Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A Brewery Closing That Should Worry Craft Beer Lovers

For years now beer aficionados have watched 45 to 60 breweries a year open in Colorado and said goodbye to a half-dozen to a dozen per year. But rarely has a closing been as worrisome as that of the soon-to-disappear Beryl's Beer in Denver.

Among the breweries that shuttered in recent years, many were, to be blunt, not good. And if they were impressive, then you could generally divide their departures into two categories - unsupportive, profit-mongering investors (Del Norte Brewing) or breweries in hot areas whose landlords literally sold their building out from under them (Pateros Creek Brewing).

But Beryl's, the barrel-aging specialists tucked into an unassuming space in the RiNo neighborhood, did not fall into either of those categories. This was a brewery that churned out increasingly impressive complex beers, particularly in regard to its sour offerings, and had a landlord that backed it. It went after its own niche and succeeded. And yet, there wasn't enough business to keep it going.

That landlord noted in a Friday article by the always-on-the-ball Jonathan Shikes of Westword that competition was rising and that constant road work and nearby construction kept traffic away. The second factor is particularly understandable as a reason for business failing to meet expectations, but there are other breweries in RiNo that continue to operate under these less-than-optimal conditions.

What's toughest about the fate that will befall Beryl's by the end of next month is what it says about the possibility we are hitting the saturation point for breweries in some parts of the metro area - a point that has seemed for a long time to be many years down the road. Maybe this isn't the absolute sign that we're there, but if the Denver craft-beer community can't support a place like Beryl's, it sure as hell seems to be close to it.

Opened in 2014, the brewery had a knack for producing a lot of beers that made you shake your head in agreement, and a few that blew your taste buds. Trent's Plums, a mesmerizing sour brown ale aged two years in red wine barrels with Italian plums, expertly straddled the line between being tart and too tart, challenging you as it satisfied you. The Mila Petite Rouge elevated the art of fruit infusing its taste even in a sour body. And beer like its Logan's Barrel Reserve Baltic porter and its Vila Wald dampfbier demonstrated how much the right barrel can add to an already well-crafted base beer.

Yet a brewery like this couldn't find enough support to keep going in Denver. That says something.

Maybe we are spreading ourselves too thin, at too many festivals, too many beer bars, too many taprooms. It's a good problem to have, given the lack of options the Mile High City had just eight years ago. And it's not that any of these watering holes or events should go away, as the variety of spots to drink great beer is part of what makes Denver such an intriguing place.

But when we start losing good breweries - the kind you could take an out-of-town beer geek friend to and wow them, as I once did at Beryl's - the warning flags should go up. Maybe we have more room to grow, thinning out just the places that haven't made an impact on the local scene. But maybe, just maybe, we've gotten to the point where even the breweries that make up parts of the fabric of this city's scene aren't safe unless they find the right marketing and distribution mojo to match their beer-making abilities.

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Friday, March 09, 2018

It's a Coffee Beer World

In the chicken-or-egg scenario, the answer is clear: Craft breweries began to grow exponentially before craft coffee roasters did. But now that the local business segments are on similar trajectories, there may not be a better partnership in the alcohol industry.

What's more, coffee beers have become one of the most studied and talked-about trends among the many booming styles in craft beerdom. From a panel discussion at January's Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival to Saturday's upcoming Cool Beans Beer & Coffee Festival at Ratio Beerworks in Denver, the offerings are being pored over as much as they are being poured — and beer drinkers are the beneficiaries.

Once a pairing that seemed only to be made straight up with stouts and porters, coffee is appearing now in everything from lighter ales to sours. And brewers are adding lactose, dextrose and spices to make your coffee beer feel like it too is served with sugar and cream, or with the appropriate ingredients to label it Mexican Coffee.

The idea of adding coffee to beer is not a new one, noted John Holl, editor of Craft Beer & Brewing magazine at the panel he led at Big Beers in Breckenridge. But the way it's being used now make shock the sensibilities of those brewers who first experimented it with it in the early days of what then was called the microbrewing movement.

