The list of winners in the annual California State Fair Commercial Beer Competition can be fascinating to peruse for a number of reasons.
If your favorite brewery made the list, there’s a sense of pride. If you come across your favorite beer, there’s affirmation from the experts. Beyond all that, because this is a California-only competition, the ever-growing number of entries gives us a sense of how the state’s top beer regions stack up.
The competition is bigger and more prestigious than ever, with 1,200-plus entries submitted for blind judging.
Sacramento? At the risk of burying the lead, Ol’ Republic Brewing in Nevada City (yes, we include that in the Sacramento region) just carted off the big prize, Best of Show, with a lesser-known style, Dortmunder export, from the Light Lager category. How will this affect the brewery? More on that in a minute. Southern California’s highly decorated and fast-growing Figueroa Mountain Brewing was named Brewery of the Year.
In Blond Ale, the Sacramento area swept the entire category, claiming gold, silver and bronze – respectively, Moonraker, Mraz and Device. If you’re planning on visiting any or all of these breweries during the hot days of summer, take confidence in knowing that their thirst-quenching blond ales are superb.
Moonraker’s appearance at the head of its class is especially noteworthy: The Auburn brewery has been operating for mere weeks. Last time we checked in with them, they were producing an exciting new IPA called Yojo, brewed in the hazy/juicy Northeast style that exudes hop aroma and flavor with little of the bitterness.
First place will do plenty for Moonraker. More folks will see the name. The brewery’s reputation for quality will immediately climb. And most important, a lot of people will want to try their beer.
Two beers I have championed several times in this column over the years also won big at the State Fair competition. American River Brewing’s Coloma Brown captured its third gold medal in American Ale, cementing this deliciously balanced brown ale as one of Sacramento’s great beers.
New Glory’s thirst-quenching and rather sophisticated Farmhouse French Saison won first place in Belgian and French Ale. The brewery also came out on top with its new and exciting Key Lime Gose, which won in Fruit Beer. Props to Pangaea Bier Cafe’s Anders Kindall who recommended this beer in a recent Beer Run devoted to hot-weather beer options.
And then there’s Sudwerk Brewing in Davis with its outstanding but underrated barrel-aging program. Funke Hop Farm came first in Mixed-Fermentation Beer. A week or so ago on Twitter, I wondered if this is the best beer in the Sacramento area. It also just won gold at the San Diego International Beer Competition, where there were 1,374 overall entries.
Yolo Brewing asserted itself in the State Fair competition with first place in English Brown Ale for Nutty Brown. The win will surely elevate the brewery’s stature and bring even more attention to the West Sacramento craft beer triumvirate, including Bike Dog and Jack Rabbit.
Lodi Beer Co. captured third place in the hotly contested India Pale Ale category with Gold Coast IPA. If you’re looking for a new IPA benchmark, check it out. Lodi also won gold in Light Hybrid Beer for Batch #328. Brand-new Tilted Mash Brewing of Elk Grove has come out swinging, winning bronze in American Pale Ale, another top category in the competition. Check out Summer In The Grove and see how it compares to your favorite pale ale.
Back to Ol’ Republic and its Best of Show. This lager house is on a roll. It had just invested $1 million to expand for a third time, buying the kind of brewing equipment that will allow it to increase capacity from 2,000 barrels to 10,000 barrels over the next two years. It’s going to need to increase output once word spreads about how good the beers are.
The acclaimed beer in question is called Dead Canary, brewed in a centuries-old style called a Dortmunder export. With craft beer dominated by IPAs and so much new interest devoted to sours and barrel aging, is this big win an aberration? A sign of a cultural shift in craft beer? Or a suggestion that the renowned judges eschew trendiness to such an extent they selected a beer in an old-school style that few have ever tried?
These are questions best answered yourself, for your tastes may coincide with the judges or diverge greatly. The only way to find out is to use the winners list to track down breweries you have yet to visit and beers you have yet to try.