Monday, September 28, 2015

Best of GABF 2015

The recently concluded edition of the Great American Beer Festival brought us more breweries serving more beer and winning more awards than ever before. And the one-directional trends of years past (everything is hoppier or more sour or more barrel-aged) seemed to give way both to a willingness to experiment in new directions and to bring a broad swath of beers that weren't all meant to overwhelm you.

It's hard then to denote certain beers as the absolute stand-outs among such a varied presentation, especially when the Brewers Association already does such a good job with its medals. But, as always, I will do my best to try to call attention to a few that this beer writer will be thinking about long after I wash out my new tasting cups and toss away my wrist bands.

Best in Show: Vanilla Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout
At a time when everybody is making their own bigger, bolder, barrel-aged creation, Goose Island has set the bar with this giant stout (13.8% ABV) aged in unique barrels (rye whiskey) with the addition of Mexican and Madagascar vanilla beans. It is huge. It is sweet, with a backtaste of bitter rye. And it warms you as it goes down. When I mentioned several of my favorite finds to a bus tour of beer writers during the festival, this was the one that received several nodding heads and thumbs up. The secret's out: Goose Island has exceeded its original Bourbon County Brand Stout and is waiting to see who can catch up with it.

Best Traditional Sour: New Belgium NBB Love Felix
It seems somewhat odd to call out the wild ale that serves as a base beer for Le Terroir, especially when that gem of a dry-hopped sour was being served at the same booth. But at a time when breweries are trying to ramp up their tartness or even bourbon-barrel-age their sours (a bad idea, based on results so far), this golden and tart beer comes across as clean and crisp and puckery in an almost pristine way. It's a reminder of what Colorado's largest brewery does so well.

Best Non-traditional sour: Odd 13 Brewing Humulus Kalecumber
You might say that kale and cucumber and (muted) mint are not ingredients you want in your beer. But you would be very, very wrong. This rising star from Lafayette broke down doors with this tart and yet soothing vegetable beer based on a Berliner weisse. It was fascinating and yet very drinkable, and it served notice one again that this is a brewery to be watched.

Best Dark, Non-Barrel-Aged Beer: Funky Buddha First Snow
Both coconut and coffee are becoming more common ingredients in porters, but few beers have ever put them together in a way that this sweet and zingy and mouth-filling creation does. Funky Buddha was one of the hot breweries at the festival this year. Its reputation appears well-deserved.

Best Hoppy Beers
Fat Head's Brewery of Ohio took home three gold medals, including for its black IPA and its double red ale, but its truly artistic hop bomb was its Hop Juju Imperial IPA, a wonderfully full effort that was as hop-forward as one could be without being biting. But Port City Brewing - this year's small brewing company of the year - proved that great hoppy efforts also come in slightly smaller-IBU packages, as its Monumental IPA set the standard for being flowery without ripping up taste buds.

Best Lighter Effort
Indeed Brewing of Minneapolis offered up an L.S.D. Honey Ale that made full-flavored use of its three initialed ingredients - lavender, sunflowers and dates. But it's the mellow body that lets you breath in the qualities of each that make this the quaffer of the festival.

Most Interesting Experiment
Right Brain Brewery of Traverse City, Michigan, is one of a handful of beer makers specifically from that state that seem to enjoy pushing the envelope in regard to which ingredients can work in a beer. But with its Mangalitsa Pig Porter - a dark, chocolaty beer made with smoked pig heads and bones, it found a way to pour something akin to cocoa bacon java in a glass. And that's a compliment.

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

GABF 2015 Day Two Recap

There's something just a little more chaotic on Friday than on Thursday at the Great American Beer Festival. Being a part of that makes you want to move a little more rapidly between booths, search just a little harder for the next great beer and toss over the side those things that aren't quite hitting.

With that said, here are a few things that stood out on the second, hectic, fun-filled day of the largest beer festival in America.

