Monday, November 17, 2014

Nitro. Bacon. And Beer.

For those who've never had the chance to spend Saturday afternoon drinking nitrogenated treats and Sunday afternoon pairing imperial stouts with whiskey candied bacon ice cream, you really need to rethink your weekend agenda.

But after two great festivals - Left Hand's Nitro Fest, which went on in a tent outside the brewery despite Saturday's snow, and Sunday's Denver Beer and Bacon Festival that was overly crowded but still showed some original flourishes - one can pick a few things about where the craft beer industry is going. And with that, here are some things learned from this past weekend's bashes.

1) Nitro Fest

* The IPA on nitro can be a good thing.
Nitro is best known as a smoothing agent for big porters but an additive that makes a sharp, hoppy beer a little boring. But if done well, a little bit of a gas actually can sharpen up an IPA. Take, for example, Green Flash's West Coast IPA, a wickedly bitter beer that, with the addition of nitrogen, becomes more approachable but still blasts you with a mouthful of fresh grass. Or there is Bear Republic's Demolition Derby, which gives not only a hard hop finish but a barrel-aged woodiness that shines with the nitro. This is a trend that needs to be pushed further.

* Coffee and pumpkin make a nitro beer glow.
Left Hand rolled out six nitro beers for its birthday bash, but none shined as brightly as Beer Week Sauce, its too-often-overlooked coffee porter that takes on hints of creamy vanilla when gassed up. Just as intriguing: Mountain Sun's Dark Harvest Pumpkin Stout, which is a melange of spices knocked down just one smooth notch to the point where you could drink the complex beer all day.

* Boulder Beer's Shake may be the two best beers of 2014.
Few offerings this year have seemed as genuinely unique as the chocolate porter that tastes like an old-time ice cream treat. But when it's on nitro, it becomes less straight beer and more desert treat - and it may be more intriguing.

2) Bacon and Beer Festival

* S**t you never thought of pairing goes very well together
Maybe you've never had Little Man Ice Cream's whiskey candied bacon ice cream. Even if you have, maybe you'd never thought "Wow, what beer compliments this?" The answer is: Though an Epic Imperial Stout (pictured above) introduces a commonly sought tough-on-sweet texture with the ice cream, the real winner is the Elevation/Epic Epication Blackberry Imperial Saison, which brings out the sweetness in the candied meat like nothing you'd expect. And that's what happens when you get to pair a lot of porks and porters in one brilliantly conceived festival.

* The next big taste? How about a hoppy wheat?
Once a style that seemed more a lark than a serious effort, the light but bitter combo of two seemingly disparate tastes now is coming together quite successfully. TRVE's Scorn, a dry-hopped pale wheat, was extremely crisp and eye-opening. And Denver Beer Co's hopped wheat, which is soon to be its next canned offering, stepped the game up even more with a great blending of the lemon mouthfeel of the wheat and the citrus bite of the hops. Oh, and if you can pair it with Cap City Tavern's bacon potato torte with pork belly, all the better.

* Our Mutual Friend has some tricks up its sleeve.
The most interesting beer of Beer and Bacon was a brown ale from the RiNo brewery - that had been run through a randall full of orange peel, cocoa nibs and Amarillo hops, picking up the orange peel especially to give it a dark desert type of feel. At a time when many breweries experiment by going extreme, the idea of going sweet and subtle with a standard beer was a great winner.

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Monday, November 03, 2014

Five Things I Learned from the All Colorado Beer Festival

With 67 breweries and nearly 200 beers on hand, Colorado Springs' biggest annual beer event once again was a great way to get a snapshot of the state scene. And between tasting at the festival and participating as a celebrity judge, there are a few things one couldn't help but notice.