One needs look only at Carton Brewing of New Jersey, where owner Augie Carton makes offerings of 12 percent and higher meant to simulate the common ways locals take their java — "regular coffee" with cream and two sugars and Italian-style with a dash of amaretto. The resulting beers — Regular Coffee Imperial Cream Ale and Caffe Caretto — use lactose, dextrose, anise and licorice to mimic those tastes, and they taste more like strong Belgian ales than a classic porter with roast in it.

More locally, Epic Brewing, long known for the coffee it blends perfectly into its Big Bad Baptist barrel-aged imperial stout with cocoa nibs, has diversified its offerings with its Son of a Baptist and its Coffee Cream Ale, not to mention offshoots like its ridiculous Triple Barrel Big Bad Baptist. And while the brewery's earned its reputation by going for the extreme, there may be no beer in Colorado in which the coffee owns the flavor quite so much as the deceptively smooth and drinkable Son of a Baptist imperial stout.

Oskar Blues also has brought alcoholic life to the party with is Java Barrel-Aged Ten Fidy, which uses the barreling and the coffee to mellow the beer in a slight but necessary way and give it a sweet, surprisingly easy body for a 12.9% ABV beer.

And then there are the wide range of beers that are adding coffee to their spicy Mexican stouts, creating an even more complex version of a beer that tastes already like a distinctly foreign drink. Crazy Mountain's Rum Barrel Aged Spanish Coffee Stout is a prime example of this.

Not everything blends seamlessly with coffee, to be sure. Jordan Schupbach, Epic director of brewing operations, noted during the Big Beers panel (pictured above) that he tried to brew a coffee beer with a lager yeast and it didn't turn out. Left Hand brewhouse manager added that he used a light-roasted coffee with a more light-bodied amber ale and "it just turned out to be not a good beer."

And brewers continue to push the taste barriers still, finding offerings that pair with coffee in newer and more intriguing ways.

Ratio's festival, running from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, will feature a coffee session IPA, a coffee chocolate rye scotch ale and a whiskey-barrel-aged Irish coffee American strong ale. The event, which aims to show off how many ways coffee can blend with beers to create new tastes, is as much education as it is imbibing.

Sure, the now-old-fashioned trick of blending dark coffee taste with a beer that also is as dark as night still works too. One need only try the Spaghetti Western Imperial Chocolate Coffee Stout, a collaboration between Prairie Artisan Ales and Italian beer maker Brewfist, to sense that.

But coffee beers are growing and diversifying, just as the coffee-roasting industry is. And that's a dark area worthy of having light shone onto it.

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Thursday, February 01, 2018

Welcome to Stout Month

Back in 1994, when American breweries numbered only in the low hundreds, Paul Nashak had an idea that he thought might bring a few more people into his then-five-month-old Mountain Sun Pub during a slow time. He would load up his taps with stouts in February, call it Stout Month and maybe give folks a little extra reason to stop by.

Stout Month is no longer an idea. It's a full-blown movement that extends beyond the walls of Nashak's current five pubs and into breweries across Colorado that are setting aside more space in February for dark beers of their own creation. Many of those breweries are sending beers to be put on at Mountain Sun pubs. A few are even making beers that will be available only at Mountain Sun's locations this month.

Nashak, managing partner of the brewery, now gives talks on Stout Month. He lines up a wider variety of beers than he once imagined possible. He goes into the pub some days with a certain beer on tap and leaves only when that tap is on its third different creation of the day.

And he loves that everyone wants a piece of that one-time weird idea.

"I think when people started coming into Mountain Sun in the darkest, coldest, slowest month of the year and seeing that we had lines at 2:30 p.m., they realized we'd tapped into something," he said.

The list of Mountain Sun stouts that will be on tap at its properties from Boulder to Denver this month is 31 recipes long. Thirty-six beers from other breweries - including out-of-state craft brewers like Modern Times Brewing that are being added to the list of Colorado offerings for the first time in about eight years - will supplement that haul.

Mountain Sun has standard stouts and dry Irish stouts and cream stouts. But it's also concocted a Girl Scout cookie stout, a Norwegian wheat stout and a brand new cherry chile stout. There are five imperial stouts and three barrel-aged stouts waiting too, including the bourbon-barrel-aged Chocolate Thunder Imperial Milk Stout that was one of the standouts of the Great American Beer Festival.

