Saturday, January 05, 2019
The Big Beers Belgians & Barleywines Festival has gone through some very noticeable changes in recent years (like moving from Vail to Breckenridge in 2017) and some very subtle ones. But it's those seemingly minor tweaks that this year have added up to making this officially the festival for people who don't just want to drink a lot of beer but who want to sponge up knowledge about the craft at the same rate their liver is processing alcohol.
That's not to say the nationally lauded annual event, now celebrating its 19th year from Jan. 10-12, hasn't always gone the extra yard to imbue knowledge upon its participants. It's always been marked by early-morning seminars on experimental brewing styles, multiple events pairing beer with food and cigars and brewers who are omnipresent at the commercial tasting to explain just how they incorporated an experimental yeast or ingredient.
But those seminars (pictured below) are getting more technical as they are getting more popular - a reason that organizers Laura and Bill Lodge decided for the first time this year to sell $15-$20 tickets to each of the gatherings, since the tracks grew so crowded last year that crowds couldn't fit into the rooms. And this year's slate of 12 talks goes to depths beyond even many of the great seminars in the past, including the start-of-the-morning gathering on Saturday in which Crooked Stave, Mad Fritz and Sierra Nevada delve into the impacts of water on beer by making the same brew with three different water sources.
Laura also wanted to take the welcome reception to a new level - this time without adding the cost of tickets to a beer-and-food pairing that had grown costly to the overall event. So, the 2019 reception (noon to 1 p.m. on Friday at Beaver Run Resort) upped its number of brewer participants to four serving two beers each and replaced the high-end pairings with a nacho bar, so that beer geeks have time to savor new flavors and talk to the men and women who create them.
"I really wanted to do a formal, you've-arrived entrance," Laura told me. "We're really looking to, I guess, polish it up."
To be sure, Big Beers didn't need much polishing. The commercial event alone puts this among the best beer festivals nationally, with the likes of Adam Avery or Sam Calagione pouring rarities and barrel-aged beauties and explaining their qualities to lines of people that stretch sometimes 10 long instead of the around-the-corner queues that can mark the best breweries at Great American Beer Festival.
still has tickets available - more brewers have agreed to share their table with friends in order to increase the sheer variety of beers that are being poured. This year there will be more than 150 beer makers pouring beer at just 118 tables.
"It's a really great feeling to see the community coming together in that way," Laura said.
What's really begun to separate this festival from others in recent years is the affiliate events happening around Breckenridge as it occurs. Yes, those include special tappings and food pairings.
But there's also a workshop on Belgian beers, an educational discussion on hazy beers and informational pourings and tappings focused on fermentation, blending and randalls. Hell, there's even a special event on low-gravity beers, which is the equivalent of the NFL directing a seminar on the grace and beauty of soccer.
I'm not saying that you'll be so steeped in learning that you won't get drunk at Big Beers. You're at 9,600 feet above sea level, the first seminar on Saturday begins at 9 a.m. and you're drinking beers no less than 7 percent ABV, with the exception of a few lower-alcohol Belgian styles. You're going to feel it, even if the drunkenness is just a byproduct of your activities rather than a goal.
But this festival has gone well beyond a little bit of learning and a lot of beer. It's like an upper-level college course on what makes great beer as great as it is, with the benefits of your being able to taste every bit of that as you are steeping yourself in knowledge. And that's why it's become, in some ways, the absolute must-hit beer event of the year in Colorado.
Sunday, December 30, 2018
As Colorado's brewing scene got more crowded this year, beer makers responded by getting more experimental. There were more collaborations, more barrel-aged creations, more breweries such as Liberati Oenobeers and Dos Luces Brewery and Cerveceria Colorado that make nothing like anyone else in the state makes.
What it added up to was a thrilling melange of one-offs and new entries into the scene that continued to redefine both what is possible and what is going to set the pace in future years. And the best beers of this year showcased not just how far afield the flavors can be but how widespread the creativity is across this state.
And with that said ...
10) Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers In Medio Stat Virtus
The newly opened grape-beer maker is an experience that must be had with multiple beers to understand just how much the addition of Viongnier or Gewurtztraminer grapes can alter and add to the beer styles you think you know. But nothing on the menu prepared by Alex Liberati (pictured here) is as fully transformative as this Belgian golden ale made with 48 percent Chardonnay grapes, a work of art that showcases the best of its beer and wine properties and leaves you wanting to delve into oenobeers much further.
9) Weldwerks/Casey Brewing and Blending Transmountain Diversion
In a year that may be remembered most for the hazy IPA takeover of craft beer - spoiler alert, there are three on this top 10 list - two of Colorado's best breweries proved the style could be elevated when great minds worked together. This Citra- and Nelson Sauvin-hopped joyride, a double IPA introduced at Collaboration Fest, was replete with pineapple and mango tastes and aptly highlighted the style not as a twist on IPA but a bold new category of beer on its own.
8) WildEdge Brewing Collective Birthday Barrel
Colorado's greatest secret, hidden in Cortez, celebrated its first anniversary with a barrel-aged tart saison fermented with Palisade peaches that stunned at the same time it encapsulated the style of this experimental small-town beer maker. Bold and sharp, it demonstrated why beer lovers must get outside of Denver and Fort Collins every once in a while to see how deep the state's reserves are.
7) Cannonball Creek Brewing Mike and Sebastian's Excellent Adventure
Amazingly crisp while still being hop-defined, this kolsch/IPA hybrid was singularly refreshing and eye-opening. A collaboration with Pizza Port Carlsbad and Germany's Freigeist Bierkultur, this introduced a new style that is begging to be replicated - if anyone can do it as well as the new king of Golden breweries.
6) Call to Arms Brewing Majestic Wolf Lamp
Huge congratulations go to the northwest Denver brewery for taking two beers that didn't work on their own - a Belgian quad and a petite saison - and blending them together in an oak barrel with black currants until it became something combining tartness, raspberry and a jamminess. Back story aside, it was one of the most interesting and cutting sour beers of this year.
5) Epic Brewing Lupulin Burst
This earned the title of standard-bearer among Colorado's single hazy IPAs in 2018 with a straightforward assault of guava, mango and pineapple that gave this a juice-like feel. Those who don't understand why hazies are garnering such devotion need try this to understand how different they are from traditional IPAs and how much tropical flavor the right hopping can imbue in a beer.
4) Paradox Beer Co. Divide Ethos
Coolship beers are, by their nature, unpredictable, which made this early 2018 offering all the more mind-bending for how drinkable and how nuanced it could be without taking on harsh characteristics. Like a kicked-up saison, this creation from one of the Pikes Peak area's finest breweries pricked your tongue with its wild yeast but then rolled smoothly and excitingly over your taste buds to create a truly unique flavor.
3) Telluride Brewing Fishwater Project
This barrel-aged double IPA is not a new offering. But in a year in which breweries barrel-aged beer with a huge range of results and did things to IPAs (brut IPAs, horrible milkshake IPAs) that did nothing to pump up their flavor, Fishwater Project has never been more relevant than it is today. It toes the line between boozy whiskey characteristics and an underlying superbly crafted five-hop flavor explosion in a way that few hybrids can. It is as complex and worthwhile as any beer you will find in Colorado.
2) Spangalang Brewery Vanguard 3000
There is nothing natural about blending a bourbon-barrel-aged Belgian tripel with an imperial stout made with vanilla and cinnamon. And yet in the hands of Five Points' too-often-overlooked auteurs, this is a pitch-dark ride that bursts with varying flavors as you swirl it over your tongue - and one that goes down far too easily for the alcohol bomb it is. There was genius in its making.
1) River North Brewery Quadruple Dry-Hopped Mountain Haze
It sounded like a gimmick. But the addition of Mosaic, Simcoe and Idaho 7 hops to River North's Citra-dominated hazy IPA created a super-charged version of both the beer and the style, leaving it overflowing with crisp, tropical flavors, all of which carry a classical hop back bite. It was a fuller and more complete beer, without an exceptional bitterness and booziness. And if you let it rest on your taste buds long enough, you could find new flavors in almost every tasting. Bravo.
