Friday, June 30, 2017

Pagosa's Play-Friendly (Brew)Pub Scene

Pulling into the Pagosa Springs Visitor Center last week, I was a little taken aback to be told by a worker that the city was "not a great place for families with little kids." The activities, from rafting to steeper and longer hikes to exploring Ancestral Puebloans' ruins, did seem to skew older than my 3 and 1-1/2-year-olds would prefer.

However, Pagosa Springs' three breweries bucked that trend in a serious way. From outgoing purveyors to big outdoor patios to an entire play area set up at Pagosa Brewing, it was a town that embraced both adults and kids spending languorous hours enjoying its creations. And at two of the three breweries, it was worth taking extra time to enjoy some wide-ranging and well-concocted beer.

The 1,700-person town in southwestern Colorado is known foremost, in beer circles at least, for its namesake Pagosa Brewing, which gained fame when Tony Simmons won a national contest to produce a recipe for Ben Franklin's 300th birthday — before the brewery even had opened. Simmons turned the publicity from that excellent Poor Richard's Ale into a small gathering place west of downtown that recently expanded into a bigger brewpub and offers so many beers on tap that you'll need two eight-sample taster trays to try them all.

In that vast array of offerings, the range of styles — and, quite frankly, the quality — varies pretty wildly. Sour, hoppy, fruity, dark, light and experimental all crowd the table, almost mandating you make at least two visits to try them all. Yeah, tough job.

The most intriguing, by far, was the Salty Caramel Stout, a medium-bodied stout that uses the caramel to give it both texture and an almost milky consistency, coming off as both bold and easy at the same time. But the piece de resistance is the salt moistened onto the glass, which brings out the roasted and slightly sooty character of the caramel and malts, almost changing the nature of the beer. It's a brilliant experiment, and a phenomenal beer either way you enjoy it.

Pagosa Brewing gets the most out of its fruit and vegetable beers too, getting significant natural flavor into its Peachy Peach, a late-breaking but not overwhelming heat on its Chili Verde Cerveza and a pleasing sweetness to its Cool Cucumber. Its Highlands Scotch Ale is clouded generously with peat and mesquite tastes. And its Powder Day IPA gives the feel of a more old-school northwest-style version of an IPA, with just-right bittering notes.

That said, a menu this big is bound to have holes too. The Soaker's Stout is dull and watery, rendering it especially disappointing on the heels of the Salty Caramel Stout. The gluten-free Pagosa Pale Ale has little hop taste. And the experimental ales, including sours, can still taste, well, experimental. But the portfolio is spectacular, and so is the setting.

Pour for pour, Riff Raff Brewing, located in the heart of downtown, may be even more impressive. Its offerings are more limited and its formula seems simple: Hop everything just a skosh more than style guidelines recommend. But the outcome is magic — especially in beers not known for hop qualities.

The best example of this is its Plebeian Porter, a 38-IBU offering made with six malts and Hallertau hops in which the hop character melds seamlessly with the roasted malts, leaving neither taste dominant but both tastes contributing to a surprisingly kicky finish to the beer. It brings notes of complexity to a style that too often feels one-dimensional.

Stepchild American Red has a late-breaking hop taste to its slightly sweet character and a substantial body that comes with it. The El Duende Green Chile has a slight burn that matches up with the hop bite and leaves it refreshing. And its Hopgoblin American IPA brings a piny bitterness that hop heads in particular will love.

Oh, and Riff Raff's fenced-in patio overlooking Pagosa Street is the perfect place to let little ones run around without bothering other drinkers. Or to allow your toddler to contemplate your taster (see photo at top).

Then there is Wolfe Brewing, a three-year-old establishment that recently underwent an ownership change, though not a change in beer menu. The staff is friendly. Both its porch and its kitsch-lined interior are spacious. But, boy, does it need to add some body to its lineup.

Its Yippie-Ki-Yay IPA comes the closest to what it seems to aspire to be — an English-style IPA with a lighter body and non-aggressive hopping. But the hops reveal themselves to be seemingly non-committal the more you taste it, and the beer leaves you longing for something more.

Sadly, that more isn't found in either its Taxi Dog Amber Ale, a light-bodied malt-only beer that leaves little impression, or the Pot Hill Porter, a smoked porter with both a body and a smoking that are too slight, leaving it as just a vaguely-sweet, smoke-hinting beer. There is potential here, to be sure, but it has not been reached yet.

