Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The Continuing Evolution of Beer and Food Pairing in Denver

Seemingly every burger joint that comes in from another state to open in Denver these days claims it is the new place to drink beer and enjoy good food in the Mile High City. So, it's nice to see Hopdoddy attempting to do something to earn that reputation.

The Austin-based sit-down burger joint, which opened several years ago next to Denver Union Station, introduced its new Brew Series in May.  The series features a local brewery that not only gets a couple of beers onto the monthly menu but gets one of its creations featured as an ingredient in a designated new burger for the month.

I got the chance to check out the promotion about a month ago, when it was in the bridge period between May and June. So, I got to try the Renegade Brewing beers that were part of the initial May pairing, along with the Big Kahuna Burger that was a June feature. But I learned enough during that visit to draw some key conclusions about the program, which is now in its third month.

First, while few beer connoisseurs would have complained had bigger-name breweries like Odell or Avery been featured, Hopdoddy has gone out of its way to focus on more local artisans - first Renegade, then Telluride Brewing in June and now Ratio Beerworks in July. That is a way of digging into your community, even if you're an out-of-state chain.

Second, the use of the beer within the recipes is clever, even if it doesn't redefine the art of cooking with beer. Hopdoddy mixed Telluride's Whacked Out Wheat into the teriyaki sauce of its Big Kahuna Burger; while the wheat isn't readily apparent, the sauce is less sticky than many of its ilk and more bursting out of the bun like a flavor waterfall. The July offering of a BBQ pulled pork sandwich made with a sauce incorporating Ratio's Dear You saison also sounds intriguing.

Lastly, while some eateries match up food and beer for the sake of saying they can do it, Hopdoddy makes food that just goes with beer. Yes, sandwiches like the Big Kahuna — a chicken patty topped with beer teriyaki sauce, pineapple, avocado and cilantro mayo — slide into a pairing with a lighter beer or even a citrus-forward pale ale so easily, it's almost unthinkable not to do it. But the Brew Series also features the introduction of a number of new sides too, and those include the buffalo fries made with blue cheese and buffalo sauce - a tasty creation that called out for an IPA pairing among the nine draft beers and additional nine bottled/canned beers on the menu.

One could probably pick out a number of restaurants in the Denver area doing pairings like these, and it's worth noting that any restaurant that is discussing such beer-and-food deals and doing it with a specific beer in mind or new beer-infused menu items is worth cheering for its efforts.

But Hopdoddy particularly is worth spotlighting because it's a chain from a town that isn't lacking in its own beer resume that is fully embracing Denver culture and finding a way to work with local breweries. And that is a sign of a continually maturing craft  beer market that only will lead to more of these ideas — until finding a craft-beer-and-food pairing is less difficult than finding a restaurant that isn't trying something of that sort.

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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Caution Brewing's Last Call

Caution Brewing's closing tonight is only a temporary exit  from the scene for its brewing provocateur, Danny Wang, rather than a permanent one - and that it is a good think for all Denver craft-beer drinkers.

Seven years ago, the brewery offered up its first creation, a simple lager ... with a proprietary spice mix served at Wang's parents' restaurant, Lao Wang Noodle House. And while Lao Wang Lager was an eye-opener for the unique flavor it added to the light-bodied genre, it was only a hint of the successful madness that was to come out of Caution.

Soon enough, Wang produced a cardamom-infused saison, plus an IPA with whole flower chrysanthemum and Chinese rock brown sugar. Shortly after moving Caution's primary taproom from very industrial northeast Denver to a strip mall in Lakewood, he produced the best beer the brewery has made — The Earl, an Earl Grey tea-infused English mild ale that is dripping in tea flavor yet somehow blended perfectly with a style of beer not know for its creativity.

But the creativity of Wang and of head brewer Scott Petrovits (pictured above at left, who needs to be snatched up by a growing brewery) never stopped, sometimes flying under the radar with a series of bold one-offs that could sound goofy if they weren't so drinkable. There was a milk stout made with Peeps, a gose made with both Chinese five spice and Peking duck. And there was the pumpkin peach ale - a beer that Wang suggested making in a tweet after Budweiser mocked the style of beer in a TV commercial and which Wang found dozens of other brewers wanting to brew in solidarity with him as well.

While gutsy creativity defined Caution, though, Wang got to be known too as one of the more likable guys in the Denver scene - and one who looked to help others. When he finally decided to leave behind his first location, he turned it over to Tiffany Fixter, whose Brewability Lab was the first (and likely still only) brewery in the country specifically looking to employ a staff of disabled workers. As he turns over the site at at 1057 S. Wadsworth Blvd., he declined to say who was buying it but noted Saturday that it was "the type of people who will fit in well."

