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[Photographs: Sean Buchan]

Denver, Colorado's Great American Beer Festival has evolved over the past few years. With an increasing number of events occurring outside of the festival itself, you might have the best beer of your life at just about any good Denver beer bar if your timing's right. Between the Denver Rare Beer Tasting, Crooked Stave's What the Funk!? Festival, and GABF itself, we tried a plethora of outstanding brews, including some of the rarest beers on earth.

At this year's GABF, hundreds of breweries competed for medals, entering a total of 4,809 beers between the 84 recognized beer categories. So we couldn't try every one (and live to tell the tale) but we managed more than our fair share. Here are our favorites from all of the events (in no particular order).

Prairie Artisan Ales Bomb de Balcones

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Prairie Artisan Ales is a relatively new brewery out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, started by brothers Chase and Colin Healey. Prior to starting Prairie, Chase was the head brewer at COOP Ale Works. They burst onto the scene with favorites like Prairie Ale, Prairie Hop, and 'Merica. This beer's another story: the 14.0% ABV Imperial Stout is aged on Nordaggios coffee, cacao nibs, vanilla beans, and chili peppers. We tried the base beer at What the Funk!? and it was excellent. The robust mouthfeel and perfect marriage of added spices completely masked the enormous alcohol content. Bomb de Balcones, served at the Denver Rare Beer Tasting, was a rum barrel aged version that was (accidentally) over-spiced according to Head Brewer Chase. While the cacao nibs dominated the palate more than in the base beer, we loved every sip of this monster beer.

Goose Island Napa County Stout

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Goose Island Beer Company (of Chicago, Illinois) essentially started the whole bourbon-barrel-aged stout craze and hasn't stopped cranking out new and exciting variations of their Bourbon County Stout since. The Napa County Stout was aged in Merlot barrels with Brettanomyces brux, a Belgian wild yeast strain known for it's bombastic fruitiness. True to the BCS brand, this stout poured inky black and was so thick it was almost chewy. The flavors of red wine proved a pleasing juxtaposition against the chocolate, roast, vanilla, and espresso. This is definitely a variant we'd love to see bottled (and in our glass again).

Side Project Brewing Saison du Fermier

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Side Project is, well... the side project of Perennial Artisan Ale's Head Brewer Cory King (both located in St. Louis, Missouri). Housed inside Perennial (at least for now), Side Project is focusing on barrel aged, mostly barrel fermented beers, and they've just started bottling some of their creations. Among the first releases was Saison du Fermier, a rustic four-malt Saison fermented and aged in Chardonnay barrels for 3 months with 6 different yeast strains (2 Saccharomyces and 4 Brettanomyces) and 2 bacteria strains. The result is a spectacularly balanced farmhouse ale with some funky barnyard notes, lemony tartness, and a dry, vinous finish. We're very excited to see what Cory comes up with next in his Side Project!

Funky Buddha Maple Bacon Coffee Porter

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Funky Buddha may have flown under the radar last year, but their line at GABF was consistently longer than fan favorites New Glarus, The Bruery, and Russian River this year. Funky Buddha has gone from brewing in a 1.5 bbl system in the back of a night club to opening a brand-new 30 bbl production facility in Oakland Park, Florida. All of their beers were delicious, from No Crusts, which tasted identical to a PB&J sandwich, to Last Snow, a porter reminiscent of an Almond Joy. Our favorite was the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter. Each flavor comes through, one at a time. The maple syrup sweetness hits first, followed by coffee, then chocolate, and finishes with a lingering smokiness that can only remind you of bacon (without all the grease and salt).

The Commons Brewery Myrtle

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The Commons Brewery (of Portland, Oregon) is a relatively small operation focused on brewing European styles. They also started on a 1.5 bbl system (in a garage), and soon upgraded to a 7 bbl brewery with a tasting room. They're perhaps most well known for their Urban Farmhouse Ale, which was a Bronze medalist in the 2012 World Beer Cup and Silver medalist in this year's GABF. But that's not the only beer that earned them a Silver medal this year. Myrtle is fermented with Lactobacillus along with their house farmhouse strain. It uses locally grown Meridian hops that provide a refreshing lemony burst. Once poured (even from a plastic pitcher), this highly effervescent saison releases aromas of fresh-baked sourdough bread, lemon, and straw. It's as tart as advertised, and the blend of citrus flavors with fruity and earthy notes is incredible.

Avery Brewing Company Lilikoi Kepolo

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Another medalist at this year's festival, Avery Brewing Company (of Boulder, Colorado) took home a Bronze medal in the fruit category for Lilikoi Kepolo, a Belgian witbier with passionfruit. Lilikoi is in fact White Rascal (which won a Silver medal last year) with 15 pounds of passionfruit per barrel added after primary fermentation. What was once a tap room cult favorite has now been thrust into the spotlight. The aroma bursts out of the glass after it's poured, smelling of passionfruit (duh), pineapple, fruity hops, and wheat. Lilikoi Kepolo has a moderate tartness that marries with the sweetness of the passionfruit exceptionally well, making this one of the most refreshing beers we had all week. Who needs mimosas when you have this?

Did you attend the Great American Beer Festival this year? Which beers stood out to you?

About the Author: Sean Buchan covers the Denver craft beer scene for Denver off the Wagon in addition to doing freelance photography for Colorado breweries. You can also view his beer photography on his blog, Beertographer, here.

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