Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Five Things I Learned from Burning Can and the Great Divide 21st Birthday

Two of Colorado's finest breweries, Oskar Blues and Great Divide, held big parties over the past three weeks. In addition to the obvious resounding message - loads of craft beer + spring day = good time - there was much to be gleaned from the celebration of canned craft beer as well as the celebration of Great Divide turning old enough to legally imbibe its own products.

1) It's time for "dark sour" to become a more common beer description
Great Divide busted out a host of one-offs and experiments for its anniversary party, but none stood out like its Prince of Tartness, a black sour ale brewed with 25 malts that offered a spectacular complexity of dark body and a real puckery kick. A number of other breweries have broken out the style on special occasions recently, most notably Former Future Brewing. Someone - such as Great Divide - needs to make this a full-time part of its repertoire.

2) The American IPA may be getting cleaner and better
About five years ago, when every brewery toyed with a double IPA and a few too many tried to push the hop palate with triples, there was concern that "mouth-blistering" might become the de facto description of American pale beers. But a number of breweries who celebrated the hop at Burning Can showed that toning down the IBUs has ramped up the quality of the style.

Austin Beerworks' Fire Eagle IPA, for example, presented a big grassy taste without being overly bitter. City Star Brewing of Berthoud offered up an All-American IPA dry-hopped with citra that added a bit of mustiness to its crisp taste. And La Cumbre of New Mexico brought a sharp and fully bitter IPA that isn't for the feint of palate but shows off great attributes of the style.

3) The hoppy wheat ale is here to stay. Deal with it.
Great Divide used its celebration to showcase, among other beers, its Whitewater Hoppy Wheat Ale, a version of the burgeoning style that kicks up the hop level to new heights. At first the idea of smooth summer drinking and an assertive hop bite seemed to be a conflict of interest. But beers like this show it can be pulled off expertly, even if people looking for a straight-up wheat might feel a little blindsided by the taste.

4) It's time for Oskar Blues to can Death by Coconut
For being one of America's largest craft breweries, Oskar Blues' year-round offering of six beers, plus two seasonals, is smaller than many competitors' varieties. It first came up with its collaboration coconut porter, made with Shamrock Brewing of Pueblo, in 2014, and the smooth, sweet and big taste has generated a lot of talk at most festivals where it's been on display, including Burning Can. This would be a great lineup to its portfolio.

5) There are different ways to deal with big crowds.
The lines at Burning Can were shockingly small, likely because festival goers had so many different things to do. In addition to all of the outdoor sports on display in Lyons (admittedly not a feature of most space-starved festivals), there was a great tasting booth (above) in the middle of the field that allowed attendees to duck away, sample beers and decide the festival's honorees blindly.

Great Divide's lines (below) were quite long, and even owner Brian Dunn acknowledged he had to do something about them when I ran into him. But pourers did something very smart - they doled up 8- to 10-oz. samples of even their rarer offerings, so that drinkers could have a full pour to enjoy while they settled down for what then didn't seem like such a long wait. Other festivals with crowd issues would be wise to consider such impromptu measures in the future.

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Friday, May 29, 2015

Burning Can: A Different Kind of Beer Festival

The idea behind most beer festivals is simple. Get a whole bunch of breweries together. Maybe create a theme for their beers. Put them all together in a field or in a hall. And if you want to come up with some peripheral booths or contests, great. The idea usually works.

But on Saturday, the town of Lyons will host what is arguably the state's premier beer festival at which the beer (or a beer/food pairing) is not soaking up 95 percent of the attention. Yes, there will be more than 60 craft breweries pouring more than 200 types of canned beer at Oskar Blues' fourth annual Burning Can. But there will be so much more as well.

Held as part of the Lyons Outdoor Games, attendees will be able to watch kayaking and boater cross and can, if they want, round up a team to participate in a morning Beer Relay that will test participants' ability to run a team 5K run while receiving extra points for drinking a beer. There will be dirt-bike jumping, slackline acrobatics, a concert by New Orleans' The Revivalists and camping so that people can fully immerse themselves in the outdoor experience.

Oh, and did I mention beer? With 510 craft breweries now canning about 2,000 different beers nationwide, canning pioneers Oskar Blues get more inquiries about being a part of their event each year and have added about 12 breweries each annum to the lineup. Those include beer makers whose products aren't available otherwise in Colorado, such as Sun King Brewery of Indiana and La Cumbre Brewing of New Mexico. And it also includes breweries that may be canning just for this event on Oskar Blues' special "Crowler" system, ranging from City Star Brewing to Left Hand.

