Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hopping into the Colorado Market

Colorado is a state that takes pride in the amount of hops its brewers can pack into one beer. Citrus-forward pales, piny double IPAs and even the occasionally well-balanced triple IPA ring beer bars and liquor stores, making any brewery that wants to expand distribution into this state and compete on the basis of its bitterness one that's taking a leap of faith.

But Ninkasi Brewing, which has been flowing through draft and retail accounts in Colorado since Dec. 8, seems up to that challenge. Though the Eugene, Oregon brewery makes a variety of beers, including an expanding selection of lagers, many come at you hard and fast with a hop wallop and leave a more resounding impression than many beer makers that cross the Centennial State's borders.

Jamie Floyd, who co-founded the brewery in 2006 with Nikos Ridge, said during a recent interview, in fact, that expanding into Colorado - the eighth state where one can find Ninkasi - is "a great bridge for us to taste hoppy beers and share ours with others." And sampling just a few of what is here in six-packs and bombers will show you he's not messing around with those hops.

Take, for example, the Total Domination IPA, a beer that uses the flavors of multiple hops to combine into one grassy, piny ball of mouth-filling taste. Maybe the most surprising aspect you'll find after swishing this around your mouth is that it weighs in at "only" 65 IBUs.

Tricerahops Double IPA brings more of the same brings with two notable differences. The alcohol is a bit more noticeable in this 8% ABV offering, and the taste has a less nuanced sharpness and more of a straightforward, challenging bitterness.

Even traditionally non-hoppy styles take on a whole new characteristic under Ninkasi's tutelage. Vanilla Oatis - a dark-as-night oatmeal stout with vanilla beans - has a velvety creaminess that appears in mid-sip. But it finishes with such a rush of roasted malt and surprising earthy hops that you're not at all shocked to see it reach 50 IBUs.

In fact, if there is one drawback to Ninkasi's beer, it is that you're left wondering what it would be like if they pulled back the bitterness just a little bit. And what happens when you find that out is that you discover what may be the brewery's best offering.

Sleigh'r, the winter seasonal, is a dark double alt ale that doesn't shy away from ramping up the IBUs. But the slightly high-alcohol body is complex, changing from a more classic German dark beer to one that brings forward an initially hidden taste of chocolate to one that sheds even a little touch of licorice and roasted sweetness as it flows down your throat.

Ninkasi is not for the light of taste bud. But, then again, in this state that just means it should fit in and become a more permanent fixture in many beer bars.

"I think there's a lot of similarities between the lifestyles people choose in Colorado and Oregon," Floyd said. "Culturally we have a lot in common. And I can take that to the next level with beer."

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Eight Beers That Stood Out at the 2015 Big Beers Festival

It was hard - really hard - to find a bad beer at the Big Beers Belgians & Barleywines Festival in Vail last weekend. Whether it was the slew of barrel-aged stouts, the profusion of tart but not overdone sours or the exciting number of beers that were brewing extremely well with spices, experimentation was alive and well.

But with the advantage of a few days to simmer on the multitude of flavors, a few beers rose to the top of the well-sipped heap at this wonderful event. And these are beers that will be worth looking for all year long - if some of these rarities can even be found.

Altitude Chophouse's Your Royal Chai-Ness
Year in and year out, this small Wyoming brewery brings something that makes you look - and return to their booth - twice. But it exceeded all of its past performances this year with what may have been the best beer of the festival, a chai-infused dunkelweizen that was so mellow in body and so sharply spicy in taste that it resembled a beer-y ginger soda.

Dry Dock Whiskey-barrel Aged Double Hazelnut Brown Ale
No brewery made the statement that malty beers are back quite so well as these Aurora auteurs, who offered up four dark, double barrel-aged beers. Easily the best, however, was this one, presenting a taste that was sweet and creamy and also vanilla and nutty, with the barrel standing out more than the whiskey did.

