Beer awards are a great. They aren’t everything, though.

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This was a great year to be a West Coast brewer, especially in California, Colorado and Oregon. Those three states collected 123 medals combined during this year’s Great American Beer Festival. (Colorado came in second to California with 46 medals this year, and first in Golds with 19… shazam!)

With all of the beer out here I’m not surprised, and it’s good to have something physical to point to when I start getting snooty about the brew culture where I live. But with so many quality breweries here and across the country and with so few medals to go around, I start to see the ceremony as a double-edged sword.

With America’s craft brewing bubble growing each year, I can’t help wondering if these ceremonies do more for breweries by encouraging competition and promoting new ideas, or less by punishing the breweries that don’t win – especially when so many of their neighbors have.

Case in point: Earlier last week I had the chance to visit the three-year-old Denver watering hole Strange Brewing, whose barley wine won big during last year’s GABF. It caught a soft spot with me right away. Nestled in a sketchy part of town, the taproom might be able to sit inside a 7- Eleven. But it was brimming with a loud, friendly crowd, and I had the impression I was the only one there who hadn’t been there every Friday since 2011. Even better, the 10-beer flight I bought (seen in the picture) didn’t have a single dud. Think fresh krieks, wholesome IPAs, a pumpkin porter that didn’t taste like candy and an ale that did taste like a loaf of warm bread from Macaroni Grill. 

They didn’t win anything this year.

One of the brewery’s co-owners, who went by “Jules,” humored me after I ambushed her with questions when she walked by my table. This was the night before the awards were announced, so she was saying that she hoped their brewery would bring home at least one medal from the GABF (they can submit entries in 10 categories). Makes sense.

But when she started talking about the Denver beer scene, it brought a new light to the pursuit. For some reason it hadn’t dawned on me that with so many brewery options in town, there was also more competition for customers. Again, Strange was just about packed when I was there, so they didn’t appear to be suffering too badly. And she said the breweries work with each other, collaborate and give each other free beer (!). But with every new brewery that opens, that’s fewer people around to buy your product, which makes it harder to stay afloat, let alone prosper and expand.

I’m all for letting the market do its thing: Let the best breweries fight for my money and/or loyalty. And people are going to buy good beer no matter what accolades are attached to it. But with some breweries receiving awards – and with it national recognition – it leaves others in the dark… and I wonder if that could spell the kiss of death for a brewery with a good feel and a good product.

That’s taking it to the extreme, but you can at least feel a little bad when all your favorites don’t win. Life is rough.

Anyways, here’s a review of a couple of the beers I tried last week: One from Strange and one that I picked up specially from Mr. B’s Wine & Spirits in downtown Denver. It’s from SOUTH AMERICA.

Strange Brewing Zora Rosemary Pale Ale: 4

How there aren’t more beers like this around is beyond me. Zora is refreshing and unusual. It’s a lighter gold with a good head and lacing. And like I said above, it smells like the fresh bread they give you at Macaroni Grill. Think roasted dough and dried rosemary (go figure). Even better, the rosemary comes through in the taste, too. More bread! Add to that a slightly herbal bitterness, some lemon and wheat and you’ve got a meal in a bottle. Or at least the start of one.

Colorado Brewing Vixnu Imperial IPA: 4

What a big, catty, hop-nasty beer from Brazil! Vixnu is a lightly hazy, peachy amber that pours with a huge head and some thick lacing on the sides. It smells like some glorious blend of peaches, pine and fresh grapefruit juice. Not sure how old it is (maybe bottled in July?) but it’s still pungent. The taste stacks up with many imperial IPAs brewed stateside, with a hunk of catty, bitter hops that hits all the way through. It’s also a little boozy. Some sweetness comes from the hops, but it unmistakeably leans more hoppy. It’s bitter and intense, with some great flavors. I wish it had a little more malt, but it’s still delicious. If you can find it, try it!

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