It happens every year around this time. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to go to the Great American Beer Festival this year but I've been in the past and based on what I've heard from friends and colleagues, it was as good as ever. While beer lovers, connoisseurs, brewers and writers came together to enjoy samples of beer from across the country, a select group of professionals sat down to elect the very best of the bunch.
The judges perform a series of blind tastings to choose a gold, silver and bronze winner in 84 different categories. I took a closer look at five of those 84 gold medal winners.
Beer image via Shutterstock
American-Style Amber or Red Ale
Troegs Brewing Company, which ended up taking home three gold medals this year, earned this top honor with their HopBack Amber Ale, a brew that displays a piney aroma along with a floral flavor that's well balanced by toasty caramel malt.
Amber or red ale is a catch-all phrase for beers that have a lighter color than a dark ale. They're typically amber to dark red in color and tend to be more malt forward. Hops flavors can range from very low to high -- as you'll note with Troegs' entry.
The name of the beer comes from a specialized vessel used in the Hershey, Pa. brewery that mixes whole flower hops through the concoction. This is a great pairing for a nice, hearty steak.
English Style India Pale Ale
About a year and a half ago, the news broke that Anheuser Busch was buying Goose Island in Chicago, Ill. Craft beer lovers everywhere questioned whether the quality of the brewery's product -- including what might be one of the most popular IPAs in the country -- would decrease. The fact that Goose Island took home the gold for their India Pale Ale should put that debate to rest.
The India Pale Ale, commonly known as an IPA, has been around since a time when England shipped beer to India. An extra dose of hops were required to preserve the flavor. Today, most American styles take the hops to an extreme while Goose Island remains true to the more drinkable English style.
This is a good companion for spicy foods -- curry is a good choice.
Old Ale or Strong Ale
An interesting brewpub located in Pittsburgh, The Church Brew Works is located in (you guessed it) an old church. While a bit gimmicky, they have a full brew pub (located on what used to be the altar) and produce some very interesting beers. That's why their Heini's Hooch won gold in this category.
An old or strong ale (in this case, an American-style strong ale) is typically an ale that's high in alcohol, 7.0 percent ABV or higher. It can range pretty widely in style but this particular entry was aged in a bourbon barrel lending a bite of bourbon, vanilla and earthiness to the brown-hued brew.
This is a good after-dinner brew. It's heavy and sweet enough to stand on its own but you could probably pair it with a little apple pie.
Belgian- or French-Style Ale
With a name like Lost Abbey, it makes sense this brewery would be making Belgian-style ales. Not only that -- they do an amazing job of it. So much so that this San Marcos, Cali., brewery is lusted over in states where they don't distribute -- including my home state of New York. Their Saints' Devotion Belgian Pale Ale is no exception.
So what makes an ale a Belgian-style ale? Traditionally, Belgian ales are less bitter and use aged hops to deliver a mild hop finish. They also typically pour with a fluffy white head. The Devotion represents this category well, with clove and citrus fruit in the aromas that are found in the flavor along with a honey sweetness.
This is a good cheese-pairing beer. Go with a goat milk cheese and you should be pretty happy.
Breweries in the South seldom get love from craft beer nerds but there are a lot of great brewers located below the Bible Belt that don't deserve to be overlooked. That's why I'm happy to see the talented brewers at Holy City Brewing in Charleston, S.C. receive the gold in this category for their Pluff Mud Porter.
Porters are an excellent beverage to break out in the winter, but Holy City Brewing's take on this style is something that can be enjoyed year-round. Named for a type of mud with a strong odor found in the marshes of South Carolina, the beer is medium-bodied with notes of chocolate. About once per year, they even age the brew in bourbon barrels.
This is a decent complement for any meaty dish but it's also delicious on its own.
In addition to the individual beer categories, the judging panel also named breweries and brewpubs as overall winners in six categories.
Small BrewPub of the Year: Devil's Backbone Brewing Company in Roseland, Va.
Large BrewPub of the Year: The Church Brew Work in Pittsburgh, Pa.
BrewPub Group Brewer of the Year: Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company in Madison, Wisc.
Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year: Funkwerks in Fort Collins, Colo.
Mid-Size Brewing Company Brewer of the Year: Troegs Brewing Co. in Hershey, Pa.
Large Brewing Company Brewer of the Year: Pabst Brewing Co. in Los Angeles, Calif.
To see all the 2012 winners, you can visit the Great American Beer Festival site here.