Courtesy of Derek Wolfgram San Jose-based Clandestine Brewing's Agent Provocateur Doppelbock offers a hint of toasted bread and toffee.

While 2020 may not have been anyone's favorite year for a host of reasons, it was a great year for California breweries at the Great American Beer Festival, with 63 of 272 medals being awarded to California breweries.

Following are a variety of medal-winning Golden State-brewed beers I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy over the past few months.

• Clandestine Brewing, San Jose: Agent Provocateur, Gold Medal, German-Style Doppelbock. Deep brown with a creamy, persistent beige head and ruby highlights, the aroma showcases rich malt complexity, with intense toasted bread and toffee character, as well as light perfumy yeast esters and subtle herbal noble hops. Similarly, the flavor is dominated by intense dark bready maltiness, while simultaneously coming across as well-attenuated and not particularly sweet. With just enough hop bitterness to provide a pleasant balance, the beer is moderately full-bodied with medium carbonation, a smooth, creamy mouthfeel and no alcohol heat from the 8.2% alcohol by volume (ABV). The finish is clean and semi-dry, with toasted malt character remaining the star of the show.

• Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Marina del Rey: Propagator Series’ Wookey Jack, Gold Medal, American-Style Black Ale. Regularly produced from 2012 to 2016, but only occasionally brewed in small batches since then, Wookey Jack took home its third Great American Beer Fest gold medal in 2020. The beer appears black in color, with ruby highlights and a rich, thick, creamy tan head. Citra and Amarillo hops supply bright peach and orange citrus notes in the aroma. While light delicate roast and spicy rye add complexity to the flavor, citrusy hop bitterness (65 International Bitterness Units) and flavor dominate, providing an overall impression that emphasizes IPA characteristics over typical dark beer elements. Bright carbonation and medium body provide a surprising lightness that completely disguises the beer’s 8.3% ABV. The dry, complex finish highlights substantial bitterness that combines hoppy character with subtle hints of coffee-like roast.

• GameCraft Brewing, Laguna Hills: Umbeereon Schwarzbier, Bronze Medal, German Dark Lager. With a light fluffy tan head atop a black liquid, the beer features a roasted malt aroma similar to a stout, with herbal noble hop notes present as well. On the palate, it has an interesting combination of medium body with definite dryness. Based on the mouthfeel, I expected more sweetness, but it is refreshingly dry while highlighting maltiness at the same time. The coffee-like roasted malt dominates the palate, though a sturdy hop bitterness (25 IBU) from Pahto hops is also present, and the finish is a smooth, clean balance of roast and traditional Tettnanger hops. The 6% ABV is somewhat stronger than a traditional Schwarzbier, which does not at all detract from the quality of the brew.

• Hop Dogma Brewing Co., Half Moon Bay: Venti Is Large, Bronze Medal, Coffee Stout or Porter. Deep dark brown in color with a dense, persistent tan head, Venti Is Large has an unmistakable coffee aroma, but it is a mildly sweet, creamy milk chocolate mocha coffee without a hint of burnt or acidic dark roast notes. Similarly, on the palate it is ridiculously smooth, with distinctive light coffee and chocolate character and absolutely no harshness whatsoever. Brewed with Catahoula Coffee and vanilla, the beer has a mild smoothness that suggests the presence of lactose, but none is used in the brew. The finish is also lightly smooth and slightly sweet, with long-lasting pleasant coffee character. Despite the substantial 7.2% ABV, no harsh alcohols are present.

• Alvarado Street Brewery, Salinas: Mai Tai PA, Bronze Medal, American-Style Strong Pale Ale. Pouring a crystal-clear pale yellow color with a frothy white head, the brew’s tropical hop aromas of pineapple, grapefruit and papaya leap from the glass. Very light malt is simply a vehicle to deliver bracing piney hop bitterness (45 IBU) and pungent, resiny hop flavors to the tongue. At 6.5% ABV, Mai Tai is light-bodied with bright, prickly carbonation, and the beer’s incredibly dry, crisp, bitter finish abides long after the last sip. For a SMASH (Single Malt And Single Hop) beer made with only two-row malt and Mosaic hops, the complexity is striking.

Derek Wolfgram is a Certified Beer Judge and an officer of the Silicon Valley Sudzers homebrew club. For more information, visit sudzers.org.