T.J. Daly’s abiding passion for the sudsy, hoppy culture of Belgium has indirectly won his employer, Smuggler’s Brewpub, a prestigious award at America’s most prestigious beer festival.
At last weekend’s Great American Beer (GABF)Festival in Denver, Daly’s Blonde Betty earned the bronze medal for “Belgian-Style Blonde Ale or Pale Ale.” Judges spent three days considering 56 beers in the category before declaring Blonde Betty the third best.
Daly has fashioned golden beverages at the San Juan Avenue brewery for a decade, including eight years as brewmaster. Yet he scrapped all previous blonde and pale ale recipes two years ago following an illuminating trip to the Low Countries.
“I spent a month there experiencing great beer and great food,” Daly said Thursday in an interview held in the thick fermented air among Smuggler’s subterranean vats.
“I was blown away by the Belgians’ meticulousness at crafting beer. I traveled across the country, from the Dutch part to the French part, covering the whole spectrum of brewing. There’s so much culture there, and it all revolves around beer.”
Upon his return to Colorado, Daly changed ingredients to a Belgian yeast strain. “To create a quality Belgian,” he said, “you use Pilsner malts and German or Czech hops.” The golden, 6.3-percent-alcohol Blonde Betty that resulted became a touchstone beverage: He’d finally created a pale he’d order when he went upstairs to the bar after his shift.
Not to mention a brew he could enter in competitions such as GABF, which Gearmoose.com called: “Hands down the biggest beer festival in the United States … a three day beer-lover’s paradise (that) sees an average of over 50,000 beer-goers in attendance.”
The festival invites industry professionals from around the world to sit together in small groups and, without knowing the brand name, taste beers in each specified style category. According to the festival’s official site, its “gold, silver or bronze medals … are recognized around the world as symbols of brewing excellence. These awards are among the most coveted in the industry and heralded by the winning brewers in their national advertising.”
The 32nd annual contest in Denver Sept. 20-22 drew 8,500-plus entries from 2,404 breweries from every state but Mississippi. They competed in 102 beer-style categories. Event organizer, the Brewers Association trade group, awarded 306 medals to 280 breweries.
No brewery is allowed to enter more than four beers. As it turned out, the Belgian-Style Blonde Ale or Pale Ale category was the 82nd out of 102 to be announced. “I won nothing in the other three categories I entered,” said Daly. “It was my last shot at a medal. While it was stressful, I did feel Blonde Betty represented my best chance to win.”
Daly sat with friends during the announcement, and was soon cheered by well-wishers, including mentor Chris Fish, of Telluride Brewing Company, who preceded him at Smugs.
“It was pretty awesome to collect the medal,” Daly said, describing the experience as especially gratifying in an era of impossible-to-please social media platforms. “Our beer gets lots of compliments, but lots of jokers say hurtful things that stick with you. So its great to get that formal validation.”
GABF judges — industry professionals and brewery experts from all over the world — are assigned beers to evaluate in their specific area of expertise and never judge their own product or any product in which they have a concern.
Daly said he loves his job, but could do with less keg lifting. “In the summer I work 70-hour weeks, and moving kegs is hard on the body. Getting to be so creative with brewing on a regular basis is what makes this job worth it.”
Blonde Betty’s shiny new medal, Daly said, “is just the start. We now have a whole year to ride this medal’s momentum!”