Sunday, March 09, 2014
Two of Denver's newer breweries celebrated big events yesterday. Jagged Mountain Brewery held its "grand opening," about four months after its soft opening. And Diebolt Brewing released its International Ale, a white IPA, seven months after opening.
The two events are separate points in the breweries' development, for sure. Both both are significant enough to allow to step back to look at their growth, which, it turns out, is actually a bit divergent.
Jagged Mountain came onto the scene with an early reputation that it was going to be among the biggest brewers in town in terms of alcohol-by-volume products. Its First Descent Old Ale, at 13 percent, quickly became the strongest regular offering in town. And it wowed crowds at festivals like Denver Beer Festivus with offerings like its Red Point Double Red Rye IPA that were both strong and creatively tasty.
But part of what makes this brewery someplace worth going out of your way to visit is its mastery of styles that are considered less than challenging. Its Junta Dog Enigma, for example, might be the best brown ale in town, fully of nutty sweetness with a hinted but not overpowering feel of chocolate. And its Spearhead saison — stronger than much of the style at 8.2% ABV — is a little short on the traditional peppery notes but makes up for it with a honey sweetness.
Jagged Mountain still has its flaws. Its Zero Gravity session saison, meant to appeal to the gaggle of Coors Light drinkers it expects to file in before Rockies games, tastes far too much like a bubble-gum-flavored jelly bean. But overall, its body of work ranges from solid to eyebrow-raising.
Diebolt, meanwhile, made less of a splash even as it presented a menu full of bold styles, from multiple saisons to an IPA to a Belgian dubbel. It's even hand-bottled several of its beers. But whatever Diebolt has done, it's seemed to draw little attention. And the reason is this: Whether the style is a big one or a more traditional one, the taste of its beers seems undersold.
The Diebolt Standard Porter, for example, is a little sweet but also watery, hinting at chocolate but not roastiness. The Colorado Greenback IPA, coming in sessionable at 4.8% ABV, has almost no hop mouthfeel. And while the Saison Voila is largely smooth, it's also quite boring, without a stand-out flavor to grab your attention.
Yet, to see the potential that Diebolt holds, one needs only to try its C'est La Saison, a winter saison bursting with a cherry-like flavor that resonates but is not overdone. It's the most flavorful beer on the menu, and one that shows such a level of originality and mastery of saison's possibilities that you can feel it as a gateway to the next level. The decision to age a separate version of the beer in tequila barrels, giving it both a smoky flavor and a fruit/vegetable edge that hints of sweet cucumber, shows even more potential.
So, Jagged Mountain and Diebolt have split somewhat in their growth so far, with the "big" brewery enhancing its reputation with well-made mainstream beers and the smaller brewery succeeding most when it's gone big and bold. It will be interesting to see what the next year brings for them.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
Traditionally, the months of January and February have not been kind to craft beer drinkers. After breweries start to phase out burly winter warmers, they often put creativity on hiatus or turn to "spring beers" which seem like slightly duller summer brews.
But the past month-and-a-half in Colorado has been a time in which a number of breweries have tried to find a new taste. And there is a lot worth shouting about.
First, there are what you might call the winter beer extensions - big, tasty and dark with a little more creativity than you find in some of the oatmeal malt bombs that define the Christmas season. The best of the bunch is Denver Beer's Cocoa Creme Porter, a rich beer in which none of the flavors - chocolatey cocoa, sweet cream - are subtle, leaving a truly unique taste. Odell Brewing created something similar in its Sweet Elevation Creme Brulee Porter (pictured above), a slightly more subtle blend of warming and sweet-tooth-satisfying flavors that could be found only at the taproom. Finally, there also is Fate Brewing's Chocolate Pretzel Porter, which is made with actual pretzels in the brew but leaves a salty, pleasant taste most apparent.
Great Divide Brewing went in a different direction for its unique early-winter beer, Lasso IPA, a "session IPA" that rings in at 5% ABV. To be sure, the beer feels more like a watered-down version of its much better Titan IPA, and with the ABV being as high as it is, I'd prefer just to drink a Titan. But it's a worthy effort that should spur some thinking in the industry about what can constitute a beer that's both lower-alcohol and hoppy.