* Sometimes the line is worth it.
The lengthy waits for beers have shifted from just the usual dozen or so (Russian River, Dogfish Head, New Glarus, etc.) to some up-and-comers. One that is worth the wait is Funky Buddha. Another beer writer described the Florida beer maker well as brewing every day the types of beers that most breweries make only as one-offs. Last Snow, a coconut and coffee porter that is teeming with both tastes in ways that others of its genre are not, is an example of what makes it so good.

* Shockingly short lines
Then again, there are still a number of booths the general GABF public somehow hasn't seemed to find. While lines at The Bruery stretch 30 people long, there was virtually no one last night at Bruery Terreux, the experimental arm of that brewery that produces gems like the uber-tart, cherry-rich Sans Pagaie. Similarly, one can slip easily in and out of Melvin Brewing, a multiple-award winner for its hoppy beers that is serving up incredibly fresh but balanced treats like its 2x4 double IPA.

* Embrace the cucumber.
In the past month especially, it's seemed that more breweries are using the crisp, green vegetable as an ingredient in a wide variety of styles. From the cucumber basil kolsch Horse and Dragon created to a cucumber gose on tap at Spangalang, these places are doing it well. But nothing is as eye-popping as Odd 13's Humulus Kalecumber, a sour ale with kale and cucumber that manages to bring out the freshness of the vegetable while lighting up your taste buds. Give in; you know you want it.

* An off-premises star
Speaking of Spangalang, it's worth noting that the less-than-3-month-old Five Points brewery isn't at the GABF this year because it thought it was too soon to make the investment. But while leading a bus tour of out-of-town beer writers yesterday, we stopped in there and found the taproom packed in mid-afternoon. It's easy to see why. From its Brett-fermented, fresh-hopped, peach-packed kettle sour (Colorado Junction) to its sour laced with cherry and rose water (Pure Funk), it's making beers that beg to be noticed, even outside the main hall.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

GABF 2015 Day One Recap

The "bigger and beerier" Great American Beer Festival, with its 90,000 more square feet of space and 11,000 more attendees, kicked off in fine style Thursday. Here's a few things that stood out.

* Goose Island. Wow.
Bourbon County Stout has always been one of those beers you seek out at this event. But the Chicago brewery brought it to a whole new level - and may have grabbed the mantle as "Best in Show" - with its Vanilla Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout. Sweet with a backtaste of bitter and mouth-filling without seeming the 13% ABV bomb that it is, it warms you as it goes down.

* The sour scene is diversifying.
Once it was that everyone lined up at Russian River to see what this crazy "sour" thing was. Now you can't stumble across a booth without being offered something tart. Places like Former Future Brewing's Black Project are getting justifiably long lines. And the styles are getting wider. One could easily find several sour apricots, including a great version from Dry Dock, And the Transilience - a tart imperial Berliner weisse from two-year-old Southbound Brewing of Savannah - ranked among the best beers of the evening.

* The new "beer geek" section has some advantages.
It wasn't as if brewers were swimming around the area pouring their beer into your mouth. But the Meet the Brewer area did attract some impressive beer makers who clearly thought about what they wanted to offer, from the aforementioned Dry Dock and Southbound to places like Weyerbacher and Short's, with its magnificent array of offerings. There is more concentrated quality here than anywhere else in the Colorado Convention Center.

* Best hoppy beer so far: Strange Dry-Hopped 1000 Barrels Imperial IPA.
It's always a good idea to try some of the gems cooked up by the locals for the fest. This combines a big mouthful of grass with a huge malty backtaste expertly.

* Legislators have picked up their game.
The Colorado Brewers Guild booth features a "Hop the Vote" showdown between state House and state Senate members who brewed beers with Cannonball Creek and Big Choice, respectively, and want you to vote on which is better. While last year's virgin efforts seemed like early homebrew creations, the House's IPA and the Senate's coffee stout both are high-quality beers. It's worth a look, if for no other reason than to have the elected officials serving you booze.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

5 Things I Learned from What the Funk

Having the "What the Funk" festival the night before Great American Beer Festival opens is much like opening your absolute best presents on Christmas Eve. And the 67 brewers who showed up to the Highlands Masonic Event Center with gifts wrapped in oak barrels and a Brettanomyces bow on top did not disappoint - even if I clearly took this analogy too far.