While the number of brewery closures is up in the past year, as the Colorado craft market begins to be somewhat clogged, Caution's exit is not due to financial hardship. A relaxed Wang said Saturday that he could have gone on in the new location for 20 years at his current level of success. But he wants to step back and look at the changing craft-brewing scene — one where distribution is becoming harder to come by and the neighborhood brewery is again the dominant force — and figure out how to change with it.

As such, he's already got some projects in the works, and he will be back, he said as other brewers stopped in early in the day to say their farewells to Caution. Some of the brewery's best known beers, from Lao Wang Lager to The Earl, are very likely to come back with him.

"This is last call here," Wang said of the location in Lakewood, where his brewery became just the second one operating in the city. "Whether Caution comes back as Caution, who knows."

It's worth noting that Caution didn't cruise into its final day, either. All through the month, it kept rolling out new beers, including a Cherry Milkshake IPA it broke out only on its final day. Wang acknowledged, as would be expected, that he'll keep homebrewing in his down time.

Asked what he liked most about the seven-year run, Wang didn't hesitate. And his answer speaks volumes about why he'll be back — even if, at first, it will just be as a visitor to a lot of beer festivals rather than as someone who will be serving his wares there.

"The friendships we made," he said while looking over some thank-you cards with his wife, Emily. "I have a phonebook full of people we met that I otherwise would never have talked to ... That you can't buy, no matter what you do."

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Checking in on Georgetown's Only Brewery

The first brewery to operate in the town of Georgetown since the end of Prohibition turned a year old not long ago. And while Guanella Pass Brewery's offerings vary in quality, the family- and dog-friendly brewery on the edge of downtown is certainly worth a stop at the end of the hiking or train-riding adventure that brings you to the one-time mining boom town.

Despite its youth, the brewery is not short on options, as the 16 on-tap adventures during a visit last week to the beer maker demonstrated. And they ran the gamut from a pilsner and a raspberry blond to a double IPA and a whiskey-barrel-aged Russian imperial stout, with plenty of pales, browns and ambers in between.

One of the notable highlights of the menu is that Guanella Pass' best beers don't fit neatly into one style. Certain hoppy beers are sharp and classical, while other attempts fall flat. And malt monsters range from full-bodied to oddly citrusy (particularly the Saxon Mountain Stout, which smells roasty but tastes disconcertingly bitter.)

Maybe the best offering from the brewery, which opened last year around Memorial Day, is the Kataka Mountain IPA. Bitter without being overbearing, it feels likes a classic Northwest IPA - crisp, flavorful and enjoyable.

Similarly, the Brown Ale, with its roasty and almost chocolaty nose, is more classical composition than mind-opening experimentation, but it's tasty and springs a little bitterness on the back. And the Black American Ale, containing the hop bite of a black IPA/pale hybrid, is a well-blended combination of styles.

The most interesting offering on Guanella Pass' recent menu, though, was Russian Investigation Imperial Stout, a whiskey-barrel-aged RIS that tastes nowhere near as mild as its 8.2% ABV labeling might indicate. It has such a whiskey flavoring that it transitions all the way to being sweet. And while there are meatier versions of the style on the market, this is unique and memorable.

For all of those impressive offerings, however, Guanella Pass misses at times.

The aforementioned Saxon Mountain Stout has an almost lemony character running throughout it, leaving the drinker confused at what it's trying to do. The Raspberry Blond Ale fails to assert either of its personality characteristics. And for all the punch the IPA and black pale have, the Liquid Gold Double IPA lacks identity, presenting a heavy body without particular hoppy or malty dominance.

Still, this is not a brewery to be picked apart; it's one to be enjoyed for the satisfying easiness of its mountain-town offerings. And it's one that should be applauded for opening in a town where it clearly was needed.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Five Tastes of Colorado Summer for the Adventurous Beer Palate

Yes, summer is a time to sip kolsches and pilsners and Mexican lagers and appreciate just how refreshing and well-made a lighter beer can be. But that doesn't mean that skilled artisans can't concoct uniquely warmer-weather-worthy beverages that come with just as much complexity as any indulgence you'd stand in line for at the Great American Beer Festival.

With that, then, here are five beers on shelves this season - some recurring favorites, others new introductions to the Colorado craft-beer canon - that should be discovered before we need to start wearing sweatshirts again.

1) Ratio Beerworks New Wave
The Strawberry Berlinerweisse has progressed from a pleasant summer diversion to one of the best beers made in Colorado, period. It comes on with just enough of a tinge to let you know that the Denver brewery has perfected the art of sour mashing, but you are struck most by the seamless blending of big fruit and a body that draws out the berry's acidity without pounding it too much.

2) Funkwerks Raspberry Provincial
Not quite a sour, this juicy and slightly tart offering is the embodiment of a fruit beer that doesn't feel at all like a starter beer and that won't disappoint you if you are looking for a complex flavor in a simple body. The fact it's migrated from a summer seasonal to a year-round selection doesn't change the fact that it's best sipped by the pool (as the above picture of my son demonstrates).

