat for any brewery), it won perhaps the most-coveted Imperial IPA category, tells you they are making excellent beer.
Herd of Turtles, Silver in Baltic-Style Porter. I rated it 4/5 in December 2017. When I was looking up this beer, I learned that Baltic porters are actually lagers rather than ales. From the taste, you probably wouldn't have guessed. The nose is malty and boozy, the palate has elements of raisin, roasted malts, and biscuit, with noticeable ABV warmth. It is a satisfying beer. This averages 3.81/5 on Untappd with 955 ratings.
Blonde, Bronze for Golden or Blonde Ale. I have had this several times and rated it 3.5/5. Crystal clear with a tawny golden color. The aroma is malty, and the flavor is, too--and sweet. It finishes clean without much bitterness (Hallertau hops) and almost no aftertaste. This averages 3.35/5 on Untappd with 873 ratings. That's a weirdly low number of ratings for a GABF winner that is constantly available at three popular tasting rooms--I wonder if that is because the Culture locations all have almost nowhere to sit or put your beer down, so you don't have a free hand to do Untappd? I think it rates lower than many other GABF winners on Untappd (and in my estimation) also because of the fact that it is a very simple, straightforward beer built for drinkability rather than to bowl you over with flavor.
AleSmith Wee Heavy, Bronze for Scotch Ale. I had this in a flight of AleSmith medal winners at the brewery and rated it 4.25/5. At 10% ABV it can't get away from being boozy, but it compensates by being full of flavor: malty, toasty, sweet and smooth--there's a note that reminded me of butterscotch in some ways. I couldn't drink it all the time, but it is tasty. This averages 3.97/5 on Untappd with 20,482 ratings (the beer was added to Untappd in 2010 but existed before that, also winning a GABF medal in 2008).
Z Man Stout, Silver for Export Stout. I had a bourbon barrel-aged (BBA) version at the Carlsbad location in December but I didn’t think much of it, 3.5/5. I loved it non-BBA at Pizza Port Solana Beach in April 2018: 4.25/5. This beer is very dark brown, has a thin tan head that dissipates quickly, features prominent toasty/malty flavors, and its mouthfeel is on the thin side (almost like a brown ale). Z Man averages 3.78/5 on Untappd with a mere 1070 ratings--a low number for a beer added to Untappd in 2012. This beer also just was awarded a 2018 LA International Beer Competition gold.
Guillaume, Belgian Blonde Ale, 4.3% ABV. Gold for Session Beer. This averages 3.61/5 on Untappd with 515 ratings. I accidentally found this at Regents Pizzeria the day before I was going to make this post, which made me happy. I’m not into Belgian beers, so it didn’t make a big impression on me. But it is clearly well made. It is a bright, nearly perfectly clear golden color, with a thin white head that rings the glass. The aroma is banana and clove, as you might expect. The flavor is similar, plus maltiness in the background, with the first impression being the sharpness of carbonation. The finish reminds me of Champaign. Banana/clove lingers on the aftertaste. My personal rating (which includes my bias against Belgians—the beers, I mean) is 3.25/5.
SouthNorte Beer Co.
Agavamente, Bronze for Specialty Beer. That's a great result for a brand new brewery--one that doesn't even have its own brewery. (SouthNorte guest brews at Coronado Brewing Co.) I had it at the SD Guildfest in 2017, then on draft at Regents Pizza in May 2018. This is the best lager I have ever had. Smooth, balanced, beautiful pink/red color, slightly sweet and refreshing. I get more hibiscus/rose hip flavor than agave sweetness, despite the name. I rate it 4.25/5. This averages 3.67/5 on Untappd with a mere 55 ratings, only 9 of which were posted before May 2018. It has been unavailable since just after GABF until very recently: it was released county-wide in May both on draft and in cans.
You are right, Belching Beaver didn't win any 2017 GABF medals. But Thizz is What It Is, a 9% ABV Double IPA, did win the Alpha King Challenge held in advance of the GABF. When I had it at the main brewery in January, I was definitely impressed. It has a gold-brown color, and a thin but persistent white head that laces the glass. The aroma and flavor are floral and tropical/juicy. There's a background pineyness, and a lingering but not-too-intense bitterness. All the elements work together beautifully. I rated it 4/5. It is also $9 per pint at the brewery. On Untappd it averages 3.95/5 on 498 ratings--basically tied for the highest average rating of any of the medal-winning beers in this list.
The ones I haven't tried yet:
Stone Brewing Bistro and Gardens--Liberty Station
Witty Moron, Gold for Other Belgian Style Ale. It is described as a black witbier, which sounds intriguing. This averages 3.68/5 on Untappd on 5834 ratings.
Karl Strauss Brewing Co., Carlsbad
Orange Blossom Honey Common, Gold for Honey Beer. This averages 3.58/5 on Untappd with a mere 42 ratings, only two of which are from April of this year and the rest from October 2017. I know I am really going to enjoy this one when I finally get to try it.
Hidden Gem Dunkelweizen, Silver for German-Style Wheat Ale. 5.5% ABV dark-style German wheat beer. This averages 3.67/5 on Untappd with just 196 ratings. I made a special trip to OB to go try this in early June because the online beer listing said it was available. It turns out they had just run out of it by the time I arrived (the bartender didn't even know yet, having just come on shift)--the new menus had it marked "coming soon!" The bartender told me they try to keep this on all the time since it has become one of their more popular beers.
If and when I'm able try the remaining items on this list, I'll update this post. In the meantime, get thee to a brewery and try some of these delicious beers--if you can find them!