Nearly as exciting, though, is the list of guest stouts that will be on tap.There are multiple s'mores stouts, a maple donut Russian imperial stout and a Turkish coffee stout. TRVE has three stouts that will be pouring at Mountain Sun.

Chris Bell, co-owner of Call to Arms Brewing, admitted that he rarely makes stouts. But, wanting to be a part of Stout Month madness, the Denver brewery this year created Body By Beer Milk Stout, Buzzy Body Coffee Milk Stout (which is a phenomenal blend of sweet smoothness with a kick of highly flavored roast) and Dust in the Wind Dry Irish Stout. The latter will be on at Mountain Sun.

Even though Mountain Sun will host the largest Stout Month celebration, other breweries will host their own celebrations of the style too. Resolute Brewing in Centennial, for example, will roll out six beers across the course of the month, including a chocolate orange stout and a rum raisin imperial stout. Black Sky Brewery will have a few of its own, including a blackberry stout and a chocolate mint pistachio stout.

The point is this: Stout Month began almost as a lark. And now it's an obsession. And we are the ones who get to benefit from Paul Nashak's rather brilliant idea.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

"Happy Accidents" Producing Great Beers

As someone who has young children and hangs out with other parents of little kids, I've heard the term "happy accident" a lot in recent years. But never have I heard it used twice in the same week to describe beers, as I have since Friday.

And if the beers in question are examples of what these happy accidents are, let's hope a lot more brewers can start conceiving their offerings in this way.

The beers in question are Caution Brewing's Mazu Belgian Sour, which the Lakewood brewery happened upon late last year, and Call to Arms Brewing's Majestic Wolf Lamp, which the Denver brewery officially releases on Thursday. And both are worth seeking out in a purposeful way.

Majestic Wolf Lamp, as artfully described by Call to Arms brewer Chris Bell (pictured at top), is a blend of two aged beers that didn't make a particularly good impression on their own. One was a Belgian quad that had one barrel that just didn't sing and the other was a petite saison that wasn't bad but just wasn't resonating with anyone.

So, brewers took the two, put them together in a 60/40 quad/saison blend and let them sit for months on oak, throwing in black currants to ramp up the cutting taste. And they've created one of the more complex beers yet to come from the brewery that is known more for its spot-on renditions of a wide range of styles, leading to a mouthfeel that Bell described perfectly as "sour raspberry jam."

Bottling the creation from just two barrels, Call to Arms hopes to produce at least 125 375-ml bottles that go on sale for $12 a pop at the brewery beginning at 3 p.m. Thursday. And if you think, "Oh, I'll just wait until they brew this out another time," think again about a beer that is 13 winding months in the making.

"Now that we've done this, we'll never be able to recreate it," Bell admitted, who acknowledged that before the blending, brewers were considering dumping these two barrels that only came to life when being conjoined.

Mazu doesn't have as dramatic a back story or as short a life span, as it's been on tap since the fall and will continue to be available in the taproom in the near future. But the brewery staff likes to call the beer their little surprise, and owner Danny Wang explained at this month's Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival just what makes the beer so different.

Stuffed with the sorts of unusual ingredients that are the hallmark of Caution - in this case, orange peel, coriander and cardamom - Mazu is a Belgian-style golden ale aged in California red-wine barrels for 10 months. But while Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces have worked their magic on this beer, the souring aspect to it comes not from classic Lacto but from citric acid, giving this a smooth and sweet mouthfeel that presents a certain bite but not one that is harshly acidic.

"This is one of the most unusual beers you'll taste here," Wang said at the Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge while surrounded by 140 other breweries trying to pitch that same story line. But in this case,  he was right, and he's created another signature taste among a bevy of one-of-a-kind creations on his menu.

There are more such stories out there, but the two of these give perfect example to what is so great about the growing and diversifying craft-beer scene. When you make something that's not exactly what you originally planned, don't dump it down the drain. Give it time, and that happy little accident may end up standing taller than the recipes that you and others slaved for months to perfect.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

What does Oskar Blues' new location bring to Denver?