Oskar Blues marketing guru Chad Melis believes the event serves as a sort of big-tent revival to allow Colorado's second-largest craft brewery to preach about the advantages of cans, from their environmental benefits to the way they protect beer better from oxygen and light. But for a company that chose the location of its second brewery (in Brevard, North Carolina) based in large part on its proximity to killer mountain-biking, it also serves as a chance to proselytize on the seamless inclusion of craft beer in any outdoor lifestyle.

"There's a full top-to-bottom outdoor experience there," Melis said. "To be able to pack in a full day of outdoor activity, to be able to try beers from across the country that you can't get, and then to top it off with a full concert, I don't think there are a lot of events like that. We really want to make it a destination festival."

And while the $45 event won't lack for attendees, the 4 to 7 p.m. beer-tasting portion of the day also isn't sold out yet.

Burning Can may not be everyone's cup of tea. Not every beer drinker has to feel like they're sipping at the X Games to enhance their experience. But it's one of the more unique events on the beer circuit in Colorado and may, for that reason alone, be worth the trip this weekend.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Behold the Future of Rock-Star Craft Breweries

Walking through the new Avery Brewing facility in Boulder County, one feels like they are not in a manufacturing plant so much as in a museum.

That's not to say the $28 million facility is stuffy. Rather, everything from the 30-beer tap list to the casual-but-gourmet restaurant to the gift shop that is the size of the bar in Avery's previous brewing facility just shouts that you're in the presence of a legend instead of some ordinary beer maker.

But what may seem daring or even ostentatious to people who spent considerable time in the cramped back-alley Boulder location that housed Avery for two decades may not even be eye-popping for much longer. Next month, Breckenridge Brewery opens its new brewery on a 12-acre complex in Littleton that will include farm area and an event space. And next year, Great Divide will bust down the doors on a $38 million facility in Denver's River North neighborhood that will include fewer amenities than the aforementioned two locations but will have incredible creekside views and production space.

This trend, then, toward more expansive, customer-friendly brewing facilities seems less like a novelty than a near necessity for breweries that have reached the upper echelon of craft-beer stardom nationally, both in terms of production and critical praise. Call it the "Stoning" of the craft-beer industry — Stone Brewing, after all, kicked off this trend with a bistro and gardens area that is one of the most visited locations in San Diego County — but it really shows where the industry stands.

Breweries no longer are simple factories to produce the suds that salve the working class, as they were in their first hey-day in the late 19th century. They are now tourist magnets, drawing in both the day-trippers bouncing between a couple of beer purveyors and out-of-state visitors who are viewing Colorado as a place for a full-on beer-themed vacation and want to stop at the most famous of hop temples.

And under that notion, Avery — we were talking about that, weren't we? — is quite a special stopping ground. Four years in the planning, the 5.6-acre campus that opened in February includes a massive taproom, a pork-themed restaurant, space for tours through the brewery and enough patio area to make it the perfect stop for a spring day.

The tap list includes everything you can buy in the stores, as well as rare beers that are limited or completely unavailable outside the brewery. While there last month, I eschewed the Maharaja for gems like Bad Karma, their Belgian ale re-fermented with Brett and aged in neutral barrels, and Antonius' Carmen, an unbelievably smooth dark sour ale aged in Madeira barrels.

And if you get a chance to take the tour, it makes you appreciate the craftsmanship and nuances at hand even more. Guide Walter Becker (pictured above) analogized the amount of hops Avery uses in its IPAs to the band Rush ("You either love them or you hate them") and noted that the Germans who sold the brewery its hop-dosing vessels thought no brewery could need equipment that large.

If you haven't been up to the new Avery home yet, get up there when you can. But don't stop there. Pretty soon the state's best-known craft breweries all will have evolved from bars to experiences. And all of us will benefit.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Short History of Discovering the Yeti

Great Divide's latest iteration of Espresso Oak Aged Yeti is on liquor-store shelves again for a limited time. Spoiler alert: It's fantastic. It exudes a huge java flavor enveloped in a medium body that allows you to savor the coffee without feeling like you have to cut it with a knife.

People may forget, though, that the now 12-year-old imperial stout series from the Denver brewery began under a different name and with an uncertain future in an industry that was just starting to figure out how much Americans liked huge hops and huge roasted malt combined in one beer. Since then, it's evolved into arguably the finest of its genre that is made in Colorado and has broken down old barriers associated with the style by coming out in the forms of different variations and selling even through the hot months when many people go searching instead for a wheat beer.

"Back in the day, I never thought that we could sell so much imperial stout in the middle of the summer," Great Divide founder Brian Dunn joked earlier this year when discussing his signature beer at a Vail Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines seminar.

It's worth delving into the creative history of the Yeti series to understand both where it has been and where it is going. For as Great Divide has introduced new versions of the creature — first oak-aged, then espresso, then chocolate — it's not only captivated beer geeks but it has helped to launch new trends and further exploration by other craft brewers into their own takes on the imperial stout.