Then there's one of the more interesting combinations of traditional lighter beers and experimentation — Breckenridge Brewery's Ophelia Ale, a style the brewery describes as a hoppy wheat. Looking like a cloudy hefeweizen but containing a zing that is surprising and a nice bump up from the style, this isn't for wheat fans so much as it is for hop fans and people wanting something new.
And therein is the heart of some of this season's surprises - they are, at the very least, something new. But, even more than that, they are efforts to ramp up a slow time for taste buds, and are quite successful at it.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
Interviewing New Belgium's Kim Jordan while writing "Mountain Brew," I was struck by a comment she made about brewing a saison in 1996 and receiving such a bad reception that they didn't brew one again until 2008. What a strange beer world, it would seem, that didn't want the refreshing taste of a saison in it.
But we are now living in the age of the saison - the classic, the crafty, even the absolute crazy. Want it with just a hint of spice to it? OK. Want it brewed with sarsaparilla, sassafras, coriander and hibiscus? That's fine too. Hell, they're both made by the same brewer, in fact.
At Vail Big Beers, Trinity Brewing's Jason Yester, that aforementioned brewer and the man who's made 60 different saisons with 80 different ingredients, pointed out the number of saisons judged at the Great American Beer Festival grew from 37 five years ago to about 90 in 2013. But he also noted one of the great key's to the style's success: There is little definition to what exactly a saison is, other than a beer in a genre that evolved from a non-specific style in Belgian farmhouses to one that allows for great creativity today.
One of the beers that the Fearless Tasting Crew kept in its fridge at that festival - you know, the beers you can drink even when your tastebuds are shot - was Trinity's La Capitaine, a blond saison regale brewed with pumpkin, cacao nibs and Buddha's Hand, then tossed about with some brett and lacto until it's done just right. It's sharp and pungent and slightly spicy, with a feel that oscillates wonderfully between grape and perfume.
But if Trinity is the known - and if you don't know it, you should get to - festivals like Big Beers allow for the exploration of the unknown as well.
that's higher on the bitterness scale than most other saisons but still very dry. And it, like the style, was both intriguing and drinkable.
Then, there was Mystic Brewing - like Pretty Things, a Massachusetts brewery - which offered its Descendant, a black saison made with molasses that was sweet but not overdone.
And, staying in Massachusetts for a second, there is also Cambridge Brewing, which has found a way to make a black-pepper farmhouse ale in its Sgt. Pepper (at right) and feel welcoming without being overpowering.
More Colorado breweries too are cranking up saison offerings. Both Funkwerks - the 2012 GABF Small Brewery of the Year - and Black Fox are all-saison maestros, blending peppers, fruit and everything you might think shouldn't go into a beer. And doing it well.
And you see non-saison breweries experimenting more with their offerings too. From Great Divide's Colette - which it makes even more special by kicking it up with orange zest and pepper - to Crooked Stave's slightly tart Vieille Artisanal Saison, the variety out there can be stunning.
So, what's the point? Unlike 1996, it's a damn good time to drink saison, whether you're in Denver or Boston or anywhere in between. And if you encounter one that might seem a little strange, drink it all the same; chances are it will be dry, smooth and just exciting enough to make your night.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Sam Calagione set the tone appropriately in declaring at Thursday's dinner that kicked off the 2014 Vail Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival that the event was "one of the top 10 beer festivals ... in the country." The next three days proved that, if anything, the Dogfish Head Brewery founder undersold it.
This was the year the Fearless Tasting Crew went big, splurging for a fantastic eating experience and gobbling up pretty much every seminar possible. And around every corner seemed a beer, a pairing, a bit of knowledge that opened more eyes.
The full spectrum of the lessons - and what they reveal about the current craft beer scene - will be played out here in the coming weeks over numerous columns. But it is worth saluting organizers Laura and Bill Lodge and noting a handful of things that stood out with all the subtlety of a Crooked Stave barrel-aged sour (which was on hand and wonderful).
1) Great Divide can still bring it
In a festival where one struggled to identify even a single disappointing beer (zero pour-outs in 3-1/2 hours of tasting for this guy), nothing stood out quite like Great Divide's Barrel Aged Grand Cru Cuvee. Aged in a single Syrah barrel, this creation screamed out all the joys of the festival - experimental, giant (12% ABV), tart (though not too much so) and stunningly balanced and drinkable.
