From Trump Hands to a Drama Queen, a look inside Colorado breweries’ GABF success

Cold, frothy beer. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)beer; nightlife; kevinjbeaty; bars; denverite; denver; colorado;
Great American Beer Fest, Oct. 6, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) great american beer fest; gabf; denver; colorado; food; nightlife; kevinjbeaty; denverite; denver; colorado;
Great American Beer Fest, Oct. 6, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

When the guys at Cannonball Creek Brewing set out to name their session IPA, they thought small.

The Golden brewery had never made a lower alcohol beer than this crushable hoppy beer, after all.

Putting aside the adage about never mixing politics and business, Cannonball Creek christened its new beer Trump Hands, a reference to a bizarre turn on the 2016 campaign trail that, like most of them, involved the larger-than-life reality star turned Republican presidential candidate. 

To review — and this was about a billion news cycles ago — the size of Donald Trump’s hands came up in a GOP debate back in March, when the session IPA first hit the tap room.  

“It’s not political. It’s anatomical,” brewer Jonathan Lee explained. “The man has small hands.”  

On Saturday morning, the size of the GOP presidential nominee’s hands again took center stage when the beer won gold in the session IPA category at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

In all, 33 Colorado breweries took home 38 medals at the prestigious competition, second only to California. The medal haul is a microcosm of the state’s rich, varied brewing scene, with honors going to megabrewer Coors, independent craft brewing powerhouses such as Left Hand Brewing, reliable mid-sized medal-winners and small guys only starting to build a following.

The list includes eight first-time winners, some brand new and others a bit more established.  

So back to Trump Hands, which clocks in at 4.6 percent alcohol by volume and features a blend of Hallertau Blanc, Mosaic and Amarillo hops.  

Good session beers are lower in alcohol but don’t compromise on flavor. They have found a foothold in craft brewing in recent years after what seemed like an arms race to jack up ABVs.

As a beer style, session IPAs are hit and miss, with poorer examples coming across as thin hop juice. The best are light in alcohol without being light-bodied.

Cannonball Creek, helmed by alums of the Mountain Sun family of brewpubs, also won gold in Belgian-Style Blonde Ale or Pale for Solid Gold, bringing its all-time GABF medal count to six.

For some breweries, winning a GABF medal can be a life-changing experience, prompting shifts in business plans and strategies to capitalize on the glory.

That won’t happen at Cannonball Creek.

As other breweries rush to put their beer in cans and bottles or change with shifting consumer tastes, Cannonball Creek keeps it simple, selling nearly all of its beer in its tasting room.

“Our whole thing is that we we brew beer that we like, and try to find people who also like enjoying the same beers,” Lee said. “We never look at, ‘What’s the next thing that’s going to sell?’”

For Bootstrap Brewing out of Niwot, the timing of its GABF success is fortuitous, said David Hamilton, Bootstrap’s sales rep. The brewery is in the midst of expanding into a 14,000-square foot former paper warehouse in Longmont.

Bootstrap won gold in the competitive American-style pale ale category for Stick’s Pale Ale, which is brewed with Galaxy hops from Australia, and bronze for Wreak Havoc, an imperial red that will arrive in cans next summer. (All of Bootstrap’s beers are gluten-reduced, helped along by the addition of an enzyme that Hamilton says results in a cleaner finish with not a lot of resin).

The results could provide an immediate sales boost for Stick’s.

“Pale ale next to an IPA doesn’t sell as well,” said Hamilton, standing in the hall Saturday with medals draped around his neck. “In a market that IPA dominates, it’s a hard sell.”

Other takeaways and highlights from Colorado’s medal list:

  • Four Denver breweries were among the eight-first time winners: 14er Brewing Co., founded by a couple of Wheat Ridge guys who sell “Uniquely Crushable” beers, won gold for Chili Beer; well-regarded newcomer Cerebral Brewing won silver in Brett Beer for Dreamy Thing; a little farther east on Colfax, Fiction Beer Co. took a silver in German-Style Schwarzbier for Alternate Present; and Baere Brewing Co., which does lighter-bodied beer styles very well, took bronze in Classic Saison.
  • Denver Beer Co. won its third overall GABF medal and its first gold (in Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beer) with Drama Queen, a red wine barrel-aged saison.
  • The brewery doesn’t fit the Brewers Association’s definition of “craft,” but Blue Moon Brewing is a Denver institution, having birthed its flagship wit here. The brewery, which is part of Coors, won silver for a Mango wheat beer and opened a big new tap room in RiNo this year.
  • You can count on Left Hand Brewing of Longmont and Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora to bring home hardware. Left Hand won its 26th GABF medal (a silver in Export Stout for Fade to Black, Volume 1, which has won before). Dry Dock, which brews at two locations, took its 23rd overall medal with a silver in Munich-Style Helles.