Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Best Beers of Summer 2015

Breweries continue to up their games when it comes to refreshing summer beers. It's not that they are raising the hops or the ABV counts like the general trends of three to four years would seem to dictate. But they are upping the flavor while keeping the bodies relatively light and manageable and the alcohol at a largely acceptable post-hiking or -lawnmowing level.

That said, with summer now more than two-thirds gone, here are the beers that truly stood out in the outdoor season of 2015.

Ska Estival Cream Stout
This is a dark and frothy beer that genuinely shocks you on your first taste. Instead of huge malt, you get a stout akin to a creamsicle, brewed with orange blossom honey and aged on sweet orange peels. The citrus fruit notes are loud and sweet, and the cream adds a beautiful underlying texture. You'll go to the brewery or beer bar thinking you'll have one, and you'll end up drinking it all night.

Ratio Beerworks New Wave
Berliner weisses are hip now. But by adding a strawberry taste, Ratio amped up both the uniqueness and the refreshing quality of the style, balancing tartness with a sweetness that makes you want more. And it comes in at less than 4% ABV, making it almost dangerously perfect for hot weather.

Mountain Sun Jah Mon Ginger
Those who don't like the taste of ginger in their beer are advised to stay away. But for those who do, this wheat beer brings out a freshness and fullness in the spice that is hard to find in any Colorado beer not made by Left Hand Brewing. It jolts your taste buds but handles them smoothly.

Strange Watermelon Hefe

Few fruit beers are as fruit forward as this one. But there is also a natural quality that seemed to increase this year in Strange Craft Beer's seasonal that made it feel more like a natural recipe about which few people had thought rather than some far-fetched experiment. And, as you see at the top, it's a beer good enough for babies to stare it down, which may be the ultimate compliment in the craft beer world.

Upslope Thai Style White IPA
IPAs are good anytime. But what makes this one so appropriate for the summer is the sharp but strangely cooling Thai spices that take your attention away from the reasonably sized body to the flavors within. Destined to become a summer classic.

Flying Dog Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale
The oddest combination of the summer - and one you only can get in the mid-Atlantic, unfortunately - takes the classic Maryland crab spice and churns its flavor into an appealing cinnamon-like addition to a light-bodied beer. Brilliant, and a reminder of growing up to all of us who moved west.

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Saturday, August 22, 2015

A New Draw in the South Suburbs

Dave Miera, a carpenter and framer by trade, built the bars at Caution Brewing, Kokopelli Beer Co. and Stapleton Tap House. And then he decided to build his own brewery.

Boggy Draw Brewery opened last month in Sheridan, adding to the growing number of craft breweries dotting the south metro area. And early returns indicate that it's going to be a welcome addition to the Denver scene, with one beer seeming ready to shine as a unique standout.

That beer is Gangsta of Love, the brewery's cream ale aged in gin barrels. Pairing the sharp juniper taste with the lightly hopped and medium-bodied beer manages to create a flavor of its own, as notes of vanilla and caramel jump forward and combine with pin-pricks of gin taste to rev the beer up without making it overwhelming.

Boggy Draw - named after Miera's favorite hunting spot and festooned with deer heads and cow hides - has a couple of other gems ups its camouflaged sleeve as well. The Ese Bueno ESB is an Americanized and especially hoppy version of the style. The Lemondrop Pale Ale, a smash beer, is sharp with a citrus burst. And the Hefeweizen offers immediate hints of banana and bubble gum and is kicky and hopped enough to leave an impression.

Some of the offerings, like the Elk Mane Dark Wheat and the Boggy Bastard Southern Brown, are refreshing and pleasing, if not complex. A few - particularly the American Wheat and Belgian Pale - are quite light-bodied for their styles, coming and going without offending you but without creating anything to remember either.

It's amazing to think that, just four years ago, Denver's south suburbs largely were without breweries that were not connected to national brewpub chains. Now just about every suburb, including the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Sheridan, has their own. Some, like Lone Tree Brewing, are doing amazing things, while others are slower to catch up to the general quality level of the Front Range.

Boggy Draw begins its existence with a complement of quality beers and a few you'd want to drink over and over. And it really does give one more incentive for the Denver beer drinker to take a field trip to see what is happening to the south.

