Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Special Denver Brewery is Helping Some Special Folks

There are a lot of things that stand out about the nearly one-year-old Brewability Lab in Denver, from its color-coded ordering system to its beaker glasses to the fact that it serves its coffee porter with a rim of Nutella.

But most unique of all about the brewery owned by Tiffany Fixter is who works there — special-needs Coloradans, from those with developmental disabilities to those with autism to those who can't hear or see. Every employee except for the head brewer has a special need of some sort, making Brewability Lab the only beer maker in America with this kind of focus.

Working with these adults who have a hard time finding meaningful employment elsewhere isn't new to Fixter. She spent 10 years teaching special education and a year as the director of a day program for adults with special needs, before she was fired for what her boss called a lack of creativity.

As her "screw-you project" for that odious professional assessment, she launched one of the more creative ventures attempted in a craft-brewing industry that is defined by its adventurous spirit. Despite having no brewing experience, she moved into the turnkey operation left behind when Caution Brewing left its original East Denver space for Lakewood, brought in a seasoned brewer in Tanner Schneller and went to work setting a space of inclusivity where those with and without special needs can sit and enjoy a beer together.

Some weekends, the industrial space just south of Interstate 70 is jumping; on weekdays in particular, it can be empty. But Fixter is succeeding enough where she is thinking about franchising the concept after receiving inquiries from people in some 30 other states wanting to launch a similar brewery.

Her beer selection is limited and it is color-coded, so that people can simply point to the beer they want on the menu or say the color associated with the beer, and beertenders who may not speak or be able to read can get it. If you get the right staffer, you're likely to be talked up or given a tour too. (See this video I made with the Denver Business Journal videographer to meet one of those folks.)

And while the gluten-reduced beer won't be mistaken for some of Colorado's most complex offerings, the truth is, it's drinkable and it's well-made. A Strawberry Blonde made with 100 pounds of frozen strawberries has just enough of a bitter kick to give it an edge. The Pale Ale has a lemony citrus feel to its body. And the Coffee Porter is sweet and chocolaty and filling, even if the Nutella rim that Fixter includes on the glasses feels a bit gimmicky.

Brewability Lab is a bit out of the way from other breweries. But to see the friendly atmosphere and unique business model that Fixter has created, it is worth a drive.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

The Fruited IPA: Can We Just Kill This Trend?

Debate continues to rage after some two years on whether the New England IPA, a hazier take on the style with more citrus and tropical fruit overtones and less bitter bite, is inspired flavor or just laziness. But whether you like this slight variation on America's favorite craft-beer style or not, this discussion serves only to distract from a far more virulent strain of experimentation infecting the IPA.

For two summers, craft beerdom has been inundated with India pale ales inexplicably brewed with additives of fruit that sometimes are subtle and sometimes are really not. And it's time for the drinking public to stand up and say they want their hoppy beers to taste like pine and flowers and occasionally grapefruit but certainly not like a watered-down tangerine or pie-baking experiment gone awry.

These fruited IPAs may be considered gateways to the more acerbic, classically American version of the bitter beer, but in almost every instance they bastardize the heart of the beers that they are riffing on, and not to positive effect. And what you get, in many instances, is a strange knock-off of far better beers that should be left alone to define a brewery.

Example A of this is Weldwerks' Fruity Bits Strawberry Shortcake (right), a New England-style IPA made with strawberry. The brewery's Juicy Bits is Colorado's standard bearer for the hazy IPA, bursting to life with both the sweet and bitter sides of citrus fruit; when it's double-dry-hopped, it becomes simply one of the best beers in the state. But when ingredients as clashing with bitterness as strawberry and vanilla beans are introduced to the beer, it becomes an out-of-place, training-wheels IPA in which the hops become such an afterthought that is seems stylistically misplaced.

Avery's Real Peel IPA, made with tangerine peel, strikes a similar discordant note. Here is one of the chief hop purveyors in the state mixing in one of the most subtle citrus fruits on the planet to the effect that both the hops and the fruit get lost in the blend. Coming from the same brewery that will blow your taste buds out and make you smile with its Maharaja Imperial IPA, there is a disconnect.

New Belgium's range of fruit-accented beers tell a similar story. Its Citradelic tangerine IPA is aloof in both its fruit and hop tastes, and the medium-bodied beer seems unsure of what it wants to be. It sets the stage for its Juicy Mandarina IPA - a wheat IPA that isn't actually infused with fruit additives but leans so much toward fruit tastes in is hop profile that it too loses the flavor of said hops.

I mention these three breweries in particular because they literally are three of the best in Colorado that are taking these strange side roads when they have hit so many times over with full-flavored hop bombs and barrel-aged sours, and even with subtle delights like an Avery Joe's Pils or the sadly discontinued New Belgium Mothership Wit. They clearly know what they're doing.