Still, Pagosa Springs' scene is impressive enough that it's worth a stop, especially if your travels carry you an hour west to the more well-known beer mecca of Durango. Its local breweries are accommodating and experimenting.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Grand County's Sprouting Beer Scene

When I drove through Grand County seven years ago researching my book "Mountain Brew," there were two breweries in the county and one was making extract beers. That extract brewery remains, and the other - Grand Lake Brewing - has moved from the town of its namesake to the Front Range. All is not lost, however.

Over the past three years, three new breweries have moved into the quiet paradise of mountains, lakes and mud-season solitude. And they collectively are giving a new personality to the beer scene from Winter Park to Grand Lake to Kremmling, making the county a worthwhile place to seek out the local beers while you are bathing in its natural beauty.

The most hidden of the three - but also the greatest gem - is Never Summer Brewing, a slightly-more-than-a-year-old nanobrewery tucked into the back of the Everybody's Brewin' It homebrew shop on the main street through the sleepy town of Granby. There owner Kirk Main offers just six taps of beer at a four-stool bar, but he's got a great thing going in both his laid-back atmosphere and the quality of his brews.

As befitting a brewery in a town off the beaten path, Main doesn't get overly exotic with his styles, but he nails the ones he offers. The Up River Nut Brown Ale is a particularly pleasant offering combining a hint of nuttiness with a smooth, roasted backtaste. The Jacksaw Oatmeal Stout has a full, soupy body with an almost campfire-smoke mouthfeel. And while the Wiley Rye-Oatey Pale Ale was a bit light-bodied, you could still feel the craftsmanship that was deserving of a pint after a summer hike down the ski hill at nearby Granby Ranch.

Hideaway Park Brewery in Winter Park is also staking its claim, now able to tout itself as the grain-brewed granddaddy of the local scene at three years old. And while its best beers are its simplest, it packs a lot of flavors into styles that might get lost at other establishments.

The best thing on its menu is the Little Mac Pale Ale, a light-bodied offering with a sharp but subdued pine backtaste that rewards the drinker by being refreshing but also bringing a full mouthfeel. Its Humulus #6 black IPA also grabs attention with a body that is almost sooty and packs a roasted malt wallop that goes toe to toe (and stands out from) its substantial hop undertones. By the time you've scaled the tasting menu up to experiments like its Purple Drank port-barrel aged red ale, you'll be looking for some more definition and clarity as to what the brewery is trying to do with some of the beers. But you'll enjoy the ride on the way up there, and the small-bar-with-games-and-a-patio atmosphere captures the spirit of the town perfectly.

Winter Park also offers The Peak Bistro & Brewery, a sports bar with a full and tasty menu as well as the longest original beer list of the county's purveyors. But while this is a good place to hang out and enjoy a barbecue chicken pizza, the beers have a lowest-common-denominator feel to them, even when the brewery reaches and tries a unique style.

Take, for example, its American Lilly, a pomegranate and blueberry wheat that has the soft glow of summer sunset, though the color doesn't quite resemble anything that's found in the natural world. The infusion of two types of juices here is a sign that the brewers are reaching for something different, but it lands flat, with a body so light that the actual beer feels subservient to the juice.

To be sure, beers like the AC (Arapaho Creek IPA) and the Rifle Sight Rye Pale Ale are quaffable enough, but their  bodies, like those of the Timberline Stout and Winter Park Ale, are just missing complexity. It's a large place with a family-friendly atmosphere, however.

Grand County's brewing scene won't be mistaken for that of its eastern neighbor, Larimer County, anytime soon. But considering those who make the trip over Berthoud Pass are likely doing so to get away from the more bustling parts of Colorado anyway, they at least don't have to leave behind the beer scene altogether anymore.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Needed: More small festivals,  beer competitions

Summer is coming and with it the packed beer calendar of the season. There will be the Boulder Sour Fest, the Colorado Brewers Rendezvous in Salida and numerous weekend-long anniversary parties, all attracting scores of beer drinkers converging on one location and tasting freely.

But while these large gatherings most certainly have their place in Colorado, a couple of recent events have pointed out the subtle joy of smaller, sometimes calmer and more focused gatherings as well. And it's well worth not only praising them but asking industry folks if they wouldn't consider doing some more similar things in the future.