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Sunday, August 02, 2015

4 Things I Learned from Sesh Fest 2015

The prematurely tapped kegs and long lines that marred last year's otherwise noble first-time celebration of lower-alcohol beers were gone at Saturday's sequel event, as were a couple of the experimental brewers who created both good and bad buzz for their vanishing beers.

But a number of other breweries stepped up their games and brought creations that many people at the sold-out event were discussing. In fact, it was interesting to talk to a people throughout the day and hear many of them recommending the same handful of hop artists over and over.

That said, here are some of the biggest takeaways from Sesh Fest 2015, as brought to the beer world by Imbibe and the Colorado Brewers Guild

1) Baere Brewing is Killing It
Had the year-old Denver brewery brought only its Raspberry Table Sour, it would be remembered for creating a perfectly pitched and tart offering that was the beer of the festival. But it also offered up several versions of its Baere-Liner Weisse - including a Cascade-dry-hopped offshoot that was very sharp and well-defined by its subtle but effective hops - that left you wanting to head straight from Sculpture Park to its tasting room to see what more it's doing.

2) Two New Kids are Very Worth Watching
Neither Spangalang Brewery nor Call to Arms Brewing were operational when the first day of Spring rolled around. By the time Fall kicks off, they are likely to be on everyone's minds - and their offerings at Sesh Fest showed why.

Spangalang served up a dry-hopped Brett saison alive with grape taste, as well as a Citra-dry-hopped lemon wheat beer that just popped on your taste buds. Meanwhile, Call to Arms showed off its Clintonian Pale Ale that may have been the only full-bodied hoppy beer on display Saturday (more on that trend in just a bit).

3) Low-ABV Sour Beers are Here to Stay ...
Last year, they were one of the trends of the festival, as brewers dabbled in naturally sessionable goses and Berliner weisses. This year, attendees saw even more classical Belgian- and American-style sours just made more lightly in booze, and everyone seemed to put them near the tops of their must-drink lists.

Odd 13 Brewing, for example, served a Vincent Van Couch American-style sour that weighed in only at 4.6% ABV but burst with lemon and melon flavors. And New Belgium offered a Hop Tart hopped-up sour that felt a little like a poor man's version of its bigger-bodied, bold La Terroir but still jumped out on this day. Beer lovers should probably expect more of these experiments.

4) ... But it's time to end the "Session IPA" fad
More and more breweries seem to be tapping their own offerings of this style. But it was clear at Sesh Fest that these watered-down versions of what normally are intriguingly-hopped beers were the least interesting iteration of the session movement.

The Brew on Broadway, for example, offered up what it called a dry-hopped blonde that was distinctly lacking in hops. And Sanitas Brewing, which normally serves head-turners, poured a "session pale ale" that was nothing more than a malt-heavy, hop-deficient amber ale trying to jump on the bandwagon.

American craft brewers have done incredible things with hops over the past decade that no other brewing culture has managed. Note all the ways they are bringing life to other styles above by dry-hopping them, for example.

Of anyone, then, they should be the first ones to recognize that beers relying on hops for their primary flavoring should not be half-assed and should be backed with an ample malt backbone that is going to drive up ABVs. And they should find other ways to bring creativity and taste to session beers, as some Colorado brewers are showing that they can.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

GABF + Paired = TLF

As you are queuing up Wednesday to buy your GABF tickets, a thought will run through your head: Should I spend the extra money to get tickets to the Paired event as well?

The short answer: If you are thinking about it, you absolutely should.

In my 15th year of attending the Great American Beer Festival last year, I finally went to what then was called the farm-to-table session. It was an eye-opener.

The joy of craft beer is often heightened by a good food pairing. But what is cooked up in the back room of the festival is beyond good.

There chefs and breweries work together to demonstrate why a sour beer can compliment a briny oyster so well. Or they show what barrel-aged beer can add to a fine sausage.

This is not haphazard matchmaking, like some poorly engineered website. This is gurus like Vail Big Beers brain Laura Lodge putting together cross-country restaurants and master breweries who will work together to find just the right taste - and then dare you to compare it to others in the room.

Paired is growing this year from 14 to 21 brewery-chef pairings, and it's clear that they know interest from the beer crowd is growing too.

The lone downside to purchasing this add-on is that being in the Paired section will consume much of your time at that evening's session. Where once you flitted around the great hall of the Colorado Convention Center comparing notes about hundreds of breweries' offerings with your friends, you now will debate with a smaller crowd whether a double IPA pairs better with Beef Wellington or with chipotle shrimp. (Spoiler alert: It's the latter.)