1) Pikes Peak Brewing is reaching new heights.
The best beer at the festival - and the one that seemed to generate the most conversation - was a Whiskey Barrel-Aged Stout from the Monument brewery that somehow took on sour characteristics. Both the complexity of the beer - it maintained a dark, sweet body even as it took on sour overtones - and the fact that brewery owner Chris Wright decided to run with an experiment gone differently than he expected shows just how mature this 3-1/2-year-old brewery is getting.  And its Penrose Private Reserve, a Belgian golden ale aged in red-wine barrels, wasn't too shabby either.

2) The next big Fort Collins brewery? How about Horse and Dragon?
The hall at the All Colorado Beer Festival often features a lot of newer beer makers looking to make their name. And it reinforced a thought that others have said for several months now - that Horse and Dragon, which opened in May, is worthy of grabbing attention even in one of the state's best beer towns. Particularly interesting was its Sad Panda Coffee Stout, a beer that wasn't just heavy on coffee but on creamy vanilla and caramel flavors, putting a new spin on the style.

3) It's time for more chai beers.
Yak and Yeti has earned well-deserved national accolades for its Chai Milk Stout, but for some reason other breweries have seemed slow to pick up on this interesting flavor profile. Avery's typically taproom-only Chai Brown, which was hidden back in the VIP tent, was every bit as good, though, cushioning the extra spice with a solid brown body that complimented it well. The only question: When will more breweries jump on this emerging bandwagon?

4) Biggest surprise: Shamrock Brewing
I got to judge the specialty category with two others this year, and it was only later that we discovered the highly flavorful, well-balanced winner we chose was Shamrock's Death by Coconut Chocolate Porter. But the Pueblo brewery, once an afterthought in southern Colorado's beer scene, also brought along a Big Papa double IPA that was simultaneously smooth and huge in flavor.

5) Colorado Springs' newest breweries are producing decidedly mixed results.
As a former Springs resident, I've been pleased to see the explosion of breweries down there over the past two years - but not all new breweries are equal. Iron Bird Brewing rolled out a crisp, well-made IPA. but Fieldhouse Brewing's watery Cranberry Saison and Nano 108's overly malted and oddly bitter Imperial IPA show there is certainly some work still to be done. That's not saying these breweries won't grow into great representatives of the local scene; they're just not all there yet.

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Saturday, November 01, 2014

Best. November. Ever.

Traditionally, the time between the Great American Beer Festival and Christmas largely has been a dry season, when  brewers worry about getting out their winter seasonals and beer drinkers allow their livers to recover. But not this year.

Instead, this month brings a bevy of opportunities to sample a great variety of beers in settings that are new or only just becoming familiar. And before the snow gets really good in the mountains, it may be worth clearing your calendar and dedicating the next four weeks to beer tasting.

Saturday, Nov. 1: All Colorado Beer Festival, Colorado Springs
What started many years ago as a mid-sized festival has grown to 67 breweries serving 200 beers this year - plus two cideries and a kombucha maker. And if last year's selection was any indication, the brewers will be getting creative with what they bring.

 One thing that's cool about the All Colorado Beer Festival - aside from the state-centered focus implied in its name - is the fact that it's one of the few festivals in the state that awards medals from a panel of certified judges. (And celebrity judges like yours truly, hence the picture above.) It's the best beer fest in the Springs area, and it's worth the $35 price for tickets to the 1 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. sessions.

Saturday, Nov. 8: Boulder IPA Fest
Avery Brewing's annual celebration of the hop shows off not just its grassy products but a lot of other fine stuff as well. Tickets are $45 and the festival runs from noon to 5 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 15: Left Hand Nitro Fest, Longmont
This celebration of nitrogenated beers is believed to be the first such specialty festival in Colorado and maybe in the country. But when the beer gurus at Left Hand thought about a clever way to celebrate their 21st birthday this year, thoughts turned quite quickly to focusing on a style of beer that the brewery is becoming known for nationwide.

Twenty-three breweries will be bringing nitro beers, and many will be available for the first time in Colorado or anywhere outside of the breweries. These aren't just the porters and stouts that have become known as the primary brewery styles, either - Green Flash's West Coast IPA, Elysian's P. Smoove Pumpkin Cream Ale and Dogfish Head's Chicory Stout are among the others on tap.