First, I have to give lauds to Strange Craft Beer's seventh anniversary party this past weekend — a "backyard BBQ" in the space right behind the Denver brewery featuring 10 breweries pouring their wares and ubiquitous Strange owner Tim Myers carving up a pig and serving it to guests. There wasn't a bevy of experimental beers, save for the Wit's End whiskey-barrel-aged coffee stout, but there was a contained area where folks could mingle, brewers could talk to people without rushing their pours and patrons could try something from every brewery and still drive home.

Festivals often try to cram as many breweries as they can into a tight space, creating numerous options for drinkers but sometimes long lines and cantankerous crowds jostling to fine each other or their favorite beers. A smaller festival like this was great for its simplicity, the general good feel that it helped to create and the ease with which families could enjoy things and let their kids play without fearing they'd get lost in the crowd.

On a very different note, I had the opportunity a few months ago to be a judge at Beer Fight Club, one of the more clever ideas to come down the event pie in a while locally. The idea is simple: Invite eight breweries to bring a beer of their choosing, sell tickets to a crowd that can sample them all and vote in a head-to-head-bracket-style format on which they like best and crown a winner. It's so simple, in fact, that it's almost shocking that no one thought of the idea before organizers Jeff Flood and Adam Schell did.

What makes this flow so well is the idea of asking attendees to think about their beers and really consider what they like and don't like. It spurs conversation between people who formerly were complete strangers, and it spurs brewers to bring their best stuff to an event rather than a barrel of what they have sitting around the brewery. The third version of Beer Fight Club just happened last weekend, and another is slated for the coming months.

Denver's beer scene has grown and diversified so much that its beer-event scene should too. And kudos go to those folks who are offering just a little something different to keep beer drinkers of all stripes looking forward to what they have to offer.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Southern IPA Comes to Colorado

If hazy, fruit-forward India pale ales now represent the taste of New England much the way that bitter, piny IPAs are the calling card of the Northwest, it seems only fair that there should be a beer indicative of the rising craft-beer scene in the South. And Lazy Magnolia Brewing just may have hit that regional style on the head.

Mississippi's first craft brewery began distribution in March to Colorado through Bub's Beverage, making it the 19th state to carry beers like its Southern Hospitality IPA, Southern Pecan nut brown ale and Jeff Stout, a sweet-potato cream stout. And while none of these offerings will bowl you over with their tastes, they do stand as a great example of the kind of beer that is being made in a place where relaxing on the porch after a hot day demands a thirst quencher more than something that will challenge your palate with complexity.

Southern Hospitality is the poster child for this neophyte style. Coming in at just 60 IBUs, it presents you with a medium body and one taste: lighter pine hops that offer a mouth-wide feel but little bitterness. It is mellow, unobtrusive and surprisingly easy to drink. You probably couldn't pick it out of a crowd of 10 IPAs, but you're also not likely to want to put it down.

Jeff Stout has similar character, despite a list of additives that makes it sound like something that sprang from a fermenter at Dogfish Head. The sweet potato isn't readily apparent, and in some ways the cream fades into the background as well. What you're left with is a lightly but well-roasted feel to a lighter body that makes this stout smooth, smooth, smooth. Again, you may not seek it out, but you won't push it away.

Southern Pecan is the beer that grabbed national attention for Lazy Magnolia when it first appeared at the Great American Beer Festival more than a decade ago. At just 16 IBUs, this is a decidedly English-style brown ale rather than a hoppy American version of the genre, and the pecan pack a sweet tone that lightens the body somewhat but doesn't make you think you're siphoning a pie. It's an almost minimalist addition but one that soothes and pleases.

Having lived in Arkansas and South Carolina from 1995 through 2000, I remember a time when the beer options in the South involved an array of light beers and maybe a pale ale if you could find a bold retailer to bring it into the state. The culture will never be one of fierce hops or pucker-inducing open-fermentation creations. As such, Lazy Magnolia may seem almost a bit light for the Colorado drinker. But on a hot day when ease of a beer trumps the newest and boldest flavors, these beers may be just what you want for a change.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

8 Events for the 2nd Half of American Craft Beer Week

Beer events really can sneak up on you these days. Like American Craft Beer Week. Yes, the week that began Monday and runs through Sunday.

