Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Crunk-style rapper Lil Jon likely has no idea he inspired the name of a beer that would achieve top honors this month at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF).
On a Minneapolis business trip, Jason Davis and Dan Leary of San Antonio’s Freetail Brewing Co. stopped by Paisley Park recording studios for a tour, where Leary tested the studio’s acoustics with loud snaps.
Later, Leary heard Lil Jon’s hit song “Snap Yo Fingers” while preparing his traditional Baltic-style porter for serving. He dubbed the beer “Snap Yo’ Baltics,” which went on to win a rare gold medal at the 2019 GABF in October.
Though Leary said winning gold in Denver, renowned for its craft beer scene, was a surreal and humbling experience, he entered the competition feeling confident that his deeply researched recipe had a good chance. “I honestly thought it was a pretty good representation of a Baltic porter. And I just felt confident,” he said.
At the festival, an international panel of 322 judges from 18 countries assessed each beer according to 107 strict categorical guidelines. Brewers must choose their categories wisely, Leary said, using their experience with the competition.
Davis, Freetail’s head of brewing operations, emphasized the point by recalling that the brewery’s previous gold medal beer, the La Muerta smoky imperial stout that won in 2017, was not appropriate for either the smoked beer category – because it wasn’t smoky enough – or the imperial stout category – because it was too smoky. Instead, the 2014 version won in the category for aged beer.
“A lot of our beers don’t fit a standard category. We typically just don’t even enter those,” Davis said. Judges are not required to award gold medals if no beer stands up to the taste test. For example, in Category 1: American-Style Wheat Beer, only silver and bronze medals were awarded.
“You’ve just got to give it your best shot and get what you think is a good representation,” Leary said.
The numbers prove how rare the distinction is: Nearly 9,500 beers were entered in the 2019 GABF competition from 2,295 breweries, from all 50 states and Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; and the Virgin Islands. In a news release, GABF competition manager Chris Swersey called the 2019 festival competition “the largest and most competitive to date.”
According to the Brewers Association, Texas has 283 registered craft breweries. Of those, only 16 took home GABF medals, and among the winners, only seven won gold. Freetail was San Antonio’s lone representative among the medalists.
Category 53 for Baltic-style porters had 51 entries. As Davis and co-workers heard Snap Yo’ Baltics being announced as the gold medal winner, “it [was] pretty overwhelming, emotionally,” he said.
He compared the awards ceremony, with thousands gathered in the auditorium on the festival’s culminating day, to the Oscars. “It’s a big ceremony and an auditorium full of people. … All your peers, all your friends are there, and just the outpouring of support and congratulations and love, is also overwhelming,” he said.
Leary had already been to the GABF several times and gave up his spot so colleagues who’d never been could experience the event. When he heard of the award, he too was overwhelmed. “I’ve said it’s surreal. It still is, and I gotta have a hard time believing that it happened,” he said.
“I don’t mean to sound too humble or unappreciative of the medal, but I don’t really know a lot of brewers get into it just to win medals,” Leary said. “All of us are just trying to brew the best beer we can brew and offer our patrons a quality beer.”
He said he appreciated the chance Davis gave him to start brewing four years ago and the leeway he enjoys in choosing which recipes to pursue. As head brewer, Davis also gives brewmaster Leary the choice of which successful recipes to enter into competitions.
Davis said he’s glad his quiet colleague has received recognition. “Dan’s not a self-promoter,” he said. Also, with new Texas craft brewery openings growing at an astounding rate of 1,000 percent over the past decade, Davis said relative stalwarts such as the 11-year-old Freetail are sometimes overshadowed by splashy new efforts.
With so many new breweries opening and people forgetting about Freetail, Davis said, and “especially forgetting about that little pub out on the North Side that Dan’s been working at for the last few years, it’s nice to see that there he is, just quietly doing his thing and making excellent beers.”
Next up, Davis said he’s looking toward the 2020 World Beer Cup of the Craft Brewers Conference, to be held in San Antonio for the first time. After winning big at the “Oscars” of beer, Freetail will try to win home-team recognition at “the Olympics of beer,” as the World Beer Cup competition is known in brewing circles.
For now, patrons may enjoy a new batch of the award-winning Baltic porter, which Leary said is in the kettles and should be ready to pour in the brewpub by December.