Labels: Call to Arms Brewing, Cannonball Creek Brewing, Epic Brewing, Liberati Oenobeers, Paradox Brewing, River North Brewery, Spangalang Brewery, Telluride Brewing, Weldwerks Brewing, WildEdge Brewing Collective
Sunday, December 16, 2018
The biggest annual gathering of Denver breweries in one location found a new home this year at the Denver Sports Castle, and with it there seemed to be an even bigger drive among the 61 breweries in attendance to show off what they had. Beer makers brought six-deep pour lists more extensive than some offer at the Great American Beer Festival, Liberati Osteria introduced timed beer tappings to the event and everyone seemed to have a fresh, new take on classical holiday beers.
There frankly was a lot to be learned at the festival, and the vast majority of it was on the positive side. But here are a few things that jumped particularly to the top of the hit list on a day when most people had a different take on the best things being offered in the venue.
1) If a style sounded impossible, Denver breweries proved it could be done.
But Ratio Beerworks managed to add candied sugar, cinnamon and cardamom to its Hold Steady chocolate rye scotch ale and land a beer that is the closest thing you'll try to mulled wine made with hops and barley. And Woods Boss threw candy canes into a chocolate stout to create its Magical Narwhal, and you could picture yourself drinking that throughout the winter by the fire if it wasn't a one-off.
2) Holiday beer variety is very much alive and well.
As Halloween beers seem to be dying from a lack of originality, Denver breweries are redefining Christmas beers in new and more interesting ways.
Zuni Street absolutely killed it with its Gingergrass, a German ale brewed with ginger, hibiscus and lemongrass from the Teatulia tea store next door to it. Little Machine brought back its That's My Yam! Sweet Potato Stout that is dark, refreshing and even a slight bit spicy. And Strange Craft Beer made good use of one of the hardest ingredients to blend effectively into beer - spruce tips - by melding it into a Belgian dubbel and using the malt to bring out the sweetness in the resin in its Just the Tip.
3) Denver continues its transition from a hop town to a sour town.
Yes, IPAs will continue to be the best-selling craft beers in this area by far. But no one was talking about a particular IPA that was being poured on Saturday.
Yet people (justifiably) wouldn't shut up about TRVE's Burning Arrow foeder saison with Citra hops, a whipsaw of big tart flavor and just enough hopping to keep it balanced. Or Baere Brewing's Frambruin sour brown ale that pelted you joyfully with the mouthfeel of sour cherries. Or pretty much everything poured by Black Project, but particularly its Gnomon, a spontaneous raw ale brewed with purple barley that made you think and think again about the wonderful liquid in your mouth.
4) Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers opened many eyes.
The month-and-a-half-old maker of oenobeers - those brewed with grapes as a fermenting ingredient - has thrilled anyone who stopped by, but the legions of devotees still have remained small. Judging by the lines it attracted Saturday, that may be about to end.
Jaws dropped particularly over its Oximonstrum, a 17.25% ABV concoction that was like malted port in a glass and drank far, far too easily. But the fact that the brewery reeled people in with timed tastings and repeatedly rolled out beers that shocked your preconceptions of what a beer can be was emblematic of the festival and of the evolving Denver beer scene.
5) Nobody needs more than 2 ounces at a beer festival.
I hesitate to complain about generosity. But I dumped more beer on Saturday that I can remember relinquishing at a festival - despite the fact that I, unlike others I was with, knew to avoid Burgundian Brewing. What that means is: I had to dump good beer!
When there are more than 60 breweries in a location, the object is to sample the full spectrum available in bits and bites, particularly when there were so many high-gravity beers on the menu. Thus, I felt bad asking so many brewers to toss their counterparts' efforts. But when I'm getting six-ounce pours, that's going to happen.
Labels: Baere Brewing, Black Project, Festivus, Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers, Little Machine Beer, Ratio Beerworks, Spangalang Brewery, Strange Craft Beer, TRVE, Woods Boss Brewing, Zuni Street Brewing
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
To be sure, Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers is not the place where you should plan to go if you want to kick back for a few typical beers with friends. No, it is somewhere you will need to set aside time to discern and discuss the beers in front of you, because each is a thought-provoking experience.
