As I wrote about in August, the Great American Beer Festival is both a beer festival and a massive competition for professional breweries. In the nascent days of craft beer, its award ceremony was like the Academy Awards of beer, awarding gold, silver or bronze medals for every style of beer. If you won a medal there, you were making a beer that stood out significantly from its peers and served as the best national example of the style. Brewpubs and breweries often displayed their medals prominently at their facilities – a lifetime achievement for many aspiring brewers. The fact that the competition is judged “blind,” where the judges do not know the breweries that have entered, is also a key to its credibility and prestige. The most famous breweries were not always the winners, and often a small underdog would become instantly famous after receiving a medal.
The first brewery in Maine to be the recipient of a Great American Beer Festival medal was not Allagash, nor Maine’s first brewery, Geary’s. It was, in fact, Sea Dog Brewery, which in 1994 won a gold medal for its Oktoberfest. This beer, which is still available at some of the Sea Dog brewpub locations this time of year, was (and is) a malt-forward Oktoberfest-style beer and, at the time, was one of the few produced in the U.S.
Because the competition is in Denver, Colorado, not many breweries from Maine or the Northeast have regularly entered beers to be judged. Many have cited the expense and time it takes to ship the beer (let alone to try and attend themselves). But since that first award, Maine has been included on the award stage more often than not. Of the 20 awards earned by Maine breweries since the competition started, 17 went to Allagash Brewing Co. In 2010, Allagash even managed to take home a trio of awards for three distinct beers: a gold medal for Allagash Blonde, a silver for Resurgam (one of its “coolship” beers that is spontaneously fermented with local yeast) and a bronze for Allagash White.
Last year, no Maine breweries brought home a medal, but this year, Allagash’s flagship, White, earned a bronze medal in the Belgian-style witbier category, behind Biere Blanche from Pedal Haus Brewery in Tempe, Arizona, and Optimal Wit from Port City Brewing in Alexandria, Virginia. White won gold back in 2002 and has brought home awards three additional times (gold in 2005, bronze in 2010 and gold again in 2015) before being awarded this year’s bronze.
So what is it about White that makes it stand out? Its soft, cirtusy palate and delicate spicy notes stand out from many other styles, and it’s a welcoming beer for both new and experienced drinkers. Allagash’s rigorous quality control procedures ensure that the beer tastes just as good at a bar in Los Angeles, as it does in a flight in the tasting room in Riverside.
It can be easy to forget how different and groundbreaking White was when it first came out. When Allagash opened, there was little consumer familiarity with cloudy or citrusy Belgian-style beers like White. No one was brewing in the Belgian-style in the U.S., and imports were difficult to locate.
Competitions like the Great American Beer Festival favor safer beers that are as close to a style’s perfection as possible. But one of the things that may be special about White is that, in a way, it has defined our tastes nationally for this style. In countless tastings of other similar-style beers, I have heard people make comparisons to Allagash White. When you put all of the accolades aside, it is simply the pinnacle of the style that we have come to know and love.
With all of the hoppy beer available and the rise of kettle sour and tart beers, it may have been a while since you’ve had a White. I highly recommend that you seek out one on draft or in the tasting room and remind yourself of the power of it. It is undeniable that Allagash owner Rob Todd significantly contributed to the popularity of Belgian-style beer in the U.S. White may have been many Americans’ first introduction to a beer that was something other than a German-style lager or an English ale.
A debate has begun about whether or not Great American Beer Festival medals are relevant anymore. The dominant model that breweries are adopting is to constantly rotate their beers to satisfy fickle tastes. In a way, this undermines the reason that you would, as a brewer, want to enter your beer. Why seek praise for a one-off beer that no one will ever be able to drink again?
Allagash White is the opposite of that. Sold across most of the U.S., with a majority of the volume being sold beyond Maine’s borders, White is a beer is both accessible to all and worthy of a medal (or many) for its taste and quality. We are just lucky enough to have known that for years, with or without seeing the medals in the wall.