Intriguing discoveries at the ACBF

The “East Coast’s largest celebration of craft beer” happened last weekend in Boston, when more than 140 breweries came to the 2014 American Craft Beer Fest (ACBF) to share their wares with thousands of thirsty beer geeks. It was a festival of fun, a mountain of malts, a harvest of hops, and a litany of ludicrously long lines.

Beer fests are a blast, but popularity and hype makes some breweries end up with lines that are simply not worth standing in for a 2-ounce pour. My wife and I often use the strategy of one-person waits while the other goes to a shorter line for a pour, then we switch places and person two heads out for beer.

That plan works quite often and quite nicely, but this year the ACBF was cruel enough to put the two most sought-after breweries (Lawson’s Finest Liquids and Tree House Brewing) next to each other. Of course, this created a logjam of lager lovers that was impenetrable unless one was willing to wait 15-plus minutes for a 2-ounce pour. Our plan thwarted, we walked away from that corner empty-handed.

Instead, Mrs. Hunting and I cruised the rest of the floor, going aisle-by-aisle, sampling from breweries we liked, breweries that had interesting booths, and breweries with shorter lines. We managed to get through about 70 percent of the fest (not trying every brewery, of course) in the allotted 3 1/2 hours, trying only beers we had never had, and made several nifty discoveries.

Our first find came from Martha’s Vineyard, when we quaffed Offshore Ale Company’s The Lazy Frog. The IPA was a revelation of intense flavors that somehow managed to pack a lot of hop punch while remaining balanced. Super citrusy with notes of pine, the Lazy Frog hopped all over our palates with a real sweetness and slick mouthfeel. At 7% ABV, Lazy Frog falls into what I consider the sweet spot of IPA alcohol levels — strong enough to have a lot of character, but not so full of malts that it becomes “hot” (alcohol-flavored) or cloyingly sweet.

I also discovered a new Vineyard brewery — Bad Martha Brewing. Their beer is available all over the island, and all over the Boston area, but almost nowhere around here. Their brew had promise, with their Vineyard Summer Ale being a crisp, refreshing, easy-drinking pilsner. I spoke to one of their owners for a bit, and he’s looking to get into the New Bedford market, so keep your eyes open.

It wouldn’t be a beer fest without a stop by the Pretty Things booth. I’ve written before about the Cambridge-based company that brews at Buzzards Bay in Westport, and their stuff is always inventive and usually delicious. Their Grampus Hoppy Golden Double Mash was an impressive 10.5% ABV that was sweet and complex, with a wide range of flavors like caramel, toffee, candy sugar, and fruit. Definitely worth picking up if you see it in a bottle or on tap.

From that other big Massachusetts fishing port, Gloucester, comes Cape Ann Brewing’s Old Grog. The 7.5% “old ale” is a complex brown ale that uses lemongrass, nutmeg, seven different malts, eye of newt (not really), and is then aged in a rum barrel. The beer is simply loaded with crazy old-timey flavors like molasses and sarsaparilla, but somehow manages to avoid being overpowering. That being said, don’t give it to your Bud/Miller/Coors drinking uncle. This is a craft beer drinker’s brew.

I try to avoid mentioning beers that are unavailable here in the area, but I have to tell you about two really interesting ones I tried. One was by Holyoke’s High & Mighty Beer, whose Russell’s Viper can only be had at the fest and at Russell House Tavern in Hahvahd Squayah in Cambridge. It’s a hoppy, lightly smoked, oak-aged pale ale that was simultaneously subtle and complex.

The other out-of-the-way beer that stood out was Relic Brewing’s Kiwi Brett IPA. The Hartford, Connecticut area brewery’s Kiwi Brett incorporates New Zealand hops’ musty, resinous, lime and passionfruit flavors with the tart tang that comes from the use of brettanomyces (“Brett,” in brewing lingo). Brett, a cousin of the standard ale yeasts, has been the bane of brewers’ existence for centuries, as it leads to sharp, funky spices and loves to invade improperly sanitized brewing vessels. When used properly, though, it creates a sour complexity that can lead to a crisp, highly refreshing beer. Kiwi Brett IPA is one of those beers. If you’re ever out near Hartford, see if you can find some. It’s well worth the look.

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Originally published on June 5, 2014