Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Subtle, Surprising Tastes of Summer

Past summers have been marked by brewers taking intriguing turns with fruit beers or pulling unexpected flavors out of their hats, and 2016 is likely to see more of that. But as Memorial Day weekend rolls around, there also seems a pattern this year toward something decidedly old-fashioned - crisp, clean lagers or golden ales that don't dazzle the palate so much as they go down smoothly with a surprisingly high amount of quality.

Nothing typifies this trend as much as the new Colorado Native Pilsner from AC Golden. This is a Coors offshoot that has tried and missed with a number of bland variations on the all-Colorado lager before. But the recently released pilsner is a spot-on, authentically German-style creation that cleanses the palate and finishes with a very subtle bite of hops to remind you it's got something more.

And if AC Golden surprises with its fresh entry into the lager market, maybe an even bigger surprise comes from Rock Bottom Denver. The Burro is an exceptionally smooth Vienna lager with a straw-hued body and a hint of nutty malt. Though one of the lightest beers currently on the brewpub's menu, it's arguably the most satisfying of the bunch.

It was be inaccurate to call maibocks summer beers, as they specifically are made for the spring season. But there are a couple that bring different characteristics to the current shoulder season. Strange Craft Beer's version weighs in at a meaty 7.5% ABV, and the slight alcoholic sting adds a new-world robustness to the old-world German flavor. Bristol Brewing's take on the style is more traditional and without much sweetness, but its full flavor reflects a good use of malt. I recently debated a server at Colorado Plus (see taster picture below) about which was better; the consensus was that you couldn't go wrong.

Not everything appropriate for the warmer-weather palate has to be of the lager variety, however. Dillon Dam's Go Devil Golden Strong Ale, sampled after a recent late-season ski run to the area, comes in at a full 9% ABV and packs the punch you might expect from the Belgian-style ale. But it also has a sweet, estery smoothness that translates well to mountain porch drinking, and should be sought out as such.

The summer season is almost upon us. Luckily, the beer offerings have beaten the calendar to our door steps, and the bounty looks impressive.

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

Perrin Enters Colorado with Panache

When Oskar Blues Brewery purchased Perrin Brewing of Grand Rapids, Michigan in early 2015, few Coloradans took notice. Yeah, it was interesting to see a local craft brewery buying rather than being bought out, but Perrin wasn't even packaging its beers at the time, regardless sending them halfway across the country for anyone to discover.

Last week, Perrin cans and kegs arrived in Colorado, the product of a far bigger, more capital-flush company that, after about nine months of canning its beer in its home state, is taking a big leap into America's most competitive craft beer market in its first expansion outside Michigan. And while it's hard to pin down exactly what place it will occupy in the Centennial State, its offerings show it clearly brings a uniqueness in style that helps to define it.

Take, for example, its Grapefruit IPA - a seasonal that's part of a growing trend of grapefruit-tasting hop beers. But while many others of the ilk rely on the hopping to produce a citrus taste or might infuse a little grapefruit juice into the product, Perrin adds whole grapefruits during the fermentation process. The result is an IPA less defined by its hop attributes than by its semi-tart, bitter flavor that comes on with an intense zip and finishes clean.

Or there's Perrin Black, a style with limited competition in this market or, frankly, in many others. It introduces itself with a medium body that belies its murky dark color but that contains a full, semi-roasty flavor. The beer is Perrin's best-seller in Michigan and officials are betting it will wear the same crown here.

And then there's a beer like its Lotsa' Problems IIPA, an 8.5% ABV kick to the gut that is being
distributed locally in mixed 12-packs with its regular, session and seasonal IPAs. That a company owned by Oskar Blues has a hop bomb should leave no one surprised. That this is a musty, malty imperial IPA that overwhelms the taste buds rather than blisters them with acidity - well, that's worth noticing.

Jarred Sper, co-founder of the four-year-old brewery, said that Dale Katechis and Oskar Blues have been light-handed in their influence over Perrin, providing financing to launch a canning line and influence to open doors in Colorado, but not a script to follow on recipes or marketing, And he said all that growth was in the game plan anyway for the brewery; it just is coming sooner that many thought.

Coloradans should like Perrin for one primary reason - it's making unique beers with a bit of a carefree attitude. In fact, it's easy to see why Oskar Blues found it to be a kindred soul.

