Wednesday, December 30, 2020
10 Best Colorado Beers of 2020
In a year that seemed so dark, maybe, just maybe, it was appropriate that Colorado beer makers stepped up their game particularly in the area of dark ales. To be sure, there was much more that highlighted the year, from barrel-aged barleywines to vibrant hazies to sour experiments that included Japanese citrus-based sauces. But it sure seemed as if the most textured, daring and successful creations of the year that was 2020 were those those turned to the dark side - and made it as enjoyable as possible.
This annual list of Colorado's best beers - at least those determined by one local beer writer - is somewhat challenged this year, as the beer festivals and gatherings that often provide the best look at what the state's breweries are doing did not happen after mid-March. But I tried to drink as much as I could from as many locally sourced creators as I could, and these are the most unique, complex and quaffable beers I found:
10) 4 Noses Lotus Rising
The hazy IPA is, by now, an established beverage, and longer-running gems from Weldwerks' Juicy Bits to Westfax Brewing's Urban Lumberjack made lockdown a lot easier to bear. But the best new addition to the category was this gem from Broomfield's 4 Noses Brewing, simultaneously thick with tropical notes and leaving just enough bitterness on the backtaste to remind you that being hoppy is still an important part of being a delicious hazy IPA.
9) Elevation Beer Montanya
Here is how you make an imperial porter stand out: Add Horchata spices and age it in rum barrels from the distiller of its namesake. This beer never seemed as boozy as its 10% ABV suggested, and every taste produced a bite from a seemingly different spice. But it landed both hugely and pleasantly, particularly if you were camping at the foot of a nearby fourteener, and it reminded you how valuable mountain-town breweries like this Poncha Springs beer maker are to the Colorado ecosystem.
8) Cannonball Creek The Return of the Mackaroon
Here's the other approach to dark beer: Take a traditional stout, made by a brewery known far more for its lagers and pale ales, and infuse it with coconut and macaroon to give it a sweetness that neither overwhelms nor is subsumed by it dark body. Rolled out in the spring, this beer felt like the perfect accompaniment to a brisk spring hike (and paired well with pizza). And it served as a reminder at just how versatile Colorado's most consecutively awarded Great American Beer Festival medalist can be.
7) Spangalang Brewery Ms. Behavin'
Anyone who believes that barleywine is a relic of an earlier time is challenged to drink this beautiful barrel-aged beer from one of Denver's most overlooked breweries and declare that it is anything but a full-mouthed joy. Its body is a like a lightly caramelized, raisins-soaked-in-booze blanket, covering over any sign of it s 12.5% ABV content and presenting a beer so smoothly presented that it forgoes astringency and passes straight to warmth. A masterful update of a classic style.
6) Strange Times Too
Strange Craft Beer has played with its traditional recipes in host of ways for 10 years, but few if any variants have landed as successfully as this Brettanomyces-laced version of its Cherry Kriek, which popped to life with a tartness that added to its fruit base and created enough of an edge to be daring without being at all difficult to swallow. Not all big-sellers should be messed with; this experiment, however, gave a whole new definition to a much-loved beer.
5) Purpose Brewing Itadakimasu #032
The boldest Colorado beer of 2020 was this Fort Collins provocateur's sour ale aged with a citrus soy sauce, creating a taste wholly unlike anything else at the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival where it was unleashed in January - which is a statement in itself. Both tart and unusually thick, this caused a minor flinch at first taste, followed by a stunned appreciation of how owner Peter Bouckaert (talking here, left, with Black Project co-owner James Howat) can blend such flavors together. A revelation into the possibilities of creativity.
4) Verboten German Chocolate Cake Not a Speck of Light
Just the second imperial stout produced by the quickly ascending Loveland brewery, this was a masterful effort with three variants, the German chocolate cake version being the one that packed the most flavor into a 13.6% ABV body that was dangerously easy to drink. Aged for more than a year in a blend of barrels, this took on the characteristics of everything that was in it, particularly Ugandan vanilla beans and Ghana cocoa husks, as well as the barrels that gave it more character.