Not all fruited IPAs miss the mark. Numerous breweries, for example, have used grapefruit to increase the bitterness of the style, appropriate as some hops can taste naturally like the fruit. Sam Adams livened up its Rebel IPA by adding in mango juice, giving it heightened tropical feel even as it did not tone down the natural grassiness of the hops. And Denver Beer scored a surprising victory this summer with its Maui Express Coconut IPA, using the coconut not to add a  particular island taste but to calm the hops just enough that you can feel a different element in what may be the closest thing to a summer IPA that the industry has developed.

But the fruited IPAs in general seem so hell-bent on yelling "Look at my creativity!" and trying to lure non-hop heads to the style that they become needless diversions in a genre of bitter beers that still has lots of room to grow without tossing in everything in a grocer's produce aisle. Let's recommit to the idea that IPAs are bitter, piny, earthy, flowery and sometimes naturally citrus-y without the need to introduce flavors that veer these offerings away from what has made the style great.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Are You the Beer Drinker of the Year?

It may seem like mid-summer still, but the Great American Beer Festival is just slightly more than three weeks away. And while you can hold off most decisions about which events you want to attend until the last minute, Wednesday is the final day to decide whether you have what it takes to be the Wynkoop Brewing Co. Beer Drinker of the Year.

Denver's oldest brewpub began bestowing the crown in 1999, dragging professional-level imbibers before a cadre of robed and wigged judges to test their knowledge of the brewing arts, as well as their ability to woo a panel while they were several beverages into the evening. What began as a stand-alone event morphed into an annual ritual during the week that the beer world comes to Denver, and today the contest stands out as one of the intellectual highlights of the week, forcing people to rationalize the habits their mothers-in-law criticize and show how important suds knowledge can be.

The 18th annual contest returns the night before GABF officially begins, Oct. 4, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Lower Downtown brewery. But Wynkoop is looking right now for contestants willing to take an entry quiz to see if they can make it into the three finalists, and the brewery co-founded by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper will pay for that trio's travel expenses to come to the Mile High City.

What does the contest mean? Bragging rights, first of all, as no one else is crowning a beer drinker of the year during the greatest beer week on the calendar. Also, being a part of tradition - and being a part of good fun that taxes your brain a little bit while it's busy roundhouse-kicking your liver. Oh, and did I mention that you get free beer for life at Wynkoop? Yes, seriously.

Sometimes the questions go to the history of brewing. Sometimes they tend toward the magical, such as past queries in which the contestants are asked to be beer whisperers. And sometimes they get to the very heart of contests, asking participants what they could use to bribe a judge the best.

Think this describes you? Sign up. And you still have seven other nights during Denver Beer Week to blow out your taste buds without having to remember whether you lager cold or hot.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Resolute Brewing Year One: "Exceeded All Expectations"

Five or six years ago, there might have been several obstacles that kept Resolute Brewing from succeeding fully. It planned to open in a strip mall in the suburbs. It was going to focus on German-style beers. It didn't make an IPA for its first nine months.

But this is a different beer world. And so when the Centennial brewery celebrated its one-year anniversary last month with 200 people lined up outside its door to get in for the party, it told a tale greater than just how well one brewery was doing. That event — along with, say, the fact that the brewery made 1,200 barrels in its first year after forecasting in its business plan that it would make 450 — spoke volumes about each brewery finding its own space in the growing Denver beer scene and contributing tastes that may have been unfathomable in the scene's younger days.

"For one year, we've exceeded all expectations," said Clifton Oertli, one of five partners at Resolute. "Honestly, the biggest concern we have right now is being able to keep up with growth."

If you haven't been to the brewery in the Denver Tech Center, you still might have found its
hefeweizen or its doppelbock at one of the 50 taps that pour Resolute from Summit County to Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. Or maybe you've stumbled on the greatest surprise the brewery has offered — an American-style light lager that is the house beer for 5280 Burger Bar in downtown Denver and allows you to enjoy its light body and legitimate malt backbone without tasting the rice, corn or other adjunct crap that have come to define the style.

But if you have made it down to the taproom, you'll find the heart of the idea that spawned plans for the brewery — dogs, families, people playing games out back. And WiFi that is accessible to everyone, especially folks who decide that it's easier to finish their work with a pint of American Blonde rather than going back to the office. These are the things the partners said they didn't see at many of the downtown breweries they'd frequented.

The story of Resolute goes back to Columbine High School, where four of the five founders went. When Oertli, an engineer by trade, wanted to launch the brewery, he dipped back into the community that had helped him become who he was. And when the original four partners decided that they needed a full-time brewer, they  found Zac Rissmiller, an Elk Mountain brewer who had gone to Columbine with one of their sisters.