Opened on Oct. 29, it is the first exclusively oenobeer brewery - one that crafts all of its beers with some percentage of wine grapes - anywhere in the world. Italian native Alex Liberati chose Denver to be the home of this grand experiment after 11 years of operating Rome's most daring brewery and beer bar and then deciding it was too difficult to continue to run a business there.
The menu offers up roughly a dozen beers, though Liberati has tap space to grow that to 42 eventually. But even at this early "small" number of creations, the daring jumps off the menu - and is amped up even further when you dive into a sampler.
Some of the oenobeers, to be sure, are more intriguing than mind-blowing. Parvus Titan, a petite farmhouse ale brewed with East Kent Goldings hops and 20 percent Viongnier grapes, comes in at just 3.7 percent ABV and has a crisp-lager feel, but the grapes give it an intriguing flavor that makes you realize there is something more here, even if it's undefinable. Liberati (pictured below), a man who is looking to make a truly great small beer, calls this his favorite offering.
But then you start to work through the hoppy selections and realize that something is very different. The Nomen Omen IIPA with 20 percent Marsanne grapes takes on an oaky, almost vegetal flavor. The I-3PO Triple IPA with 25 percent Gewürztraminer grapes sends the hops to the background and covers up the 12.8 percent alcohol volume completely, making the grapes the stars of the show. These are not India pale ales for hopheads looking to get their lupulin fix; these are experiments that redefine the IPA in eye-opening ways.
Where Liberati really shines, though, is when the grapes become a near majority of the fermentables and the beer is transformed into something that seems a whole new beverage type. In Medio Stat Virtus, a Belgian golden ale made with 48 percent Chardonnay grapes, manages to blend the sweetness of its beer style with the strong dryness of its fruit, allowing you to sense both styles of drinks coming together in a strong and passionate way. And when you linger over the Recioto Denveris, a 12.8 percent ABV dark-as-night imperial stout made with 23 percent Petit Verdot grapes, you shock yourself that a beer so thick and viscous also can be so drinkable.
One theme is that the beers, which are served with charcuterie plates or pasta dishes, are uniformly dangerous - beers that carry a big impact without a big hit of booze, much like a fine Italian wine. The other is that nothing on the menu tastes like what you are expecting, even when you're going in with an open mind and not knowing what the hell to expect.
Liberati is a sensory trip, a flavorful experiment, a true effort in redefining beer. The truth is, I don't know what I'll think the second and third times I return, when the offerings will be less surprising but no less expertly made. But I know I'm going back, because uniqueness like this needs to be rewarded.
Thursday, November 22, 2018
Sometimes it's the subtlest things breweries do that make a huge difference. While TRVE was busy wowing drinkers with its Life's Trade saison, Cursed pale ale and host of barrel-aged sours, owner Nick Nunns was also putting into place High Plains Beer Distribution, his company that brings in out-of-state breweries for limited time frames, typically around events.
Maybe you caught High Plains in action at places like Freshcraft during Great American Beer Festival, pouring gems from Alvarado Street, Great Notion and J. Wakefield that don't normally grace the menus of Colorado beer bars. But maybe you didn't notice that in the flood of rare tappings that week, some of which were made possible by other breweries with similar short-term licenses and relationships with auteurs from around the country.
But Nunns and High Plains were on front-and-center display two weeks ago, when the same distribution license allowed him to put on a one-day tapping of Other Half Brewing, a 4-year-old Brooklyn brewery that is making some of the most complex sours and imperial stouts in the U.S. Crowds packed TRVE on an otherwise plain Saturday, and patrons who got the chance to sample Droppin' Millibars (pictured below with an Other Half triple IPA) — an imperial stout with toasted cacao nibs, vanilla, Ceylon cinnamon and coffee — may never look at imperial stouts that way again. No kidding; it was that good.
The idea of forming a distributorship first came to Nunns two years ago, when he was trying to scheme how to get his friends from North Carolina's Burial Brewing in for a tapping. He expanded that temporary license into High Plains, struck up more business relationships and now has the ability to put some of the great breweries outside of Colorado on at his SoBo brewery when they want.
To those outside the beer industry, the idea of showing off competitors' goods in a way that overshadows your own work temporarily may seem outlandish. But to Nunns, the idea is simple: Promote good beer made by good people.
