Monday, October 09, 2017
The phrase "best Great American Beer Festival ever" is so trite that it could rightfully stop people from listening to the rest of the conversation. But this year, it just might have been true.
Over three days at the Colorado Convention Center and six days at events around town, the beer poured was so daring, so unique, so full of life that it elicited smiles and compliments around every corner, even from the harshest beer critics. From audacious fruit sours with boundary-bending flavors to juicy hop bombs to the bevy of 18% ABV barrel-aged imperial stouts that went down like cocoa at the Denver Rare Beer Tasting, brewers upped the bar on almost every style.
Choosing beers to highlight from both the convention floor and outside events then is difficult - not because there's not enough to make this list but because there's too many that are being left off. But once again, here is one blogger's thoughts on the best creations at the best beer festival in the world.
Best in Show: Speciation Artisan Ales Rhubarb Vanilla Incipient
Former Black Project brewer Mitch Ermatinger put together a tart, intriguing and yet smooth wild yeast golden sour made with rhubarb and Mexican vanilla beans that was the closest thing to a perfect combination of unusual tastes at a festival full of them. And if that wasn't enough, he also was pouring a Tequila-barrel-aged Incipient with blood orange, guava, limes and salt that was the closest thing you'll taste to a beer version of a margarita.
Best Outside the GABF: Ozark Beer Co. Onyx Bourbon Double Cream Stout
Arkansas isn't known for being a brewing mecca. But one sip of this 10.2% stout with flavors of big coffee and fluid cream will make you rethink your visions of the state, as well as of how easy it can be to drink a beer like this.
Even at just 6% ABV, this New England IPA towered over competitors in taste, imbued with Mosaic hops that offered overtones of citrus and melon, all in an incredibly smooth body. Not far behind was Melvin Brewing 2x4, a double IPA so steeped in flowery citrus (yes, that's possible) that you're halfway through the glass before you realize how quickly you've been imbibing this.
Best Dark Treat: Mountain Sun Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Chocolate Thunder Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout
Everything was here: Sweet chocolate, smooth milk, a slight alcoholic bite but one that was far less than you could have expected. Bring on February, as Stout Month at the Denver/Boulder restaurant has never seemed so exciting.
Best Sour Not Made with Rhubarb: Bruery Terreux Oude Tart with Raspberries
In a world where the newest brewery and newest taste sometimes steals the show, this beer demonstrated why a known entity making twists on its classic offering - in this, case, adding raspberries to its Flemish red ale in the final stages of barrel aging to create a simultaneously tart and refreshing beverage - should never be ignored.
Best Lager: Lone Tree Brewing Mexican Lager
Things like simplicity and crispness with just enough of a slightly sweet malt backbone to give a beer heft often are overlooked at a festival of wild and crazy standouts. The gold medal this south Denver brewer won for this subtly brilliant creation (seen at right) shows it should not be forgotten.
Beer That Shouldn't Have Worked But Did: Wiley Roots Brewing Cinna(man)bun
This was a cinnamon vanilla sour. Think about it for a second. Then run up to Greeley to get a shockingly blended barrel-aged golden sour that used the cinnamon to zingy rather than clashing effect, and taste great craftsmanship.
Beers That Everyone Talked About: Weldwerks Medianoche/Medianoche Reserve
One of the simplest tastes from this complex Colorado brewery is its imperial stout, which received a deserved gold medal for presenting a dark, smooth body with notes of chocolate that seemed far too easy to drink. But when it aged said creation for 17 months in bourbon barrels with toasted coconut, vanilla beans and cacao nibs, as it did for Denver Rare Beer Tasting, it became unforgettable.
Beer That Everyone Wondered About: Haw River Farmhouse Ales Sazerac
This North Carolina brewery offered a rye Belgian tripel that tasted eerily similar to the cocktail after which it was named due to the addition of fennel, allspice, star anise and lemon peels to the rye whiskey barrels in which it aged. The common reaction at Rare Beer Tasting: "That was fascinating, though I probably don't need a second." And to clarify, that's a compliment to its creativity.