The Columbine connection to the brewery for Rissmiller especially is more than just one of locality. He and partner Matt Davis were students there during the hideous attack in 1999 when 13 students died. Being a part of that has led to a close partnership between the brewery and Phoenix 999, an organization that helps people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Being there also influenced his decision to pick a career path allowing him to do something he truly wanted to do.

"It's the reason I do what I do for a living, because I'm never going to take life as a passive thing," Rissmiller (pictured at top with Oertli) said. "I have an engineering degree too. I don't need to make money. I need to be happy."

The crowds that now populate Resolute have been there since day one, and the brewery is getting used to them — and feeding off their energy to expand its line of beers. It busted out a session IPA this summer, and it celebrated its first birthday with a Belgian dark strong ale aged on peaches. More experimentation is coming.

Most of all, more beer is coming, and that's a good thing. Resolute is growing a well-deserved reputation as a brewery that won't blow you away with its complexity but will leave you satisfied. The fact that so many people have come to appreciate it is a testament to both the brewery and to Denver-area beer drinkers willing to reach outside of what once was their comfort zone.

"It doesn't matter what kind of accolades you get, it doesn't matter what kind of things are going on," Rissmiller said. "You've just got to make better beer."

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Checking in on ... Evergreen Brewery & Tap House

Nestled at the feet of several mountains, Evergreen is a reachable world-away-from-the-world stop for Denverites, a place where one can lose themselves in a solitary hike for a few hours before facing the gauntlet of Interstate 70 again. But up until just the past few years, it was a place where folks had to do this without that one gem of city life they desired to transplant with them — a local brewery.

The 10,000-person hamlet now has three places that make their own brand of Evergreen-inspired beer. And for the outdoorsman with a thirst, particularly those hiking or biking at Elk Meadows Park, an oasis in the form of Evergreen Brewery and Tap House offers the kinds of refreshing ales and mountain views that are preferred — nay, necessary — to cap a perfect day in nature.

Now two years old, the brewery and kitchen consistently offers five or six of its own creations, plus an equal or greater number of visiting taps, including one typically small-batch sour that it lovingly refers to as its Microbe of the Week. Sandwiches are stacked with meat, and the five-item kids' menu adds to the family-friendly air of the completely enclosed porch with views of Snyder Mountain.

But to be sure, the main reason to stop here is the Ginger Cream, an exorbitantly refreshing and full-flavored ginger bomb for a creation with so light a body. The kick of spice, combined with the easiness of the body, may make this a perfect post-hike beer, refreshing you even as it makes you consider its unusual taste.

Evergreen doesn't rest on just one tasty brew, however. Its Elk Meadow IPA is balanced but still carries a piny bite. Its Two Kilts Red Ale has classical up-front malt with a late-breaking bitter bump in the back. And its West Coast Coast Quaker oatmeal stout presents a full-mouthed roasted feel that borders on coffee.

About the only recent beer that didn't land well was its Tiny Ricks Inter Dimensional Amarillo/Simcoe Pale Ale, a hazy beer that offered bitterness but no particular hop bite, leaving it to feel undefined.

But this is relaxation and mountain living in the form of a brewery. And it's worth a stop, either for the solitary hiker or for the brood of explorers, right after you peel off your boots.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

5 Things I Learned from Sesh Fest 2017

Bigger does not always equate to bigger at beer festivals. But with the exception of the far-too-big lines for the restrooms at Sesh Fest 2017, the growth of the festival - in brewers, in space and most importantly in diversity of beer - was something to celebrate.

Coming at a time when more breweries actually are making lower-alcohol beer to ride a wave of popularity among drinkers, the festival showed off how flavorful less boozy styles can be. Gone are the days when your choices below 5 percent ABV include a session IPA and a couple of watered-down English- or German-style beers. And that's a good thing.

Here then are things that became clear during an afternoon at the Highlands Masonic Events Center:

1) Sesh Fest could have been re-named "Low Alcohol Sour Fest"
It was almost hard to find a brewer whose offerings didn't include a gose or petite sour, all bursting with flavor even as they kept down the booze. Crooked Stave's Petite Sour Rose, a beautiful light-bodied sour with flavors of both fruit and flowers, may have been the best beer in the show. Or it may have been the Mila Petite Rouge Sour from Beryl's Beer, brimming with a fruity guava taste to bring even more drinkability to it. Or it could have been the New Wave from Ratio, a strawberry Berliner Weisse that lights up your taste buds with tartness only to fall back on big fruit notes. The point is, there were enough small sours there to make this a legitimate debate.

