Soon Destihl was pouring its sour beers for a deep line of curiosity seekers, including some of craft beer's leading lights, like Kim Jordan, founder of New Belgium Brewing. In a massive Rocky Mountains convention space, the legend of the small Illinois brewery with all those sour beers had been born.
By the end of last year's festival, distributors from across the country had told Potts that they would buy as much of his beer as he could make. The buzz propelled Destihl to start work on a production facility that will allow it to distribute more widely, including in Chicago, in 2013.
Potts' lone regret was that the brewery didn't win a medal in the festival's competition. Still, it had been quite a weekend.
"No one knew a craft brewery in Normal, Ill., but we came out of it as rising stars," Potts said.
Destihl's ascension is one of the primary reasons close to 600 breweries showed up this year at the nation's pre-eminent beer festival. Among them were close to a dozen from Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois. They sought awards, recognition, buzz: whatever they could get from the three-day festival, where each brewery poured about five of its beers for a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of drinkers clutching plastic cups.
Among those pouring from the Chicago area were the well-established (Goose Island, Three Floyds, Two Brothers), the young upstarts (Finch's, Haymarket, Revolution) and a few first-timers hoping to open some eyes (Solemn Oath and Tighthead).
The state's representation included Flossmoor Station, Hamburger Mary's, Piece and the unlikeliest beer magnate of all, former White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas. Hulking frame towering above most other brewery workers, The Big Hurt was there to push Big Hurt Beer, which launched last year, as well as to get an education on his new industry.
"This is crazy," Thomas said. "There's lots of crazy flavors around here."
True enough: Those flavors included pumpkin, cherry, coffee, cucumber and chocolate. Andersonville's Hamburger Mary poured a Peanut Butter Porter. Jared Rouben, brewmaster at Goose Island's Clybourn Street brewpub, brought a couple of vivid flavors of his own: Xocolatl, a chocolate barleywine made for Frontera Grill, and a gingerbread porter.
Solemn Oath, which launched in Naperville in May, was on the national stage for the first time this weekend, pouring its spicy Belgian-meets-California hybrid beers. The highlights for brewery co-owner Joe Barley were small: meeting a guy from Arizona whose parents live in Naperville and who pledged to check out the brewery next time he visited. Or a former Aurora resident, now living in Ohio, who thanked him for making the western suburbs a better place to live.
"Feedback like that is exciting," Barley said. "The main thing we were trying to get out of GABF was to meet with other breweries and get our name out there."
That's the foundation Destihl laid last year, and indeed the brewery drew a quick crowd in 2012. Potts didn't even need to wait 30 minutes for a line to form.
"I found you guys last year, and I've been waiting all year for you to get back," one drinker told Potts.
All of the Chicago brewers on hand — and even those who didn't come — entered what is the highlight for many breweries: the Great American Beer Festival competition. Six Chicago-area breweries won medals on Oct. 13, cementing the city's place as one of the nation's craft beer hot spots (combined, New York, Los Angeles and Houston were barely to be found).
The awards can be fickle — Haymarket, which won a gold medal last year, was shut out this year. But Revolution and Two Brothers each won two medals. 5 Rabbit brewery's 5 Lizard witbier won an award for the second year in a row. Goose Island's India Pale Ale won its sixth medal, according to GABF records.
And all three places in the hotly contested American-style pale ale category came from near Chicago (the top three finishers were Brickstone Brewery in Bourbonnais, Piece pizza restaurant and brewery, and Three Floyds).
And for the first time, Destihl heard its name, winning a bronze for its Strawberry Blonde Ale. A few hours later, at Destihl's booth in the convention hall, Potts admitted he was disappointed that the medal wasn't for one of his sour beers. But the bronze oval hung from his neck, and a smile creased his face.