That said, here are a few of the biggest takeaways from the beer-rich event put on by Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project - as well as some things to search out at the GABF.

1) Barrel-aged imperial stouts should include little extras.
It's not that the run-of-the-mill, dark-and-thick-as-midnight stouts disappointed. But few things at the event were as eye-opening as Green Bench's Manaphin, an imperial stout doused liberally with chocolate and vanilla to soften its wood-aged body and add a sweet kick. Similarly, Westbrook's 2015 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Mexican Cake - aged on cocoa nibs, vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks - offered a unique taste that stuck with you all night.

2) Cascade Brewing still rules the roost.
The Oregon beer maker's Blackcap Raspberry may have been the stand-out beer of the show not because the barrel-aged sour ale pushed the limits of taste buds so much as it straddled a line between puckering sour and wonderful sweetness. Packed with more raspberry than it seems possible to put into a beer, it was a reminder of just how important the choice of ingredients can be to the most experimental beer.

3) Good things come out of gin barrels.
Less popular than whiskey or oak barrels, the newest spirit vessel to the aged-beer party brings a special kick of juniper overtones that can add to the complexity of a beer. This was most evident in Bellwether, Breakside Brewing's sour double wit aged in gin barrels with Kaffir Lime leaves - a combination that produced a different taste every time it rolled over a different area of your tongue.

4) The idea of a "subtle" barrel-aged sour is picking up.
It's hard to be subdued with so much funk and exterior influence on the beer. But Funky Golden Mosaic - a fantastic dry-hopped sour golden ale from Prairie Brewing - actually managed to be smooth while also being full of flavor. And even Souren, a sour ale made with Pinot Noir grapes by Bruery Terreux, managed to pack a great fruit punch without being overbearing.

5) It's hard to beat a good Nightmare on Brett.
As homer as it sounds, few things were as tasty as the collection brought to the party by host Crooked Stave. Stand-out among them was its port-barrel-aged dark sour that blended dark and woody overtones with a blackberry-like accent.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Brewery You Need to Visit: Odd 13

Each year, it seems, a Colorado brewery that is new or relatively new jumps up and demands to be noticed by the hoards of people coming in for the Great American Beer Festival. And if you are just pulling in for the 2015 version of the beeriest show on Earth, the one (of many) that you need to seek out is Odd 13 Brewing.

Opened in August 2013, the Lafayette beer maker roared out of the gate with a variety of highly hopped and barrel-aged experimental beers. Some, such as its flagship 78-IBU  Eric the Red IPA were quick to land as hits. Others, such as its Doctor Wildcat sour blend aged in Cognac barrels, seemed to jam a few too many tastes into your mouth at once but let you know there was something special rising from the minds of founders Ryan and Kristin Scott.

Over the past year, however, few Colorado breweries have gelled the way that Odd 13 has. It's rolled out more experiments - often found only at its taproom east of Boulder and select beer bars. It will be moving production next month to an expanded 30-barrel taphouse, according to Denver Post beer scribe Jeremy Meyer. And, most importantly, it's hit on pretty much everything that's been coming out of its bold tap lines.

Take, for example, its Master of Unrelated Science, a hoppy farmhouse ale with Brett that comes off woody and fresh and balanced with a very nice hop profile. Or Super Sneak, a spring-released tart farmhouse ale packed with enough hops to cut the sour taste and to make this beer truly unique.

Odd 13 does some of its best work when taking a more traditional recipe and giving it a bit of a twist. Eric and the Hipster, a once-a-year double red IPA, is shockingly smooth and tasty for its 10.2% ABV profile. And Saint Petersburg Brett, a Russian imperial stout that is single-hopped and fermented with a single strain of Brettanomyces, is so complex in its darkness and tartness that the flavor continues to change on you throughout your tasting.

