Friday, August 08, 2014

Chain Reaction Puts a Spark into Denver Brewing Scene

One of the common refrains in conversations between area beer writers goes like this: There are some good breweries opening along the Front Range this year, but not that one great brewery that has stood out as in years past.

Chain Reaction Brewing isn't that towering standout yet. But the month-and-a-half-old brewery in southwest Denver is showing some signs that it has the potential to be the next big thing.

The first thing you notice about the effort from homebrewing cousins Zack and Chad Christofferson is the pure number of beers on tap for a start-up. There are six flagship beers, four seasonals on at all times and six more open taps for whatever experiments the guys want to unleash on the public.

The next thing that catches your eye is the overwhelming presence of beetle-killed wood throughout the brewery at 902 S. Lipan St. It's in the boxes holding your flights, it's in the bar, it's even in a giant Colorado flag on one wall that is made completely out of the wood. It's cool.

Zack and Chad do what they are supposed to do with the high number of taps — they reserve some for the more standard beers and leave others for slight or sometimes wild experimentation; these, after all, are brewers who already have served styles such as a Cilantro Serrano Lime Wheat and a Watermelon Ginger Hefeweizen. And the impressive thing is that both the normal and cutting-edge efforts work very well.

On the more standard side, the Pale Ale is a standout. Made with belma hops, which bring a character of honeydew and melon, it presents a slight bit more bitterly than is typical for the style but then settles in with a sweetness that will leave you remembering it.

The IPA is bitter, but in a way that spreads the bite throughout your mouth and leaves it taste-laden without being overwhelming. The Porter has a good chocolate punch without being cloying. And the Orange Cream is simply a nice beer - not overwhelming in the orange attributes but perfectly pleasant as a summer sipper.

On the more experimental side, the big winner is the Pink Peppercorn Saison, a beer that supplies the perfect amount of sweetness with just a hint of pepper to balance it. The Belgian Rye Stout cuts a very fine malty, sharp blend on the back of the tongue and will be a wonderful winter warmer. And the Lemon IPA, while decidedly bitter from its single-hopping with sorachi ace hops, does not lack for ambition.

Chain Reaction is still going through some growing pains, mind you. On a recent weeknight, three separate tasters — the seasonal/experimental Blonde, Pale Wheat and Chai Wit beers — all had a plastic residue taste, one that Zack apologetically attributed to the lines. And the Red Ale, a flagship beer, felt like an unchallenging version of the style ripped from the late 1990s.

But between the variety of offerings, the experimental touch and the clever hopping, Chain Reaction stands out as a place that is going to take chances and, clearly, is going to succeed a lot. And that makes it an exciting brewery to watch as it grows.

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Monday, August 04, 2014

Five Things I Learned From Sesh Fest

Saturday's event, hosted at Sculpture Park by Imbibe Denver and Colorado Brewers Guild, was a time of experimentation, both for better and for worse. Here are a few lessons drunken in from it:

1) Sour + Session Beers = Powerfully Good
It could be said that the most talked-about beers at just about any festival are the sour experiments, but that was especially true this weekend - and specifically because everything had such a big taste and ran in at less than 5% ABV. Fate's tart but refreshing Uror Gose and Great Divide's eminently drinkable Berliner Weisse were just a couple of examples of what you could do with subtle tartness without tearing apart your taste buds or leaving you with a hangover from trying too much.

But the big winner of the sour experiments was ...

2) Trinity Brewing Scored Again
Hands down the best beer of the festival was the Colorado Springs brewery's Super Juice Solution, a sour session IPA that mingled the sharp orange/grapefruit tart flavors with an earthy hop in a way that married the seemingly disparate tastes very well. I enjoyed it so much I had to stop by Stapleton Taphouse the next day to get a full pour, and I'm still impressed at how the flavors blended so artfully and also were measured enough that they meshed together rather than seemed to compete for being the loudest taste in your mouth.

