Here's to Beer!

When all the drinking was drunk and the judges had tallied the votes, St. Louis brewers came up a little short at the annual Great American Beer Fest last weekend in Denver. The Grammies of the brewing industry -- "They don't let you give an acceptance speech, though," qualifies Fran Caradonna, co-owner of O'Fallon Brewery of St. Charles County, "which is probably just as well" -- this year attracted 30,000 makers and lovers of ale, who converged to celebrate the year in beer.

This year 380 American breweries served a total 1,650 different beers in Hall F of the Colorado Convention Center. During the 3-day festival, 100 judges blindly assessed the merits of 2,442 beers in 69 different beer-style categories, and announced their findings on Saturday.

O'Fallon had reason to be confident. The little brewery snatched a bronze last year for its American-style wheat and shocked the oddsmakers in a 2004 with a gold in the Smoked Porter division. This year its hopes were pinned on its newest vintage, O'Fallon 5-Day I.P.A., an India-style pale ale. They also entered their wonderfully rotund (and currently available) Pumpkin ale, their peach-flavored Wheach, and their O'Fallon Gold Pale Ale. But, alas, this year it was not to be. They returned to the 'burbs empty handed.

St. Louis macrobrewery Anheuser-Busch, riding on the tails of 2005's multi-medal showing (including the coveted Large Brewery Company award), was pushing its two new brews, a Bavarian-style wheat and an American-style porter. Neither won, though the brewing behemoth did win a silver for its Michelob M�rzen and a bronze for the Ziegenbock, an American-style bock . The world's largest brewery was bested in the Large Brewery Company award -- and deservedly so -- by stealth powerhouse Pabst, which snagged a blue ribbon for its rejuvenated Blue Ribbon.

St. Louis' second-largest brewery, Schlafly, takes a Woody Allen approach to the beer fest and accompanying awards. Believing that quality is its own reward, the brewery doesn't enter its beers, says Schlafly brewer Eric Roy. "As a brewer we get more of an ego boost daily from somebody at the bar telling us we're doing a good job than [a judgment] from a blind tasting."

Downstate, superpower Springfield Brewing Company continued its dominance in the Wheat Beer category, and in the process showcased its state-of-the-art brewing equipment. The tap room is an oddball in the world of microbreweries. It is owned by the Paul Mueller Corporation, which manufactures many varieties of stainless-steel processing systems, from biopharmaceutical vessels to dairy pasteurizers to brewery gear -- brew kettles, fermentation tanks, mash mixers, etc. The company's beer-making facility, operated out of a pub in downtown Springfield, is, according to the company's Web site, "one of the few breweries in the world built, operated and owned by a brewery equipment fabrication company."

The Springfield Brewing Company, then, is but a pilot brewery designed to illustrate how it shighly mechanized systems can be utilized to make flawless beer. And year in, year out, they prove it with a few medals in Denver. This year they bested 49 other breweries and won a gold in the South German-Style Hefeweisen/Hefeweissbier category, and took a bronze for their American-style unfiltered wheat.

"People fly in from all over the world to see how our system works," explains Springfield Brewing's Trey Manning, who graduated from the University of California-Davis' lauded brewery school. "We brew the beer to showcase the equipment."

- Randall Roberts

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