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Something Totally New - and Tasty - from Left Hand

Considering of all the things Left Hand Brewing has done in its 22 years, the most surprising omission from its resume has been "make a year-round American IPA." With this month's release of Extrovert, however, that feat no longer is lacking - and what the brewery's done is introduce something that can only be called uniquely Left Hand.

Extrovert's main hop is Jarrylo, which gives it a tropical taste with even a little hint of pineapple. Beer makers at the Longmont brewery had been experimenting with a number of single-hop ales ever since they purchased a seven-barrel pilot system last year, and when they tasted the stone-fruit flavor this one gave off, they decided that it was going to be their centerpiece in the IPA, said Nick Cassaro, the company's Denver sales rep who was showing off the beer at Freshcraft on Thursday.

At first blush, Extrovert might remind you of Boulder Beer's Mojo IPA for its unusually fruity quality. But it breaks from many others in the genre by finishing crisp and dry with only a touch of bitterness on the back of the tongue - a quality developed with the use of Acidulated and 2-Row Rye malts, Cassaro said.

These characteristics also make the release of Extrovert perfectly timed to take advantage of a summer beer market where beer geeks are seeking something light but flavorful. Good IPAs always fit the second part of that description but not always the first; Extrovert stakes its territory there.

One may be tempted to ask why a major brewery would add an IPA after waiting, almost stubbornly, for two decades to jump into the most popular style of craft beer. (Left Hand's biggest forays into the IPA world have been 400-Lb. Monkey, an English-style IPA, and Introvert, a session IPA.) Said Cassaro: "It was time."

Yeah, it was time. But the truth is, Extrovert was worth the wait. It may not blow your taste buds away like an Odell or Melvin Brewing IPA. But it carves out its unique niche. And it's a beer you may come back to time and again.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Samuel Adams: Still Got It

Thirty-two years into your lifespan as a brewery, you might think you'd get a little staid and just rely on people coming back for the drinks they know so well.

But while sitting down for an interview today with Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch, I realized that settling wasn't something that would come naturally to one of craft beer's true pioneers. And the brewery's new nitro series is evidence of that.

Boston Beer released three nitro beers a couple of months ago - an IPA, a White Ale and a Coffee Stout - in cans with widgets (for lack of a more scientific term) in them that offer pressurize the vessel with nitrogen. Though rare, other breweries have done this before, meaning that Koch thought his brewery had to develop truly unique beers for them in order to stand out.

And this was where Boston Beer really earned its stripes. Too many nitro IPAs that are found on tap are softer versions of a brewery's regular offering, with the hops taste ending up muted. But Koch said he understood that carbonation is an essential part of the IPA, and so taking that away required him to change the recipe for the beer entirely.

What he arrived at was a 100-IBU delicacy that lacks the acidic bite of many IPAs but packs a grassy taste that fills your mouth and makes its hops presence known. And it's so smooth that the beer could go down more easily and quickly than expected, as I found out today.

"It's been a lot of 'Wow, that's different.' Other brewers, they say "How did you do that?'" he said. "Not everybody likes it, which is OK. You have to be open and knowledgeable about transforming beer flavor."

The Coffee Stout too is notable. Though it carries a pillow-like softness typical of the genre, it's imbued with a deep roasted flavor that can be lost in some nitro efforts. It's quite a flavor bomb.

Koch was in Denver Tuesday for a signing of his new book, "Quench Your Own Thirst," which details his three-plus decades in the beer business, examining both successful philosophies and notable mistakes. There have been times that Sam Adams has seemed to fade from the beer scene over that period. But the new nitro series ensures it will continue to be a pioneer - and shows that the first craft brewery to do things correctly on a national scale still has some great tricks up its sleeve.

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Spangalang: One Year In, Exceeding All Expectations

I've been having a debate in my mind lately that probably isn't worth having: What was the best Colorado brewery to open in 2015? Early on, I kept coming back to Ratio Beerworks, which I've gushed about both as opening with a bang then producing more unique and complex beers as it progressed over its first year.

But it's unrealistic to crown a single champion in any year that also saw the arrival onto the scene of Spangalang Brewery, the gutsy venture from three former Great Divide guys that opened in an old Department of Motor Vehicles office in Denver's Five Points neighborhood. Every experimental beer release seems to add a new twist to its repertoire, and a recent visit to the brewery showed just how much it has going for it.

Any brewery creates a certain lore when it wins a Great American Beer Festival gold medal less than four months after opening, as Spangalang did for its Belgian table beer, Sugarfoot. But while this lower-alcohol offering is light and solidly estery, it is not one of the multiple beers on the menu that actually will make you exclaim "Wow."