Sometimes at the best festivals, people run to find the newest, hippest tastes - and those, mind you, are great. But 20 years into its life, this Denver legend still produces eye-opening surprises - enough to outdo even all the new kids on the block.
2) Sour is the new triple IPA
Sours have become more common, more clever and mixed with more ingredients in recent years. But now they appear to be going in the same direction that hop bombs went several years ago - more extreme. The difference is, these results might speak better for the genre than the envelope-pushing hop races did.
Big Beers presented sours that were pleasantly pucker-worthy (Cambridge Brewing's Cerise Casee Solera-aged American Sour Ale) and brimming with fruit that accented the wild yeast perfectly (Grand Teton Barrel Aged Huckleberry Sour). But if that wasn't enough, you could find an intriguingly good smoked sour (Paradox Skully Barrel No. 7) and a tart beer made with local ingredients (AC Golden Gooseberry Colorambic). Amp it up and push the envelope away; it only seems to be getting better.
3) The art of pumpkin beers is not dead
Less than three months ago, I lamented that every pumpkin beer of 2013 seemed to be over-spiced or under-flavored. Then I found at Big Beers that I was just trying the wrong ones.
Fate Brewing's Barrel-Aged Imperial Smoked Pumpkin Ale had all the complexity that its name implied, but the smoke was light enough to be unobtrusive and the pumpkin was pure baked sweetness. Meanwhile, Wiley Roots Brewing's Apumpalyptic Imperial Ale was filled with non-biting spices and alcoholic warmth, just begging to be enjoyed in greater quantities than it should be.
4) Any Fort Collins tour without a stop in Loveland is wasted
Those who haven't visited Grimm Brothers Brewhouse in the past year are missing a significantly evolved beer maker that has moved beyond its traditional German roots to incorporate new styles. At the Vail Cascade, it broke out a complex Devil's Riddle again and supplemented that with a lightly soured Once Upon A Time American wild ale and a Grandfather Grim foreign export stout that was dark like a cookie.
But Verboten Brewing, also of Loveland, showed up every bit as big, especially with a Bourbon Barrel-Aged Mountain Man that had a vanilla underbelly softening the bourbon kick in a way that made it approachable. And Loveland Aleworks didn't slack a bit with an Imperial Stout that was as dark and rich as its 12.5% ABV denoted but surprisingly easy-bodied and pleasant.
5) For the 2015 festival, go big. You won't regret it.
Even at $108 per person, the Tasting Crew walked away from the Avery/Dogfish Head dinner convinced it was a bargain. The chefs at Atwater on Gore Creek crafted five courses of incredible offerings (beef sushi and Gingersnap-crusted venison, to name two) and not only paired them in a spot-on fashion but did so with beers - especially from Avery - that ranged from hard to impossible to find. (The return of the very limited Thensaurum, aged 18 months to tart perfection in rum barrels, may have been the biggest highlight.)
Beyond that, though, the chance to meander around not just for one day but for the weekend allowed good time to learn about nuances, whether it was at Friday night's winter seasonals session with four brewers or at a beer-cigar pairing where non-presenting breweries (I'm looking at you, Epic Brewing) brought their own stashes to share with crowd. And after a weekend of walking through so many treasures, one could treat Saturday not like a rush around the bigger and more spacious tasting area (pictured a few paragraphs above) but a chance to catch up again with brewers and enjoy the scene calmly.
Labels: AC Golden, Avery Brewing, Big Beers, Cambridge Brewing, Fate Brewing, Grand Teton Brewing, Great Divide, Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, Loveland Aleworks, Paradox Brewing, Verboten Brewing, Wiley Roots Brewing
Wednesday, January 08, 2014
Vail Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival, once one of the state's hidden gems, has grown in reputation to the point where it's now an accepted fact that it's the best non-GABF annual beer event in Colorado. That's enough to make any organizer rest on their laurels.
But resting is something that festival coordinator Laura Lodge doesn't do so well. And so, this year's event, scheduled for Thursday through Saturday, has added more sessions, more beer knowledge and, maybe most importantly, more room for both extra patrons and extra breweries.