3) Call to Arms Old Old Wooden Ship
If there is such a thing as a summer sour, this is it. Just tart enough to poke your taste buds, but not heavy enough to leave any burn on your palate, this port-barrel-aged sour saison is heavy with the flavor of stone fruit and is likely to appeal even to people who shy from sour beers. Bonus: The limited-edition beer goes on sale at the brewery on June 14 at 3 p.m.

4) Epic Oak and Orchard - Strawberry and Rhubarb
This Denver brewery's evolving line of barrel-aging beauties hits a particularly summer note with a quite-tart offering whose acidity is offset for the most part by a flavor that truly brings to mind the filling of a pie you share at a picnic table. If the first taste is aggressive, the nose is more one of juice, and the sour ale settles down, evoking pre-alcohol memories even as it dazzles your taste buds.

5) Left Hand Peach Beerllini Radler
A new summer offering, this comes across more as a peach champagne drink at first, imbued heavily in the fruit flavor and possessing a bubbly but not over-carbonated body. But this isn't just a guilty pleasure drink; it's a tightly crafted burst of freshness with a surprising back bite of dryness. It may look hoity-toity in a flute glass, but you won't feel guilty enjoying it.

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Five Best Traditional Colorado Beers for Summer

Some say that summer is the acceptable time to break out "lawnmower" beers - lighter beers known for their drinkability rather than actual flavor. This thinking, however, is outdated and self-defeating.

These days, brewers throughout Colorado have found ways to take traditionally lighter beers and imbue them with big taste without losing the easiness to the body, giving you both craft quality and traditional quaffability in one can. And as the official start of summer approaches quickly, here are the five beers that do that best and will leave you both pleased and thirst-quenched, whether at the end of a hike or during an extended session on a porch.

1) Colorado Kolsch - Steamworks Brewing
This is refreshment defined in a craft beer. The easy-as-water body has both a satisfying fullness and crisp finish that features enough hops to register a bite without any feeling of citrus or pine. It will leave you both sated and satisfied.

2) Mama's Little Yella Pils - Oskar Blues
This is the rare pilsner that uses hops as a primary flavoring ingredient rather than as an afterthought. Yet they do not get in the way nor feel out of place. It's a smooth body with a gutsy finish, producing a lighter beer that just feels more purposeful than many other pilsners on the market.

3) Mexican Lager - Lone Tree Brewing
Too often, an overload of malts can make these traditional lagers feel awkward and heavy. But this is a beer that uses its ingredients judiciously, creating a flavor that is simple, subtly sweet and sharp enough at the finish to leave an impression. You've earned this after mowing a lawn, but you don't have to be hot and sweaty to appreciate its character.

4) 8 Second Kolsch - Elevation Beer Co.
Like Colorado Kolsch, this is refreshing first and foremost. But it has a big presence in your mouth, a combination of a smooth body with a little more hop crispness than one might expect. It's a unique melding that results in a beer that feels breezy but bites you here and there until you realize just how much you are enjoying it.

5) M.E.H. Cream Ale- Brewery Rickoli
This Wheat Ridge brewery, which caught the eye of Boston Beer early in its development, specializes more in boozy, complex ales than simple ones. But its cream ale is an undervalued secret of the local brewing scene, offering a terribly smooth and yet tasty body notable for its balance of malts that leaves it sippable but not overly sweet. And it's gluten-free, as a bonus.

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Saturday, May 05, 2018

Cerveceria Colorado Will Change the Way You Look at Mexican Beer

Those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s came to think of Mexican beer as watery amber lager at best. At worst, it was a urine-colored liquid that you jammed a lime into just to get past the skunk and make it palatable.

So, it's natural that eyebrows should raise with today's opening of Ceveceria Colorado, a Denver Beer Co. project that celebrates the cultures and flavors of Mexico across an opening-day lineup of eight beers. But you need to remove from your predispositions any concept of what you think Mexican beer is, because what has been created here is an explosion of flavors that is unlike anything you'll find in Mexican beers that export to the United States.

Roasted limes, pineapple, even churro add to base beers that are both native to Mexico and nowhere to be found in our neighbor to the south. In some ways, the offerings are more experimental and more satisfying than even the portfolio of beers found at Denver Beer.

"Some beers like this exist, for sure. But a lot of the craft breweries down there ... have pretty standard beer styles. They have an ale and a porter," said Jason Buehler, the head brewer at Denver Beer who has spent significant time brewing with Mexican craft purveyors. "This is a totally separate identity. It's a great space. It's a great place. And the beers are fun."

Buehler got introduced to Mexican brewing a few years ago when he was one of just two Americans that got to judge a craft beer festival in the country. Through the connections he made there, he began to travel more to the country, working with breweries to improve their beer but also soaking in the flavors that hadn't crossed the border and understanding the breadth of tastes that local Mexican breweries have to work with.