Labels: Denver Rare Beer Tasting, Great American Beer Festival, Great Notion Brewing, Lone Tree Brewing, Mountain Sun, Ozark Beer Co., Speciation Artisan Ales, The Bruery, Weldwerks Brewing, Wiley Roots Brewing
Thursday, October 05, 2017
America's most stunning beer festival is upon us, showing off 800 breweries from across the nation, some you will never find in Denver outside of their spotlights in the Colorado Convention from Oct. 5-7. But it is only the fool who would enter those hallowed halls and ignore this state's own fruits.
For Colorado brewers - and there are 161 of them that will be pouring at the Great American Beer Festival - are coming in from parts of the state you've likely never visited, and they are breaking out some one-offs and rarities you've certainly never tried. And there frankly might be a higher concentration of blow-your-taste-buds-out-with-delight offerings in the Mountain section of the great hall than in any other area - yes, even more than the Pacific.
With that in mind, here is an alphabetical list for locals and visitors alike of the beers you absolutely should stop by to try while you meander through the festival. A few you'll know; many you will not. This is the great joy of the event. (And big props to PorchDrinking.com for putting together its pre-GABF pour list that makes possible the study needed to compile this.)
* 4 Noses Experimental Double IPA: The Broomfield brewery has rocketed into the conversation of best IPAs in Colorado with its 'Bout Damn Time IPA. When it offers offer something bigger, hoppier and edgier, it's simply a must-try.
* AC Golden Colorado Native Kriek Noir: A stunningly tart beer (left) aged two years with cherries and then bottle-conditioned for another two, It will take your taste buds to the edge with its complexity and ultimately reward them.
* Avery Promiscuus: Very few brewers have used Madeira and port barrels to age their wares, and it's a shame. This beer, which I've only had in the Boulder Brewery's taproom, is bold and funky, and you'll swirl it around again and again to discern the flavors.
* Black Project Cygnus Double Montmorency: The great joy of Black Project is never quite knowing what its spontaneous fermentation will produce. But when the brewery takes three different years of barrel-fermented coolship ale and tosses them together with pounds and pounds of cherries, you know it will be special.
* Boulder Shake Chocolate Porter: America's oldest microbrewery may have hit on the best recipe in its 38-year history when it created this creamy, sweet and full chocolate porter that will give you a different taste to consider.
* Broken Compass Coconut Porter: This mountain-town brewery not only cemented its reputation by winning a medal for this at its first GABF, it actually started to draw people out of the Denver area up to Breckenridge to seek this out.
* Caution Brewing The Earl: Lakewood's finest brewery employs a lot of unusual ingredients in its beer, but its use of Earl Grey tea to add a leafy presence to a surprisingly full-bodied English mild creates the most unique taste in its portfolio.
* City Star Belle: Arguably no brewery in Colorado has improved as much this year as City Star, which wowed earlier this year with its Wood Belly barrel-aged imperial IPA. So when the brewery decides it's going to uncork a barrel-aged sour oatmeal pale ale aged with passion fruit, you just want to see what it can do with that combination.
* Comrade Fresh Hop Superpower IPA: The year-round version of this beer is becoming the Colorado standard-bearer IPA for some hop heads. And this is the kicked-up version that is only available for a limited time.
* Copper Kettle Snowed In Mocha: Snowed In, a bourbon-barrel imperial oatmeal stout, is one of the finest Christmastime beers in the state. So, what will a little coffee and chocolate do to the body? That's kind of the point to buying tickets to the GABF.
* Crooked Stave Trellis Buster: These guys are some of Colorado's sour kings. But when they pour a beer they describe as their hoppiest beer ever, you eagerly ask for this dry-hopped double IPA.
* Dry Dock Pumpkin Double Porter: The double hazelnut brown ale and the double hazelnut coffee porter were out of this world. This is the next iteration of the concept, and appropriate for the season.
* Fate Brewing Pinot Noir Gose: Take one of your signature beers, age it with pinot noir grape must, sit back and enjoy.
* Funkwerks Nelson Sauvin: This beer combines one of the most appealing hops available today with the body of a saison to produce a rainbow of flavors.
* Great Divide The Smoothness: First offered last year, this Jameson-barrel-aged dark lager has enough body to stand up to Irish whiskey overtones but not too much to render the barrel moot.
* Horse & Dragon Sad Panda Coffee Stout: As good a year-round dark beer as is made in Colorado, this gives you not just the roasted taste of the coffee but also the vanilla mouthfeel of a creamer that was placed into it.
