Monday, November 24, 2014

The New Three Days of Festivus

Denver's coolest Christmas-time beer festival is getting bigger — and is moving some of its jolly fun outside of Denver as well.

Festivus will celebrate its third year of airing grievances and gathering all of Denver's breweries in one room on Dec. 13 at the McNichols Civic Center Building. But before that it also will drop two presents on Boulder and Fort Collins — local Festivus gatherings of their own, attempting to bring all of those cities' breweries together in holiday cheer.

For those who haven't been to Festivus, the particular joy of the event, aside from all the people who show up in ugly sweaters, is that it gets pretty much every brewery within Mile High City limits in one room, sort of like a Great Denver Beer Festival. And event organizer P.J. Hoberman has instructed participants to bring at least one rare or one-off beer to be served, producing an abundance of sours and barrel-aged treats along with the traditional offerings found at other festivals.

That kind of city exclusivity and creativity drew 26 brewers to the event last year. In a sign of how much the Denver beer scene is growing, 39 already had committed to Festivus 2014 by the end of October - including some that will be nearly, but not quite, open.

"As Denver has such a great beer scene, it's fun to have them all under one roof," Hoberman, of Denver Off the Wagon fame, said. "You can talk to that brewer and try that beer and then go buy it the next day."

It only makes sense, then, to bring out the highlights of Fort Collins (Dec. 12) and Boulder (Dec. 5) in the same way. Boulder, after all, can argue that it's America's oldest craft brewing town as home to the longest-running craft brewery in the country (Boulder Beer) and a few second-generation pioneers like Avery Brewing and Mountain Sun that made a national name for themselves or ingrained themselves fully in Colorado's culture. And Fort Collins - with its easy-touring beer avenue and run of national attention-grabbers like New Belgium, Odell and Funkwerks - may have the most impressive per-capita brewery power of any city in America.

Both of those Festivi will be smaller, featuring about 18 breweries, Hoberman said. As such, he is holding the events in smaller venues and is expecting smaller crowds (details here, scroll down on page).

Here's a bet, though, that both can be popular as Denver's if they are run well and the local brewing community responds. And when I asked Hoberman if he's willing to expand the festival to other cities - Colorado Springs' brewing community has grown to the point where it certainly could support one too, I argue - he said he would.

"We'd love to expand it to any city that has a brewing culture to support the event and any city that wants it," he said.

Fair enough. Let the Festivus games begin.

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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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