Yeti actually began life in 2003 as Maverick Imperial Stout. "You don't recognize the name because I screwed up a trademark search," Dunn explained in Vail. But the recipe — a burly 9.5 percent ABV offering hopped with Centennial and Simcoe and featuring seven kinds of malt — stuck and took home Great American Beer Festival medals in 2005, 2008 and 2009.

The Yeti series is notable for being so alcoholic without having any taste of alcohol that is found in lesser imperial stouts. And each successive variation of the beer stands on different merits.

Oak-Aged Yeti has a big taste of wood without a big taste of whiskey because it uses oak chips rather than barrels. Chocolate has just a slight heat to offset its sweetness because ground cayenne pepper is part of the recipe. Oatmeal is the thickest beer around and perfect for the cold nights when you get just one beer. And Espresso is the perfect blend of multiple flavors into a complex product.

Hell, I even enjoyed Belgian Yeti, with its uniquely roasty body blending with Belgian esters, before Great Divide discontinued it. Asked about its disappearance while in Vail, Dunn said simply: "We give beers about a two-year run, and they're either going to make it or they're not. Beers get the hook once in a while."

The good news is Yeti as a series hasn't gotten the hook. And before Colorado's schizophrenic weather turns from winter into spring for good, it's worth grabbing another bottle of the Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti while waiting for the next beast to appear.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

A Quickie Guide to Colorado Craft Beer Week

Do you really need an excuse to celebrate locally made beer? The guess is that if you're enough of a beer geek to read this blog, you probably get twitchy if it's been over a week since you've been to a brewery or beer bar, and you use that as reason enough to go back out.

But if you need that extra push — like, purely hypothetically, if you have a 7-month-old at home and feel a little guilty calling home and telling your wife that you have to go support the craft-beer industry before you can feed him and put him to bed — this week gives that to you. It's Colorado Craft Beer Week, and a whole bunch of breweries and bars are offering one-of-a-kind or only-once-in-a-while activities that hold great interest.

This is not a comprehensive guide to what's out there; you can find that on the Colorado Brewers Guild's official event page. But for those who want the CliffsNotes version, here's a couple of the most interesting offerings over the next six days.

1) New Kids on the Block
Imbibe once again is bringing together many of the breweries that opened in the past two years, to show off what is new and what is experimental in the Colorado scene. Scheduled for 7:30 to 10 p.m. Thursday at The Lobby, the $45 event serves as a great opportunity (last year's is pictured above) to catch up with some of the non-Denver innovators especially that you might not find in every bar or liquor store yet.

2) 2nd Choice Collab Fest
Those who missed Saturday's Collaboration Fest missed one of the most audacious collections of beers in one room in a long time, from fascinating new takes on the IPA style to Basil blonde/cherry kriek combos. The Terminal Bar at Union Station will be serving a number of the offerings all week — and it might be the last chance you'll have to try them.

3) Fuss Off
Speaking of collaborations, the most intriguing event of the week will be a Wednesday-night gathering of a number of breweries that decided to make a pumpkin-peach ale of some sort after Budweiser's Super Bowl ad mocked the style. Only people who buy a ticket will be informed of the location of the get-together. That's planning something the hard way.

4) New Beer Tappings
Countless ales will make their debut this week. A few of the more intriguing ones are:
• Denver Beer Co. releases its Cocoa Creme Graham Cracker Porter at 4 p.m. Thursday;
• Also at 4 p.m. Thursday, Odell will tap a smoked juniper and pepper version of its classic 90 Shilling at Stapleton Tap House; and,
• At 5 p.m. Friday, Trinity Brewing taps a 45th Parallel Oregon-style IPA.

5) Book Festival
From 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, Dry Dock is hosting a Book Showcase at its North Dock facility. Signing and selling their wares will be beer authors Emily Hutto, Dan Rabin and ... well, me. So, seriously, stop by and say hello, even if you already have your copy of "Mountain Brew."

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Five Things I Learned from Collaboration Fest

It was impossible to drink all 75 beers poured Saturday at the second annual Collaboration Fest, but not just because no liver could handle that load. Much of the event was taken up with stopping and chatting about what you found, what others had tried and how breweries working together were pushing the envelope in ways they may not have on their own.

But between the talking and tasting, it was pretty easy to come away with some distinct impressions about beers done both boldly and expertly.

1) Cherry and basil: two great tastes that taste great together
The stand-out of the show was the Cherry Kriek/Basil Blonde Ale combination created by Strange Craft Beer and Copper Kettle Brewing. No, it doesn't sound like it should work. But the collision of the big and pleasant spice with the big and non-tart fruit taste ended up bringing to mind a beautifully crafted Italian food with a soothing sweetness. Comparisons to both margherita pizza and caprese salad were apt.