* Jagged Mountain Grouse Mountain Gose: The underlying beer is good, but when it's made with blood oranges, coriander and sea salt, it becomes damn good.
* Jessup Farm Cross-Drinker: Whiskey Sour: Strong ale aged in whiskey barrels, blended with a dark sour, all mashed up with lemon puree. Expect this to be maybe the most complex Colorado beer at the festival.
* Locavore Two Fingers IPA: This is the IPA that you're not drinking but should be. Hints of orange and mango highlight a full body that won Beer Fight Club II, defeating some of the state's best IPAs in the process.
* Mountain Sun Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Chocolate Thunder Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout: Stout Month comes just once a year at the Mountain Sun pubs, so when they take some aged stash of one of their monster darks and offer it up more than half a year later, it's worth a visit.
* New Belgium Le Terroir with Amarillo and HBC #522: It's the brewery's phenomenal hopped sour ale, barrel aged and then dry-hopped with experimental hops. Just say that over and over again while you wait for the line to subside.
* New Image East Coast Transplant: This hazy double IPA from the under-the-radar Arvada brewery is no less than the second-best Colorado example of this hot style. And it's a brewery to know.
* Odell-Avery Collaboration Stout: Made specifically for GABF, this white stout/dark stout combo is only the product of two of the best breweries in Colorado. How could you go wrong?
* Ratio Beerworks New Wave Strawberry Berliner Weisse: Arguably the most tart yet approachable Berliner Weisse made in Colorado, this summer seasonal had a too-short stint on the brewery's menu, but now it's back.
* Ska Brewing Tart Mexican Logger: Ska's new Mod Project is all about creating experimental new flavors. And here's guessing this may be the only sour Mexican lager on the GABF floor.
* Strange Craft Beer Strangely Epic: This blend shouldn't work. Yet, the combination of Strange's Cherry Kriek and Epic Brewing's Big Bad Baptist Imperial Stout does, and it's memorable.
* Telluride Face Down Bourbon Brown: The beer that kick-started Colorado's brown ale revolution is served up after aging in bourbon barrels. Bring it on.
* The Intrepid Sojourner Basil IPA: Though a recent addition to the Colorado portfolio, this Denver brewery quickly has gained a reputation for thoughtful and unusual beers. This is a combination that someone should have thought of before.
* Verboten Little Nonsense: This whiskey-barrel-aged imperial oatmeal stout is a dangerous beer, so smooth and tasty at 11% ABV that you may think you can drink several. Good thing it comes in a one-ounce sample for GABF.
* Weldwerks Extra Extra Juicy Bits: The key phrase you need to know about this New England-style double IPA is "more than 11 pounds of Citra, Mosaic and El Dorado hops per barrel." Read it and weep for joy.
Sunday, October 01, 2017
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
As it celebrated its first birthday Saturday, guitars strumming and special brews pouring, SomePlace Else Brewery in Arvada lived every bit up to its name. For as a Colorado beer maker that has mastered the art of the dark and malty but still has work to do on its hoppy and sour ales, it's a place that transports you outside of the typical state beer scene.
The brewery, for those who haven't made it yet, is tucked into an industrial strip mall just north of Interstate 70, giving it a gritty feel. The atmosphere inside is one of laid-back fun, as Star Wars and Star Trek character cutouts look over the taproom, staring down on friendly staff dishing out brews one room over from the impressive cave of pinball machines that greets the visitor upon first entering the place.
SomePlace Else's tap list runs the gamut from a pilsner to several IPAs to a black saison, with a few things more experimental cropping up occasionally. But one run through a set of tasters makes it clear what the Darth Vader cardboard figure alludes to: This is a brewery that has embraced the dark side.
Chief among its black virtues is its Darth Saison (you're catching the theme here, right?), a Belgian-style ale sculpted with roasted barley and offering a complex blend of heavy body and gleaming esters that makes it feel even more substantial than its 6.3 percent alcohol-by-volume clout. It's a unique beer that few other area breweries attempt, and it's the kind of offering that SomePlace should boast of as its signature concoction.
But its Irish Stout packs a surprisingly roasted and full-bodied punch too and leaves an out-sized impression for a normally subdued style. Its Oatmeal Stout, meanwhile, is smooth and balanced and spectacularly easy - everything you want in a winter warmer low enough in alcohol (5.8 percent) that you can drink several in a sitting.
