Friday, February 20, 2015

New Left Hand at Old Chicago

Sometimes you find gems in unexpected places. And that's exactly what happened last night during a visit to Old Chicago.

The longtime beer-themed restaurant chain is about a year into its Explorer Series, in which it partners with craft breweries to feature a temporary lineup of beers including one typically made specifically for the promotion. It's now two weeks into the installment featuring Left Hand Brewing.

Left Hand has expanded its portfolio significantly in recent years, ramping up its seasonal and limited releases and increasing the number of offerings it's putting on nitro. But in that growth, it hasn't broken out anything quite like De'Nile Coffee Ale, its new Explorer Series creation.

De'Nile is reminiscent of Beer Week Sauce, Left Hand's draft-only coffee porter that you typically find for special occasions like Great American Beer Festival week. But by putting this Allegro Coffee blend into a lighter-bodied base, it lets the coffee flavor shine a little more, unobscured by the extra bitterness often found in the roasted malts of most breweries' favorite base for the style, the porter.

In doing so, Left Hand has created what could be called an easy-drinking coffee beer, one that is accessible both to the coffee-adventurous who prefer their java in barrel-aged imperial stouts and to drinkers who like the flavor of coffee without the harshness that often accompanies it. And it's done so not in a wide-ranging release but in a limited edition found at just one restaurant.

I've written before about Old Chicago stepping up its game in recent years, and this Explorer Series is a good example of how that is happening. But it was interesting to see last night that its menu, at least at its Lakewood location, is stacked with smaller local craft breweries like Bonfire and Station 26 as well, and to learn that its St. Patrick's Day Mini Tour will feature Comrade Brewing's Defcon Red in Denver-area stores, right next to the Guinness and Smithwick's offerings you would expect.

The next suggestion for Left Hand: Don't let this be a purely limited-time offering. De'Nile would be a nice addition to the permanent collection.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Welcome to the Neighborhood

At a time when breweries are proliferating in hard-to-fathom numbers, the ones that seem to fill the greatest unmet niche are those going into neighborhoods that have somehow remained without their corner beer maker. Denver's Regis and Berkeley neighborhoods are two of those rare locations still - but on Saturday that will change.

Goldspot Brewing opens at 4970 Lowell Boulevard this weekend, bringing a long-awaited upgrade to a building that formerly housed a barber shop and sign-making business and sits just a block from Regis University, one of the area colleges that has invested in its own brewing program. It will offer a half-dozen beers that revel in some ways in understatement but also bring a unique brand of creativity to the Denver brewing scene.

Co-owners Matt Hughes - a one-time Wynkoop brewer who continues to work for an insurance brokerage providing coverage to some 25 breweries in three states - and Alex Sward open with a lineup of offerings that are largely familiar styles, with twists.

Take, for examples, Julia's Blessing, a kolsch-style ale that is crisp and drinkable but makes an unremarkable first impression - until you can pick up on the honey that also is mixed into the brew. It provides an underlying sweetness to an also late-breaking hop finish and adds just a touch of complexity to a style not known for being described with that word.

That some honey - Hughes eventually hopes to use product from his beekeeper father in Texas - is in Uh Huh Honey, a big, bitter IPA that Goldspot brewed in collaboration with the yet-to-open Cerebral Brewing. It's made with significant quantities of El Dorado, Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin hops, so the honey here just seems to add to the back-of-your tongue wallop that is especially intriguing after the beer introduces itself with a unique, almost grape-must aroma from the New Zealand-based hops.

While people may talk about the honey ales, however, the one they're likely to remember the most is the  Coffee Cocoa Porter, a medium-bodied dark beer that expertly blends the sweetness of the chocolate with the bitterness of the coffee into an easily quaffable treat. The taste is more subtle than the nose, but it's very pleasant and well made.

Two other offerings, the Belgian Pale Ale and Cutter IPA, also take on the characteristic of understatement. Cutter is an English-American hybrid style where the malt plays more of a role than the hops, while the Belgian pale really sticks to pale-ale style guidelines and lacks a big hop bite. Both are subtly tasty beers but not as flashy as the porter or Uh Huh Honey.

Hughes and Sward say they have no immediate plans to package their beer or to distribute much outside their neighborhood location. That's good. At a time when a number of breweries are opening with plans to take over Denver's tap and shelf space immediately, the city needs more corner establishments catering to people wanting to walk or drive to a place where they can meet the owners and enjoy good beer that doesn't overwhelm the senses. Goldspot fits that bill.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Mighty Opening

Truth is, even the best of Colorado's breweries invariably opened with a hiccup. There was that beer that tasted slightly of butter. Maybe there was a selection on the menu that didn't measure up to the rest. Or maybe there just wasn't any standouts. It's happened to everyone.

