There are two major judging competitions for beer. One, the Great American Beer Festival, is held yearly in Denver. It's the largest and most competitive tasting in the country -- but entrants have to be from this country. Winners of a GABF gold medal are deemed the best examples of their respective styles among American craft brewers, but what of the men and women making beer in the other 195 countries across the globe?
These folks send their beer to the World Beer Cup, an earth-wide competition held every other year in a rotating selection of cities. This year's Cup got all Rocky Mountain high in Denver, very near its ancestral home -- Vail, Colorado -- where the competition was first held in 1996. That initial WBC featured 600 beers from 250 breweries; this year saw 4,754 beers from 1,403 breweries in 58 countries. All those brews compete for just 282 awards in 94 beer style categories, and the ones that win are considered by many to be the world's best.
"But Zach!" you may be exclaiming. "If the World Beer Cup is always held in the U.S., wouldn't you see a bias against beers from outside the country?"
The answer, gentle reader, is . . . sort of. A little over one-fourth of this year's WBC medals were given to breweries from outside the United States. However, 28 percent of the beers entered came from another country. It's very likely that if more international brewers sent their beers stateside for judging, we'd see even more parity among medal-winners. Pains are also taken to ensure that beers made outside the U.S. get impartial appraisal. Of the 219 professional brewers and industry experts invited to partake in the World Beer Cup's blind tasting evaluations, 76 percent came from outside the United States.
The point being: The beers that earn awards here are good. Some would say the best in the world. And these are 33 that you can find and drink in Arizona.
GOLD AWARD WINNERS Widmer Hefeweizen Many a craft beer fan's first taste of German-style brewing, Widmer's hef won in the American-Style Wheat Beer With Yeast category. It doesn't quite have the yeasty esters or the wheat content of a true hefeweizen, but it is a spritzy, refreshing brew.
Boulder Shake Chocolate Porter Aptly named, Shake won in the Chocolate Beer category for its rich, sweet cocoa flavors.
Mike Hess Brewing Co. Habitus Hess hit Arizona in early March, bringing with them this intensely bitter imperial IPA brewed with rye (hence its win in the Rye Beer category) and dry-hopped with a pound per barrel of Sterling and Chinook hops.
Lagunitas DayTime Ale Session beers -- brews with big flavor yet low ABV -- are on every brewer's to-do list at the moment, and DayTime illustrates why: a dank, citrusy hop profile belies a mere 4.65 percent alcohol content.
Marble Pilsner This brew from Albuquerque, New Mexico won in a category rarely seen stateside: Kellerbier or Zwicklbier, terms for unpasteurized, cask-conditioned German lagers.
Asahi Super Dry As exciting as the realization that Asahi's flagship brand and winner in the International-Style Lager category isn't just for sake bombs anymore was the image of the Tokyo-based breweries team -- dressed in matching blue kimonos -- jumping for joy on stage as they accepted their award.
Coors Light A gold award for a macro beer? Yup. Since most American craft brewers are wont to brew a beer fit to be entered in the American-Style Lager Or Light Lager Or Pilsener category, the awards often go to larger brewers. That doesn't take away from Coors Light's quality -- it's extremely well-made, for what it is.
Ballast Point Sculpin Interestingly, the tropical-fruit-hop-laden Sculpin wasn't entered as an IPA (the style indicated on bottles and cans of the beer), but rather as an Australasian-Style Pale Ale/International-Style Pale Ale. Gambles like that pay out in gold, occasionally.
Scuttlebutt Old #1 Barleywine Due to brewery contracts, this 13.2 percent ABV Barley Wine-Style Ale from Washington is only available at Total Wine. Find its unique mixture of raisin, cherry cake, brown sugar and maple syrup flavors there.
George Killian's Irish Red Available everywhere? Yes. Still a fine example of an Irish-Style Red Ale? You bet.
Coronado Islander IPA A hop flavor that delivers grapefruit peel and tropical fruits got Coronado's Islander a win in the American-Style Strong Pale Ale category; a silver award for the brewery's Old Scallywag barleywine led WBC organizers to name it this year's Champion Mid-sized Brewery.
Odell Runoff The beer formerly known as "Red Ale," Runoff's balance of brash hop bitterness and well-developed caramel malts gave it a well-earned W in the American-Style Amber/Red Ale category.
