Wednesday, November 11, 2015

4 Things I Learned from Denver Bacon and Beer Festival

Denver Bacon and Beer Festival got a new location and a bit of a new vibe this year. But it was good once again for discovering a few things about taste pairings.

The 4th annual gathering moved from the more crowded confines of a downtown hotel to the Glitter Dome, an old warehouse space in the River North area. The transition allowed for a lot more room to roam around, chat with fellow pork samplers and not get crammed into lines. There also was a little less direct pairing of the bacon dishes with specific beers, but that only meant you had to try a little more of everything to find the best match.

That said, here are some things that became apparent over the course of the festival, thrown once again by Imbibe Denver.

1) If you drink just one barrel-aged barleywine this year, make it Old Ruffian.
Great Divide's hefty creation can be overlooked in discussions of the best barleywines in Colorado, but it certainly should not be. Aged in bourbon and whiskey barrels, it offered both balance and a burst of flavor that rivaled any salted or candied bacon served at the gathering.

2) Maple is a better beer ingredient than bacon
Brewers got into their experimental grooves for the gathering. But while adding the sweet, hearty taste of syrup to beer proved alluring - City Star Brewing especially broke out a Maple Brown that showed off the best attributes of the flavor - several beer makers who tried tossing bacon into their brew created gimmicks lacking in both meaty flavor and heft.

3) Brats and IPA is a pairing made in heaven
There was a lot to savor in the food category, from bacon donuts to a spicy bacon spam from Lena that was much better than those words could describe. But the best suggestion of the afternoon came from the chef at Kitchen Next Door, whose half-bacon brat with a slightly acidic mustard paired as well as he said it would with an IPA - specifically Oskar Blues' new version of the style. A little bite of the beer with a little bite of the pork should be a rule to remember.

4) The kettle sour is on the rise.
Yes, I realize that a bacon and beer festival can be an odd place to realize this. But after breweries such as River North have kicked down the door of the style and made it both appealing and accessible, the fact that Elevation Beer Co. served up its take on the genre (Acide) and made it a talker at a festival where people could have drifted naturally to chunky porters shows how much the kettle sour can stand out - and pair with goodies like a bacon and egg custard.

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Saturday, October 31, 2015

5 Beers to Drink on Halloween 2015

Once upon an All Hallows Eve, taps and shelves everywhere featured an old-fashioned beer called a "pumpkin ale." Now pumpkin beers complete their distribution cycles well before you head out for trick-or-treating, and its hard to find one whose strength hasn't been ramped up to imperial level.

Luckily, the brewers who know how to make it bigger also know how to supplement high alcohol-by-volume levels with some serious flavor complexity. And assuming you can find the liquor stores and taprooms that haven't laid their Christmas beer section yet, here are five pumpkin beers you should pair tonight with your favorite zombie movie or with the candy you steal from your kids' baskets.

Copper Kettle Imperial Pumpkin Porter (pictured at left)
The best offering of this season is robust - dark and heavy with layers of pumpkin-pie spices that do not disappoint. The spice bill has the cinnamon highlights that mark many beers of this season, but it also has a vaguely Mediterranean complexity that fills out the body and makes this 7.3% ABV gem one of the more unique pumpkin beers.

Strange Pumpkin Porter
After several years of producing a pretty good Halloween accompaniment, the little Denver brewery that could knocked it out of the park this year. This is a bold porter first and foremost - roasted but not burnt - that is supplemented by a spicy flavor that somehow is bereft of bitterness. While the dark body may look intimidating, it's one of the most smoothly blended beers of the season.

Schlafly Pumpkin Ale
Admittedly, you have to go out of state to find one; I tried some while visiting family in Baltimore, which ironically is much further from this St. Louis brewery than Denver is. But if you can get your hands on one, this may be the sweetest of the pumpkin offerings, an easy blend of malty ale with pumpkin flavorings that run toward the sugary end of the spectrum.

Southern Tier Brewing of New York (available locally) wins the award, however, for crafting the effort that most resembles pumpkin pie. A late-breaking spicy bitterness both contrasts with and compliments the fascinating bread-y flavor of pumpkin pie crust that serves as the underbelly of this surprisingly easy 8.6% ABV imperial pumpkin ale.

Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale
The longtime pumpkin king still can bring it, despite being purchased since last Halloween by an international conglomerate whose first post-expansion commercial specifically mocked pumpkin ales. But it bucks the seasonal trend by producing a regular-strength offering - albeit one brewed with more than seven pounds of pumpkin - that is richer and sweeter than the heavier-bodied Great Pumpkin imperial ale.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Guten Tag, Oktoberfest

In this age of pumpkin-mania, Oktoberfest seems to have been squeezed into a much smaller autumn window. A trip to the liquor store just two days into October, for example, revealed only a handful of marzen lagers on the shelf, already being pushed aside for the next seasonal thing.

Truth be told, however, this isn't a trend to be mourned. While the Oktoberfest style celebrates the Old World brewing process, it also is mired in tradition and, in many ways, lacking creativity. A couple weeks worth of sampling the style this year showed a lot of craft beers that, while perfectly well made, were also very similar in flavoring - caramel notes, a lighter body and just enough hops to give them a crisp aftertaste.

The biggest standout and most unique offering of this year came from Odd 13 Brewing - yet another winner in the Lafayette brewery's growing line of successes. Munchen Brett is a 100 percent Brett marzen with Nelson Sauvin hops, and you taste every nuance of both of those additions. It is complex yet also quite simple, offering a touch of funk without overwhelming the natural qualities of the style.

The best of the more traditional recipes, meanwhile, came from Bristol Brewing, a Colorado brewery that is adept at perfecting styles more than it is at breaking barriers. Red Baron offers a soft touch on the malt, with just enough hopping to cut the sweetness and make the body flow easily.

Beyond that, many beers broke the Oktoberfest taste protocol only with a slight derivation of one characteristic or another.

Left Hand's Oktoberfest Marzen Lager came in at a higher alcohol by volume (6.6 percent) that could be felt on the backtaste as a sort of lemony bitterness.

Epic's Fest Devious presented a drier taste, effectively using its hops to create balance.

Fort Collins Brewery's Oktoberfest, the gold-medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival this year, was thicker in body, relying more on the malt to match a traditional German recipe.

And Upslope, maker of some of the best seasonal beers in Colorado, put forward a lighter-bodied lager that was easy and enjoyable but also faded quickly from the palate.

It wasn't a standout year for Oktoberfest beers. Then again, maybe that's the point. These were crafted to be celebration beers that were easy to enjoy and hard to overthink. But at a time of bigger and bolder styles, Oktoberfest may just be the antithesis of the current craft climate.

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Best of GABF 2015

The recently concluded edition of the Great American Beer Festival brought us more breweries serving more beer and winning more awards than ever before. And the one-directional trends of years past (everything is hoppier or more sour or more barrel-aged) seemed to give way both to a willingness to experiment in new directions and to bring a broad swath of beers that weren't all meant to overwhelm you.

It's hard then to denote certain beers as the absolute stand-outs among such a varied presentation, especially when the Brewers Association already does such a good job with its medals. But, as always, I will do my best to try to call attention to a few that this beer writer will be thinking about long after I wash out my new tasting cups and toss away my wrist bands.

Best in Show: Vanilla Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout
At a time when everybody is making their own bigger, bolder, barrel-aged creation, Goose Island has set the bar with this giant stout (13.8% ABV) aged in unique barrels (rye whiskey) with the addition of Mexican and Madagascar vanilla beans. It is huge. It is sweet, with a backtaste of bitter rye. And it warms you as it goes down. When I mentioned several of my favorite finds to a bus tour of beer writers during the festival, this was the one that received several nodding heads and thumbs up. The secret's out: Goose Island has exceeded its original Bourbon County Brand Stout and is waiting to see who can catch up with it.

Best Traditional Sour: New Belgium NBB Love Felix
It seems somewhat odd to call out the wild ale that serves as a base beer for Le Terroir, especially when that gem of a dry-hopped sour was being served at the same booth. But at a time when breweries are trying to ramp up their tartness or even bourbon-barrel-age their sours (a bad idea, based on results so far), this golden and tart beer comes across as clean and crisp and puckery in an almost pristine way. It's a reminder of what Colorado's largest brewery does so well.