Goose Island Proprietary Blend
Bourbon County Stout is an awfully well-made beer. But this take on it, which added coconut water and simple syrup, made it not only more complex but dangerously drinkable for something this big.

Casey Brewing & Blending Saison
Troy Casey (seen here pouring for some clever beer writer) brought a lot of impressively bold farmhouse ales re-fermented with fruit like grapes and peaches. But at a festival of big beers, nothing was so palate-catching as his "simple" Saison - a concoction that was oak-barrel aged and wickedly sharp without being acidic.

AC Golden Dark Kriek
It was good to see that Casey left his former brewery in good hands, however. This blend of a golden sour and burgundy sour featured sharp, sharp cherry and a slight grape taste.

Former Future Brewing Black Project #2 - Jumpseat
Completing the dream sour/tart trio was this spectacularly tart spontaneously fermented ale that offered a taste of green apple on top of what could only be described as a gose-like beer made in a Belgian, rather than German, tradition.

Papago Brewing Coconut Joe
The star of Friday night's excellent Papago/Brouwerij Van Steenberge traditional brewmasters' dinner was this surprisingly sessionable (5.5% ABV) but roasty-sweet coconut coffee stout that paired spectacularly well with spiced peanut caramel apples (as the Beer Geekette ably demonstrates here).

Copper Kettle Brewing Mexican Chocolate Stout
This beer is way too well-known to call it a find anymore. But the reason it makes this list is that in a festival where high-gravity, experimentally spiced stouts had a bigger presence than ever, none packed the spicy/cinnamon/taste-bud-jolting punch of this emerging Colorado classic.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A Big Beers History

The throngs of people who will flock to the 15th annual Vail Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival this weekend might have a hard time picturing it being anything other than a magnet for some of the boldest beer in the country and most serious beer geeks in Colorado. But festival coordinator Laura Lodge can remember a time when Big Beers wasn't quite so big.

In 2001, Lodge's brother, Bill Lodge owned distributor High Point Brewing Co. and had a portfolio of imported European beers and American craft beer that was one of the finest in the area. But in those days he also had a problem convincing bars and stores and restaurants to buy the beer because, even though they liked what they tasted, they couldn't get customers to pay more for the offerings.

So Bill decided to hold a trade show above the Hubcap Brewery where he would gather 20 to 25 of the different brewers and importers in his portfolio and have them pour their products for the people who could put them on their menus and shelves. And what's more, Bill and Laura decided it would be a good idea to invite the public so that they could, as Laura now says, "sample an ounce of this crazy beer and then decide if they'd pay a little more for it."

What happened next is what you might expect. Nearly 200 people showed up. Their eyes bulged at the assortment of flavors available to them. And they begged the Lodges to do it again. And again.

Today, it is arguably the best beer festival in Colorado, rivaled only by the girth and variety of flavors at the Great American Beer Festival but having a per-pour quality level that is unmatched anywhere.

"Big Beers has never had a marketing budget," Laura (at right) said. "It was built by the brewers. They'd say 'I'll see you in Vail.' And the people who figured it out have come."

There have been changes, mind you. But each one has added onto the appeal of what is now a full four-day weekend of taste exploration.

Just one year later, the Big Beers homebrew contest came to bear. It now draws entries from across the country.

In 2005, Adam Avery talked Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head into coming out, but they insisted they do a beer-pairing dinner together. They offered one of the first double-pairing suppers in beer-dinner lore, with each course coming with high-gravity pearls from both breweries, and this year the now-annual "calibration dinner" sold out in 15 seconds.

Around that time, Lodge added what might be the most unique feature of the festival - an early-morning Saturday seminar (starting at 9:30 a.m. this year) in which brewers come to talk about an experimental genre. Tables are set with white cloths and 8-10 beers are poured into small snifters to remind attendees that it's an educational forum rather than a tailgating-style morning chugfest. But it still is a place where you can enjoy a barrel-aged imperial stout while others are eating breakfast and no one will look down upon you.