Pretty much anything in the Nightwalker series of imperial stouts will make you do that, from the deceptively smooth original to barrel-aged editions like the 2016 version that take on the feel of its Breckenridge Distillery vessels without being overbearing. Both, however, seem like common offerings compared to the Nightwalker Con Alma, which was re-fermented with grape juice and takes on a wine-beer hybrid quality that is head-scratching in its ability to incorporate both the chocolaty dark flavor of the base beer and the fruity mustiness of its addition.

That's not the most impressive thing Spangalang dreamt up for its one-year birthday celebration, however. That honor goes to its simply named Anniversary Ale, a blend of several hoppy offerings, some of them barrel-aged and some not. Deep, oak-y, full of complexity and offering you a chance to taste both the woodiness of the aging and the non-acidic underlying flavor of Simcoe, Chinook and other hops, this may well be the best beer a Denver brewery has produced so far in 2016.

Still, Spangalang comes back a third time to jolt you with its Protocrat Gose, a traditional offering with its hint of salt that is kicked up in tartness to match the American palate. At a time when gose is becoming one of the hip styles on the market, this could set the standard, at least in Denver.

Truth be told, there was nothing on the 11-beer tasting menu last week that could be called even a slight miss. The D-Train IPA was a big and slightly sweet hop bomb, the Hop Colossus Double IPA was surprising in its woodiness (despite its lack of barrel aging) and the Beatrice Saison, while not a stand-out, had a classical quality to it.

So, should Ratio or Spangalang wear the title of best new Colorado brewery of 2015? Or should that go to WeldWerks, which USA Today proclaimed the best new brewery in the country? In truth, it doesn't matter. But what is apparent is this: Whereas even the best new breweries would take a year or two to get up to full speed half a decade ago, there are places bolting from ribbon-cutting to national-interest-demanding in less than 12 months now. And Spangalang is absolutely one of them.

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Friday, April 08, 2016

How do beer bar chains blend with the Denver scene?

It was both somewhat surprising and slightly predictable to learn in February that World of Beer had shuttered its downtown Denver location after just 18 months.

There was surprise because the location offered more than 50 beers on tap, including an array of impressive local and national offerings and had the on-the-surface credibility of some of the better beer bars in the crowded LoDo scene. Its Sunday BEERunch (pictured below) had a tasty menu extending from breakfast classics to tasty chipotle porter wings.

But World of Beer, which still operates locations in Cherry Creek and Lakewood, also carried in its description a series of words that can spell death to craft-beer enthusiasts — "out-of-state chain." And while I visited the location occasionally until its demise, I also noticed that the crowds never appeared there the way they did at places like Freshcraft or Lucky Pie or Falling Rock Tap House.

It's worth noting that chains were some of America's original craft-beer bars, including the Colorado-based Old Chicago chain that opened its doors in 1976, the same year that the first beers rolled off the lines at New Albion Brewery. But in today's farm-to-pint, uber-local beer-drinking society, it's also worth asking what the place of chains is here in the Napa Valley of craft beer.

One way to do that is to look at two other chains that remain downtown and seem to be thriving, at least by the size of the crowds I encountered there in the past two weeks.

The California-based Yard House chain actually was one of the early beer bars in downtown, finding its way into Denver around the time that Freshcraft and Euclid Hall were opening. At 120 distinct taps of beer, it actually has more flowing from kegs than even Falling Rock, though no one has ever confused the two businesses.

Yard House has suffered rightly from those who take a cursory look at its beer list and note the number of macro beers and "crafty" macro-owned breweries that inhabit its taps - a far higher percentage of its lineup than those previously mentioned beer bars. But at the end of March, it rolled out 25 new beers at the 16th Street Mall location, and they showed its commitment to quality.

Dry Dock, Crooked Stave, Grimm Brothers and Odell's sour series found a permanent place on the tap list. Bigger national craft breweries like Rogue were on there too, but with offerings like its coffee/IPA-hybrid Cold Brew that you can't find everywhere else. And Yard House folks found a few gems, like the flowery and grapefruity Almanac IPA, that would have a proud place in any locally owned beer bar.

Yes, faux-craft breweries like Elysian and Kona still have quite a few taps on the Yard House list. But, despite its corporate nature, one can't walk into the bar anymore and not be able to find enough palate-pleasing originals to keep you busy for the full happy hour.