"We are brewers, and we want to do right by other brewers, especially brewers who are our friends," he said in an interview at Freshcraft during GABF week. "We're trying to make it easy to get them out here."
As of late September, 15 breweries had signed on with High Plains. When they're out here for other reasons — think Big Beers in Breckenridge or the recent Shelton Brothers Festival — chances are up you'll be able to get them without buying a festival ticket.
Nunns doesn't have plans to be the guy that is getting these beers into stores and bars on a weekly basis. But as the three-tiered system for beer distribution gets blurrier by the year, he's going to be the guy who makes sure the Three Taverns and Arizona Wildernesses of the world are just a little more available to the people who care for craft beer (like the two beer geeks pictured below with an Other Half MMM Fruit) and have been calling out for them.
"I think everybody's trying to find unique business opportunities and do what's best for the beer," he said. "I'm not looking to screw anyone over. I'm looking to do what's best for consumers and to do what's best for the brewers."
Monday, October 22, 2018
Of all the ways to express why Shelton Brothers is America's best beer importer, two moments in particular stood out from a gathering held Friday in an out-of-the-way, semi-decrepit warehouse in north Denver.
One came from Yazan Karadsheh (pictured at left), the founder of Carakale Brewing Company — the first craft brewery in Jordan — who explained how he overcame bureaucratic hurdles, faux competition from big beer and a bout with a black camel spider to establish his business locally. And as he poured a coffee porter brewed with date molasses and cold-conditioned with roasted cardamom and espresso beans, you realized how far the brewing ethos has spread and how it's worth seeking delicious beer in far-off regions to educate ourselves on the bevy of flavors we have yet to try.
The other came as Topher Boehm, head brewer for Wildflower Brewing & Blending of Australia (pictured below), ruminated on creating simple yet spunky wild ales and then re-fermenting them with pinot noir grapes through a process called carbonic maceration where the fermentation literally begins within the grape. The resultant ale was complex yet still supremely easy to enjoy, offering wine characteristics that coalesced with the underlying beer flavor to bring out the best of both worlds.
You could go on about the treasures that were poured at the Shelton Brothers Festival at Denver Rock Drill by 105 different breweries — about half of them domestic and half from from four continents — but the aggregate impression was this: Shelton Brothers is rewarding daring and creativity. And by signing small breweries from around the world because of their willingness to do things that set them apart from most everyone else in the craft-brewing scene, this Massachusetts importer is spreading the gospel of beer in a way that even the loudest craft-beer evangelists can't.
Shelton Brothers collection rarely make it outside their home countries or even their home states, having a distributor allows them to make appearances where they otherwise may not, whether at a two-day event like the Shelton Brothers Festival or at tappings and tastings around the Great American Beer Festival or Big Beers Festival in Breckenridge. Yes, you want, after tasting one sip of Trillium Brewing's Triple Seesaw boysenberry/raspberry/blackberry saison to beg that it find a permanent tap handle in Denver; still, there is a satisfaction in knowing someone can get it here if absolutely needed.
Diving into Shelton Brothers' domestic collection creates a map of hidden gems that you want to seek out when traveling the country. There, for example, is Big Island Brewhaus from Waimea, Hawaii, whose gose fruited with the Brazilian grape jaboticaba brings a new taste to the genre, brilliantly tart and yet refreshing. Or there is Kent Falls Brewing of Connecticut, which artfully blended three years of spontaneously fermented beers into Everything Is Everywhere, which is sugary, tart and sharp without being overbearing in any of those traits.
And the worldwide offerings quite simply ramp up one's level of education. Swiss brewery Trois Dames' Foret Noir bursts onto your tastebuds with an astonishingly tart taste of fermented cherries that peels back to reveal malty and even chocolaty layers of an imperial stout. And after you sense something is just rawer and simpler about the salty and tart flavors in a Ritterguts Gose from Germany, you realize this is very literally the brewery that created the oldest gose style in the world.
You may not have frequent direct contact with beers distributed by Shelton Brothers, but the fact that these guys are doing what they are doing inspires other brewers to create their own unique libations, knowing that fellow style pioneers have found an advocate willing to send them far and wide. And that may be the greatest lesson one can take from a couple of hours of drinking beers whose names and reputations you largely don't know, only to find each are brilliant in their own way.
