Nevada Breweries Win Big at the 33rd Great American Beer Festival


Photo credit: Brewers Association

The 2019 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) presented by the Brewers Association, the world’s largest commercial beer competition, was held on Oct. 5 in Denver. Nevada breweries had their best showing ever, coming home with six medallions, four of which were golds, surpassing the silver state’s previous best showing of five wins in 2015. This was the 33rd edition of the GABF competition, which attracted a record number of 9,497 entries (plus 113 Pro-Am and 70 Collaboration entries) from 2,295 breweries from every state in the US, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. All were vying for only 325 medals in 107 beer categories, to establish their beer as the best examples of each style in the country.

Obviously, winning even one medal in such a wide-ranging competition with so many entries and relatively few awards is a monumental accomplishment, especially for a comparatively small state such as Nevada that has less than 50 breweries. Add to that the fact that one of the winning Nevada breweries, Big Dog’s, brought home three medallions! Now, on to the details of the accolades.  

It’s only fitting that I begin with Great Basin Brewing, which is not only Nevada’s oldest brewery in modern times (opened in 1993), but the state’s most award-winning. The Reno-based brewery earned a gold medal for its Bitchin’ Berry in the Fruit Wheat Beer category with 109 entries. This win was not only Great Basin’s 15th GABF medal (the most for any Nevada brewery), but the second for Bitchin’ Berry, which also took a silver at the 2013 GABF, and also a bronze at the 2013 World Beer Cup.

As mentioned, Big Dog’s Brewing accomplished the unthinkable, three medals, which is even more impressive considering each brewery is only allowed to submit six entries. These wins place the Vegas-based brewery tied for 2nd with Chicago Brewing of Nevada brewery GABF wins, with 14 medals, just one shy of Great Basin. But equally stunning is that Big Dog’s Head Brewer Dave Pascual, who I continue to dub the “Michael Phelps of Nevada brewers,” ranks as the person who has garnered more major medal wins than any other brewer in the state. These recent wins bring his total to 11 GABF, with several of those earned while he was brewing at Chicago Brewing, as well as several World Beer Cup wins. 

While Dave has built quite a reputation for medaling in Belgian styles, the three Big Dog’s wins this year were for non-Belgian styles. It took the gold for its Knotty Dog, a 10% English-Style Barleywine aged 12 months in bourbon barrels in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer category with 155 entries; bronze for And the Award Gose to..., a Leipzig-Style Gose in the German-Style Sour Ale category with 63 entries; and bronze for Willie Big Dog, a Robust Porter aged in bourbon barrels for about 10 months, a collaboration brew with Public Coast Brewing Co. from Oregon in the Collaboration Competition with 70 entries. 

Reno’s IMBĪB Custom Brews, which earlier this year celebrated its 4th anniversary, has averaged winning one medal per year, as this year it brought home its 3rd GABF medal, a gold in the Pro-Am Competition with 113 entries, which pairs homebrewers with professional brewers who scale up their award-winning homebrew recipes. Its winner was Distemper, a Belgian Blonde Ale aged in red wine barrels for a year, brewed with AHA member Lance Newlin, who won the IMBĪB-sponsored "2018 Battle of the Pro-Am." 

A first time winner was the 26-year-old Erik Nielson, who was promoted to head brewer at Las Vegas’ Chicago Brewing in February, 2018, after having served as assistant brewer since 2016. The native Las Vegan surely felt some pressure to keep up the winning tradition his brewery had initiated, accumulating 13 previous GABF medals under predecessors Dave Pascual and Kyle Cormier. Erik now has a medal to call his own, having earned the gold in the Belgian-Style Dark Strong Ale or Belgian-Style Quadrupel category with 62 entries, for his Quad Damn It Quadrupel, making this win the brewery’s 14th GABF medal and 18th total major medal, including four World Beer Cup honors. 

Following are quotes from each of the winning breweries’ brewers.

Great Basin Co-Founder/Brewmaster Tom Young: This is our 15th GABF medal.  With almost 10,000 entries and only a little over 100 gold medals—we are ecstatic!  Three cheers to our awesome brew team who have all provided input to make this a remarkable beer.

