Sunday, November 26, 2017
Thursday, November 23, 2017
Wandering through the third floor of the McNichols Civic Center Building last month during Denver Rare Beer Tasting was the equivalent of being trapped in a black hole. Everything being poured was heavy and dense, and no light could shine through any glass.
The biggest difference was, however, that this was an experience you enjoyed so much that you could even begin to pick up subtleties in the booth after booth of the 16- to 19-percent-ABV beers in which you were imbibing. And through that, you could see how far the craft beer industry has come in the past 10 years.
It's not that imperial stouts weren't tasty circa 2007. But those that pushed 10 or 11 percent ABV at the time tended to be beers whose alcohol content was readily apparent. A big beer often brought with it a big, boozy taste. And there was a limit to how many of those you could drink.
Today, however, you can find a beer like Avery Brewing's Black Eye, a 3-year-old rum-barrel-aged imperial stout that grew to 18.8 percent ABV by the time it hit drinkers' glasses last month. Its body was bursting with depth and darkness, but it also was shockingly smooth, using its enormous malt base to cover any residual alcohol burn. It not only was a great beer; it was damn near dangerous.
At just that one event, however, you could also find River North Brewery's 18 percent Vicennial Shadowman, which presented a huge mouthful of almost sooty dark malt that was shockingly drinkable. There was WeldWerks' Medianoche Reserve, which weighed in at 13.5 percent but added an astounding smoothness to its underlying cocoa punch. And even a beer like New Holland Brewing's "Dragon's Milk: Michigan's Winter" added a little burn to its 16 percent body, but not enough to overshadow a bittersweet coffee palate that made you want more.
It isn't just at specialty beer festivals that you find these big-bodied gems, either. Taprooms across the state are featuring experimental and seasonal creations of substantial girth right now, much in the way that virtually every taproom is trying its hand at a New England-style IPA.
So, you can actively seek out a hammer of a beer like Verboten Brewing's Little Nonsense, which packs heavy flavors of both bourbon and vanilla from its barrel aging and manages to be every bit as tasty as it is aggressive.
Or you can find a hidden treasure like Goldspot Brewing's Black Whiskey River Imperial Stout. At 10.5 percent, it's almost a light beer compared to some in this group, and its body isn't as pelting with heaviness as others. But after sitting 5-1/2 months in a Laws Whiskey House barrel, it takes on a lot of warming whiskey flavor but still allows the rough-hewn, slightly mocha edge of the body to take center stage.
And let's not forget, the incomparable Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival - scheduled for Jan. 4-6 in Breckenridge - will be another showcase for the creativity in the imperial stout world.
The joy in drinking these beers is both complex and simple. The flavor profiles they raise bring up tastes ranging from sweetness to heat to bitterness, and picking them out of the big, meaty body is both challenging and satisfying. Yet there is a simplicity in enjoying the idea of a brewer tossing everything they have into one recipe, rolling the dice and letting the experiment end in a boozy, warming toast to their gutsy resolve.
While co-hosting American Craft Beer Radio a couple of weeks ago, I asked Wynkoop head brewer John Sims if I was crazy to think these beers were getting smoother and easier to drink even as they are getting bigger - while we were enjoying his Captain K's Final Daze, an imperial honey brown that offered both depth and a sweetness that was anything but cloying.
He told me that I was not nuts and that brewing techniques have evolved so much in the 24 years he's been in the industry that the methods for making and aging beers have taken off some of their alcoholic roughness while accenting the malts and the occasional additives even more.
To that, I say cheers. And as the nights turn colder, I plan to raise more pints (or smaller servings) of imperial stouts that will intoxicate me as much with their taste as they will with their alcohol content.
Labels: American Craft Beer Radio, Avery Brewing, Big Beers, Denver Rare Beer Tasting, Goldspot Brewing, imperial stouts, New Holland Brewing, River North Brewery, Verboten Brewing, Weldwerks Brewing, Wynkoop Brewery
Wednesday, November 01, 2017
Each time a new brewery enters the Colorado market, one must ask: "What are it bringing to the local beer party, and how does it change the beer scene here?"
