Santa Fe-based Rowley Farmhouse Ales walked away from the competition with serious bragging rights.
Rowley Farmhouse Ales
Credit: John Rowley

Over the weekend, the 33rd annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF)—America's largest beer fest—was held as usual in Denver, Colorado. This year, 318 medals were awarded, and as is always the case, the list of winners tells a story—even if that story is more complex than ever thanks to the event receiving 9,497 entries from 2,295 breweries (which still somehow only represents less than a third of all breweries operating in the U.S.)

If you like numbers, here's another one: The brewery (when looking at single breweries, not groups) that won more medals than any other—three in total—was Rowley Farmhouse Ales in Santa Fe, New Mexico. If you're wondering, "Who?" you're not alone. The small brewpub produced fewer than 750 barrels last year and has only been open since 2016. Granted, this achievement isn't totally out of the blue: The brewpub did take home a silver medal last year in the Berliner-style weisse category for its beer Germophile. But as the top medal winner, has Rowley now emerged as the greatest brewery in America?

Rowley Farmhouse Ales
Credit: Brewers Association

"Of course, we don't think we are the best brewery in the world. That sounds like a loaded question to be frank," Brewmaster John Rowley messaged me. (Full disclosure: Of course, it was a loaded question, John!) "We won a competition. That's it. We try to make the best beer we can, and we entered beers we had on hand that we felt were peaking at the right time. Merely winning a competition doesn't make you the best at anything. It simply means you scored well at a given point in time… All this said, we are excited and humbled to be recognized for our passion towards making better beer."

It's also worth looking at how medals are awarded. GABF had 107 categories this year, all broken down by style. The top three most-entered categories were "Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale" (once again) with 348 entries, "American-Style India Pale Ale" with 342 entries, and "Fruited American-Style Sour Ale" with 215 entries. All other categories had fewer than 200 entries—with the average being 88 beers. At GABF, typically only three beers can win per category: one each ranked at gold, silver, and bronze. This limited number of winners proves important: For example, plenty of brewers have perfected how to make an IPA, so no offense to Comrade Brewing in Denver, Colorado—winner of the American IPA category—but I bet even they would admit that winning required a touch of luck. They were up against stiff competition if only by volume.

Because of this, some breweries will even target specific categories where the number of entries isn't as intense. Outside of non-alcoholic beers, the category with the fewest entries was "Belgian-Style Dubbel," with just 26 beers competing—still far from a gimmie, but better odds than a roulette wheel.

Rowley Farmhouse Ales
Credit: John Rowley

So back to Rowley: The brewery took gold in "German-Style Sour Ale" for its Meier, silver in "Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer" for its Agent Orange (Apple Brandy Barrel), and bronze in "Mixed-Culture Brett Beer" (another sour style) for its Cote d'Or (Double Cerise). These categories—all of which are for sour beers—had 63 entries, 82 entries, and 94 entries respectively; competitive styles to be sure, but closer to the average than battling it out with the IPAs.

And as Rowley himself touched on, for all sorts of reasons, the competition at GABF is different than comparing breweries around the globe. "We are eternally grateful for this recognition, but that doesn't mean we are the best," he continued. "We look up to bigger breweries like Drie Fonteinen, Brasserie Cantillon, Jester King, Russian River, Hill Farmstead, Perennial, Side Project, etc., who are pushing the envelope on sour and funky beers, and try to draw inspiration from their passion and push towards making quality mixed fermentation beers. If anything, they are the best examples, not us."

So though GABF represents an incredible accomplishment for Rowley Farmhouse Ales, in the end, whether topping the list of winners in 2019 means it is the brewing industry's "reigning champ" is completely subjective. Maybe you don't like sour beers? Maybe you're more impressed that Chicago's Old Irving Brewing beat out 347 other hazy IPAs to take gold in the most competitive category with its Beezer? Maybe your favorite brewery didn't win anything at GABF and you don't care? Or maybe they didn't even enter?

With the number of breweries in America hovering around 8,000, the idea of trying to label any as the greatest doesn't quite work out. That said, on this one particular Monday, if any brewery can get away with calling themselves the greatest brewery in America, Rowley Farmhouse Ales is probably it.

Meanwhile, when I first reached out to John Rowley, he said he'd have to get back to me later: They had some brewing to do. It's something I've seen time and again after GABF: No matter how well you do, it's still back to business as usual.