Knowing this, then, is what makes Saturday's coming debut of Ratio Beerworks such an eye-opener. Yes, it's yet another brewery going into the most crowded beer neighborhood in all of Denver, RiNo. But unlike almost everyone else, it will open without an obvious flaw - and with a lineup of offerings that should impress even the most hardened beer geek.

Lead brewer Jason zumBrunnen - who founded the brewery at 2920 Larimer Street with partners Zach Lowery and Scott Kaplan (L to R in picture) - has brewed at Wynkoop and at AC Golden, and there are touches of both in his products. He shows the willingness to make a wide array of beer that has defined Wynkoop in recent years, while he also brings a creative edginess to his work that is reminiscent of the one-off releases that have made AC Golden so sought-after.

Take, as an example the beer that could become Ratio's calling card, a French saison named Dear You. Brewed and dry-hopped with Citra and made with 50 percent white wheat, this beer (also pictured above) presents itself with just a hint of tartness. And it finishes with a dryness that leaves you sated while also being intensely interested.

For the hop head there is Repeater, a 50-IBU extra pale ale with a lingering bitterness that is more effusive than biting. And for the lighter-bodied drinker there is Domestica, a 4.9% ABV American standard ale this is whirlpool-hopped in a way to create such a crispness that it makes you unable to brush this off as just another entry-level ale.

Along with Dear You, though, the standout and market original may be Hold Steady, a dark Scotch ale that manages to be highly roasted - almost peaty, in fact - without being overly heavy. For a limited time, Ratio will open with a second version of it infused with local Novo cold-pressed coffee that envelops the mouth in java without coming off as bitter.

Ratio already has a number of beers in the back aging in whiskey and other spirit barrels, and it's opening big - a 20-barrel system that will supply about 10 off-premise accounts almost from the day they tip the taps in their tasting area. And going into the former Mile High Spirits Distillery building, it begins life in a spot that's already been a center of RiNo activities.

Ratio won't be called one of the best breweries in Denver just yet. But with a solid and extremely flavorful lineup and ambitions to produce more complex beers quickly, it starts a step ahead of where many of the city's most advanced beer makers did. And that's a new and exciting trait to bring to a crowded local scene.

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Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Art of the Sour Beer Festival

At a time when more people than ever are expanding their palates to enjoy sour beer, it's only natural that a niche sector is emerging for beer festivals dedicated to this once fringe art. But that doesn't mean that all of these celebrations of wild yeast and funky taste leave your palate in the same state.

Take, for example, New Belgium's now-annual celebration of its sour styles, the Lost in the Woods party, shown above. (The brewery is throwing a party at its location in Fort Collins tonight and then hosting a celebration in Denver tomorrow night at the Terminal Bar.)

Themed around its annual releases of its La Folie and its Transatlantique Kriek, the party is swimming in sour, from the new editions of the aforementioned beers to cellared versions of past efforts. (A 2007 La Folie served last year, for example, remained exquisitely tart with a slightly lighter body.) But in addition to just pouring beer, the brewery also offers a symposium detailing its souring efforts and has cellar-room officials both leading tours and pouring various concoctions not typically released to the public, giving attendees a sense of why this is all so experimental and important in today's beer world.

Less talk, more tasting, you say? Actually, this is not only educational, but in some ways needed. For a full night of tasting sour beer can wreak havoc on both tongue and tummy. And that can become apparent even at the most celebrated funk festivals in the state.

The annual "What the Funk" festival that runs parallel with the Great American Beer Festival (or the Craft Brewers Conference, when that was in Denver last year) is the biggest, boldest collection of wild-yeast and barrel-aged beers you can find. The beer geek can find themselves in a deliriously exuberant state as they bounce between Jester King's Cerveza de Tempranillo (a tart barrel-aged sour with Tempranillo wine grapes) and Wicked Weed's Amorous (a bold barrel-aged, dry-hopped sour IPA), as the Fearless Tasting Crew did last year.

But repeated doses of sour beers over a several-hour period can add up quickly; I, for one, found my stomach rumbling and myself looking for something "mild" by the end of the show. And while I couldn't stop talking about the myriad flavors I'd discovered the next day, I also found myself with a limited desire to drink anything more, even though it was in the midst of a brewers conference.