3) Upslope Wild Christmas Ale
After years of producing some pretty sturdy wild-yeast holiday efforts, this Boulder brewery found a whole new dimension by adding Saigon cinnamon to the delicately tart orange flavor, creating a cacophony of tastes that were both funky and strangely sweet on the aftertaste. In many ways, this is the best original Colorado Christmas ale in the past half-decade, daring drinkers to rethink their definition of a holiday beer while still drawing forth a flavor that was spice-enhanced, even if in a radically different way. Let's hope Upslope does not decide to make this recipe a one-off.
2) Wiley Roots Du Hast Cake Imperial Stout
This gigantically flavored beer is everything that the idea of boundary-pushing pastry stouts purports to be - both unnaturally easy despite it big body and adding to the lexicon of flavors that beer, at its best, can bring forward in our taste buds. Here was coconut and chocolate and dessert sweetness layered upon the most solid traditionally dark-beer base that one could imagine. This Greeley auteur has been pushing boundaries for years - creating, for example, a cinnamon sour - but this is arguably its finest experimentation yet, a beer for beer lovers and sweets lovers and anyone who respects liquid adventure.
1) Casey Brewing & Blending No Title
It felt like a stroke of genius to blend three adjuncts that could make this beer un-drinkably sweet - Madagascar vanilla, coconut and almond - with a heavily roasted and slightly bitter chocolate body that turns this imperial stout from Glenwood Springs into a beer that imbues a bolder and seemingly easier flavor with every sip, despite its 10% ABV body. In a year in which tradition flew out the window at the same speed as our expectations of normalcy, this searing rebuke of Rheinheitsgebot laws was like a break from both the past and the present, daring drinkers to imagine a future in which beer styles are not defined so much as cemented by experimentation. From the first pour to the last swig, it was packed with intensely pleasing flavors without any alcohol burn. It was the beer that signaled both an escape from the surrounding landscape of 2020 and from any preconceptions about how much you could add to beer and still, importantly, make it taste like an excellent beer.
Labels: 4 Noses Brewing, Cannonball Creek Brewing, Casey Brewing, Elevation Beer, Purpose Brewing & Cellars, Strange Craft Beer, Top Beers of Year, Upslope Brewing, Verboten Brewing, Wiley Roots Brewing
Sunday, December 20, 2020
The 12 Beers of Christmas 2020
Lockdown has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to beer exploration. On the down side is the lack of seasonal beer festivals (a.k.a. Denver Beer Festivus) that allowed one to explore many Christmas creations in one fell swoop. On the plus side, however, is the fact that little this year is getting in the way of drinking multiple beers every night in the name of, um, journalism.
So, after a month of diving into as many seasonal offerings as could be scrounged, here is one drinker's guide to 12 Beers of Christmas this year, both from Colorado and from afar, that can help you get through the rest of this year in merry shape. Good beers to all, and to all a good night!
12) Shiner Holiday Cheer
This is the "wait, do I like this?" beer of the season - a dunkelweizen swimming in the flavor of Texas peaches that looks more like a dark champagne than a holiday ale. The fruit is so dominant here, and the beer is acutely sweet. But you won't forget it. And you'll realize there's some real talent behind this.
11) Briar Common Amnesia
Released just on Dec. 19, this is a bold concept - a 13% ABV wood-aged imperial stout brewed with tart cherries - that right now tastes a bit premature, with the thick body taking on more of a port wine characteristic than the feel of a stout. But pick up two and cellar one for six months, as this just feels like a budding masterpiece that can grow very well into its own complexity.
10) Avery Old Jubilation
An 8.3% ABV English-style old ale with a boozy enough feel to be mistaken for a light barleywine, this is truly a winter warmer. This is not an easy sipper, but it is multi-faceted and its blend of four malts makes this one of Avery's least hop-forward classic offerings.