Some of you may be up to date on this celebration and may already have begun scratching events off your check list. But for those of you who, hypothetically, may be recovering from covering the brutal final month of the Colorado Legislature, haven't written a blog since early April and are just now waking up to the idea that you need to get out and enjoy the flurry of activities this week, here's a small checklist of things to do.

• There are lots of beer-food pairings going on this week. But Joyride Brewing's 7 p.m. tasting with MouCo Cheese not only puts good beer with a great cheese company; at $15 a head, it's also one of the most affordable cheese pairings you will find.
• Cigar City ends its four-day celebration of launching in Colorado with an appropriate party at Star Bar, which has been slinging the Florida beer for years during the Great American Beer Festival. It's worth a stop between 8 and 10 p.m.

Avery Brewing releases Reel Peel IPA, a tangerine IPA, at its Boulder County brewery starting at 11 a.m. before canning it in six-packs. I've largely resisted fruit-flavored IPAs as a fad that should go away soon. But if anyone is going to do this well, it's Avery.
Strange Craft Beer releases its newest annual version of Dr. Strangelove Barleywine, one of the smoothest of its kind, at noon at the brewery.

• Durango's sextet of breweries have combined to produce a double IPA to mark the first-ever celebration of Colorado Public Lands Day. This seems a good reason to stop by any of the six breweries and try it out.
• At noon, Strange ends not just its ACBW celebrations but its 7th-anniversary celebration with a 10-brewery Backyard BBQ celebration at the brewery. For $35 at the door, this could be the bargain of the week.
• Also at noon,  Westfax Brewing of Lakewood taps its Cilantro Lime Ale. I don't know that cilantro is a viable ingredient to add to beer. But then, I said the same thing about rosemary, habaneros and a whole lot of other ingredients and been proven wrong on that.
• At 1 p.m., Upslope Brewing is having a music festival complete with new beers at its Flatiron Park Brewery. That sounds Boulder-tastic.

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Saturday, April 01, 2017

Salt Lake's Beer Scene: Growing and Evolving

Walking into a bar or brewery in Salt Lake can be confusing - especially the first time you order a draft IPA, feel it's lacking body and then realize that nothing coming out of the taps tops 4 percent alcohol by volume, even if the bottled beer you order at the same location can be of any strength. But you'll get that pattern down a few beers in.

Once you've mastered the nuances of local alcohol law, there's a lot to like in Utah's capital city. Visiting there two weeks ago to watch my alma mater play in the NCAA tournament, I was pleased by the compact nature of its downtown, the proximity of several different breweries to major attractions and the long local beer lists I encountered even at sports bars. The scene as a whole is worth lauding.

Offerings from brewery to brewery and even among one brewery's portfolio were inconsistent (which, in truth, is not that much different than the Denver scene). But after a couple of days in which drinking was no less than a co-main activity, several things jumped out.

The stand-out brewery in Salt Lake is Red Rock Brewery, which was the 2007 Large Brewpub of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival. Its Lady Ga Gose, resplendent in its bright and lemony tartness with just the right amount of salt on the back taste, was a full-flavored treat even with its low ABV. And its Elphino Double IPA was one of the more complete hop bombs in the city, offering a big mouthful of grass and flowers, layered with a hint of a bitter bite and a fair cushion of malts.

Uinta Brewing's Detour Double IPA set an even higher standard for hop vehicles, seemingly assaulting your taste buds with a sticky, aggressive flavor that was slightly less than balanced but left a powerful aftertaste. But other offerings from the brewer varied wildly, from its much-hoppier-than-expected, refreshing 801 Pilsner to its terribly bland Ready Set Gose, which tasted more like a slightly kicky pilsner than a member of the sour family.

Wasatch Brewing, whose products are omnipresent on Salt Lake tap lists, also had more than one notable offering. Its Devastator Double Bock was one of the great surprises of the trip, pouring bold and smooth with an almost woody flavor but no residue of heavy alcohol in its 8 percent ABV body. And its Snap Down Header India Pale Lager was one of the perkier low-alcohol offerings in town, presenting a zing of hops in a light but enjoyable body.

Squatters Brewery also had a low-alcohol pleaser with its Apricot Hefeweizen, which was bright and decently fruited and, frankly, a perfect option for the 11 a.m pre-tailgate tasting. But its Hop Rising Double IPA was straight-out-of-the-early-2000s bitter without a lot of complexity. And its darker offerings, particularly Captain Bastard's Oatmeal Stout, were extremely light-bodied and forgettable.