Denver Beer, meanwhile, had a barrel room next door to its main Platte Street location that too often went unused. It considered opening a sour brewery or a German brewery but decided that those concepts had been done and that it wanted to introduce something totally unique - "American-style craft beers with Mexican inspirations," co-owner Patrick Crawford said.

Cerveceria Colorado's menu does feature a traditional Mexican lager, Venga, and it's the most boring offering on the menu, reminiscent of Tecate but without that lingering off-taste that makes you feel the beer went too long without being refrigerated. Buehler and co-owners Crawford and Charlie Berger think it will be the brewery's signature beer, but you're honestly better off skipping it.

Instead, go directly to the Cocolimón, a kettle sour made with roasted limes in collaboration with Cerveceria de Colima in the Mexican city of Colima. It's the roast that makes this beer stand out from any sour beer you've ever tasted, giving it a fresh, cooked base and making the lime less acidic than it is omnipresent, creating a unique taste that transports you elsewhere in your mind.

The Churro Stout is another winner — a beer that came about only after Buehler drove around the Denver area with his son one day trying to find the tastiest churro. What he developed — a milk stout with those winning churros thrown into the mash — is big on lactose and background cinnamon and so smooth and sweet that it has a slight complexity that's not present in many other sweet stouts.

Then there's Señor Piña, a blonde ale fermented with pineapples and dry-hopped with Mosaic hops. It's fruity without being cloying, subtle in its hopping and an altogether very drinkable experience.

The menu is filled with other treats, from a light but tasty poblano pilsner to a chocolate pale ale that feels naturally blended rather than some sort of gimmick. Around every turn, Cerveceria Colorado is willing to throw something new at you and demonstrate it knows what it's doing.

Berger acknowledges that this isn't the beer most Mexicans are drinking. But he thinks the melange of flavors would give them pride in what they taste. And it should rightfully please all the non-Mexican Denverites who want to stop in and learn just how fully realized a cultural effort this is.

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Friday, April 27, 2018

Something Old and Yet New from a Colorado Craft Brewing Veteran

Over its 24-year history, Left Hand Brewing has never been one to follow trends. It took until 2016 for the Longmont brewery to roll out its first year-round American-style IPA, for example. And while everyone else was testing the limits of hops or bacteria in their beer in the early 2010s, Eric Wallace and crew were pushing the limits on smoothness by getting nitrogenated milk stout into a bottle.

So, it should shock few people that Left Hand's two newest year-round offerings are throwback styles - a porter and a golden ale - but with the brewery's classic twists. What is a bit more surprising is that while one of the new offerings really nails its unique place in the Colorado beer world, the other seems a bit lost and looking for a defined personality.

Death Before Disco Porter and Juicy Goodness Dry-Hopped Golden Ale are appropriately drinkable beers as we get ready to enter the summer months. The porter carries with it just a 6 percent ABV hit, while Juicy Goodness registers at 5.5 percent ABV and only 29 IBUs. Both are appropriate for an afternoon backyard barbecue.

Brandishing five different malts, Death Before Disco blends them perfectly and creates a rich, slightly roasty body with a hint of chocolate. But what jumps out is its strong background hits of dark berry - really, it has an air of cherry - that give it complexity without making it feel like a fruit beer. That all combines into an excessively easy body, in a good way.

It is, to put it simply, a more interesting porter than most of what is out on the market. It's accessible and slightly sweeter, but not in an kind of unnatural way. And the hints of dark fruit that permeate it make you want to swirl it around on your tongue to get the full range of kilned and bright flavors, permeated with a slight hint of coffee and hop bitterness. It's a fascinating beer for something that can fairly be described as hum-drumly as a classic porter.

Juicy Goodness also seems to be reaching to be something more than just a golden ale or a lighter-bodied offering with a significant hop influence. And while it doesn't taste like anything that Left Hand has produced before, it also doesn't feel like it ultimately knows what it wants to be.

The Mosaic hops used in the dry-hopping don't lend their usual tropical flavoring here so much as a Pixie-Stick-like burst of sweetness that is offset by a slightly acidic overtone. While there is a somewhat subdued hop presence upfront, there is a lasting bitterness that goes along with it. And you're left with a surprisingly aggressive bite for a light-bodied beer, and a strange combination that doesn't fit easily into any flavor profile.

Brewing outside the box certainly is not a bad thing, and Left Hand has done it well over and over again, taking a classic style and putting a twist onto it to make it more interesting - like, say, adding lactose to a nitro stout. But while that unique dark-fruit overtone that takes Death Before Disco and turns it into a beer for people who want originality in porters works exceedingly well, the dry-hopping of a lighter style feels slightly odd in Juicy Goodness, making you want something more classical and less daring there.

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