Best Non-traditional sour: Odd 13 Brewing Humulus Kalecumber
You might say that kale and cucumber and (muted) mint are not ingredients you want in your beer. But you would be very, very wrong. This rising star from Lafayette broke down doors with this tart and yet soothing vegetable beer based on a Berliner weisse. It was fascinating and yet very drinkable, and it served notice one again that this is a brewery to be watched.

Best Dark, Non-Barrel-Aged Beer: Funky Buddha First Snow
Both coconut and coffee are becoming more common ingredients in porters, but few beers have ever put them together in a way that this sweet and zingy and mouth-filling creation does. Funky Buddha was one of the hot breweries at the festival this year. Its reputation appears well-deserved.

Best Hoppy Beers
Fat Head's Brewery of Ohio took home three gold medals, including for its black IPA and its double red ale, but its truly artistic hop bomb was its Hop Juju Imperial IPA, a wonderfully full effort that was as hop-forward as one could be without being biting. But Port City Brewing - this year's small brewing company of the year - proved that great hoppy efforts also come in slightly smaller-IBU packages, as its Monumental IPA set the standard for being flowery without ripping up taste buds.

Best Lighter Effort
Indeed Brewing of Minneapolis offered up an L.S.D. Honey Ale that made full-flavored use of its three initialed ingredients - lavender, sunflowers and dates. But it's the mellow body that lets you breath in the qualities of each that make this the quaffer of the festival.

Most Interesting Experiment
Right Brain Brewery of Traverse City, Michigan, is one of a handful of beer makers specifically from that state that seem to enjoy pushing the envelope in regard to which ingredients can work in a beer. But with its Mangalitsa Pig Porter - a dark, chocolaty beer made with smoked pig heads and bones, it found a way to pour something akin to cocoa bacon java in a glass. And that's a compliment.

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

GABF 2015 Day Two Recap

There's something just a little more chaotic on Friday than on Thursday at the Great American Beer Festival. Being a part of that makes you want to move a little more rapidly between booths, search just a little harder for the next great beer and toss over the side those things that aren't quite hitting.

With that said, here are a few things that stood out on the second, hectic, fun-filled day of the largest beer festival in America.

* Sometimes the line is worth it.
The lengthy waits for beers have shifted from just the usual dozen or so (Russian River, Dogfish Head, New Glarus, etc.) to some up-and-comers. One that is worth the wait is Funky Buddha. Another beer writer described the Florida beer maker well as brewing every day the types of beers that most breweries make only as one-offs. Last Snow, a coconut and coffee porter that is teeming with both tastes in ways that others of its genre are not, is an example of what makes it so good.

* Shockingly short lines
Then again, there are still a number of booths the general GABF public somehow hasn't seemed to find. While lines at The Bruery stretch 30 people long, there was virtually no one last night at Bruery Terreux, the experimental arm of that brewery that produces gems like the uber-tart, cherry-rich Sans Pagaie. Similarly, one can slip easily in and out of Melvin Brewing, a multiple-award winner for its hoppy beers that is serving up incredibly fresh but balanced treats like its 2x4 double IPA.

* Embrace the cucumber.
In the past month especially, it's seemed that more breweries are using the crisp, green vegetable as an ingredient in a wide variety of styles. From the cucumber basil kolsch Horse and Dragon created to a cucumber gose on tap at Spangalang, these places are doing it well. But nothing is as eye-popping as Odd 13's Humulus Kalecumber, a sour ale with kale and cucumber that manages to bring out the freshness of the vegetable while lighting up your taste buds. Give in; you know you want it.

* An off-premises star
Speaking of Spangalang, it's worth noting that the less-than-3-month-old Five Points brewery isn't at the GABF this year because it thought it was too soon to make the investment. But while leading a bus tour of out-of-town beer writers yesterday, we stopped in there and found the taproom packed in mid-afternoon. It's easy to see why. From its Brett-fermented, fresh-hopped, peach-packed kettle sour (Colorado Junction) to its sour laced with cherry and rose water (Pure Funk), it's making beers that beg to be noticed, even outside the main hall.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

GABF 2015 Day One Recap

The "bigger and beerier" Great American Beer Festival, with its 90,000 more square feet of space and 11,000 more attendees, kicked off in fine style Thursday. Here's a few things that stood out.