But going even once can be a perspective-altering experience to let you truly feast on the best marriages of food and beer. So, if you're kicking around the buy, do it. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Five Things I Learned from Burning Can and the Great Divide 21st Birthday

Two of Colorado's finest breweries, Oskar Blues and Great Divide, held big parties over the past three weeks. In addition to the obvious resounding message - loads of craft beer + spring day = good time - there was much to be gleaned from the celebration of canned craft beer as well as the celebration of Great Divide turning old enough to legally imbibe its own products.

1) It's time for "dark sour" to become a more common beer description
Great Divide busted out a host of one-offs and experiments for its anniversary party, but none stood out like its Prince of Tartness, a black sour ale brewed with 25 malts that offered a spectacular complexity of dark body and a real puckery kick. A number of other breweries have broken out the style on special occasions recently, most notably Former Future Brewing. Someone - such as Great Divide - needs to make this a full-time part of its repertoire.

2) The American IPA may be getting cleaner and better
About five years ago, when every brewery toyed with a double IPA and a few too many tried to push the hop palate with triples, there was concern that "mouth-blistering" might become the de facto description of American pale beers. But a number of breweries who celebrated the hop at Burning Can showed that toning down the IBUs has ramped up the quality of the style.

Austin Beerworks' Fire Eagle IPA, for example, presented a big grassy taste without being overly bitter. City Star Brewing of Berthoud offered up an All-American IPA dry-hopped with citra that added a bit of mustiness to its crisp taste. And La Cumbre of New Mexico brought a sharp and fully bitter IPA that isn't for the feint of palate but shows off great attributes of the style.

3) The hoppy wheat ale is here to stay. Deal with it.
Great Divide used its celebration to showcase, among other beers, its Whitewater Hoppy Wheat Ale, a version of the burgeoning style that kicks up the hop level to new heights. At first the idea of smooth summer drinking and an assertive hop bite seemed to be a conflict of interest. But beers like this show it can be pulled off expertly, even if people looking for a straight-up wheat might feel a little blindsided by the taste.

4) It's time for Oskar Blues to can Death by Coconut
For being one of America's largest craft breweries, Oskar Blues' year-round offering of six beers, plus two seasonals, is smaller than many competitors' varieties. It first came up with its collaboration coconut porter, made with Shamrock Brewing of Pueblo, in 2014, and the smooth, sweet and big taste has generated a lot of talk at most festivals where it's been on display, including Burning Can. This would be a great lineup to its portfolio.

5) There are different ways to deal with big crowds.
The lines at Burning Can were shockingly small, likely because festival goers had so many different things to do. In addition to all of the outdoor sports on display in Lyons (admittedly not a feature of most space-starved festivals), there was a great tasting booth (above) in the middle of the field that allowed attendees to duck away, sample beers and decide the festival's honorees blindly.

Great Divide's lines (below) were quite long, and even owner Brian Dunn acknowledged he had to do something about them when I ran into him. But pourers did something very smart - they doled up 8- to 10-oz. samples of even their rarer offerings, so that drinkers could have a full pour to enjoy while they settled down for what then didn't seem like such a long wait. Other festivals with crowd issues would be wise to consider such impromptu measures in the future.

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Friday, May 29, 2015

Burning Can: A Different Kind of Beer Festival

The idea behind most beer festivals is simple. Get a whole bunch of breweries together. Maybe create a theme for their beers. Put them all together in a field or in a hall. And if you want to come up with some peripheral booths or contests, great. The idea usually works.

But on Saturday, the town of Lyons will host what is arguably the state's premier beer festival at which the beer (or a beer/food pairing) is not soaking up 95 percent of the attention. Yes, there will be more than 60 craft breweries pouring more than 200 types of canned beer at Oskar Blues' fourth annual Burning Can. But there will be so much more as well.

Held as part of the Lyons Outdoor Games, attendees will be able to watch kayaking and boater cross and can, if they want, round up a team to participate in a morning Beer Relay that will test participants' ability to run a team 5K run while receiving extra points for drinking a beer. There will be dirt-bike jumping, slackline acrobatics, a concert by New Orleans' The Revivalists and camping so that people can fully immerse themselves in the outdoor experience.