Colorado has no shortage of young breweries doing great things (and making young children desperate to reach out and try the offerings with their beer-writer fathers). But if you want to get in early on a brewery that should have a national name within a couple of years, it's worth finding some Odd 13 on your trip this year through town.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

What to Do During GABF Week 2015

The time has come again to put down your instruments of work, abandon your everyday life and prepare your taste buds for adventure. Yes, it's Great American Beer Festival week. And activities continue to multiply even faster than the breweries that are opening at a rate of more than one a week in Colorado.

Once again, I offer a summary of some of the highlight and can't-miss events leading up to and going around the four sessions of the GABF, which happens from Sept. 24-26 at the Colorado Convention Center. To get the rundown of absolutely everything that's on the calendar, I'd suggest you check out the good work being done by my friends at Porch Drinking, Brewtally Insane and Westword. But if you, like I, have a little less time to try to plan out a full week, let this serve as the 30,000-foot-level directory to the things you should consider hitting.

Without further ado, enjoy. And if you see me out at any of these places during the week, please say hi - and tell my wife and son back at home that I love them and will see them soon.

Friday, Sept. 18
5:15 p.m.: Denver Mayor Michael Hancock officially kicks off the 10-day celebration known as Denver Beer Fest at Factotum Brewhouse, with about 20 other brewers present. He promises to don his "brewing attire." Bring a camera.

Saturday, Sept. 19
* All day: Many bars will have tap takeovers throughout the week. But on the Saturday before the festival, I like to recommend the Thirsty Lion by Denver Union Station, as it's arguably the best sports bar in town to start. And for the next week, it is featuring six Odell beers.
* 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.: Flying into town for the event? Running today through Sept. 27, you don't even need to hop in a car before you start your beer journey. For $10, you get 10 2-oz. pours from your choice of 20 Colorado breweries right at Denver International Airport, ranging from Fate's easy-drinking Laimas Kolsch to Telluride's barrel-aged double IPA.
* 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.: Golden's Barrels and Bottles has carved a unique niche by serving its own beers and an outstanding cadre of outside beverages. Today, it turns two and celebrates with barreled and sour beers galore.

Sunday, Sept. 20
* 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.: The first specifically sour event of the increasing number is happening at Backcountry Pizza in Boulder. It promises 55 taps of sour beer of both the Belgian and American variety, some of which will be out before people finish lunch.
* 11 a.m.: Trinity Brewing of Colorado Springs starts a ridiculous week of events with a tapping of its Red Swingline wild ale raised on peaches and apricots. This precedes its Swingline horizontal tapping at noon Wednesday, its sour beer tapping at noon Thursday and its big beer tapping at noon Friday.
* 6 p.m.: Fiction Brewing of Denver taps its Sunny Boy Saison - a Brett saison brewed with rose hips - to launch a week of experimental tappings. Watch out too for a salted caramel wee heavy on Tuesday and a 100% Brett raspberry quad on Thursday.

Monday, Sept. 21
* 5 p.m.: The GABF kickoff party at Falling Rock Taphouse represents the unofficial shotgun start to the week. There will be vintage beers and beers made just for the occasion by local brewers. Just as fun, there will be a heck of a lot of brewers here.
* 6 p.m.: Those who live in Denver or may be flying in for the festival may not know that the city's south suburbs are going through a revolution in terms of craft beer. Living the Dream Brewing will be holding a bomber release party for its Bourbon Barrel Aged Helluva Caucasian Stout, and this may be a good time to check out it and its neighboring breweries.
* 7 p.m.: Freshcraft will kick off its week with a massive sour tapping. No, I don't have the exact list yet. But this is one of Denver's premiere beer bars, so expectations should be set very, very high.