3) The "Session IPA" Remains a Work in Progress
Before the festival, Ska's Dave Thibodeau made the case that low-alcohol IPA was a legitimate style rather than just a watered-down version of America's most popular beer, and it was easy to find examples that both proved and disproved his theory. But for every "hopped lager" that seemed to offered only a hint of grass or citrus over a light biscuit body, there also were beers like Black Bottle's Doby Session IPA and Upslope's Session IPA, which offered big squirts of hop juice in a light body and made you think there is hope for this style yet.

4) The Uber-Tasty Low-Alcohol Malt Bomb is a Thing of the Past ...
... Or maybe all of the other high-alcohol specialty festivals have ruined all of our taste buds. But efforts to find the next Guinness in the crowd were not met with success. Red ales were dull, dry stouts were more dry than stout and when another member of the Fearless Tasting Crew suggested that a dark mild I was drinking would be much more appealing if I paired it with fried chicken, I really felt someone was stretching it. Aside from TRVE's American ESB, a dusty beer with a charming bitter backbite of hops, the beers most likely to pass for traditional English session beers didn't jump out.

5) Bring Enough Beer For Everyone.
This can not be emphasized enough. Crooked Stave ran out of beer in less than an hour. One entire side of the festival was tapped just over two hours into the four-hour event. With 40 minutes left, there were all of three breweries still serving beer (see picture below). When you're the Great American Beer Festival and 75 of your 700 breweries are out of beer by the end of one session, you'll be forgiven; when 90 percent of your breweries are tapped with an hour left, it leads to a heck of a lot of grumbling in the crowd.

In a rush to judgment - one that I've been called on - I assumed that this was the fault of the organizers, especially when a fellow beer writer told me a similar beer drought occurred at the Collaboration Fest also sponsored by CBG and Imbibe earlier this year. But one of the organizers scolded me and pointed the finger at brewers, saying very few brought enough beer. And one brewer that I ran into simply shrugged and said his whole side of the event got slammed with people in a hurry. So, without placing blame on anyone, I'd just ask that everyone involved learn something from this and fix the problem so that the murmurs that cascaded through the hard-core beer drinkers Saturday don't grow into cries that could endanger any future festivals - especially ones like these that showcase a creative side for breweries who otherwise might be content with pouring their standards and calling it a day.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

Lowdown Too Low in Experimentation

Lowdown Brewery + Kitchen, which is just reaching six months of age, has everything a brewery seemingly could want. It's got a killer location, complete with patio at 800 Lincoln Street. It has a food menu chock full of locally raised produce. And it has two industry veterans at the helm of its beer program.

But then you taste the beer. And while the fair-sized menu is not low-brow, the offerings on it could might best be described as "lowest common denominator."

Of the nine beers the Fearless Tasting Crew had on a recent visit, none were awful. Many were brewed to style. But it was not until the very last tasting on the sampler tray — of the chocolaty and sweet Sherwood Porter — that you really felt any gusto, any creativity, any special attributes to the taste of the beer.

Over and over, we wished for more flavor. Sure, maybe you're not going to expect knock-your-socks-off mouthfeel from the Patio Pounding Pilz or the Whil Wheaton — to to that end, the two lighter-bodied beers didn't disappoint. But the sentiment of wishing for more continued throughout the menu.

The Lowdown IPA, for example has a full bitter taste, but without any particular citrus or grass characteristics —just bitterness. The Boxer India Red Ale has bitterness that's almost overshadowed by hops, but no sweetness or stand-out personality. The Belgian dubbel, Two Times a Lady, is light-bodied, lacking in both the candied sugar and esters you might expect. Eventually, you find yourself sipping, nodding and then just wishing that the brewers took more chances with their recipes.

Selfish — a pale ale with pilsner malt — gives a hint of what those chances might produce, as it introduces tastes of passion fruit and muted citrus but leaves your palate a little too quickly to be memorable. It's really just the robust porter, with hints of both chocolate and caramel, that makes you smile with appreciation. But then, unfortunately, you realize you've just run the entire menu.

There is no doubt that the former Rock Bottom brewers who opened Lowdown know what they're doing from a business perspective. One can just hope, though, that now that they are established, they can throw a few curve balls into an otherwise staid beer menu.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wait, a low-alcohol beer festival?