Tuesday, October 02, 2018
Three beers into the Great American Beer Festival Alphabet challenge, I was doubting myself. A watered-down 2SP Brewing Antonym, a weak 8th Wonder Brewing Boss Beer and an Alaskan Brewing Cranberry Tart that was far less tart than advertised, and I asked, "Am I wasting time letting fate choose my beers at the world's greatest beer festival rather than going for known gold?"
But in just a matter of minutes, I was playing rock, paper, scissors with the bartender at Three Weavers Brewing to get a free hat, feeling better about my embarrassing loss only when I got to enjoy a Festbier that was the tastiest Oktoberfest I had all festival. Then I bent my rules when I got lassoed in by the folks at Beachwood BBQ & Brewing and enjoyed an Amalgamator West-Coast-style IPA (it counted as my "G" beer) that reminded me how well hops can shine in non-hazy beers. And by the time I stumbled onto the taste-bud-awakening Island Baby from Black Star Brewing Co-Op. - a rum-barrel-aged beer re-fermented with pineapple, passionfruit and pomegranate juice - I knew I was on a journey I wouldn't forget.
The GABF Alphabetical challenge, for those who didn't read my pre-festival blog, was a self-created way to end 18 years of run-to-the-hot-brewery routine and soak in everyone at the festival in a way that put every beer on display in a new way. I started at one end of the hall and drank the first beer I saw that began with "A," then "B" and then "C," and so on, to let me soak in the full range of breweries that made the trip to Denver, from the superstars to the little guys pouring two beers.
Throughout the night, I hit a variety of both the big names and those I'd never tried before. And though not every taste was pure bliss, I certainly discovered flavors I otherwise would not have known.
Not far away was the Pro-Am booth that I often skip; instead, I found Pillory, an American sour ale brewed with Lacto that not only cut just right but introduced me to Ghost Town Brewing. I knew Bosque Brewing a little but likely wouldn't have stopped to try Open Space Haze and its uber-pineapple flavor with the challenge. Ditto for Reuben's Brews, which offered a Gose that was as sharp and drinkable as just about any gose I found during the show.
Twice I mixed things up. The first time was with the aforementioned Beachwood Amalgamator, and that was a gift. The second time, meanwhile, was when I entered Paired, the food/beer mash-up featuring nationwide knock-out chefs that required me to switch to getting a beer and plate with the next letter in the name of the food or beer rather than starting it.
Yeah, maybe I wouldn't have tried the sea urchin mousse from Big Grove Brewery in Iowa, which proved absolutely as un-pairable as it sounds. And I probably wouldn't have sought out the Oktoberfest from Accomplice Brewing, which was far too weak for the wagyu beef taco with which it was paired.
To be sure, there was some bad stuff I found in my wanderings. Chapman's Brewing of Indiana had an IPA, Undaunted, that tasted so much of plastic that I had to take the rare step of dumping it out. Bold Missy Brewery of North Carolina had a honey blonde, 9 to 5, that actually inspired me to write the word "Ugh" in my notes.
(I also was in the right place at the right time to meet the Visit Santa Rosa hop mascot coming out of his changing booth, but that didn't fit into my alphabetical stylings. Still, see the photo above.)
I didn't make it across the entire floor with my adventures. as that is a task that's become increasingly impossible, no matter your pattern for the night. But I hit places I never dreamt I'd hit. And, truth be told, I am thankful that I had that chance.
Would I recommend the GABF Alphabetical Challenge for everyone? No. Most people come once every few years and have a certain amount of breweries they want to hit, and that is something that should bear no shame.
But I would recommend that next year when you're walking across the floor and you see that booth next to the big-name brewery that has no line, stop there. Ask someone about the brewery, if a representative is at the table. Try their beers. Make a new find. This, after all, is what the Great American Beer Festival is all about. And forcing yourself to find that spirit is a noble end.
Labels: Accomplice Brewing, Beachwood BBQ & Brewing, Black Star Brewing Co-Op, Bosque Brewing, Copper Kettle Brewing, Devil Wind Brewing, Great American Beer Festival, J. Wakefield Brewing, Weldwerks Brewing