But with Zymurgy Magazine's 24th-ranked brewery in America making its full-time distribution debut in the state just this week, the more appropriate question seems to be: "What more is there to come?"
Surly Brewing of Minnesota has earned its national reputation for pushing taste boundaries and disregarding traditional style definitions. It's the most well-regarded brewery to emerge from the Gopher State, and it draws crowds at events like the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival, where its experimental beers are on offering here for at least one day a year.
Just to be clear, the trio of Surly offerings now available at bars and liquor stores are quality beers. Furious greets you with a piny bite but leaves without residual bitterness. Hell is classic German lager, with just enough sweetness from its Carahell malts to make it stand out. And Xtra-Citra is arguably the jewel of the bunch, a melon-forward, full-mouthed pale that bounces between citrus and tropical flavors and leaves you wanting another — which is appropriate, since it's only 4.5% ABV.
But anyone who has tasted a creation like Surly's Five — its fifth-anniversary Brett dark ale that was aged in red wine barrels and was bursting with the flavor of tart cherries — knows the brewery is more than crushable post-hike beers and top-notch IPAs. This is a brewery, named for owner Omar Ansari's angst at not finding good beer options in his state before he decided to open his own place in 2004, that can present flavors that only a minimal number of Colorado beer makers are creating. And you just want the chance to pick those up locally.
So, welcome to the state, Surly and your tasty creations. And please don't leave us surly about what Minnesotans have that your new friends in Colorado can't yet get.
Tuesday, October 24, 2017
This set out to be a column about the newest and boldest pumpkin beers on the market, the ones that 12 friends haven't already recommended to you for several years in a row.
The problem is, however, that those particular beers that pair well with black cats and slasher movies have earned their reputations for a reason - they're the ones that are made well, year after year, even as the quality of other beers of this style can vary pretty widely. And at a time when fewer new breweries seem to be attempting to make potables out of hoards of gourds, the chasm between great pumpkin beers and others seems to be widening, leaving the classics on an island of their own.
Is that a sign that the style is losing popularity? Not necessarily, as pumpkin beers always have been polarizing and some brewers have never liked trying to assemble them at all. Not just that, but while some breweries are avoiding the genre, others (see Southern Tier Brewing) are making multiple versions using the same seasonal ingredient, almost single-handedly pumping up the style.
Or does it mean that we've run out of original ideas for how to mix together pumpkins, spices and malts to create something new and interesting? It doesn't have to, although some of the most creative beers at the recent Great American Beer Festival were meant to be year-round pleasers, not those narrowed to an annual release.
But the best of the style simply remain the best of the style. And it is to those beers that tribute should be paid.
Southern Tier's Pumking Imperial Ale remains the most creative and compelling pumpkin creation out there, a virtual pumpkin pie in a glass. You're struck immediately by the scent of pie crust with just a hint of mixed spices, and the creamy nature of the beer gives a distinct impression of pie filling. Plus, the alcohol is extremely subdued for an 8.6% ABV beer.
Nearly as compelling - but, sadly, not available in Colorado - is Schlafly Pumpkin Ale out of St. Louis. There is a full malty body with both sweet and subtly spice-laced undertones here, and it's a complex adventure for one beer. Pressure needs to be exerted to get it here more than just during GABF.
In Colorado, you can't do better than 4 Noses Brewing's Pump Action, an also not-so-alcohol-apparent imperial pumpkin ale that comes on with a full mouth of spice but less of residual hot back taste than many others of the ilk. It uses its amber body particularly well as a cushion to smooth out the tastes of nutmeg and cinnamon, leaving them pleasing without being acerbic.
Neck and neck with it in Colorado is Upslope Pumpkin Ale, which, like Pump Action, has taken home GABF medals. This cranks up the six spices in the beer a little bit and tones down the sweetness of the pumpkin but settles with a bready, heavy body that zings you without overpowering.