Tuesday, Sept. 22
* All day: It takes some guts to open up your beer bar during GABF week. But that's exactly what Henry's Tavern, a Portland-based small chain promising 100 beers on tap, is doing in the old Virgin Megastore space in the Denver Pavilions after a few days of soft openings.
* 5 to 8 p.m.: Miss the Falling Rock party last night? Paramount Cafe is offering a slightly smaller one with 20 breweries expected but with a $15 cover charge that will get you access to good beers and good brewers wanting to talk about their beer.
* 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.: Want to really talk about beer? I will be moderating a panel discussion/debate at RiNo's Industry workspace about which European country has the best craft beer culture - Belgium, Germany or Italy. A suggested $20 donation gets you access to international beers plus locally made foreign-style ales from debate participants Grimm Bros. Brewhouse and Lost Highway Brewing. And I promise to keep this event, sponsored by the Belgian Consulate, lively.

Wednesday, Sept. 23
* 3 p.m: Those who live outside Denver may not realize that River North Brewery is one of the hidden gems of the city. This afternoon it offers up vertical tastings of its barrel-aged Avarice, a Russian imperial stout. And at noon Thursday, it will serve up its Quad five different ways, including four types of barrel aging.
*4:30 p.m.: Focus on the Beer has come up with one of the most unique annual events around the festival. Beers Made by Walking showcases libations made by brewers who were inspired to use wild ingredients they discovered on hikes. This year's showcase takes place at Our Mutual Friend, and tickets are $30.
* 6 to 10 p.m.: You should drink enough beer during GABF week to think everyone around you is funny. But Renegade Brewing teams with Sexpot Comedy to offer two hours of sampling beer, followed by two hours of brewers and brewery workers actually taking the stage and giving their best to be comedians. Tickets cost $45.
* 6:15 to 10 p.m.: Another great tradition is one put on by the folks at Crooked Stave Artisans. What the Funk? offers some 60 of the country's most experimental breweries dishing up their rarest and wildest offerings. VIP tickets are sold out, but regular-entrance passes can still be had for $90.
* 6:30 p.m.: The craft beer rock stars from Avery, Allagash, Dogfish Head, Lost Abbey and Russian River are teaming up to put on a five-course beer-pairing meal in the restaurant at the new Avery Brewing facility. At $125, it might be a bargain.

Thursday, Sept. 24
* 11 a.m.: Evil Twin Brewing has built a cult of followers around its variety of specialized and often wonderfully weird experiments like its Imperial Biscotti Break. Today it takes over every tap at World of Beer LoDo to show them off.
* 2 p.m.: Melvin Brewing of Jackson, Wyoming may make the best hoppy beers in America. Good luck trying to find them most of the time outside of the country's smallest state, however. Today, though, Falling Rock will be featuring them for an hour.
* 7 p.m. to midnight: Epic Brewing's 50 Firkin Fiasco is exactly what it seems - more than four dozen firkin barrels mixed with every ingredient the brewery can find to blend with its voluminous offerings. And the fiasco part? Well, many people do drop in after the GABF session ends.
*10 p.m.: Dogfish Head will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in style at Avanti Food & Beverage. Sam Calagione will break out 2006 vintages of 120 Minute IPA and Raison D'Extra, among other goodies, for the occasion.
* 10:30 p.m.: Avery's midnight breakfast at Euclid Hall is the stuff of legend after the first GABF session. It's $125, so, like the Brett Pack dinner, it's not for the light of wallet. But you will not leave hungry or thirsty.