We are always thrilled to be recognized for all the hard work and effort our brew team puts into making our brews.  US brewers are making some truly remarkable beers and we are proud to be a member of that club.  The gold for Bitchin' Berry is particularly special because it is a beer that we have been refining since (and before) we first starting brewing at Great Basin in 1993.  Once, before Great Basin, I was an avid hombrewer and was regularly experimenting with fruits.  One year, one of my "berry beers" received the bronze (or whatever the award was at that time) in the "fruit beer category" in the HWBTA national homebrew competition.  At this time, the AHA and HWBTA were vying to be the owner of the "U.S. championship beer competition."  This was the start of Bitchin' Berry.  

We have been brewing a version of this beer since we opened Great Basin in 1993, although the original name was “Rail City Raspberry.”  My wife, Bonda, is particularly fond of this beer, so many years ago we changed the name to (Bonda's) “Bitchin' Berry.”  Each time we brewed the beer we have made adjustments, mostly in brewing procedures that have evolved into what the beer is today.  Bitchin' Berry is a difficult beer to brew. We have lots of steps in the process that start in the brewing kettle but continue into the fermentation stages where we adjust fermentation processes and do multiple additions of a blend of real berries, not extracts.  

I have fond memories of fashioning makeshift funnels out of plastic buckets and having brewer Jazz Aldrich hand me at the top of a ladder sloppy buckets of a blend of berries and trying to coax them into the fermentation tanks—wearing lots of evidence of the blood red berries on our once white tee shirts.  We are not finished with this beer and will still make adjustments until the beer is “perfect.”  Since we don't really know what “perfect” is, I suspect we will continue making adjustments for years to come. 

We are proud of Nevada breweries wins this year at what has been the largest brewery competition held. Six medals, including three gold medals for Nevada breweries is impressive, and thumbs up to Big Dog's—three medals.  

Big Dog’s Head Brewer Dave Pascual: Three wins is something that most of us brewers only dream of, especially since we only have one brewery that can submit entries (this year six entries, one being a collaboration entry).  Big Dog’s has now won 14 GABF medals, which ties us with Chicago Brewing Co. with the most GABF medals in Las Vegas.  I personally, have now been blessed to have won 11 medals at the GABF. As for the beers submitted, let's go in order of what we won.  

Willie Big Dog, at 11.4% ABV, was a collaboration with our family at Public Coast Brewing Co. in Cannon Beach, Oregon.  I worked with their head brewer, Will Leroux, in formulating a Robust Porter aged in bourbon barrels for about 10 months.  It was last November when I flew up there and worked with their team in brewing the beer.  We are so happy that both our breweries will be forever tied to winning a medal on the biggest stage.

Knotty Dog is a 10% English-Style Barleywine that we aged 12 months in bourbon barrels.  The recipe was based off of an English Barleywine that was, in my mind, as tasty as this gold medal winner.  We knew the base beer prior to aging was fantastic, so it was then up to the barrel to not f#$% it up, so am glad that it didn't!

And the Award Gose to... is our 5% Leipzig-Style Gose.  We love to come up with clever names and during the GABF registration I decided to enter it as such. Very ambitious, and we would have looked a little silly if we didn't win anything, so I’m glad we did! It got a roar of laughter at GABF after it was announced. It was a beer that originally the whole batch was to be fruited, but then (we) decided that base beer was solid: The fruit, spice, acidity, brininess were wonderful and then we decided to submit it as is, and the rest is history!  

IMBIB Co-Founder Matt Johnson: This is our third GABF medal. We are so honored to have won gold in the Pro-Am category as we are former homebrewers and believe that homebrewers continue to drive commercial innovation. This is one of the best honors we could have received in a highly competitive category in which there are no style guidelines. This beer is a barrel-aged sour beer, a Belgian Blonde ale aged in red wine barrels for a year and then bottle conditioned. The homebrewer, AHA member Lance Newlin, won our "2018 Battle of the Pro-Am." We took his recipe, adapted it to commercial scale and then aged it in two different barrels—one with the homebrewer's sour culture and one with our sour culture—and then blended them together to achieve the balance we were looking for. 

Chicago Brewing Head Brewer Erik Nielsen: It really is such an unreal feeling winning a gold medal at GABF. When they announced the winner, I could not believe that it was actually happening. Since taking over as Head Brewer in February, 2018, I tried not to think about winning medals, but I knew it was a tradition that I had to keep up since we (Chicago Brewing) had won 13 GABF medals in the past. I am extremely proud to represent our company, Nevada, and especially Las Vegas, in the world’s largest commercial beer competition.