And maybe the one surprise of the season was Uinta Brewing's Funk'n Patch Brett Pumpkin Ale, a beer that adds enough to perk up the lively, funky characteristics of the beer while pushing it just slightly into the category of sour. The Utah brewery's beers tend to vary wildly in terms of hitting the mark, but this one delivers in a differentiated, put-the-fun-back-in-pumpkin-ales way.
There's a chance that none of that is news to you. But it's worth reiterating all the same that there are breweries, even if a select number of them, that are doing pumpkin beers well and giving you incentive to reach out and try some before the calendar turns to November.
Monday, October 09, 2017
The phrase "best Great American Beer Festival ever" is so trite that it could rightfully stop people from listening to the rest of the conversation. But this year, it just might have been true.
Over three days at the Colorado Convention Center and six days at events around town, the beer poured was so daring, so unique, so full of life that it elicited smiles and compliments around every corner, even from the harshest beer critics. From audacious fruit sours with boundary-bending flavors to juicy hop bombs to the bevy of 18% ABV barrel-aged imperial stouts that went down like cocoa at the Denver Rare Beer Tasting, brewers upped the bar on almost every style.
Choosing beers to highlight from both the convention floor and outside events then is difficult - not because there's not enough to make this list but because there's too many that are being left off. But once again, here is one blogger's thoughts on the best creations at the best beer festival in the world.
Best in Show: Speciation Artisan Ales Rhubarb Vanilla Incipient
Former Black Project brewer Mitch Ermatinger put together a tart, intriguing and yet smooth wild yeast golden sour made with rhubarb and Mexican vanilla beans that was the closest thing to a perfect combination of unusual tastes at a festival full of them. And if that wasn't enough, he also was pouring a Tequila-barrel-aged Incipient with blood orange, guava, limes and salt that was the closest thing you'll taste to a beer version of a margarita.
Best Outside the GABF: Ozark Beer Co. Onyx Bourbon Double Cream Stout
Arkansas isn't known for being a brewing mecca. But one sip of this 10.2% stout with flavors of big coffee and fluid cream will make you rethink your visions of the state, as well as of how easy it can be to drink a beer like this.
Even at just 6% ABV, this New England IPA towered over competitors in taste, imbued with Mosaic hops that offered overtones of citrus and melon, all in an incredibly smooth body. Not far behind was Melvin Brewing 2x4, a double IPA so steeped in flowery citrus (yes, that's possible) that you're halfway through the glass before you realize how quickly you've been imbibing this.
Best Dark Treat: Mountain Sun Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Chocolate Thunder Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout
Everything was here: Sweet chocolate, smooth milk, a slight alcoholic bite but one that was far less than you could have expected. Bring on February, as Stout Month at the Denver/Boulder restaurant has never seemed so exciting.
Best Sour Not Made with Rhubarb: Bruery Terreux Oude Tart with Raspberries
In a world where the newest brewery and newest taste sometimes steals the show, this beer demonstrated why a known entity making twists on its classic offering - in this, case, adding raspberries to its Flemish red ale in the final stages of barrel aging to create a simultaneously tart and refreshing beverage - should never be ignored.
Best Lager: Lone Tree Brewing Mexican Lager
Things like simplicity and crispness with just enough of a slightly sweet malt backbone to give a beer heft often are overlooked at a festival of wild and crazy standouts. The gold medal this south Denver brewer won for this subtly brilliant creation (seen at right) shows it should not be forgotten.
Beer That Shouldn't Have Worked But Did: Wiley Roots Brewing Cinna(man)bun
This was a cinnamon vanilla sour. Think about it for a second. Then run up to Greeley to get a shockingly blended barrel-aged golden sour that used the cinnamon to zingy rather than clashing effect, and taste great craftsmanship.