* Goose Island. Wow.
Bourbon County Stout has always been one of those beers you seek out at this event. But the Chicago brewery brought it to a whole new level - and may have grabbed the mantle as "Best in Show" - with its Vanilla Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout. Sweet with a backtaste of bitter and mouth-filling without seeming the 13% ABV bomb that it is, it warms you as it goes down.

* The sour scene is diversifying.
Once it was that everyone lined up at Russian River to see what this crazy "sour" thing was. Now you can't stumble across a booth without being offered something tart. Places like Former Future Brewing's Black Project are getting justifiably long lines. And the styles are getting wider. One could easily find several sour apricots, including a great version from Dry Dock, And the Transilience - a tart imperial Berliner weisse from two-year-old Southbound Brewing of Savannah - ranked among the best beers of the evening.

* The new "beer geek" section has some advantages.
It wasn't as if brewers were swimming around the area pouring their beer into your mouth. But the Meet the Brewer area did attract some impressive beer makers who clearly thought about what they wanted to offer, from the aforementioned Dry Dock and Southbound to places like Weyerbacher and Short's, with its magnificent array of offerings. There is more concentrated quality here than anywhere else in the Colorado Convention Center.

* Best hoppy beer so far: Strange Dry-Hopped 1000 Barrels Imperial IPA.
It's always a good idea to try some of the gems cooked up by the locals for the fest. This combines a big mouthful of grass with a huge malty backtaste expertly.

* Legislators have picked up their game.
The Colorado Brewers Guild booth features a "Hop the Vote" showdown between state House and state Senate members who brewed beers with Cannonball Creek and Big Choice, respectively, and want you to vote on which is better. While last year's virgin efforts seemed like early homebrew creations, the House's IPA and the Senate's coffee stout both are high-quality beers. It's worth a look, if for no other reason than to have the elected officials serving you booze.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

5 Things I Learned from What the Funk

Having the "What the Funk" festival the night before Great American Beer Festival opens is much like opening your absolute best presents on Christmas Eve. And the 67 brewers who showed up to the Highlands Masonic Event Center with gifts wrapped in oak barrels and a Brettanomyces bow on top did not disappoint - even if I clearly took this analogy too far.

That said, here are a few of the biggest takeaways from the beer-rich event put on by Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project - as well as some things to search out at the GABF.

1) Barrel-aged imperial stouts should include little extras.
It's not that the run-of-the-mill, dark-and-thick-as-midnight stouts disappointed. But few things at the event were as eye-opening as Green Bench's Manaphin, an imperial stout doused liberally with chocolate and vanilla to soften its wood-aged body and add a sweet kick. Similarly, Westbrook's 2015 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Mexican Cake - aged on cocoa nibs, vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks - offered a unique taste that stuck with you all night.

2) Cascade Brewing still rules the roost.
The Oregon beer maker's Blackcap Raspberry may have been the stand-out beer of the show not because the barrel-aged sour ale pushed the limits of taste buds so much as it straddled a line between puckering sour and wonderful sweetness. Packed with more raspberry than it seems possible to put into a beer, it was a reminder of just how important the choice of ingredients can be to the most experimental beer.

3) Good things come out of gin barrels.
Less popular than whiskey or oak barrels, the newest spirit vessel to the aged-beer party brings a special kick of juniper overtones that can add to the complexity of a beer. This was most evident in Bellwether, Breakside Brewing's sour double wit aged in gin barrels with Kaffir Lime leaves - a combination that produced a different taste every time it rolled over a different area of your tongue.

4) The idea of a "subtle" barrel-aged sour is picking up.
It's hard to be subdued with so much funk and exterior influence on the beer. But Funky Golden Mosaic - a fantastic dry-hopped sour golden ale from Prairie Brewing - actually managed to be smooth while also being full of flavor. And even Souren, a sour ale made with Pinot Noir grapes by Bruery Terreux, managed to pack a great fruit punch without being overbearing.

5) It's hard to beat a good Nightmare on Brett.
As homer as it sounds, few things were as tasty as the collection brought to the party by host Crooked Stave. Stand-out among them was its port-barrel-aged dark sour that blended dark and woody overtones with a blackberry-like accent.

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