9) Sierra Nevada Celebration
The California craft-beer pioneer long has swerved from the norm by dropping its fresh-hopped IPA as its Christmastime entry. And its Northwest hop profile and amber-brown body make this feel very old school. Still, that doesn't change the fact that it is simple and well-made.
8) Odell Isolation Ale
Much like Celebration, this straddles the "almost too familiar" line but then reminds you why Odell Brewing hasn't messed with the recipe. A malty ale in which neither the malts nor the hops are overbearing, it is plan and simple a perfectly enjoyable easy drinker. And that deserves honoring.
7) Strange Craft Beer Gingerbread Man
The American-style brown ale body almost felt a little lighter this year than in years past. But the spicing here is spot on: Ginger mixed with stabilizing malts in a way that truly approximates a cookie in not-overbearing beer form. This is the beer you bring to the Christmas party (whenever those resume) and have everyone smile with appreciation.
6) N'ice Chouffe
A big body that lays out this 10% ABV Belgian dark ale brewed with spices is even more impressive for its lack of alcohol burn. With its thick head, impenetrably dark body and lingering aftertaste, this annual treat from Belgium's Achouffe Brewery makes a bold statement. Be sure to share it with friends.
5) Westfax Cranberry and Sage Smoothie Sour
OK, technically the holiday this beer brings out is Thanksgiving. But the truth is, it's a phenomenal beer to sample with any elaborate dinner. The ruby red body shimmers like straight-out-of-the-can cranberry sauce, the hugely spiced nose calls to mind turkey stuffing and the tartness tones it down in a way that actually works miraculously well together. It may not be the beer you drink by the six-pack, but it's an impressive experiment from this Lakewood brewery that is worth seeking out and trying.
4) New Belgium Accumulation
The surprisingly long-lasting beer of this season is a light-bodied IPA with a late-breaking hop bite that presents such a cold crispness that it almost seems begging to be drunk in cooler climates. A slight hint of peppercorn adds to the unusual bitterness and makes it noteworthy.
3) Little Machine That's My Yam!
The full-bodied nature of this sweet potato stout lets you know that it's a serious beer, not a gimmick. But it's the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and vanilla beans used in the brewing that combine to give this a taste like an oddly cooling chai stout and make you think more and more about what's in here, even as you simply enjoy this.
2) Great Divide Hibernation Ale
Even in its 25th year of production, this English-style old ale feels surprisingly fresh and relevant. Its body touches the edges of being both woody and smoky but doesn't settle into either of those characteristics. It's all malt, but with a sweet and slightly boozy aspect that makes this incredibly approachable. It doesn't rely on any of the typical Christmas-beer trappings but feels like a slope-side cabin fire in liquid form. It's brewed to a style but remains indefinable. It's just great.
1) Upslope Wild Christmas Ale
These Boulder auteurs have produced impressive versions of their typically tart Christmas ales for years now, but nothing has come close to the 2020 version. Aged in oak barrels with orange juice and orange peel with a Saigon cinnamon addition, this goes way beyond being a "sour" beer and kicks up the body with the cinnamon in such a smooth way that it seems it's what a generation of brewers have been looking to do with spice. The exotic flavor seems almost soothing in comparison to the bitterness, providing a hint of donut-esque sweetness that is a defining last taste to an already impressive complexity. It is a really, really unique effort.
Monday, November 16, 2020
5 Colorado Beers and Beer Trends that Have Made Fall Tastier
The time between pumpkin-beer season and Christmas-beer season has been anything but boring in Colorado this year. And while one beer in particular has stood out, there are several brews that are worth discussing while they remain available.
1) Verboten Brewing Not a Speck of Light
Just the second imperial stout offering from one of Loveland's most exciting breweries, this is, quite frankly, one of the best new beers of 2020 so far in Colorado. Aged for more than a year in a combination of whiskey barrels from Peach Street Distillers of Palisade and The Axe & The Oak Distillery in Colorado Springs, the three variants of this beauty each weigh in around 13.5% ABV.