Beers That Everyone Talked About: Weldwerks Medianoche/Medianoche Reserve
One of the simplest tastes from this complex Colorado brewery is its imperial stout, which received a deserved gold medal for presenting a dark, smooth body with notes of chocolate that seemed far too easy to drink. But when it aged said creation for 17 months in bourbon barrels with toasted coconut, vanilla beans and cacao nibs, as it did for Denver Rare Beer Tasting, it became unforgettable.
Beer That Everyone Wondered About: Haw River Farmhouse Ales Sazerac
This North Carolina brewery offered a rye Belgian tripel that tasted eerily similar to the cocktail after which it was named due to the addition of fennel, allspice, star anise and lemon peels to the rye whiskey barrels in which it aged. The common reaction at Rare Beer Tasting: "That was fascinating, though I probably don't need a second." And to clarify, that's a compliment to its creativity.
Labels: Denver Rare Beer Tasting, Great American Beer Festival, Great Notion Brewing, Lone Tree Brewing, Mountain Sun, Ozark Beer Co., Speciation Artisan Ales, The Bruery, Weldwerks Brewing, Wiley Roots Brewing
Thursday, October 05, 2017
America's most stunning beer festival is upon us, showing off 800 breweries from across the nation, some you will never find in Denver outside of their spotlights in the Colorado Convention from Oct. 5-7. But it is only the fool who would enter those hallowed halls and ignore this state's own fruits.
For Colorado brewers - and there are 161 of them that will be pouring at the Great American Beer Festival - are coming in from parts of the state you've likely never visited, and they are breaking out some one-offs and rarities you've certainly never tried. And there frankly might be a higher concentration of blow-your-taste-buds-out-with-delight offerings in the Mountain section of the great hall than in any other area - yes, even more than the Pacific.
With that in mind, here is an alphabetical list for locals and visitors alike of the beers you absolutely should stop by to try while you meander through the festival. A few you'll know; many you will not. This is the great joy of the event. (And big props to PorchDrinking.com for putting together its pre-GABF pour list that makes possible the study needed to compile this.)
* 4 Noses Experimental Double IPA: The Broomfield brewery has rocketed into the conversation of best IPAs in Colorado with its 'Bout Damn Time IPA. When it offers offer something bigger, hoppier and edgier, it's simply a must-try.
* AC Golden Colorado Native Kriek Noir: A stunningly tart beer (left) aged two years with cherries and then bottle-conditioned for another two, It will take your taste buds to the edge with its complexity and ultimately reward them.
* Avery Promiscuus: Very few brewers have used Madeira and port barrels to age their wares, and it's a shame. This beer, which I've only had in the Boulder Brewery's taproom, is bold and funky, and you'll swirl it around again and again to discern the flavors.
* Black Project Cygnus Double Montmorency: The great joy of Black Project is never quite knowing what its spontaneous fermentation will produce. But when the brewery takes three different years of barrel-fermented coolship ale and tosses them together with pounds and pounds of cherries, you know it will be special.
* Boulder Shake Chocolate Porter: America's oldest microbrewery may have hit on the best recipe in its 38-year history when it created this creamy, sweet and full chocolate porter that will give you a different taste to consider.
* Broken Compass Coconut Porter: This mountain-town brewery not only cemented its reputation by winning a medal for this at its first GABF, it actually started to draw people out of the Denver area up to Breckenridge to seek this out.
* Caution Brewing The Earl: Lakewood's finest brewery employs a lot of unusual ingredients in its beer, but its use of Earl Grey tea to add a leafy presence to a surprisingly full-bodied English mild creates the most unique taste in its portfolio.
* City Star Belle: Arguably no brewery in Colorado has improved as much this year as City Star, which wowed earlier this year with its Wood Belly barrel-aged imperial IPA. So when the brewery decides it's going to uncork a barrel-aged sour oatmeal pale ale aged with passion fruit, you just want to see what it can do with that combination.
* Comrade Fresh Hop Superpower IPA: The year-round version of this beer is becoming the Colorado standard-bearer IPA for some hop heads. And this is the kicked-up version that is only available for a limited time.