Friday, Sept. 25
* Noon to 4 p.m.: Pints for Prostates puts on its annual Rare Beer Tasting at the McNichols Civic Center Building, offering 50 of the country's best breweries the chance to dust off long-forgotten beers from their cellars and pour them for charity. The event is sold out, however, so you'll need to find someone with tickets and kiss a lot of ass to get into this one.
* 1 to 4 p.m.: Ratio Beerworks (with its owners shown above) is considered by many (including me) to be the best new Denver brewery of 2015. It will be busy all week in its River North taproom. But today, it does a special tap takeover just a few miles away at Avanti Food and Beverage that will show off its range.
* 2 p.m.: Colorado Plus offers the largest selection of only-Colorado beers in the area. And today it will put on the "Co-loveration Saisonation," a celebration of saison collaborations led by Trinity Brewing, in its Wheat Ridge brewpub.
* 3 to 9 p.m.: Denver Beer Co. once again hosts its Collaboration Celebration, offering up beers that it made with five breweries stretching from Montana to Michigan to upstate New York. The block is closed down, so the atmosphere should be lively.
* 10:30 p.m.: By the time Friday night rolls around, a lot of people will start to wind down their weeks with mellower but still beer-laden after parties. Left Hand Brewing and Fremont Brewing of Washington will host just such a gathering at Monkey Barrel.

Saturday, Sept. 26
* 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m: Need to get out of Denver at this point? Oskar Blues is offering excursions up to its facilities in Lyons and Longmont by bus on Wednesday and Friday too. But today's field trip - which features stops at both the Lyons and Longmont breweries, as well as the CyclHOPS Cantina and Homemade Liquids & Solids restaurant, may be the crown jewel for $100.
* Noon: Did you know that Upslope Brewing has become one of the 10 largest craft breweries in Colorado? Its tap takeover at Hops & Pie will give you a chance to experience an often-overlooked brewery at a west-of-downtown gem of a beer bar/pizza joint.
* 5 p.m.: Speaking of harder-to-find gems, Casey Brewing and Blending (that's Troy Casey pouring for me in the below picture) will be pouring its exquisite saisons at Falling Rock Taphouse. Faced with the choice between hitting the Saturday-night GABF session or coming to this, skip the GABF in a heartbeat.

Sunday, Sept. 27
* If you still have any taste buds left, you're among the lucky ones. But there are a couple of brunches and recovery parties across town that are worth checking out. Among the two best-looking: A special menu at Brazen with River North at 10 a.m. for $30 and a general recovery effort at 11 a.m. at Avanti, which features seven restaurants to help you claw back into normal life.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Pueblo's Resurrected Gem

Diana Bailey, co-owner of Walter's Beer, describes Pueblo as a town in a time warp, a place where classic cars still roam many streets and people seek a slower life than that which dominates other fast-paced Front Range cities.

But even if one were to step into a time machine and crack open a Walter's Beer - the hometown lager specialist that dominated the Pueblo scene from its 1889 opening to its 1975 original demise - it's unlikely they'd enjoy it as much as what Diana and her brother Andrew are serving today. The pair reopened Walter's in 2014, and they're serving up some heady beers in the backroom of an old train station that both highlights the blue-collar city's history and moves its brewing industry well into the 21st century.

After Andrew pleaded with the family that had owned the original Walter's by promising to keep it true to its roots, the brewery is serving up a Pre-Prohibition Pilsner that makes you long for the days before major American beer makers starting throwing rice and corn into the style to dumb it down. It's smooth and quite full-bodied, a darker lager that traces back to a time when the brewery was so strong that it actually made it through Prohibition.

Like its forebear, the new brewery also serves a Bock, though Diana acknowledged that it's not derived from the original recipe. And that's OK, as the new version is Walter's standout, a rich and very malty lager with a taste that lies somewhere between a dirty chocolate and a sweetly roasted malt bomb.

The local favorite is Walter's Pueblo Chile Beer, a lighter-bodied beer that has the roasty, earthy flavor of chile without any harsh heat from the pepper. Diana said that nine out of 10 growler refills leave full of that potable.

The Ace in the Hole IPA is balanced but doesn't have the big flavor that many expect from the style, and the Volksweizen has a subtle tartness. The only disappointing beer on the menu was the Steel City Steam, a California common both light-bodied and unassertive.

Walter's though, is a true find - a place where you can get an impromptu tour on a Friday night and stare at the neon signs and photos that signify the city's past. It's definitely worth a stop when you're in town.

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