Moab Brewery offered a couple of non-stand-out beers that seemed a bit light for their style, such as the Red Rye IPA that was an incongruous mix of a red and an IPA. And Proper Brewing tried to push the envelope on low-alcohol beers with offerings like its Salted Caramel Porter, but they felt slight when coming off the taps, seemingly lacking the full body they needed.

Finally, I will admit that I didn't seek out Epic Brewing offerings, since they are as available in Denver as they are across Colorado's western border. But the two-state brewery's Session IPA may have been the most sharply hopped lower-alcohol beer in the city, a reminder that big flavor does not have to come from big booze.

Salt Lake isn't Denver, and it doesn't appear to have the same reserve of caution-be-damned brewers like Crooked Stave or Spangalang Brewery that seek to  destroy taboos involving flavor experimentation. But its growing scene is filled with subtle gems, all of which bodes well for it to continue to expand and diversify in years to come.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

6 Things I Learned at Collab Fest 2017

It turns out that Collab Fest didn't need the beautiful setting of the luxury deck at Mile High to stand out as a festival. Moved this year to the National Western Complex, the celebration of breweries making beers together - roughly 180 auteurs combining on some 100 beers - was just as unique and relevant without the glitz factor of being able to look down upon the Broncos' field.

What's more, the types of beers that leaped off the page this year were different than in past years, moving beyond the sour and imperial barrel-aged combinations to a surprising number of very tasty concoctions that used unexpected ingredients. Attending the event left you excited about the creative flavors that remain largely untapped still in the sector.

Here, then, are a few things that stood out:

1) Comrade killed it.
In a festival marked by immense creativity, the best beer of the day - and best by a long stretch, for that matter - was Comrade Brewing's collaboration with Montana-based Uberbrew on Uberpower Triple IPA (pictured at right). Flowery and grassy, huge without a big alcohol taste, this dangerously smooth and flavorful beer was one of the greatest hop assaults that even a tried-and-true hophead has ever had in their mouth.

2) Simple pale ales stood out as well.
In some sense it's hard for a classic, lower-alcohol taste to find a niche among so much blustery boldness. But the Dog vs. Quail Pale Ale from Cannonball Creek Brewing and  Hogshead Brewery (pictured at top) was fresh and bright with a lingering piny hop that accented its British, German and American ingredients. And the decision by the Colorado Brewers Guild board to offer a light, grassy pale ale with the moniker of Board's in Session was a surprisingly good and memorable one for the 11 collaborating breweries.

3) Some gimmick beers are worth drinking over and over again.
Lady Fingers, the tiramisu brown ale from Boulder Beer and New Holland Brewing was as sweet as you'd expect but also very approachable, and it seemed no odder on the palate than Boulder's best beer, its Shake Chocolate Porter. Meanwhile, the Corner Store imperial malt lager from Gravity Brewing and Kettlehouse Brewing was a high-quality hoppy beer, with big malts offering a proper base for the slightly boozy but more aggressively flowery hop bite.

4) Others were worth one taste.
The most passionate conversation I had on the floor was with Ryan Hannigan of Focus on the Beer, who insisted that the Mr. Kelly's Coconut Curry Hefeweizen - the Boulder/Ska collaboration that was exactly what it sounds like - was the most unique and best beer on the floor. While I conceded the first part of the statement to him, the bold combination came off a bit like a thick soup full of spices more than a beer, and I was quite happy to have about an ounce of it.

5)  Bread beer - the next great trend
Rye pretzels and German malts were the stand-out ingredients in Don't Kvass the Streams, a kvass-inspired German ale from Wit's End and Prost Brewing. And the sour rye taste was an astoundingly good complement to the beer base, rendering the creation both bready and slightly tart. In a market drenched with New England IPAs, I might run more quickly to efforts like this that produce new and exciting flavors.

6) Then again, sours aren't done yet.
TRVE cranked up the flavor profile with Slow Death, its whiskey-barrel-aged dark mixed-culture ale with cinnamon and lemon peel that it produced with Burial Beer Co. of Asheville. Complex and still drinkable, it reminded festival goers of how much room there remains in the sour sector that might seem saturated to some.

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