And Left Hand will move beyond the three beers it has universally available on nitro and offer three more - its session IPA, its Black Jack Porter and its coffee porter, marketing director Emily Armstrong said. Tickets for the 3 to 7 p.m. festival are $50.

Sunday, Nov. 16: Denver Bacon and Beer Festival
This is the third year for the celebration of pork, porter, pales and pilsner, and it's growing once again. A full 1,100 tickets are available for the show at the Curtis hotel, which is scheduled from 2:30 to 5 p.m.

If you haven't been before, the idea is no fancier than the title. About 20 breweries bring beers that they think might pair well with something porky and salty, and about 25 breweries bring something clever they've made with bacon. Attendees travel from booth to booth in a blissful celebration of beer and carnivorous behavior.

Organizer P.J. Hoberman of Denver Off the Wagon, which also is offering a five-course dinner for $65 at The Lobby the night before, said the appeal is pretty obvious. "I think honestly most beer does pair well with pork. Think about a nice roasty stout with a good piece of bacon." I'm sold.

Thursday, Nov. 20: Chef and Brew
One of the premier combinations of food and beer (assuming you like food other than bacon) is back at the Exdo Center in Denver. Twenty breweries are paired with 20 chefs from such low-end restaurants as Acorn, Panzano and Rioja to come up with a lasting combination. People are still talking about some of the combinations from last year's festival, if that gives you any indication what you'll get for your $49 general admission ticket.

Friday, Nov. 21: American Craft Beer Radio Holiday Beer Bash 
Moving this year to Wings Over the Rockies Museum, Gary Valliere's big party (pictured at top) will feature about 35 breweries. Last year, the majority of them poured some version of their winter seasonals, making this the perfect gathering for people who love to check out what they should be drinking throughout December. The show runs from 5 to 9 p.m., and tickets are $35.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

6 Pumpkin Beers You Need to Drink Before Halloween

While handing out treats on Friday night you want to have a few tricks up your sleeve - such as enjoying the best pumpkin beer possible. Luckily,brewers showed restraint this year, reversing a trend from last year where many of the seasonal offerings were entirely over-spiced and marginally acceptable at best.

But what stood out most during this October season? Here's one beer geek's suggestions as to how you can conjure up the most for your taste buds in one handful of pumpkin goodness.

1) Pumking - Southern Tier Brewing (pictured at left)
In a universe of complex pumpkin beers, what makes this quaffable and smooth offering stand out is the toasted marshmallow backtaste that adds a vanilla-esque sweetness to the body and allows the cinnamon apparent in the recipe to jolt the roof of your mouth a little but not overwhelm the beer.

2) Dark O' The Moon Pumpkin Stout - Elysian Brewing Co.
This is as bold and spicy as anything you'll find out there. The difference is that the thick, almost sweet-bodied stout envelopes the beer and gives it a firm but soft cushion, allowing you to enjoy the base beer as well as the additives.

3) St. Ambroise Pumpkin - McAuslan Brewing Co.
The biggest surprise of last year remains the easiest-drinking yet highly enjoyable pumpkin beer out there, with just enough hints of pie mix to let you know it's something special but not enough to overpower you.

4)  Hey! Pumpkin - Denver Beer Co.
The Denver brewery stepped up its game this year by ramping up the cinnamon and accompanying spices but not to lip-burning levels. This offers pumpkin enjoyment in medium-bodied form.

5) Pumpkin Ale - Upslope Brewing
Many consider this the gold standard of Colorado pumpkin beers, and the reason why is easy to taste - a complexity of both bitter and spicy additives, all swirling around and daring you to identify them.