The biggest news, if you haven't heard - and if you haven't heard anything about the event, I'll just say: Drop your plans for the weekend and head to Vail - is that the grand tasting has moved to a bigger area with space roughly twice that of the past two years. While lines have never been a problem at the festival, elbow-to-elbow maneuvering at times has been, and this will eliminate that and give more breweries a chance to strut their stuff.
That the festival will be accommodating to more beer makers is evident from the list of just how many small but talented brewers will be pouring at sessions throughout Saturday. Trinity Brewing and Mystic Brewery will be among those discussing experimental brewing at 9:30 a.m., sour savants Captain Lawrence Brewing will co-host two seminars with Deschutes and both Bell's Brewery and Cambridge Brewing - two of the best breweries not selling in Colorado - will be part of a featured early-afternoon talk.
And for those who like to divide their gigantic-beer drinking over multiple days, there is a Brewers Association-led Friday night talk on winter seasonals and a varied lineup of rare beers from Thursday through Saturday in the Cascade Lounge.
If this all sounds like some sort of commercial for the festival, it's no more so one than all the hype that I and other bloggers try to sort through before the Great American Beer Festival. But in the case of Vail Big Beers, it's all laid out in one location - the Vail Cascade Resort - and happens to center around an event about which too few people still seem to know.
Maybe I should keep quiet and go on acting as if I know a secret. But I'd rather shout about it - and spend the next month writing blogs based on things I learned this upcoming weekend. See you there.
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Thinking back on the best that Colorado had to offer in 2013, I am struck most by the scrappy and transient natures of the honorees.
Just two of my favorite 10 beers of the year was made by breweries — Ska and Epic — that distribute to more than one state outside of Colorado. That's not to say that the giants of Colorado craft brew that usually dominate this list — Great Divide, Odell, Avery, etc. — did not produce great beers; they just seemed to be outshined by some of the creativity emanating from the state's little guys.
Also, my greatest beef with the beers on this list was that many came and went so quickly, available for limited times and sometimes in extremely limited quantities, that the conversation around them was too limited for them to become part of the common beer vernacular. In those cases, I can only hope their brewers realize the gems they have created and crank them up in greater volume so that more people can experience their joy in 2014.
That said, without further ado ...
10. Cinnamon Almond Ale - Colorado Plus
At a time when brewers are becoming bolder about incorporating uncommon flavors, Adam Draeger took two flavors no one associated with great beer and made them sing in one of the most unique concoctions of the year. Allowing the almond to serve as the smooth landing for the spice of the cinnamon made this intriguing and unforgettable.
9. Watermelon Kolsch - Fate Brewing
This was the beer that proved that summer beers don't have to be boring - a light but crisp kolsch with a hearty dose of watermelon that provides huge refreshment at the same time it ups the complexity of this traditional German style.
8. Penitente Hermano - Three Barrel Brewing
One of the most exciting "exports" of the year was the arrival in Denver liquor stores of this creative brewery from the San Luis Valley. Penitente Hermano, a Belgian sour ale with a coriander kick on the back, paved its entrance after being one of the most gushed-over efforts of the 2013 Vail Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines festival.
7. Sentience - Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project
The way this Denver brewery is turning out fascinating sours, you could almost throw a dart blindly at a board of its offerings and put whatever it lands on onto this list. But the Sentience stood out as the "it" beer of the Avery Strong Ale Festival this year, a tart wild quad whose whiskey-barrel aging accented its sharpness perfectly.
6. Snowed In - Copper Kettle Brewing
We're so far into the Christmas beer trend that you don't think anything can surprise you anymore. Then you have a sip of this imperial oatmeal stout aged six months in bourbon barrels with coffee and chocolate and you're not only blown away by its easy-drinking big-alcohol complexity, you have to tell yourself to hang out more at this east Denver brewery.
5. 4.0 Grapefruit Pale Ale - Bull & Bush Brewery
The idea of hopping a pale ale or an IPA to resemble a grapefruit was a very popular one this summer. But this Denver brewery took it a step further, adding grapefruit juice to the mix and turning out a low-alcohol summer creation that was one of the unique tastes of the entire year. Can't wait for this to come back in 2014.
4. Two Tone Montanya - Ska Brewing
The most impressive Colorado sour of this year was this Belgian dubbel aged in Montanya rum barrels to take on a tart citrus character combined with a big, sweet body. This is arguably the finest beer made by the 18-year-old brewery.