Quite frankly, you would never know Not a Speck of Light carries that kind of strength - and that is one of the reasons why this monster is so impressive. Brewer Josh Grenz used enzymes in the mash to calm the taste of alcohol, leaving you to taste the sweet, chocolate-malt body in all its accessibility.
Of the three versions of the beer that Verboten has made, the German Chocolate Cake is the most impressive, with its combination of cocoa husks, heavy chocolate, coconut and pecans providing a sweetness that makes this dangerously smooth, the chocolate proving to be a taste that envelops the alcohol and makes it a surprising non-entity in the flavor profile. But the basic barrel-aged version of this triumph is one of those imperial stouts that stands on its chocolatey and also sweet-whiskey feel and lets you enjoy everything it is and everything it isn't.
2) Oskar Blues Death by Coconut
Oskar Blues has been making this seasonal chocolate- and coconut-infused Irish-style porter for a number of years, but never has it felt as dialed-in as it does this year. An inviting aroma with substantial coconut sweetness segues into a a body that tastes cake-like but is very smooth. The underlying body here is one of the keys - a solid effort that allows the sweet and solid flavoring to take center stage but gives it something to rest on that is classically excellent.
3) 4 Noses Lotus Rising
Released in September as the first beer the Broomfield brewery has made using Lotus hops, this New England IPA is simultaneously rich with citrus and tropical notes and yet very easy to drink. Just a lick of bitterness jumps up as the beer slides across the back of your tongue and gives this a memorable zing. Comes on juicy, leaves with enough bitterness to remind you it's all IPA.
4) Sanitas Dry-Hopped Sour
Sabro hops, as popular as they are, mar most otherwise impressive hop-focused beers by dulling a sharp impact with their coconut-oil overtones. But in this beer, they're put to good use cutting into the sharp tartness and giving the beer a more absorbing cushion that also makes it feel more laid-back in a still-exotic way. Don't kid yourselves, the hops are the backup singer here. But they act as contrasting flavors around the edges, and this all works very well together.
5) Packaging mixing multiple kinds of beers
When you're doing more of your drinking inside your home rather than trying to run the full menu at your local brewery via 14 tasters, you still need a way to get more variety in what you're imbibing. And over the past few months, breweries have stepped up to provide this, both through the packaging they are putting into stores and the way they are letting people bring their beer home from the tasting room.
Oskar Blues provided the perfect retail example with its mixed IPA pack late this summer, allowing you everything from the Pinner session IPA to a nice Double IPA in the Can-O-Bliss series. Other breweries have been offering these mixed packs for a while, but OB seemed the first to get that the same drinker wants variety in somewhat similar offerings, rather than reaching for a stout and a seltzer in the same pack.
Meanwhile, more breweries seem to allow the mix-it-yourself pack from their coolers, particularly by putting together a quartet of 16-ounce cans that allows the buyer to really dig into different flavors or different styles - but upon their choosing. Just in the examples below, I was able to get everything from an Oktoberfest to a Nelson Sauvin-hopped hazy IPA at Resolute Brewing in Centennial and everything from a Belgian red ale to a tropical sour at Barquentine Brewing of Edgewater - and learn a lot about the breweries in the process.
Sunday, October 25, 2020
7 Colorado Pumpkin Beers to Drink in the Seven Days Before Halloween Ends
Pumpkin beers to many have long seemed like the hellish figure in the picture above (the guardian to corn maze at Anderson Farms in Erie) - a horror inflicted on the drinking world by a small number of breweries attempting to please an only slightly larger number of aficionados. But as I, one of those horrible aficionados, discovered when I want in vain to pick up my now-sold-out annual dosage of Southern Tier Pumking on Saturday at my favorite liquor store, they've become so popular during coronavirus that they're flying off the shelves.