And arguably the star of the entire lineup is its Alpine Loop Amber, all full of chewy and subtly sweet malt, presenting itself as drinkable as a beer can get and yet full of pleasing malt quality.
For all of that malt magic, though, SomePlace Else is the rare Colorado beer maker that hasn't managed to put its best foot forward with its line of hoppy beers. The 1-3/4 IPA has a very subdued hop presence and the OIC IPA is a light-bodied beer that uses its orange peel and coriander a little too minimally, creating just a slightly spicy bitter back taste.
And its Squirmy Sour, a special one-year anniversary tapping, has the furthest to go to catch up with its Centennial State brethren, presenting a slightly acrid grapefruit flavor with strange plastic overtones in the body.
Most breweries continue to have kinks to work out still at its first year, and SomePlace Else is no exception to that truism. But the somewhat-hidden Arvada beer maker also deserves kudos for injecting life into its darker and malty beers at a time when some breweries seem to ignore those genres altogether, and for that alone it deserves your attention and a visit.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
There are a lot of things that stand out about the nearly one-year-old Brewability Lab in Denver, from its color-coded ordering system to its beaker glasses to the fact that it serves its coffee porter with a rim of Nutella.
But most unique of all about the brewery owned by Tiffany Fixter is who works there — special-needs Coloradans, from those with developmental disabilities to those with autism to those who can't hear or see. Every employee except for the head brewer has a special need of some sort, making Brewability Lab the only beer maker in America with this kind of focus.
Working with these adults who have a hard time finding meaningful employment elsewhere isn't new to Fixter. She spent 10 years teaching special education and a year as the director of a day program for adults with special needs, before she was fired for what her boss called a lack of creativity.
As her "screw-you project" for that odious professional assessment, she launched one of the more creative ventures attempted in a craft-brewing industry that is defined by its adventurous spirit. Despite having no brewing experience, she moved into the turnkey operation left behind when Caution Brewing left its original East Denver space for Lakewood, brought in a seasoned brewer in Tanner Schneller and went to work setting a space of inclusivity where those with and without special needs can sit and enjoy a beer together.
Some weekends, the industrial space just south of Interstate 70 is jumping; on weekdays in particular, it can be empty. But Fixter is succeeding enough where she is thinking about franchising the concept after receiving inquiries from people in some 30 other states wanting to launch a similar brewery.
Her beer selection is limited and it is color-coded, so that people can simply point to the beer they want on the menu or say the color associated with the beer, and beertenders who may not speak or be able to read can get it. If you get the right staffer, you're likely to be talked up or given a tour too. (See this video I made with the Denver Business Journal videographer to meet one of those folks.)
And while the gluten-reduced beer won't be mistaken for some of Colorado's most complex offerings, the truth is, it's drinkable and it's well-made. A Strawberry Blonde made with 100 pounds of frozen strawberries has just enough of a bitter kick to give it an edge. The Pale Ale has a lemony citrus feel to its body. And the Coffee Porter is sweet and chocolaty and filling, even if the Nutella rim that Fixter includes on the glasses feels a bit gimmicky.
Brewability Lab is a bit out of the way from other breweries. But to see the friendly atmosphere and unique business model that Fixter has created, it is worth a drive.
Monday, September 18, 2017
Debate continues to rage after some two years on whether the New England IPA, a hazier take on the style with more citrus and tropical fruit overtones and less bitter bite, is inspired flavor or just laziness. But whether you like this slight variation on America's favorite craft-beer style or not, this discussion serves only to distract from a far more virulent strain of experimentation infecting the IPA.
For two summers, craft beerdom has been inundated with India pale ales inexplicably brewed with additives of fruit that sometimes are subtle and sometimes are really not. And it's time for the drinking public to stand up and say they want their hoppy beers to taste like pine and flowers and occasionally grapefruit but certainly not like a watered-down tangerine or pie-baking experiment gone awry.
These fruited IPAs may be considered gateways to the more acerbic, classically American version of the bitter beer, but in almost every instance they bastardize the heart of the beers that they are riffing on, and not to positive effect. And what you get, in many instances, is a strange knock-off of far better beers that should be left alone to define a brewery.