3. Fan Boy - Elevation Beer
At some point, you really believe that no matter how good a new IPA can be, it won't be inherently different than what it out there already. Then you taste this oak-barrel-aged double IPA, filled with a full mouth of hops but also with oak and vanilla and introducing to this market something acutely original - and phenomenal in its flavor.
2. Devil's Riddle Ale - Grimm Brothers Brewhouse
The most unique beer I tried in 2013 was this strong ale aged nine months in Buffalo Trace barrels with Brettanomyces. It was musty, it was big, it was biting me with a strange tartness that came out of nowhere. It was complex. It was great. And it may just signify a new era for these German beer makers from Loveland.
1. Big Bad Baptist - Epic Brewing
Those outside of the Denver area were able to enjoy this monster of an imperial stout (10.5% ABV), made with cocoa nibs and with a tone of coffee. But when Epic opened its Colorado brewery in May, it was a revelation to the rest of us, a darker-than-night whirlwind that could knock you down with its alcohol but somehow was just smooth enough to allow you to drink more than you should. No beer generated more talk this year, whether in its classic form or when it was mixed with Strange Brewing's Cherry Kriek - a combination that shouldn't have worked but somehow did. Few beers were more satisfying. And that's the mark of a beer of the year.
Labels: Bull and Bush, Colorado Plus Brew Pub, Copper Kettle Brewing, Crooked Stave, Elevation Beer, Epic Brewing, Fate Brewing, Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, Ska Brewing, Three Barrel Brewing, Top Beers of Year
Sunday, December 29, 2013
There are several reasons you head to Santa Fe - the art, the food, the history, the beautiful churches. But on a trip down there earlier this month, I also wanted to take some time to understand whether the rumors of a resurgent New Mexico brewing scene were true.
After a week imbibing in Taos and the "City Different," it becomes apparent that while there are a few gems to be found in northern New Mexico, the quality and consistency of the beer remains hit-and-miss. And the scene, however growing, still lags behind that of the one south in Albuquerque.
Nothing embodied these traits quite like Blue Corn Café & Brewery, a locally loved brewery/restaurant that recently took home two medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Both of those honored beers - the End of the Trail Brown Ale and Gold Medal Oatmeal Stout - are solid offerings that are smooth and, in the case of the stout, pleasantly sweet. But much of the rest of the menu ranges from dull to cloying (the 40K Honey Wheat Ale especially), and you leave without any specific memories of the products.
Santa Fe Brewing, which distributes some of its beers in the Denver area, left a similar feel. While the Freestyle Pilsner is classically German and largely enjoyable, its resonance is offset by beers like a Pale Ale that seems little more than a dressed-up copper ale with a slightly stale-tasting malt.
Then there is the beer scene in Taos, a 5,700-person artists' community frequented by area skiers that can tout two breweries in the downtown area. But one, Eske's Brew Pub, offers 8 beers (see board at left next to the Beer Geekette) with only one real winner - a Taos Green Chile with a light, crisp body and a late-activating spice that flavors nicely without burning. And the other, Taos Ale House, offers mostly other breweries' beer (see picture at right), which may not be a bad idea after you gulp down the uneven malt sweetness in its West Coast IPA.
One of two real discoveries of the Santa Fe trip was Second Street Brewery, a brewhouse/restaurant that didn't push the envelope on styles but did them all very well. Its dark beers were terribly appropriate for enjoying while the snow fell outside, especially its easy-drinking Cream Stout fermented with an English yeast strain and its Old Pecos Porter with its solid, slightly roasted feel. And the Civil Rye - a new offering on the menu - is a keeper, with a nice punch of sweetness and bitterness in a medium body.
The other is a reminder of just how good some of the Albuquerque breweries are. La Cumbre Brewing's Elevated IPA, served at a number of local restaurants, had a gigantic mouth of citrusy-sweet but earthy hops. And Marble Brewery, which has a downtown taphouse, went beyond its normal offering to put out creative one-offs like Lambert's Pale Ale, giving you a huge mouth of grass and flowers in a body that is decidedly easy.
Certainly, the Santa Fe beer scene is coming along. But it still has improvements to make.