In 2013, the festival's main tasting session sold out for the first time, like a long-held secret that finally had to be passed around. Last year the Lodges moved it to a more spacious area on the Vail Cascade property, but this year Laura had to limit the number of vendor tables at 126, creating her first-ever wait list for breweries to get into it.

The reason for the limit is simple: Laura refuses for it to become one of those festivals where lines get 10 people deep and breweries send marketing reps to pour the beer rather than brewers.

This, after all, is not just a festival where you can sip a one-off, taproom-only barrel-aged beer from Great Divide and then turn around and discover the latest experiment from Bell's Brewery. This is a festival where the people who continue to pour and explain your beers are Avery and Calagione - brewing-industry rock stars who settle upon this ski town once a year because they know they can learn as much about the brewing art as the patrons trying to sip up every ounce they can.

"I don't want it to get any bigger," Laura said. "I want to keep it a small, connected opportunity for the people who are there. And I want to make sure we have brewmasters and owners attending ... It is the brewers who have made this event happen."

(The general tasting session once again is sold out. But if you have not gotten tickets for this year, I can't recommend enough that you plan to make this festival in 2016.)

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ten Best Colorado Beers of 2014

If the past few years have been a period when Colorado brewers went bigger and bolder every year, 2014 could be called a settling - not a settling for lesser beers, but a settling back into more traditional styles or ABV strengths, leading to a resurgence in less complicated but tastier offerings.

That's why this fourth annual edition chronicling one beer geek's thoughts on the best the Centennial State had to offer includes lost gems like a session beer, a brown ale and more pale ales than double IPAs. But it also includes some intensely complex beers and one-off gems, proving that Colorado's beer scene is hard to put into a box - but easy to put into your stomach.

Here, then, are my thoughts on the 10 beers that most shined and defined 2014 in Colorado - both new beers and beers that may have debuted previously but grabbed a new spotlight this year.

10) Odell/New Belgium FOCOllaboration
Fort Collins' two largest craft breweries seemed overdue to combine forces on a product. But it proved worth the wait - a pale ale with the flower and citrus bite of an IPA and the smoothness of two beer masters who know how to do beer without overdoing it.

9) Crazy Mountain Neomexicanus Native Pale Ale
In a year when pale ales made a resurgence, the best thing found in them was completely new - the Humulus Lupulus Neomexicanus hop, a style that is native to North America but never had been used in a Colorado beer. It offered a lemony profile that blended perfectly with Crazy Mountain's approach to letting the hop do all of the talking and not over-malting the beer.

8) Caution Brewing's The Earl
Tea-infused beers aren't made widely enough to be considered a trend just yet. But anyone who tries this dynamo will think they should be. Despite its lighter body - the base beer is a low-alchohol dark mild ale - this creation zings to life with an aggressive addition of Earl Grey tea. It is highly aromatic and can take over your palate without destroying your taste buds.

7) Strange Craft Beer Fresh-Hopped 1000 Barrels Imperial IPA
The regular version of 1000 Barrels is no slacker. But adding pounds upon pounds of CTZ, Cascade and Chinook hops to it cut down the malt sweetness and accented the grassy beauty of the hop like no beer in Colorado did in 2014. Here's hoping that the crew there bring this back for a 2015 encore.

6) River North Grand Unified Theory
Maybe the most unique Colorado beer of 2014, this version of River North's imperial wit aged in cocktail barrels added a sour zing plus the eye-opening tastes of sweet vermouth and bitter liqueur to a body that already was heavy in flavor while being slightly lighter in weight. Coming in near 10 percent ABV, it was the rare beer whose flavor was aided by the clear presence of alcohol, as that just piled on to its complexity.