* Copper Kettle Snowed In Mocha: Snowed In, a bourbon-barrel imperial oatmeal stout, is one of the finest Christmastime beers in the state. So, what will a little coffee and chocolate do to the body? That's kind of the point to buying tickets to the GABF.
* Crooked Stave Trellis Buster: These guys are some of Colorado's sour kings. But when they pour a beer they describe as their hoppiest beer ever, you eagerly ask for this dry-hopped double IPA.
* Dry Dock Pumpkin Double Porter: The double hazelnut brown ale and the double hazelnut coffee porter were out of this world. This is the next iteration of the concept, and appropriate for the season.
* Fate Brewing Pinot Noir Gose: Take one of your signature beers, age it with pinot noir grape must, sit back and enjoy.
* Funkwerks Nelson Sauvin: This beer combines one of the most appealing hops available today with the body of a saison to produce a rainbow of flavors.
* Great Divide The Smoothness: First offered last year, this Jameson-barrel-aged dark lager has enough body to stand up to Irish whiskey overtones but not too much to render the barrel moot.
* Horse & Dragon Sad Panda Coffee Stout: As good a year-round dark beer as is made in Colorado, this gives you not just the roasted taste of the coffee but also the vanilla mouthfeel of a creamer that was placed into it.
* Jagged Mountain Grouse Mountain Gose: The underlying beer is good, but when it's made with blood oranges, coriander and sea salt, it becomes damn good.
* Jessup Farm Cross-Drinker: Whiskey Sour: Strong ale aged in whiskey barrels, blended with a dark sour, all mashed up with lemon puree. Expect this to be maybe the most complex Colorado beer at the festival.
* Locavore Two Fingers IPA: This is the IPA that you're not drinking but should be. Hints of orange and mango highlight a full body that won Beer Fight Club II, defeating some of the state's best IPAs in the process.
* Mountain Sun Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Chocolate Thunder Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout: Stout Month comes just once a year at the Mountain Sun pubs, so when they take some aged stash of one of their monster darks and offer it up more than half a year later, it's worth a visit.
* New Belgium Le Terroir with Amarillo and HBC #522: It's the brewery's phenomenal hopped sour ale, barrel aged and then dry-hopped with experimental hops. Just say that over and over again while you wait for the line to subside.
* New Image East Coast Transplant: This hazy double IPA from the under-the-radar Arvada brewery is no less than the second-best Colorado example of this hot style. And it's a brewery to know.
* Odell-Avery Collaboration Stout: Made specifically for GABF, this white stout/dark stout combo is only the product of two of the best breweries in Colorado. How could you go wrong?
* Ratio Beerworks New Wave Strawberry Berliner Weisse: Arguably the most tart yet approachable Berliner Weisse made in Colorado, this summer seasonal had a too-short stint on the brewery's menu, but now it's back.
* Ska Brewing Tart Mexican Logger: Ska's new Mod Project is all about creating experimental new flavors. And here's guessing this may be the only sour Mexican lager on the GABF floor.
* Strange Craft Beer Strangely Epic: This blend shouldn't work. Yet, the combination of Strange's Cherry Kriek and Epic Brewing's Big Bad Baptist Imperial Stout does, and it's memorable.
* Telluride Face Down Bourbon Brown: The beer that kick-started Colorado's brown ale revolution is served up after aging in bourbon barrels. Bring it on.
* The Intrepid Sojourner Basil IPA: Though a recent addition to the Colorado portfolio, this Denver brewery quickly has gained a reputation for thoughtful and unusual beers. This is a combination that someone should have thought of before.
* Verboten Little Nonsense: This whiskey-barrel-aged imperial oatmeal stout is a dangerous beer, so smooth and tasty at 11% ABV that you may think you can drink several. Good thing it comes in a one-ounce sample for GABF.
* Weldwerks Extra Extra Juicy Bits: The key phrase you need to know about this New England-style double IPA is "more than 11 pounds of Citra, Mosaic and El Dorado hops per barrel." Read it and weep for joy.