Pace, then, may be the key. And to that end, it is worth seeking out the smaller, site-specific sour fests that the best breweries and beer bars may offer.

Last year, for example, World of Beer Cherry Creek presented a one-day sour tasting featuring 19 different beers - not as many as you'll find at What the Funk or Avery's Sourfest, but more than you'll find in many decent liquor stores. We sampled offerings from the Bear Republic Tartare to the Green Flash Little Friek and left sated but not overburdened. Plus, had things just gotten too tart, there was an available menu of a couple of hundred other beers to us as well. It was a great day.

Truth is, it's had to go wrong with a sour festival. And the best news is that more and more are cropping up. But be warned that overindulging in even the best beers may leave you wishing for a mellow German lager for a few days afterward.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Tale of Two Heavy Metal Breweries

Ever since Black Sky Brewery opened during the 2013 Great American Beer Festival, it's been the living personification of how mature Denver's craft brewing scene is — mature enough to support two heavy-metal-themed breweries.

But as much as Denver might have two darkly-adorned, guitar-deifying beer makers — TRVE Brewing opened on Broadway in 2011 — have you ever spent time comparing and contrasting their beers and atmospheres? Just for fun, I decided to do that recently. And I discovered that while they may fit together into a very small niche, there are actually few similarities between the suds purveyors.

It doesn't take being inside TRVE long, for example, to feel like you are in a very different place than other breweries. The interior is black, the art is foreboding and the loud-but-not-so-loud-you-can't-talk-over-it music sounds like it's played by someone in real pain (at least that's how it sounds to a bluegrass listener like me). Pentagram-emblazoned goats and multiple mammal skulls adorn the bar, and there is not a kitchen in sight.

Black Sky is painted black as well, and larger wall art (pictured below) resembles proposed album covers for metal bands. But the music is turned down, there are TVs in the corners and there's a full menu of pizzas and calzones. Recently, the Beer Geekette and I took our five-month-old son there for dinner, and we didn't feel out of place.

Even more glaringly different than the decor, however, is the contrasting styles of brewing between Black Sky's Harry Smith and TRVE's Nick Nunns.

For all its metal atmosphere, Black Sky serves up lighter-bodied, often surprisingly lively beers. Its signature beer now is its Petal to the Metal, a 4.9% ABV rose and hibiscus ale with an appropriately flowery mouthfeel that seems to be the source of a late-breaking bitterness in an otherwise malty (16 IBU) effort. Usually you can also find on tap such offerings as a quite-sweet pomegranate wheat, pale ales with toned-down hoppy presences and even a light American ale with a citrus hop character. Guest taps are omnipresent as well.

TRVE, however, presents beer that is as challenging to the taste buds as its music is to the ear (though in a much more pleasant way). In recent years, Nunns has ramped up his barrel-aging and sour experiments, producing taste-bud busters like its eye-openingly tart Manannan sour brown ale and its dangerously drinkable Liquid Funeral Russian imperial stout that show both a great deal of complexity and strength. And just when you think you know TRVE, he'll pour you a Cursed — a sour pale ale dry-hopped with Citra and Amarillo that is neither too hoppy nor too tart but is a shockingly refreshing addition to his portfolio.

So, black metal may be black metal (though, clearly, I won't pretend to explain the musical genre). But one black-metal brewery is certainly not equivalent to the other. Black Sky is the place to go to walk just slightly on the wild side, try some accessible beers and throw down some good food. TRVE, meanwhile, is the place that tempts your beer-tasting inhibitions, immerses you fully in its culture and leaves you just a little more rattled by both its beer and scene when you leave.

Whatever your poison, though, both are worth a trip.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hopping into the Colorado Market

Colorado is a state that takes pride in the amount of hops its brewers can pack into one beer. Citrus-forward pales, piny double IPAs and even the occasionally well-balanced triple IPA ring beer bars and liquor stores, making any brewery that wants to expand distribution into this state and compete on the basis of its bitterness one that's taking a leap of faith.

But Ninkasi Brewing, which has been flowing through draft and retail accounts in Colorado since Dec. 8, seems up to that challenge. Though the Eugene, Oregon brewery makes a variety of beers, including an expanding selection of lagers, many come at you hard and fast with a hop wallop and leave a more resounding impression than many beer makers that cross the Centennial State's borders.

Jamie Floyd, who co-founded the brewery in 2006 with Nikos Ridge, said during a recent interview, in fact, that expanding into Colorado - the eighth state where one can find Ninkasi - is "a great bridge for us to taste hoppy beers and share ours with others." And sampling just a few of what is here in six-packs and bombers will show you he's not messing around with those hops.

