There are always plenty of surprises when the winning breweries are announced at the Great American Beer Festival, the prestigious awards handed out annually in dozens of beer categories.
A GABF citation can put newcomers on the map or cement the reputations of talented veterans. This is one of the awards that sells good beer fast.
One name I would not be surprised to see pop up at GABF 2015 in two weeks in Denver is Mike Mraz of Mraz Brewing.
He’s a skillful and creative brewer appreciated mostly by serious beer geeks, for now.
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But he’s about to break out in a big way. It has to happen. His beers, many of them aged in barrels and brewed in the Belgian style, are so skillfully made, dynamic, food-friendly and distinctly delicious that they cannot remain a niche item for much longer.
Mraz’s reputation as a master of barrel-aged beer is growing quickly. Many of his beers are brewed with fresh fruit, including raspberries, cherries, peaches, blackberries and kiwi. More and more, folks are clamoring to find out what all the fuss is about. Some of his latest bottle releases, including the Blackberry Saison Je’, have sold out in hours, not days. (With a nod to Belgian tradition, Mraz included his 5-year-old daughter Charlotte’s middle name, “Je’.”)
I can understand why. Several of Mraz’s creations, including that saison and another made with peaches, are among the most memorable beers I tasted in 2015. How can beer be so big and full-flavored, yet be tempered with such balance and elegance?
When I visited the brewery recently, Mraz, whose creative energy always seems to be churning, was excited about a new saison made with 50 pounds of kiwi and dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand. I can only imagine how that must taste. It was going to spend more time in the barrel before being released to his adoring fans.
Mraz is working this kind of magic with just three employees toiling in a tiny space in an El Dorado Hills shopping center. Earlier in 2015, he acquired a 3,000-square-foot warehouse 5 miles away to store the beer aging in barrels.
Mraz is not one to toot his own horn. Indeed, the brewery’s labels, while artistic and dramatic, have the name “Mraz” in minuscule letters that almost no one could spot on store shelves.
“I let my beers stand for themselves. Our logo stands out, and you’ll see the wax (seal) for the barrel-aged ones,” he said when told that his beers can be a challenge to run down in stores.
Mraz believes in his quest to reach brewing nirvana. He cashed in his 401(k) from his days in the automotive repair industry to start Mraz Brewing in May 2013. He was a foodie and wine enthusiast before he became a brewer, which explains his approach to flavor and his appreciation for balancing the acidity in his sours.
“Everybody asks, ‘What’s your business model?’ I don’t necessarily want to be Russian River, but if you’re going to follow a business model, that’s not a bad one,” Mraz said of the Santa Rosa brewery known for Pliny the Elder and an array of world-class barrel-aged beers. “They make a bunch of limited-run stuff and Vinnie (Cilurzo) is happy with the beer he makes. When he does a bottle release, it sells out.”
Those eight-hour lines for famous beer in downtown Santa Rosa have not happened yet at this tiny El Dorado Hills brewery. But when the beer is consistently this good, the clamoring for all things Mraz is bound to grow.
As for GABF, Mraz, like scores of other commercial brewers, has submitted his best work for scrutiny by the judges. He’ll wait and see how the awards sort themselves out. There is no more competitive beer event in the United States.
So far, more customers have weighed in with their own accolades. Referring to the beer geeks out there, Mraz said with a smile, “If I can make a beer so good they’re not going to take it to the bottle shares, I’ve succeeded.”