6) Gordgeous - Hangar 24 Craft Brewery
OK, this is a bit of a tricky one, as the California brewery doesn't circulate to Colorado. But the star pumpkin beer of the Great American Beer Festival adds a creamy body to its heavy melange of tastes, allowing this to go down very easily. Now if only it could get out to the Centennial State as easily ...

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Best of the 2014 GABF

After a couple of weeks of reflection, the theme statement from this year's Great American Beer Festival finally is coming into focus. It wasn't the year of any one style - like with imperial IPAs, bold sours or barrel-aged dark beers as in years past — but the year in which each of the 700 breweries there put forth something original, something bold that distinguished it from its neighbors and from the growing cacophony of beer makers nationwide.

This is wonderful for its variety of offerings— on Thursday night alone, I was able to taste a Bourbon Carrot Cake, a banana beer and a brew made with Szechuan popcorn. But it makes the job of finding a definitive beer of the GABF — or even choosing best beers in specific categories — hard to the point where such categorization is almost moot.

That said, here as always is one man's thoughts on the best of the very best that breweries had to offer at this year's gathering.

Best in Show: 2x4, Melvin Brewing
For once, even in a year of such diversity, this award wasn't hard, as a number of people seemed to come to the same conclusion. Rarely, if even, has a double IPA been so smooth and so aggressively hoppy at the same time. A spectacularly accessible palate of grassy hops rolled over the taste buds in a way that jolted you and pleased you. It showed why, even without winning a medal, this Wyoming brewery is becoming known as one of the national kings of hops.

Runner-up: Teche Hombres, Bayou Teche Brewing
Out of Louisiana came this Belgian-style wit brewed with agave nectar and aged in French white wine barrels with orange peel. Yes, it was as good as it sounds — and even more complex.

Best Sour Beer: Blue Sunday, New Holland Brewing
An anniversary blend of several previously made sour beers, this shouted a message of sharp, tart cherry and packed more a punch than any similar beers at the festival.

Best Hop Bomb: Notorious, Boneyard Beer
If 2x4 was the best hoppy beer of the show, this was the most mind-blowing: a triple IPA whose flavor seeped into every crevice of your tongue but that still was phenomenally balanced.

Best New Hop Taste: Hop Drip IPA, Magic Hat Brewing (pictured above)
Adding a local coffee to an already bold body created a contrasting and yet strangely complimentary blend of bitter flavors that resulted in a new style of complexity for the genre.

Best Use of Fruit: Serendipity, New Glarus Brewing
This slightly sour ale blending apples and cranberries with a smaller amount of Wisconsin brewery's  traditional cherries during a cherry shortage was heavy with apple and an eye-opener.

Best of the Unusual Beers: Roxie's Golden Bananas, Saucony Creek Brewing (at top)
Fifteen pounds of bananas went into this Pennsylvania brewery's 15-barrel batch of beer, producing a pleasant and interesting beer whose most impressive trait is that it's not overpowering.

Best in Show from Colorado: Swing Se Pliser, Trinity Brewing
Colorado Springs' most innovative beer maker continues to break new ground, this time with a tart and hoppy barrel-aged sour IPA that requires you to think about what you're tasting.

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Abbreviated Great American Beer Festival Preview

I'll be honest: I didn't have time to do my usual lengthy GABF preview, picking out 25 to 50 beers that you have to try. I was unprepared that the time I typically spend getting ready for the festival would be rededicated to feeding and caring our my 7-week-old son. I imagine the time crunch will be less next year, but I hope you'll agree that, as a new dad, I had to re-prioritize this once.

That said, I want to offer up two things in preparation for the greatest festival in the history of the planet  to start tonight.

First, I want to refer anyone who is interested to a Facebook chat I just did on how to attack the festival. It mentions some strategies, some up-and-coming breweries and a few tips. You can find it right here.