When Oskar Blues announced plans to open a beer bar/restaurant/music venue in downtown Denver, it was met by resistance by some in the craft beer community, most notably folks at Falling Rock Tap House, who said it would compete against entities that had nurtured the brewery's development. Leaders of the Longmont brewery replied that they were growing, not cannibalizing patrons.

That venue, Oskar Blues Grill & Brew, officially debuted last weekend after a month-long soft opening. And as such, it's worth looking at what the facility is, as well as what it isn't.

Those who have come to know Oskar Blues only since its ascension into the 10 largest craft breweries in America may not realize it began humbly as a Lyons Cajun-style restaurant that brought in musical acts from the get-go but took two years to get the idea to make its own beer. Anyone who's visited that original location, still tucked into an outdoor shopping center, will recognize the resemblance right away in this new venue, which in many senses is food and music first and beer as a complement to those purposes.

That isn't to say that the beer is an afterthought by any stretch. Last Saturday there were 48 beers on tap - roughly half from the Oskar Blues family that includes Cigar City and Perrin Brewing, and the other half from craft or European-invested breweries, including smaller local purveyors like Odyssey, Rails End and Odd 13. The only mega-brew on the menu was the original Coors.

So, when it comes to the beer offerings, it would be hard to say that OB Grill & Brew is cutting off the oxygen from other craft-beer purveyors. Its menu, while extensive, isn't as varied as what you'll find at Falling Rock or Freschcraft or even Lucky Pie. This is clearly the place to go in downtown if you want to find Oskar Blues family rarer or seasonal offerings, from the sensational OB Death By Coconut to Perrin's 15 percent ABV No Rules, a porter rife with cinnamon, vanilla and booziness. But no other bar was striving to be the go-to Oskar Blues destination in Denver - other than its already existing RiNo Chuburger location. And having some 25 other offerings on tap hardly makes it unique in the downtown beer scene anymore.

And when it comes to food, OB Grill & Brew also is treading a different path than other beer-focused bars in the area. Euclid Hall has poutine and upscale sausages, Freshcraft has a notch-above-normal wide-ranging menu and Lucky Pie has its pizza and cheese curds. But people who want to get the likes of crab cake, crawfish etouffee or Carolina spicy-mustard ribs aren't going to be considering existing beer bars. The food is quite impressive at Oskar Blues, and it will stand on its own, but it gives beer-focused bar hoppers a slightly more ethnic and full-plated option, if that's what they're looking for.

And a music venue that offers seating for 300
plus 48 taps - well, that just isn't happening in Denver right now. Breweries themselves, particularly Ratio Beerworks and Station 26 Brewing, have become great venues for seeing certain types of bands while sipping beer. But the major concert venues as a whole aren't beer-geek magnets for their selections, and Oskar Blues has a chance to be disruptive and new in that sense.

So, no, existing beer bars shouldn't be worried about what Oskar Blues brings to the table. The high-end Great American Beer Festival tappings are not going to happen there. And the weekend beer-bar-hopping crowds are just going to have one more option, though not one that's going to such the oxygen out of everyone else. I'll still be frequenting the other spots I mentioned, some far more than I'll be hitting OB Grill & Brew.

What the new place truly offers is extensive beer list for the crowds that are prioritizing food or music above their beer and now have a more legitimate option in which they don't have to choose between hearty, high-quality food and hearty, high-quality beers. And for some people just looking for a good rack or ribs or a good concert, it may well introduce them to the idea of pairing said activity with a locally made IPA rather than watered-down swill that's trying to pass itself off as American beer.

So, welcome the new Oskar Blues venue, Denver beer community. Maybe you won't be hanging out there all the time. But it lessens the chances that, in less beer-centric crowds, you'll be forced to hang out somewhere that can offer good chow or tunes but also offers a "craft" beer menu made up entirely of breweries scavenged by Anheuser-Busch.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

5 Things I Learned at Big Beers Fest 2018

Tiramisu, French toast, crickets: These were the flavors one can't forget from the 2018 Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival.