2) We have yet to max out the flavor variety of the IPA
There were some fascinating efforts on tap, from the complex Cigar City/Station 26 Imperial White IPA to the deeply bitter Elevation/Black Bottle Double Black IPA. But nothing opened eyes quite like the Fate/Cannonball Creek German IPA that was crisp and easy of body and finished with a melon aftertaste. Here's hoping more of the breweries are inspired to do these on their own.

3) River North is entering "can do no wrong" territory
River North burst out of the seas of sours and big IPAs with a Barrel-Fermented Brown Ale it made in collaboration with Red Leg Brewing that offered the best flavorful malting of the resurgent brown ale style with a funk strain of rye whiskey barrels that made it pop even more to life. I'm not discounting the role of Red Leg here, especially after the Colorado Springs brewery took home a medal at the 2014 GABF. But having this just a few weeks after River North pulled the near-impossible by making a 17-percent-ABV saison that was hugely flavorful without being overly alcoholic seems to confirm that these guys are becoming one of Denver's best breweries.

4) Pumpkin peach ales might not be the next big thing
The most hyped beer of the show was the nine-brewery Peach Fuss Ale collaboration that represented a giant middle finger toward Budweiser. But while the beer was pleasant and creamy - the pumpkin served more as an oatmeal-like texture provider than a spicy heavy flavor addition - it certainly didn't steal the show in terms of its taste profile. It was, however, a hell of a lot better than anything made by the brewery that made fun of the style.

5) Imbibe and the Colorado Brewers Guild have learned some things
I was critical of the festival organizers after beers ran out at alarming speeds during their Sesh Fest last summer. But Imbibe's PJ Hoberman said months later that he had changed the way he requested how much beer must be brought, and on Saturday few things bit the dust before the final hour of the event, with most still available at last call. Combine that with the variety of beers, strong presence of pouring brewers and the great scene site when attendees arrived to pick up their glasses (pictured above), and this was a very well-run event that bodes well for more gutsy efforts in the future.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Collaboration is the Fulfillment of the Craft Beer Ideal

If the craft-beer movement has been a revolution against the bland, watered-down beer that America got served for 50 years after Prohibition ended, then the nine beer makers that gathered at Caution Brewing Co. on March 4 were taking part in the Colorado Peach Party.

The action was minimal; mostly brewers talked about each others' businesses, though some sharing of recipes and tips on maintaining equipment pervaded the conversations. But by creating a Peach Fuss Ale - a pumpkin-peach beer made in reaction to Budweiser's ridiculous Super Bowl commercial attacking a segment of the beer industry that is growing rapidly while American light lager stagnates - they let the world know the brewing war will be fought by coalition.

And as that beer and roughly 75 others are served today at the second-annual Collaboration Fest, a massively expanding festival from the folks at Imbibe and the Colorado Brewers Guild, these craft brewers will be joining together in a way that no other industry does. They'll share tips with competitors that will help their businesses grow, they'll figure out new joint projects to undertake in the next year and they'll have a hell of a lot of fun doing it - maybe the most important and defining characteristic of the event and the movement.

"Brewers like getting together. They really have a good time when they all get in the same room," said PJ Hoberman, co-founder of Imbibe and proud father of his growing Collab Fest child. "I think the fact that craft beer in America has grown up under the shadow of these behemoth companies means it has always had the attitude of 'we will band together, because we can't take down these giants on their own.'"

There will be giant collaborations - more than 10 female brewers and brewery owners pitched into the Lady Collab, for instance - and there will be plenty of one-on-one teamings. And beer geeks will overrun Sports Authority Field to find them.

Peach Fuss will be one of the stars of the show for its ability to capitalize on the hottest and strangest beer style out there. But there are a lot of other stories that will be worth examing.

One of the favorites that I discovered in hitting a couple of the collaborations, for example, was that of Diebolt Brewing and Denver Beer Co. getting together to make a Biere de Mars for the festival. Denver Beer's new production facility isn't too far from Diebolt, which made it somewhat of a natural collaboration. But when Jack Diebolt and Denver Beer's Nick Bruno got together (pictured above) to make it, they also dreamed up the idea of creating a Sunnyside Beer Festival to announce to the metro area that this up-and-coming westside neighborhood is a place to which beer travelers now can journey.

"We're trying to get Sunnyside on the map," Diebolt said.

One of the newest breweries at the Peach Fuss gathering was Broomfield's Nighthawk Brewing, whose owner, Ethan Hall, also owns a paintball business. There's high competition and little collaboration in that industry, Hall said. In brewing, it's completely different.

That's why Collab Fest is such an important statement. It lets the world know that craft brewing is not only on the rise but is doing so in a way no other industry has done. And that's worth celebrating.

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