Example A of this is Weldwerks' Fruity Bits Strawberry Shortcake (right), a New England-style IPA made with strawberry. The brewery's Juicy Bits is Colorado's standard bearer for the hazy IPA, bursting to life with both the sweet and bitter sides of citrus fruit; when it's double-dry-hopped, it becomes simply one of the best beers in the state. But when ingredients as clashing with bitterness as strawberry and vanilla beans are introduced to the beer, it becomes an out-of-place, training-wheels IPA in which the hops become such an afterthought that is seems stylistically misplaced.
Avery's Real Peel IPA, made with tangerine peel, strikes a similar discordant note. Here is one of the chief hop purveyors in the state mixing in one of the most subtle citrus fruits on the planet to the effect that both the hops and the fruit get lost in the blend. Coming from the same brewery that will blow your taste buds out and make you smile with its Maharaja Imperial IPA, there is a disconnect.
New Belgium's range of fruit-accented beers tell a similar story. Its Citradelic tangerine IPA is aloof in both its fruit and hop tastes, and the medium-bodied beer seems unsure of what it wants to be. It sets the stage for its Juicy Mandarina IPA - a wheat IPA that isn't actually infused with fruit additives but leans so much toward fruit tastes in is hop profile that it too loses the flavor of said hops.
I mention these three breweries in particular because they literally are three of the best in Colorado that are taking these strange side roads when they have hit so many times over with full-flavored hop bombs and barrel-aged sours, and even with subtle delights like an Avery Joe's Pils or the sadly discontinued New Belgium Mothership Wit. They clearly know what they're doing.
Not all fruited IPAs miss the mark. Numerous breweries, for example, have used grapefruit to increase the bitterness of the style, appropriate as some hops can taste naturally like the fruit. Sam Adams livened up its Rebel IPA by adding in mango juice, giving it heightened tropical feel even as it did not tone down the natural grassiness of the hops. And Denver Beer scored a surprising victory this summer with its Maui Express Coconut IPA, using the coconut not to add a particular island taste but to calm the hops just enough that you can feel a different element in what may be the closest thing to a summer IPA that the industry has developed.
But the fruited IPAs in general seem so hell-bent on yelling "Look at my creativity!" and trying to lure non-hop heads to the style that they become needless diversions in a genre of bitter beers that still has lots of room to grow without tossing in everything in a grocer's produce aisle. Let's recommit to the idea that IPAs are bitter, piny, earthy, flowery and sometimes naturally citrus-y without the need to introduce flavors that veer these offerings away from what has made the style great.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
It may seem like mid-summer still, but the Great American Beer Festival is just slightly more than three weeks away. And while you can hold off most decisions about which events you want to attend until the last minute, Wednesday is the final day to decide whether you have what it takes to be the Wynkoop Brewing Co. Beer Drinker of the Year.
Denver's oldest brewpub began bestowing the crown in 1999, dragging professional-level imbibers before a cadre of robed and wigged judges to test their knowledge of the brewing arts, as well as their ability to woo a panel while they were several beverages into the evening. What began as a stand-alone event morphed into an annual ritual during the week that the beer world comes to Denver, and today the contest stands out as one of the intellectual highlights of the week, forcing people to rationalize the habits their mothers-in-law criticize and show how important suds knowledge can be.
The 18th annual contest returns the night before GABF officially begins, Oct. 4, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Lower Downtown brewery. But Wynkoop is looking right now for contestants willing to take an entry quiz to see if they can make it into the three finalists, and the brewery co-founded by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper will pay for that trio's travel expenses to come to the Mile High City.
What does the contest mean? Bragging rights, first of all, as no one else is crowning a beer drinker of the year during the greatest beer week on the calendar. Also, being a part of tradition - and being a part of good fun that taxes your brain a little bit while it's busy roundhouse-kicking your liver. Oh, and did I mention that you get free beer for life at Wynkoop? Yes, seriously.
Sometimes the questions go to the history of brewing. Sometimes they tend toward the magical, such as past queries in which the contestants are asked to be beer whisperers. And sometimes they get to the very heart of contests, asking participants what they could use to bribe a judge the best.
Think this describes you? Sign up. And you still have seven other nights during Denver Beer Week to blow out your taste buds without having to remember whether you lager cold or hot.