5) Telluride Face Down Brown
This offering from Telluride Brewing has been around for a few years. But 2014 was the year that it announced that it not only was the best American-style brown ale in the country - it won gold in a Colorado sweep of that category at the Great American Beer Festival - but that it has become one of the state's most essential beers. With noticeable hops backing a solid roasted body, this has started showing up on a lot more beer menus this year, and for good reason.

4) Great Divide Barrel-Aged Grand Cru Cuvee
Known for its dark and its hoppy treasures, Great Divide took a new pathway to excellence at the start of this year by churning out a Syrah-barrel-aged version of its already bulky Grand Cru that added a pungent but not pucker-worthy tartness and somehow remained amazingly drinkable at 12% ABV. Like Strange's offering, this is a one-off that needs to come back.

3) Copper Kettle Snowed In
The debate may be over in regard to Colorado's best winter seasonal. Copper Kettle followed up its fascinating 2013 version of this beer, a barrel-aged imperial oatmeal stout, by adding a heavy dose of coffee and a heavier presence of underlying roasty malt that made this not only the talk of Denver Festivus but the hands-down best Christmas beer in the state. This is technically the only holdover beer from the 2013 top-beers list, but with its makeover it feels brand new.

2)  Trinity Super Juice Solution
No brewery in Colorado breaks more new ground more consistently than Trinity Brewing. But for all its high-gravity and barrel-aged experiments, nothing hit the bulls-eye - or, more correctly, created a new bulls-eye further down the road for everyone else to catch up to - like this sessionable sour IPA. First it presented a raw grassiness, then a second layer of punch bearing both cherry and apple tartness. Finally, it left you considering not only what was in it but where session beers could go next if this is their experimental standard-bearer.

1) Boulder Shake Chocolate Porter
Complexity be damned, the best Colorado beer of 2014 had an absurdly simple premise: Add cacao nibs to a traditional American porter and see what happens. The result was the smoothest but arguably most pleasing beer ever from the nation's oldest craft brewery - a mouth-filling waft of cocoa, caramel and balanced body that was equally good in the summer and winter. And it was every bit as good on nitro as it was in standard form. Dark-beer lovers lauded it, and even those who tended toward more complex beers - me included - had to step back and challenge their assumptions about what makes a beer memorable. It will set a high bar for porters and should jump-start the chocolate-porter trend to match the vanilla-porter wave that's rolled across the state.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Fort Collins' Newest Breweries Adding to Its Reputation

In a city like Fort Collins, where any new brewery competes with established national craft-brewing giants for residents' love, newcomers had better bring their A-game. And that is why it's so good to see that two of the newest kids in town — Snowbank Brewing and Horse and Dragon Brewing — have something to offer to the local and statewide scene.

Horse and Dragon, opened on May 1, brings a constantly rotating menu of offerings to town, and while it offers a variety of hopped and dark staples, it also leans toward experimentation. (And is good for families, as you can see below.)

The Sad Panda Coffee Porter — one of the standouts of this year's All Colorado Beer Festival — hits you not just with a java taste but a creaminess that makes this one of the more eye-opening dark beers of the year. The Scottish Tradesman Coconut Porter rewards those who prefer that style with a touch of coconut rather than an overabundance of cloying sweetness. And one sip of the whiskey-barrel-aged IPA shows the daring that will mark the expanding barrel program.

Snowbank, meanwhile, does more classic styles but does them well — and with an emphasis on hopping all of its beers without over-hopping them. It (pictured at top) opened about four months ago.

Inclination IPA is one of the best new Colorado IPAs this year, seamlessly blending citrus, grass and malt tastes. The Pawnee Porter doesn't skimp on the roasty finish but still greets you with a cocoa taste. And the Moon Arete Wheat offers a heavier body and, consequently, a bigger taste of banana and clove than most of what can be a forgettable style.

Best of all, both are located along the same general touring route that takes you to such established greats as Odell, New Belgium and Funkwerks. So, it looks like those bike tours through Fort Collins just got a little longer.

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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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