With the knowledge that people are diving headfirst into this long-underappreciated trend this year, here then is a very short list of some of the best experiments and tried-and-true offerings that are new or returning from Colorado breweries this season. It's a roundup that not only gives a window into the efforts that make the style worthwhile but also proves that pumpkin beers themselves are evolving and becoming far more diverse in the ways they are presented.
1) Spice Trade Pumpkin Spice Latte
Pumpkin beers rarely, if ever, have used fresh-roasted coffee beans to such the advantage as this mold-breaking offering from Spice Trade Brewing. Used in combination with lactose, vanilla and ample but not overwhelming pumpkin-pie spices, it creates a beer that is both boldly roasted and supremely smooth, and its accessible sharpness is something rarely found in a genre more often defined by more-than-ample spicing.
2) Weldwerks Pumpkin Pie Berliner
No Colorado pumpkin beer comes as close as this to reproducing what makes Pumking so brilliant - creating the liquid taste not just of pumpkin-pie filling but of the graham-cracker crust and the Cool Whip on top - but then, as Weldwerks does, it gives the style its own unique twist. The tart kick at the end of this gem accents the spices in a unique way and also creates entryway into the style for lovers of the sour-beer ascetic. Wickedly creative, it is worth seeking out.
3) Goat Patch Pumpkin Patch Punch
With its silver medal at this year's Great American Beer Festival, the time for Colorado Springs' best-kept brewing secret to remain secrets should be over. This almost glowingly orange offering is another testimony to its skill - an impressively tasty mélange of true gourd taste with spice that is blended into its sweetness and generates no bitter potpourri aftertaste. You could drink this all day.
4) Holidaily Patchy Waters Pumpkin Ale
It took a gluten-free beer to show exactly how much flavor could be gleaned without any of the bitter aftertaste that too often has marked the genre. Brewer Alan Windhausen adds most of the spices here after the boil, giving them a presence without a lingering burn by extracting the flavor without extracting so many of the spices' astringent qualities. A model of big taste and smoothness.
5) Odyssey Beerwerks Fluffy Pumpkin
No beer made in Colorado brings across the quality of marshmallow so well as this, which seems an odd statement to write on a beer blog but nonetheless remains true. The dominant taste of this dark beer is cinnamon, but its bitterness is squished by an almost gooey softness that makes this truly fascinating. Neither overtly sweet nor overtly spicy, this is unique in a very good way.
6) 4 Noses Pump Action
While the bittering spices in this imperial pumpkin ale feel ratcheted up a bit from years past, it remains one of Colorado's standard bearers in this genre - a hugely flavorful beer that is the equivalent of a pumpkin churro in liquid form, with just enough sweetness hiding on the back end to make its flavor profile feel complete even as it's firing at your taste buds from every angle.
7) Twisted Pine Mr. Brown's
If you love old-school, spice-heavy brown pumpkin ales, this offering from one of Boulder's classic craft-beer makers will scratch that itch. But it also carries a sensible blend of darkness and heady malt base that reminds you that good pumpkin beers are, first and foremost, good beers first, even if they don't shy from featuring the flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg, as this does.
Wednesday, September 30, 2020
7 Beers for Celebrating Oktoberfest
The German Reinheitsgebot, that wretched old law liming all beer to just four ingredients and sucking all of the originality out of the brewing art for centuries, is just the kind of ridiculous government regulation that could make the tasting of multiple Oktoberfest beers a tedious job. And certainly, two weeks of drinking largely classical marzens — almost all of which were named "Oktoberfest" — was, in some ways, an exercise in differentiating caramel malts.
But the level of quality that is going into producing such beers these days is evident in how many of them pull out subtle flavors that leave big impressions and make the drinking experience both an easy and delightful one. And while the number of brewers producing Oktoberfest seasonals is limited — let's face it, this centuries-old style can't compete with hard seltzers for mass appeal — those brewers both inside and outside Colorado have come up with a few gems worth lifting in your stein if you join in any of the holiday celebrations planned for this weekend.