2) Low alcohol still permits high experimentation with adjuncts
Caution Brewing proved once again that you can get huge flavor into an English mild - no small feat in itself - by injecting Earl Grey tea, and The Earl stood out once again as one of the finest session beers at the event, if not in all of Colorado at this point. But 4 Noses Brewing also demonstrated aptly that dumping mango puree into a wheat beer (its Mango Wheat) allows you to make a beer that could pass as subtle yet is hugely refreshing, with enough flavor that you swirl it around your mouth an extra time to see how many flavors you can discover.

3) That said, don't go crazy with the adjuncts
Some very good brewers brought some very odd-tasting beers as well, producing mash-ups that didn't work quite as well as many of their other offerings. Horse & Dragon's Surf & Rescue, a coconut lime wheat, tasted oddly like perfume, even as the coconut oil was used to good effect to calm the taste. And Fate's Laimas Coffee Kolsch butted the sweeter malt tastes up against the harsher roast of the coffee in a way that felt like opposing forces clashing in your mouth - an opinion I'll maintain despite the fact that the brewery has been making this beer for years.

4) It's time to realize that Greeley isn't a one-brewery town
People often flock to a Weldwerks booth at any festival for good reason, as its beers are so flavorful they seem to overshadow everything else in Weld County. But time spent at the Wiley Roots booth on Saturday reinforced exactly how much the often-overlooked brewery in the same town is doing fantastic things. Its Watermelon Carousel Gose was full of fruit burst, with just enough spritz from its sour mash to tell you there was something more complex working your taste buds. And its session IPA stood out among similar offerings at the event.

5) Two Parts and Colorado Brewers Guild are upping their organizational game
First of all, getting 52 breweries to bring multiple session offerings showed just how much the push to pour flavorful low-alcohol beers has taken hold in the brewing community. But lines at all the booths were reasonable, food booths were plentiful and the Shandyland set-up inside the masonic center gave people a chance to try something new in a specific area. That said, the lines for the port-a-potties stretched longer than then lines for the bathrooms at Great American Beer Festival often do, creating too much talk about when it was appropriate to break the seal that could have been spent on which booths were offering unique beers.

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Thursday, August 03, 2017

Brewery Rickoli's American Dream

In an age when more breweries are pulling back on the idea of packaging beers and competing for retail space because of the high costs and heavy competition, Brewery Rickoli is getting a rare opportunity to go nationwide - for free.

The Wheat Ridge brewery's Oats McGoats, a gluten-reduced rye stout, is one of five beers from small companies that are part of Sam Adams' Brewing the American Dream 12-pack now available in liquor stores. Brewer Rick Abitbol got to be part of that group by winning the first-ever experienceship offered in 2013 by America's second-largest craft brewery, which gave him a chance to spend a week in Boston learning the finer points of the business and to continue to get advice up to this day.

But having Oats McGoats - a full-bodied offering that is the star of the five local beers in the 12-pack - get onto the national stage may be the biggest benefit yet from the association with Boston Beer, even considering the experienceship already helped Abitbol scale up to his current three-barrel system. The publicity is driving more people to his taproom on Wadsworth Boulevard, and it comes as Brewery Rickoli is trying to add to the 65 current liquor stores that carry its hand-bottled bombers.

"I can't even describe it. It's exposure that we couldn't obtain on our own," Abitbol said last week at a shark-tank style event in Denver where Boston Beer officials awarded $10,000 to a local coffee company before offering speed coaching to local brewers and other entrepreneurs. "And having Sam Adams behind us ... that's all it takes for us to have a lot of people come by the taproom and see how far we've come."

This 12-pack - which also features small breweries from New Mexico, New York and California - will help more than just the five beer makers who get their faces on the labels of those bottles, however. All of the profits go to Accion, a national micro-finance organization that focuses on entrepreneurs with limited or no access to bank credit, a group that includes brewers trying to start their business or take it to the next level.

The company got into a broader partnership with Sam Adams several years ago, though many of the breweries it has helped out are located in Colorado and in New Mexico, from which president and CEO Anne Haines hails. It looks at a variety of criteria when deciding who gets loans ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, but the biggest factor in deciding who gets help is the intangibles of the entrepreneur rather than their bottom line, she said.

"First and foremost, we are looking to people whose dream is on the line," Haines said, noting that seven different Colorado breweries are among the firm's many food- and drink-business clients. "We look for passion, commitment, determination."

It's a lot easier to get a loan these days to start or grow a brewery than it was 25 years ago, when no one yet understood the craft-beer model or how it was going to become such a vital part of community drinking. But to see such a large craft brewery like Sam Adams helping out its nascent competition and using its resources to link them to a company that will help them get new levels of attention says something powerful about the spirit of the craft-brewing industry.

"They're all small, local brewers, so the exposure for them is fantastic," said Jennifer Glanville, head brewer for Boston Beer. "To me, this has been the most exciting collaboration we've ever done."

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