The collection of roundly amazing beers — I poured just one into a dump bucket during the four-hour tasting — was again a master study on barrel aging, hearty hopping and using bugs to bring the right level of tartness to beer. But this year, more so than in past years, it also felt like a grand experiment on the adjuncts that can push beers beyond their normal limit. And what a wonderful palate-wrecking experience it became.

There were desert beers, including a New England-style IPA made with Betty Crocker cake sprinkles (Thank you, Outer Range Brewing, for keeping the cake flavor light). There were sours that relied on the presence of multiple fruits to create new flavors. And by the time you got the gumption up to try Epic Brewing's Chapulin Gose, you literally found yourself saying: "I like the beer, but I'm not picking up the flavor of the crickets or the agave worm salt in here." And, yes, you were bummed.

So what were the biggest takeaways of the festival? Here's a few:

1) The bolder the range of flavors in big beers, the more they stood out.
Certainly, there were the big and dangerous classic bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stouts there. Loveland Aleworks had a 2015 version that was incredibly smooth. River North Brewery offered up a whiskey-barrel-aged English-style old ale that was so warming it set your insides ablaze.

But the real head-turners were gems like Cellar West Artisan Ales' Farmers Breakfast, a farmhouse-style imperial breakfast stout that was re-fermented in bourbon barrels with maple syrup and offered a fascinating melange of flavors that somehow became French toast in a glass. Or there was Epic's Triple Barrel Big Bad Baptist, which not only featured imperial stout aged in whiskey barrels but had barrel-aged coconut that made this spring to a new vibrancy and overshadow its high ABV.

2) Spices are on the rise as adjuncts, thankfully.
You saw this trend where the beer advertised it blatantly. Crazy Mountain's Rum Barrel Aged Spanish Coffee Stout, for example, was rendered unforgettable by the fact that the Denver brewery used Mexican chocolate to make what could have been a heavy beer burst with flavor.

But the trend appeared even where you were least expecting it, and it was pleasing. Verboten's Tiramisu Little Nonsense had a surprising shock of Saigon cinnamon that left you with hope that chefs can make deserts like this too. And Intrepid Sojourner Beer Project's Barrel-Aged Imperial Turkish Coffee Stout added even more Middle Eastern spicing than its regular-strength version - and took your palate to a far-off place.

3) It's time to elevate Paradox Beer Company to its place among Colorado's best.
If there was a single beer of the festival, it was this Teller County brewery's Divide Ethos, a spontaneously fermented wild ale that felt like a kicked-up saison, with the bugs pinching your tongue with just a bit of sour and a whole lot of wild. The fact that it was the brewery's first coolship beer speaks even more to its ability to create new flavors.

Paradox was a big winner last year as well. It doesn't get as much attention as some of Colorado's other great wild-yeast-ale makers, partly because of its out-of-the-way location west of Colorado Springs. But it sure should.

4) It's the fruit and unusual add-ins, as much as the bugs, that are propelling stand-out sours.
Maybe Modern Times pushed the sour envelope a little too much with its One Million Tomorrows, but by mixing a ton of blueberries and raspberries into its wine-barrel-aged saison, it created such a complex flavor that you were willing to forgive the brewery.

No forgiveness at all was needed for Three Barrel's Hermano X, a lambic made with coriander, orange peel and three types of pepper that was tart enough to wake up your taste buds and your mind. And if Caution Brewing's Mazu Sour Belgian Golden — made with orange peel, coriander and cardamom and aged in red-wine barrels — wasn't the best sour on the floor, it may have been the most unique.

5) More significantly aged beers are needed.
Two-and-three-year-old beers were everywhere. But the joy of sipping Stone Brewing's 2007 Old Guardian Barleywine and enjoying its sweetly aged body even as the hops diminished was a short-lived pleasure because it stood so alone among the largely newer beers on the floor (save for Sam Adams' 24-year-old Triple Bock).

There wasn't much one could have left wanting from the festival. But 10-year-or-older beers would have been fun to try more frequently.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2018

7 New Things Coming This Year to Big Beers Festival

No change that Laura and Bill Lodge will make to the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival will be bigger than last year's move of the event from Vail to Breckenridge after 17 years in its original home city. But that doesn't mean the resettled festival will stop trying to find new ways to entertain its crowds during its second year in its new home.