Take, for example, the Total Domination IPA, a beer that uses the flavors of multiple hops to combine into one grassy, piny ball of mouth-filling taste. Maybe the most surprising aspect you'll find after swishing this around your mouth is that it weighs in at "only" 65 IBUs.

Tricerahops Double IPA brings more of the same brings with two notable differences. The alcohol is a bit more noticeable in this 8% ABV offering, and the taste has a less nuanced sharpness and more of a straightforward, challenging bitterness.

Even traditionally non-hoppy styles take on a whole new characteristic under Ninkasi's tutelage. Vanilla Oatis - a dark-as-night oatmeal stout with vanilla beans - has a velvety creaminess that appears in mid-sip. But it finishes with such a rush of roasted malt and surprising earthy hops that you're not at all shocked to see it reach 50 IBUs.

In fact, if there is one drawback to Ninkasi's beer, it is that you're left wondering what it would be like if they pulled back the bitterness just a little bit. And what happens when you find that out is that you discover what may be the brewery's best offering.

Sleigh'r, the winter seasonal, is a dark double alt ale that doesn't shy away from ramping up the IBUs. But the slightly high-alcohol body is complex, changing from a more classic German dark beer to one that brings forward an initially hidden taste of chocolate to one that sheds even a little touch of licorice and roasted sweetness as it flows down your throat.

Ninkasi is not for the light of taste bud. But, then again, in this state that just means it should fit in and become a more permanent fixture in many beer bars.

"I think there's a lot of similarities between the lifestyles people choose in Colorado and Oregon," Floyd said. "Culturally we have a lot in common. And I can take that to the next level with beer."

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Eight Beers That Stood Out at the 2015 Big Beers Festival

It was hard - really hard - to find a bad beer at the Big Beers Belgians & Barleywines Festival in Vail last weekend. Whether it was the slew of barrel-aged stouts, the profusion of tart but not overdone sours or the exciting number of beers that were brewing extremely well with spices, experimentation was alive and well.

But with the advantage of a few days to simmer on the multitude of flavors, a few beers rose to the top of the well-sipped heap at this wonderful event. And these are beers that will be worth looking for all year long - if some of these rarities can even be found.

Altitude Chophouse's Your Royal Chai-Ness
Year in and year out, this small Wyoming brewery brings something that makes you look - and return to their booth - twice. But it exceeded all of its past performances this year with what may have been the best beer of the festival, a chai-infused dunkelweizen that was so mellow in body and so sharply spicy in taste that it resembled a beer-y ginger soda.

Dry Dock Whiskey-barrel Aged Double Hazelnut Brown Ale
No brewery made the statement that malty beers are back quite so well as these Aurora auteurs, who offered up four dark, double barrel-aged beers. Easily the best, however, was this one, presenting a taste that was sweet and creamy and also vanilla and nutty, with the barrel standing out more than the whiskey did.

Goose Island Proprietary Blend
Bourbon County Stout is an awfully well-made beer. But this take on it, which added coconut water and simple syrup, made it not only more complex but dangerously drinkable for something this big.

Casey Brewing & Blending Saison
Troy Casey (seen here pouring for some clever beer writer) brought a lot of impressively bold farmhouse ales re-fermented with fruit like grapes and peaches. But at a festival of big beers, nothing was so palate-catching as his "simple" Saison - a concoction that was oak-barrel aged and wickedly sharp without being acidic.

AC Golden Dark Kriek
It was good to see that Casey left his former brewery in good hands, however. This blend of a golden sour and burgundy sour featured sharp, sharp cherry and a slight grape taste.

Former Future Brewing Black Project #2 - Jumpseat
Completing the dream sour/tart trio was this spectacularly tart spontaneously fermented ale that offered a taste of green apple on top of what could only be described as a gose-like beer made in a Belgian, rather than German, tradition.

Papago Brewing Coconut Joe
The star of Friday night's excellent Papago/Brouwerij Van Steenberge traditional brewmasters' dinner was this surprisingly sessionable (5.5% ABV) but roasty-sweet coconut coffee stout that paired spectacularly well with spiced peanut caramel apples (as the Beer Geekette ably demonstrates here).

Copper Kettle Brewing Mexican Chocolate Stout
This beer is way too well-known to call it a find anymore. But the reason it makes this list is that in a festival where high-gravity, experimentally spiced stouts had a bigger presence than ever, none packed the spicy/cinnamon/taste-bud-jolting punch of this emerging Colorado classic.

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