Oh, and did I mention beer? With 510 craft breweries now canning about 2,000 different beers nationwide, canning pioneers Oskar Blues get more inquiries about being a part of their event each year and have added about 12 breweries each annum to the lineup. Those include beer makers whose products aren't available otherwise in Colorado, such as Sun King Brewery of Indiana and La Cumbre Brewing of New Mexico. And it also includes breweries that may be canning just for this event on Oskar Blues' special "Crowler" system, ranging from City Star Brewing to Left Hand.

Oskar Blues marketing guru Chad Melis believes the event serves as a sort of big-tent revival to allow Colorado's second-largest craft brewery to preach about the advantages of cans, from their environmental benefits to the way they protect beer better from oxygen and light. But for a company that chose the location of its second brewery (in Brevard, North Carolina) based in large part on its proximity to killer mountain-biking, it also serves as a chance to proselytize on the seamless inclusion of craft beer in any outdoor lifestyle.

"There's a full top-to-bottom outdoor experience there," Melis said. "To be able to pack in a full day of outdoor activity, to be able to try beers from across the country that you can't get, and then to top it off with a full concert, I don't think there are a lot of events like that. We really want to make it a destination festival."

And while the $45 event won't lack for attendees, the 4 to 7 p.m. beer-tasting portion of the day also isn't sold out yet.

Burning Can may not be everyone's cup of tea. Not every beer drinker has to feel like they're sipping at the X Games to enhance their experience. But it's one of the more unique events on the beer circuit in Colorado and may, for that reason alone, be worth the trip this weekend.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Behold the Future of Rock-Star Craft Breweries

Walking through the new Avery Brewing facility in Boulder County, one feels like they are not in a manufacturing plant so much as in a museum.

That's not to say the $28 million facility is stuffy. Rather, everything from the 30-beer tap list to the casual-but-gourmet restaurant to the gift shop that is the size of the bar in Avery's previous brewing facility just shouts that you're in the presence of a legend instead of some ordinary beer maker.

But what may seem daring or even ostentatious to people who spent considerable time in the cramped back-alley Boulder location that housed Avery for two decades may not even be eye-popping for much longer. Next month, Breckenridge Brewery opens its new brewery on a 12-acre complex in Littleton that will include farm area and an event space. And next year, Great Divide will bust down the doors on a $38 million facility in Denver's River North neighborhood that will include fewer amenities than the aforementioned two locations but will have incredible creekside views and production space.

This trend, then, toward more expansive, customer-friendly brewing facilities seems less like a novelty than a near necessity for breweries that have reached the upper echelon of craft-beer stardom nationally, both in terms of production and critical praise. Call it the "Stoning" of the craft-beer industry — Stone Brewing, after all, kicked off this trend with a bistro and gardens area that is one of the most visited locations in San Diego County — but it really shows where the industry stands.

Breweries no longer are simple factories to produce the suds that salve the working class, as they were in their first hey-day in the late 19th century. They are now tourist magnets, drawing in both the day-trippers bouncing between a couple of beer purveyors and out-of-state visitors who are viewing Colorado as a place for a full-on beer-themed vacation and want to stop at the most famous of hop temples.

And under that notion, Avery — we were talking about that, weren't we? — is quite a special stopping ground. Four years in the planning, the 5.6-acre campus that opened in February includes a massive taproom, a pork-themed restaurant, space for tours through the brewery and enough patio area to make it the perfect stop for a spring day.

The tap list includes everything you can buy in the stores, as well as rare beers that are limited or completely unavailable outside the brewery. While there last month, I eschewed the Maharaja for gems like Bad Karma, their Belgian ale re-fermented with Brett and aged in neutral barrels, and Antonius' Carmen, an unbelievably smooth dark sour ale aged in Madeira barrels.

And if you get a chance to take the tour, it makes you appreciate the craftsmanship and nuances at hand even more. Guide Walter Becker (pictured above) analogized the amount of hops Avery uses in its IPAs to the band Rush ("You either love them or you hate them") and noted that the Germans who sold the brewery its hop-dosing vessels thought no brewery could need equipment that large.

If you haven't been up to the new Avery home yet, get up there when you can. But don't stop there. Pretty soon the state's best-known craft breweries all will have evolved from bars to experiences. And all of us will benefit.

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