With one of Colorado's best celebrations of yeast and hops just two days away (the first events begin on Jan. 4, while the commercial tasting is set for Jan. 6), it's worth taking a look at what will be different about the festival this year. And it's worth reiterating that if this all sounds good, tickets for the main event remain available.

1) The Falling Rock Lounge
One of the biggest aspects that was missing from the event last year was the central gathering spot, a role that the Fireside Lounge in the old Vail Cascade Resort filled for years. Festival organizers, in conjunction with Denver's oldest beer bar, are changing that in 2018.

The "Pop-Up Falling Rock" will be a temporary bar with a Chris Black-curated beer list that will occupy the open space near the arcade and the hot tubs on the second floor of the host Beaver Run Resort & Conference Center. Hotel officials will pile soft furniture in that space and signs around the resort will direct people there, making it likely this will be the spot to relax when seminars and the main tasting are not in progress.

2) Bigger Seminars
Last year, afternoon seminars were held in adjoining spaces that held just 35 people each, leaving some people unable even to sniff topics like how to brew with exotic fruit and vegetables.

This year, the Lodges will combine those two rooms into one seminar area and double the space, while moving some of the other talks to the Base 9 Bar on the bottom floor. There will be four seminars at 12:05 p.m. and another four at 1:15 p.m. And one of the defining characteristics of the event - being able to learn more about beer throughout the day in talks that feature a fair amount of tasting as well - will be open to more attendees.

3) A Wider Range of Seminars
Saturday morning's schedule begins at 9:30 a.m. with a talk on the timely and controversial topic of New England IPAs from a panel that includes Colorado's best makers of the style, including Neil Fisher of Weldwerks and Lee Cleghorn of Outer Range Brewing. But while that's sure to attract beer geeks by the kettle-ful, Laura Lodge promises other choices that will welcome people of all interests.

If you want to learn to pair beer with spicy foods, there's a seminar for that. If you want to enjoy a beer while doing yoga on Saturday morning, there's an opportunity for that. And if you really want to work with random strangers to try to pair four beers and four foods, there's a different break-out session that features that too.

"I think sometimes people think Big Beers is for people who are just in the industry or super-savvy," she said. "I think the novice can learn as well."

4) An App for Festival Planning
Festival organizers are working with Digital Pout, which has created an app to help people find where breweries are on the floor plan, what they're pouring - and when a beer runs out. Thus, if you're one of those folks who wants to spend much of your 3-1/2-hour tasting looking for rare and aged beers, you can map out beforehand where they are and know when you should redirect your adventures in mid-festival.

5) A New Entry for Attendees
One of the bugs of the first year at Beaver Run was the bottleneck of VIP and regular-ticket attendees backed up at the same entrance point on the third floor, leading to a slowdown getting in and to complaints from brewers on the first floor that it took a long time for many attendees to find them. This year, the early crowd will go in at 2 on the first floor and the later crowd goes in at 2:30 on the third floor, leading to less congestion and more spreading of entrants across the tasting space.

6) New Breweries ...
Laura Lodge recalls getting a call from experimental brewer Cellarmaker Brewing of San Francisco last year asking if they could come and pour their beer at the 2018 festival. Within 15 minutes, she got a follow-up call The Rare Barrel, an equally sought-after Berkeley brewery, inquiring whether it too could come and pour.

"We're starting to see some really cool, innovative folks who may not have experienced Big Beers before but want to be here now," she said. Expect this trend to continue and grow.

7) ... And More Breweries
After opening the festival to 140 breweries last year, Big Beers will welcome around 150 this year. The increase isn't terribly impressive, but the way that number is growing is.

With a waiting list of dozens of participants, Lodge told brewers they were welcome to share their table if they wanted with some of those breweries waiting in the wings. She expects at least 10 to do so, creating both a growth in the number of breweries on the floor and the partnerships between those beer makers.

"I believe it's the true spirit of craft beer," she said.

And that's one more reason this festival can't be missed.

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