 Second, I want to give a shout-out to some of the best beers I've tried during Denver Beer Fest, the ever-burgeoning lineup of events leading up to the GABF. Some will be served at the GABF, and others may be just at the breweries, whether now or at a future time. Either way, these are some beers that you should track down if given the opportunity.
Boneyard Notorious: Triple IPAs can be a tricky lot as they try to balance big flavor without too big a presence of alcohol. Oregon's Boneyard Beer may have walked that line better than just about any triple IPA maker in recent history. (At GABF)
Oude Tart: When considering which sours should be on your must list the next few days, don't overlook this Flanders red ale aged 18 months in red-wine barrels. (At GABF)
Eclipse Imperial Stout: At 17.3 percent ABV, this biggest-ever product from Jagged Mountain Craft Brewery is deceptive in how easily the big, dark body goes down. (At brewery)
Fresh-hopped 1000 Barrels Imperial IPA: Strange Craft Beer may never make this hop bomb, complete with 60 pounds of Cascade, Nugget and CNZ hops again. But it really, really should. (At brewery … at least it was)

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

GABF Week - The Can't-Miss Events

Denver Beer Fest and the events around the Great American Beer Festival have grown to the point where the idea of going to even a small percentage of them has become ludicrous. Therefore, you have to choose your schedule very carefully.

Here then are a few of the highlights of the week as you plan your itinerary. This is not a comprehensive list of all events; you can find those at The Denver Post or at Westword. Rather, this is one man's attempt to give you a couple you might want to focus in on with your valuable time.

* 10 a.m.: Backcountry Pizza & Tap House of Boulder kicks off Sour Sunday - 28 beers, including offerings from Almanac, Evil Twin, Russian River and more. Blow your taste buds early.
* 11 a.m.: Black Sky Brewing of Denver celebrates its first anniversary with a BBQ and several special tappings. And the menu at this metal brewery always seems to surprise.
* 1 p.m.: If you're already in Boulder for Sour Sunday, be sure to stop by Avery Brewing for the release of its latest edition of Rumpkin, its fantastic 16% rum-barrel-aged pumpkin ale.

* Noon: Crooked Stave kicks off a week of noon special tappings with its Blackberry Dark Origins. Port Nightmare on Brett and L'Brett d'Peach are among the week's other highlights.
* 5 to 9 p.m.: Falling Rock Tap House's GABF tapping party is taking place for the 17th straight year. In addition to beer from the likes of Avery, Odell and Russian River, you can probably catch a few brewers there.
* 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.: GABF week involves a lot of learning. Metropolitan State University of Denver is putting that into very traditional form with a one-time, $35 class open to the public entitled "Ales, Lagers and Beyond: Tasting and Appreciating Beer."

* All day: Many breweries are doing special tappings all week, and it feels almost too selective to mention just a few. But veritable newcomer Jagged Mountain Brewery has a worthy lineup this week that includes a Barrel-Aged First Descent Old Ale - one of the strongest beers in Denver - plus ditties like a Cognac-Barrel Voodoo Goat Barleywine later this week.
* 5 p.m.: Upslope Pumpkin Ale is widely considered one of the best pumpkin ales in Colorado and is a former gold-medal winner. Tonight, the Boulder brewery releases it for the season.
* 5 to 8 p.m.: The first of the beer fests before the beer festival is the Paramount Café Beer Fest, featuring 20 area breweries and costing the low, low price of $20.
* 7 p.m.: Freshcraft is another one of the beer bars that will spend the week offering specialty days and nights from various breweries. One that shouldn't be missed is tonight's New Belgium tapping, featuring a number of sour beers that are hard to find anywhere else.