Session ales first started making their way into the beer-drinking lexicon a little less than four years ago, while I was doing the research for "Mountain Brew." I can remember Adam Avery saying that he was working on one because he was getting too old to drink 10% ABV beers all night. And Steve Jones commented that he was dedicating his Pateros Creek Brewing to lower-alcohol beers because, as a new father, he wanted something to drink and still be able to play with his son.

But even as more and more people came to espouse session beers, few probably thought the mini-trend would reach the peak it is scaling this weekend: A whole beer festival entirely devoted to beers less than 5% ABV. And that is why Sesh Fest, which kicks off at 3 p.m. Saturday at Sculpture Park in Denver, may just be the most interestingly odd yet appealing brewers' gathering of the summer.

More than two dozen Colorado breweries are committed to creating and pouring low-alcohol beer there - including auteurs like Epic, Great Divide and Oskar Blues, which are not breweries that you typically associate with the word "light." There will be saisons, stouts, pale ales and IPAs; there just won't be the opportunity to get accidentally drunk really quickly while enjoying a great variety of offerings. (And, yes, "accidentally drunk" is a term I use to describe what happens to even the most seasoned beer veterans at festivals with a great amount of options to which you can't say no.)

Steve Kurowski, marketing director for the Colorado Brewers Guild - which is throwing this party in conjunction with Imbibe Denver - said Sesh Fest was designed to be different in ways beyond just the lower-alcohol offerings. The ticket price is a comparatively low $20, the pours are coming in 6-oz. vessels and the restrictions on the ABV are a challenge to brewers to show what they can do.

"I think this as a category hasn't gotten enough exposure in the United States," Kurowski said. "I think it's time to showcase the finesse that brewers can bring to low-ABV beers with a lot of flavor."

One of the beer makers going all in is Ska Brewing, which is sponsoring the festival and using it as a platform to debut its session Rudie Session IPA - giving away cans of the new beer to the first 1,000 people who enter.

Ska co-founder Dave Thibodeau said he's not sure exactly why session beers have become so popular, but at his brewery it traces back to the creation of Mexican Logger some 10 years ago and the ability of people there to drink a lot of tasty beers without getting too hammered.

"For me personally, I like drinking beer most of the time I'm awake - so that's why I like them," Thibodeau said. "Maybe it's the afternoon, and I don't want to be smashed the whole day."

Rudie is the latest in the most discussion-generating of the session beer trend: The session IPA. Are they full-bodied, lower-alcohol IPAs or just watered-down versions of the style? The crew at Ska made it with a lot of El Dorado and Galaxy hops to give it a full, fruity, watermelon taste in a lower-ABV body. And after tweaking the recipe several times as one-off beers, they're ready to take it prime time.

It will be interesting to see how many other beers made for the festival become regulars in breweries' rotations. But then, much of that may depend on the reaction they get from the crowd on this newest and most surprisingly popular of beer styles. I can't wait.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Now Open: Joyride Brewing

It was a master work of timing that the first full weekend for Joyride Brewing - the Edgewater brewery that opened just one week ago - coincided with the Dragon Boat Festival across the street at Sloan's Lake. Neighborhood residents streamed in, kids occupied nearly every table and the community got the taste of its first brewery anyone can remember.

And that taste is an overall enjoyable one. Joyride, the creation of three homebrewers who decided to go pro, doesn't have any beer that will knock you back from the table. It does, however, have a couple of well-crafted efforts that will make you appreciate what more could be coming.

The best of those is the Antelope Amber, a surprisingly hoppy (50 IBU) addition to the style made with five premium malts and four types of American hops. It presents a good mix of pineapple sweetness with a malt base that absorbs the flavors rather than dominating them.

Also eye-catching is the Ice Cutter Kolsch, a technically proficient interpretation of the classical German style that offers a crisp hot bite. In the hot weather this weekend, this is as much as one could have requested to be thirst-quenching.

The more traditional hoppy styles - the Cougar Pale Ale and the 4.2 percent ABV Lil' Edge Pale Ale - both have a softly hopped feel that should welcome in the casual drinker but could let down hopheads in the crowd. And the Belgian Wit, a summer seasonal, was a let-down, offering a dull, unfiltered beer that seemed more like a cloudy hefeweizen.