Two blocks down from Yard House is Henry's Tavern, a Portland-based concept that opened in the Denver Pavilions just before Great American Beer Festival last year. It brandishes a tap list of 100 offerings, including some new-to-market goodies like La Cumbre (the New Mexico brewer that's one of the country's up-and-coming IPA makers) and some atypical locals like Left Hand's Great Juju.

Henry's adds the bonus of a fairly impressive upscale beer-bar menu, featuring goodies like accessible sushi and Gorgonzola fries. And it's got a nice patio, which I discovered yesterday because a friend and I couldn't find a seat inside the bar.

Again, there is more of a splash of corporate beer on the menu than you'd ever find at a place like Star Bar or Hops 'n Pie. But it's clear the owners support more than just the 50 largest craft breweries also and are willing to pick up locals, like Comrade Brewing.

So, yes, it's still OK to prefer the locals. They support even more of the small and rising craft breweries, and keeping 100 percent of the money within the community can do nothing but help the craft beer scene grow.

But at this point, it at least is worth acknowledging that some of these out-of-state chains are making more of an effort to resemble the tap lists of the local joints. And that too is a win for the local beer scene, as we all appear to be Denver-fying the national chains and making them realize how important it is to know your crowd.

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Monday, March 21, 2016

5 Things I Learned from Collaboration Fest 2016

Saturday's Collaboration Fest once again showed why it's quickly become one of the top beer festivals in Colorado, as brewers toppled over each other in an effort to show off their creativity, especially with new ingredients and new styles of ale. On a day when more than 85 beers were available, some would be considered slight misses, but it was hard to find anything that was a complete fail.

That said, a few certainly did stand out. And they are worth mentioning - and begging brewers to bring back throughout this year.

1) A perfect IPA still stands alone.
Cannonball Creek and Pizza Port stole the day with the simple idea of a wheat IPA. While No Man's IPA may not have jumped off the page when looking at descriptions of the offerings, it immediately announced itself with a full mouth of smooth, flowery hops in a dangerously easy, fully integrated body. Simple, yet so well done that no one else's barrel or added fruit could steal its limelight.

2) That said, barrels and added fruit spoke very well for themselves.
If No Man's IPA wasn't the first beer mentioned in conversation during the festival, than the TRVE/Prairie Oak-Aged Gose on Oklahoma and Colorado Peaches was. A very balanced sour that mixed an occasional burst of acidity with a peach presence that was heavy without being syrupy, this was a brilliant idea.

Equally impressive was the Deux Funk, a barrel-aged sour ale from Funkwerks and North Carolina's hot Wicked Weed Brewing. Flavors of grape and a hint of kiwi/passion fruit burst out in a clean, smooth effort that was less challenging than pleasing.

3) Some bold flavors worked, some didn't.
New Belgium and Ratio Beerworks had one of the boldest ideas of the festival — a bruleed grapefruit saison that I had the chance to shoot a video about. Everything about it worked, from a minimal sweetness that evened out the grapefruit bite to its finishing with a verve of carbonation. This is how well-planned experiments should go.

That result ran opposite to the outcome of Peanut Butter Lunchbox, the Elvis tribute made by Denver Beer and DC Brau with heaps of peanut butter and a hefeweizen yeast to add a banana flavor - but maybe not quite enough of either taste. Still, the presence of what is hopefully just Denver Beer's first pass at this idea was reason enough to cheer the creativity on display at the festival.

4) Weldwerks came through.
Few breweries at the festival had as many curious eyes on them as Weldwerks, fresh off its being named by USA Today as the best new brewery of 2015. It didn't disappoint, working with underrated Snowbank Brewing to offer a Barrel-Aged Mocha Stout that was as thick as its name implies but still tamped with enough chocolaty sweetness to make this very, very drinkable.

5) Don't sleep on the amateur brewers.
Even among the piles of collaborating beer makers, one of the standout offerings came from the collaboration of New Belgium with beer purveyors Falling Rock Tap House and Star Bar. Rock Star, made with New Belgium's sour "Felix" base, was nearly pucker-worthy but calmed enough to offer up a sour-apple feel that brought you back for more.

And, as I wrote before the festival, I was privileged enough with a group of my fellow beer writers (pictured above) to team with Lost Highway Brewing to put forth the Fourth Estate Chocolate Stout, made with English yeast and Ghirardelli chocolate. The beer turned out wonderfully sweet and easy and had jaw-dropping lines at times - a situation for which all credit goes to the folks at Lost Highway.

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