* 2 p.m.: Strange Craft Beer releases its first round of bombers in its 4-1/2-year history, ensuring that one of Denver's best-kept secrets will be getting a little less secret. Cherry Kriek, Grapefruit IPA, Dr. Strangelove Barleywine 2013 and its farmhouse ale all go out officially to the public today. Show up with me, and we can start the campaign for bottling Zora rosemary pale ale.
* 3 p.m.: One of the things that's surprised me is the lack of vertical tappings you see during this week. River North today offers just such a tapping of its J. Marie Farmhouse Ale four ways - classic, wine-barrel, whiskey-barrel and barreled and bretted.
* 6 p.m.: Music concerts have been done during Denver Beer Fest. But Renegade Brewing seeks to break new ground with Offensively Delicious, a comedy event. The $40 evening at the Oriental Theater gives you access to two professional comedians. But, more frighteningly, it also lets you see the (brief) comedy stylings of the 11 breweries pouring at the event as well.
* 6 p.m.: You won't have to look too hard to find barrel-aged beers at GABF. But if you want to cut out everything else, the new World of Beer in downtown Denver gives you unlimited tastings at a barrel-aged competition for $40.
* 7 p.m.: One of the coolest new out-of-state beers that will make its way around Denver Beer Fest is Sam Adams' Kosmic Mother Funk Grand Cru. The Boston brewery takes over Lucky Pie LoDo tonight to serve it up.

* 2 to 7 p.m. and 9 to midnight: Epic Brewing offers not one but two sessions of its Firkin Fiasco, featuring 50 different firkins. The $25 tickets almost seem underpriced.
* 6 to 10 p.m. Crooked Stave once again offers its What the Funk festival of sour and barrel-aged beers opposite the opening GABF session. I mention this purely in passing; tickets are sold out.
* 6 to 11 p.m. Three Floyds beers are sought out, but the Indiana brewery isn't available in Colorado most of the time. That changes briefly today at a party it's hosting with TRVE Brewing at Summit Music Hall.
* 7 p.m. Speaking of things you can't find here much, Cigar City will have a host of beers available at Freshcraft tonight. As a bonus, they'll be serving them up with some rarer beers from Colorado geniuses Ska Brewing.
* 11 p.m. If your liver isn't already crying "mercy," head over to Euclid Hall, where Avery Brewing is offering 14 beers with a seven-course midnight breakfast. Tickets are $125.

* 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.: One of my favorite features of Denver Beer Fest is beer-themed events thrown by places you don't normally think of first when you think of beer bars. 16Mix in the Sheraton is throwing a Beer and Bacon Brunch for $25 to help you chase away the hangover you know you're going to have.
* Noon to 4: Not planning to spend over $100 on an Avery breakfast? Then you should have the money leftover to sample some truly, truly impossible-to-find offerings from around the country at the $110 Rare Beer Tasting taking place at McNichols Hall in Civic Center Park.
* Noon to 4: Focus on the Beer has done small "Beers Made by Walking" events for the past two festivals, getting a dozen or so brewers to craft beers with unusual ingredients inspired by hikes. This year, it's going big time with 33 breweries offering over 40 beers. At $40, this event at Wynkoop Brewery may be one of the best surrounding the festival.
* Noon to 8 p.m. Can't choose one brewery? Denver Microbrew Tour is offering a hop-on-hop-off bus that visits nine breweries and one cidery for a jump-on, leave-your-car-at-home price of $35.
* 1 p.m. Bury your taste buds at the Alpha King contest at Falling Rock, where brewers who know hops try to take it to the next level and make the hoppiest beer in America.

* Local breweries will breaking out new beers all week, but the one I'm most looking forward to comes today: Copper Kettle taps its S'Mores Porter.
* 7 p.m. Like Surly Brewing? Freshcraft is tapping a number of the hot Minnesota brewery's beers.
* 7 to 8 p.m. Marco's Coal Fired Pizza is offering a number of tappings with out-of-state brewers during the week. Among the most exciting: Deschutes pouring its Mirror Mirror Barleywine on Saturday night.
* Post-GABF: By Saturday night, about the only thing my taste buds can still tolerate are pungently sour beers. Luckily, Falling Rock's traditional post-festival party with New Belgium will feature plenty.
* 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.: And if you want something a little different for bidding farewell to the best week of the year, the Pour House is sending people out with a party hosted by Left Hand and Boulevard.

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