But Joyride holds promise, and it holds a couple of great summer sippers already. That, combined with its excellent location on the corner of 25th and Sheridan, should make this a worthwhile stop for everyone wanting to explore the new craft brew tastes of the Denver area.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

4 Ways to Reward Your Palate and Destroy Your Liver This Weekend

There are good beer-drinking weekends, there are great beer-drinking weekends and there are those weekends when you're just faced with making painful choices. This weekend is one of the latter.

1) Colorado Brewers Rendezvous, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday
The 18th annual collection of 75 Colorado brewers squeezing into Salida's main city park and doling out some of their oddities is one of the best beer gatherings of the year. Tickets are just $40 and well worth it. If you don't have a hotel reserved by now, however, it would be wise to start begging friends for some space on their motel floors.

 2) Breckenridge Brewery 24th Anniversary Hootenanny, 11 a.m. Saturday
The word "hootenanny" is fun to write. But it's not as fun as seeing what Todd Usry and the rest of the Breck bunch pull out for their rare beer tasting as they close down Kalamath Street in front of their soon-to-be-former main brewery before they move to Littleton. (If we're lucky, they may haul out some of the Barleywine pictured above.) And if you haven't had the BBQ here before, that alone is worth the $30 ticket.

3) Freshcraft Rare Beer Tasting, 11 a.m. Saturday
You have to love a beer bar that gives everyone a reason to get up (relatively) early on Saturdays. This week, Denver's Freshcraft is busting out an Alaskan Brewing 25th Anniversary Stout that's been cellared for three years, as well as a 2008 Barley Wine from the same brewery. And Alaskan representatives will be there to help you savor the goodness.

4) Avery releases Black Eye, 11 a.m. Sunday
If the screaming hangover doesn't keep you in bed Sunday, head up to Boulder, where the Front Range's pre-eminent experimental beer auteurs bust out an imperial stout aged in rum barrels. Bottle sales don't begin until 1, which only gives you two hours to try a couple of these and decide if you want to invest more - assuming you're still standing.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Checking In: Grist Brewing

When Highlands Ranch's first brewery opened in November, Grist Brewing seemed to be more of a symbol of the growth of the state's beer-making industry than a brewery that deserved scrutiny on its own. Heck, if the most suburban of all Colorado suburbs could now be home to a local craft brewery, then it mattered less how its beer was and more how the crowd reacted to it, some thought.

But those amused purely by the spectacle of a Highlands Ranch brewery are missing out on what is an impressively developing brewery — and a brewery, for that matter, that does some of its best work in styles that few breweries can call their finest.

Take, for example, Grist's Transition State Kolsch, a 5.5 percent joy of a beer that is light without being cloying and presents a subtle but perceptible hop kick at the end. It's as close to a perfect drink-after-cutting-the-grass beer as you'll find.

Then there is the Romancing the Cobblestone Vienna Lager, a solid beer stocked with slightly roasted caramel malt that is smooth with just a hint of nuttiness and plenty of breadiness. Just launched a few days ago, this beer is worthy of a place on Grist's permanent roster.

Grist isn't all about lagers; in fact, those were the only two lagers on the brewery's tap list this weekend. But the fact that a new brewery can roll out two exciting and fresh lagers is a sign that it's got a lot more potential up its sleeve.

That potential can be seen already in several of Grist's current beers. The White Eddy White IPA, for example, offers higher IBUs — 62 — than anything else on the menu, and a complex, almost barrel-must taste that layers woodiness on top of bitterness (even though it's not barrel-aged). And the Berliner Weisse combines a good burst of tart with an underlying and surprising sweetness.

Mind you, Grist still has its weaknesses, namely in its Belgian line of beers. The She Devil Saison and Ground Rule Tripel both have such sweet profiles that cotton candy seems to be the dominant taste. And the Niobrara Stout is a little sooty and a little too light in body to leave an impression.

But in a space where you may see kids playing and after-work crowds filling up bring-home growlers, Grist reminds us you can not only bring beer to the suburbs but make the beer impressively enough that it's worth driving down from the city in order to try it.

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