Beer Valley Black Flag Imperial Stout Fans of hoppier beers will love the flavor of this American-Style Imperial Stout -- prominent grapefruit juice notes intersect with espresso, molasses and fudge in ways you don't normally find in this category.
Logsdon Cerasus Aged in oak barrels packed with 45 pounds of local, organic cherries, snatching gold in the Other Belgian-Style Ale category was nothing for this Oregon-brewed Flanders red.
Left Hand Sawtooth Balance is the name of the game for Sawtooth -- the beer's malt/hop equilibrium earned it hardware in the traditionally England-dominated Ordinary Or Special Bitter category.
Alesmith Old Ale 2013 Newly designated a yearly release from this San Diego brewery, this brew blends toffee and date notes with 11 percent ABV. It won in the Old Ale Or Strong Ale category.
SILVER AWARD WINNERS Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye While not an incredibly common brewing ingredient, rye does work well in hoppy brews like this IPA from Chico, Calif., which took silver in the Rye Beer category.
Big Sky Power Wagon Power Wagon is technically a wheatwine -- a barleywine brewed primarily with wheat -- but since the style isn't yet recognized at the WBC, it had to get a medal in the Other Strong Beer category.
Green's Endeavor Dubbel Dark Ale The feisty Belgians who brew at Green's focus primarily on Gluten-Free Beer, a category woefully bereft of quality options. This plumby, sugary iteration is one for Celiacs to seek out.
Shmaltz Funky Jewbelation Wood- And Barrel-Aged Sour Beer is a hotly contested category; Shmaltz won by blending six of its other ales in a variety of rye whiskey and bourbon barrels with some souring yeast and bacteria.
Miller Genuine Draft Another award-winner in the American-Style Lager Or Light Lager Or Pilsener category. Surprised?
Lumberyard Knotty Pine Pale Ale Three awards went to Arizona breweries this year, and Lumberyard claimed two of them. Crisp, clean hop flavor and exceptional balance earned the Flagstaff brewery silver in the American-Style Pale Ale category -- the same category in which it won gold at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival.
Oud Beersel Oude Gueuze A gueuze traditionally blends old and young lambics to achieve a balanced melange of vinegary acidity and barnyard funk -- Oud Beersel hits these notes better than almost any Belgian-Style Sour Ale available.
The Bruery Oude Tart The audience let out an audible gasp at the reveal of the winners in the Belgian-Style Flanders Oud Bruin category. Not because Oude Tart's sour flavor-blend of cola, vanilla, black cherry and oak earned it silver -- that was expected -- but because no gold award was given.
Funkwerks Deceit Brewed with a high percentage of Pilsner malt, Deceit showcases fruity Belgian yeast character in an effervescent body. It won in the Belgian-Style Pale Strong Ale category.
Lumberyard Red This is the second of Lumberyard's WBC awards, earned in the Ordinary Or Special Bitter category.
BRONZE AWARD WINNERS Elevation Senorita This is a bit of a tease -- Elevation, which brews this winner in the Herb and Spice Beer category with vanilla, lactose and cinnamon, is currently only available in Colorado. But sources say the brewery will be arriving in Arizona very soon -- the papers were signed the night of the World Beer Cup.
Coors Banquet Coors, as you can see, cleaned up at this year's WBC. Not only did the brewing giant claim another award in the American-Style Lager Or Light Lager Or Pilsener category with Banquet, but it also won Champion Large Brewing Company.
Port Hop 15 This bronze award-winner in the Imperial India Pale Ale category is brewed with 15 different varieties of hops added every 15 minutes throughout a 90-minute boil.
Firestone Walker Wookey Jack Some call it black IPA; other say Cascadian dark ale. The World Beer Cup recognizes Wookey Jack as a top example of an American-Style Black Ale -- and with flavors that range from tangerine to pine resin to cocoa, you should too.
Anderson Valley Brother David's Dubbel Caramelized sugar, bruised apples and figs blend in this iteration of a Belgian-Style Dubbel brewed in California.
Delirium Tremens Its Latin name translates to "trembling madness," a condition often brought on by the ease at which great quantities of this classic, fruity golden ale are quaffed. It claimed a bronze in the Belgian-Style Tripel category.
Four Peaks Kilt Lifter You know it; you love it. Four Peaks' top-selling beer wins one medal or another in the Scottish-Style Ale category nearly every year. If you haven't tried it recently, maybe it's time for a revisit.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.