The best on the market: Seedstock Oktoberfest is a classical offering with a nose and taste of slightly toasted bread and a peripheral sweetness that is balanced out perfectly by the presence of hops that add crispness to the body without any Americanized tastes. It is both refreshing and filling in a way that presents its flavor in perfect balance.
The most joyfully traditional: Odell Oktoberfest has everything you hope for in a beer accompanying your brat: slightly toasted malts with a pillow of caramel at the bottom, no booze, no burn and just enough lingering carbonation to give it pizzazz without distracting from the flavor. It's pure without an aftertaste, and it's eminently drinkable despite a 6.1% ABV level that's a little higher than most.
The one with the kick at the end: Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest surprises you with an underlying peppery flavor that is assertive in ways you didn't expect. But it's a very good kick to the body of two-row pale, Munich and Vienna malts, and you remember this beer long after it's gone - and want to come back for more of it.
The one with extra sweetness: New Image No-Toberfest (named after the lack of celebrations in this pandemic year) goes its own way, like most of this Arvada brewery's creations. It's all in with a sweeter, bigger body that is heightened by its extremely rich caramel nose. It's almost got a muscular quality compared to its marzen brethren, but in that buffness there are a lot of intriguing tastes.
For those wanting a touch of bitterness: Wibby Brewing Wibtoberfest has an intriguing bitterness in its malt, like the leftover burn from a roast that you don't see coming. The body is very easy, but the bite gives it staying power and makes it just a bit more interesting. You might not think this a remarkable beer, but it is pleasurable.
For those wanting a big dose of subtlety: Bierstadt Lagerhaus Oktoberfest could be described as both an easy and full sipper. There are Nutella-like overtones of tamed-down sweetness, but there is less residual malt taste on the back end here than in any other offering in this list. This one isn't likely to leave you gushing, like the brewery's Slow Pour Pils. But it is likely that you could down three of these without thinking twice.
For those who don't want alcohol: Athletic Brewing Oktoberfest tastes much lighter in flavor and body than any marzen with booze in it, and that is jarring in an unsatisfying way the first time you try it. But for those who don't want alcohol, this is actually a refreshing option. And upon repeated tastes, you can find the underlying flavor, even if this lacks the crispness of other offerings on this list.
Sunday, July 26, 2020
This is neither a normal time to be producing beers nor a normal time to be reviewing them. Breweries are scrambling to hang on in the face of coronavirus restrictions. Most people are worried more about surviving than thriving.
Yet breweries continue to produce unique, fascinating and sometimes crushable beers in the face of such odds. And while the search for complete lists of excellent summer beers becomes a lot harder when your tasting ability is truncated — oh, how I miss beer festivals — one should still shout out when gems are found. And it to that end that this column is dedicated.
Odell Brewing Orange You Glad
The authors of the Reinheitsgebot would hate this kettle-soured blood orange and lychee beer from the brewery's RiNo taproom, but yet its almost soda-like qualities are what makes it so appealing. Fruit sweetness tinged with just enough citrus bitterness to give it a backbone in lieu of an underlying malt presence turns this into a summer sour sipper, offering both the tartness you might seek for a tastebud challenge and a degree of refreshment largely foreign to this style.
Station 26 Desert Haze
As every brewer now comes out with their own interpretation of a hazy IPA, it takes some real skill to create one that is simple enough to defy easy description but impressive enough to make you stop, swirl it an extra time and really try to pick up all its flavors. Furnishing both a tropical-forward flavor and the kind of bitter tinge on the backtaste that reminds you of IPAs from another era, this blends the best of new and traditional brewing in a way that makes you want to lap up more while standing on your back patio cooking a brat.
Elevation Beer Montanya
Bruz Beers Dawg Daze
New Belgium 1985 IPA
Highside Brewing Green Machine