Friday, October 31, 2008

Two Surprising Finds That Could Still Disappoint

Anyone can find a good beer buried among the hundreds of relatively unknown tiny breweries that populate the Great American Beer Festival.

But discovering two gems hidden in plain sight among the megabreweries that receive mostly scorn at America's premier beer event? That's a trick.

Yet, tasting Budweiser's American Ale and Blue Moon's Farmhouse Belgian-Style Saison Ale left me both giddy with excitement and disappointed. I was surprised to find two beers worth drinking from companies more know for, as Stone Brewing Owner Greg Koch puts it, fizzy yellow beer. But I was also struck by the thought that brewers who can make these treats still spend most of their time on mass-manufactured crap and, in Blue Moon's case, even hide their talent.

Anheuser-Busch released its American Ale on Sept. 15. At $7.29 a six pack (at least that's what I just paid an hour ago), it is pricier than A-B's usual line of beers, but that is for a reason.

American Ale, an amber-style ale 18 months in the work in A-B's pilot brewery, is an effort to jump on the roaring train that is craft brewing. While all beer sales have risen by only 0.4 percent so far in 2008 - and sales of "premium" labels like Bud, Miller, Michelob and Coors are actually down, according to the Craft Brewers Association - craft beer sales are up 6.5 percent.

Thus, American Ale was designed to be the starter beer for the evening, explained Eric Beck, the brewer with A-B's new products group who developed its recipe. The theory is that people will want to start with something slightly bigger and more daring before they go back to Bud or Bud Light at the end of the night, he explained.

I had to take issue with Steve Presley, A-B's Fort Collins brewmaster, when he said that people will come to this beer because they know the quality behind the Budweiser name. Mullet-sheathed, Bud Light guzzlers are going to be scared away by a beer with this kind of full caramel color, and people who might try a microbrewed amber ale will be wary just because this is churned out by the same people who make Bud.

But here's the thing: The beer's pretty good. It follows the amber ale style almost to the letter of the guidebook (Beck listed that as a goal), and the caramel malts combined with a four-hop brew plus a Cascade dry-hopping make this subtle and pleasant. I'm a beer snob and I readily admit I don't want to drink anything made by a brewery bigger than Boston Beer. But if you put this in a glass and hand it to another beer snob without telling them it's from a megabrewery, I'll bet they actually enjoy it.

This is not necessarily a beer I'd have to start the evening, as I told Beck when we met. But after a couple of monster-hopped pales or puckery Belgian sours, this does make a nice nightcap: Pleasant, well-crafted, but not overwhelming. Bravo, Eric.

Now the trick is: Will A-B support it? The company had a big roll-out party at the GABF and flooded the first few weeks of football telecasts with commercials about its new baby, but I haven't seen a lot lately. If it's serious about producing beer that reaches more than the lowest common denominator - and Beck said it's considering beers of this quality in other styles - than it needs to put its money where our taste buds are.

Blue Moon, meanwhile, just needs to get off the can and start putting its best beers forward. And it needs to start with its saison.

I would never have discovered this treat except that I struck up a conversation with one of their sales reps over at a different booth at the GABF. When he told me Blue Moon had a great beer at its stand, I was more than a little skeptical. This is, after all, the company whose constantly changing winter ales I have described simply as "unpleasant death by caramel."

But sure enough, one pour of the saison convinced me that this brewer knew what the hell he was doing. The combination of Belgian yeast, rye, wheat, oats, corn, flax and sunflower was sharply refreshing, a light but sweet spring beer that ranked to me with, if not above, beers like New Belgium's that are some of the state's best saisons.

Excited by the prospect of cracking some of this open for an early-season barbecue, I asked the company rep in the booth when I could find this in stores. Her answer, given in a sheepish fashion, was that she had no idea, since the company's marketers aren't convinced this can sell enough to make it profitable.

And this is where I call on Blue Moon - and any other megabreweries that insist on selling beers that fit into neat little focus-group formulas rather than beers that actually break the mold - to think about what it's doing. Its beers are drank now by people who might have one or two at a party or buy one at a festival because it looks cool but aren't dedicate like the drinkers of any of the hundreds of craft breweries that are willing to take chances. Trust the intelligence of beer drinkers, and you'll find the market expanding to people who will go back despite a recession and pay for beer that will give them flavor and make them feel good. If you don't do that, you'll just remain a minor megabrewery whose fortunes could go south with the economy.

Ah, the agony and the ecstasy of finding hidden gems in giant locations. I hope such findings continue.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Exotic Beers - We've Only Just Begun

Ron Jeffries put it best when he said that even in Michigan, people are doing things with wild sour beers.

That's not to discount breweries in the Wolverine State, as Bell's, Michigan Brewing and Jeffries' own Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales each add something special to the beer world. But when you think of Michigan - home of rugged workers, time-tested American cars and smash mouth football (in most years) - it's not the first place you'd think of as an exotic beer emporium.

Yet, Jeffries' point was well taken: At the recent Great American Beer Festival, California, Colorado and Dogfish Head Brewing clearly no longer held the monopoly on exotic brews. Cambridge Brewing of Massachusetts dazzled with its experimental sours and barleywines. A pizza pub from Arkansas (Vino's) served a Christmas ale that may redefine the style. The silver medal for sour ales went to a brewery (Upstream) from Nebraska, for pete's sake.

And the exotic kept getting just a little, well, exoticker. Russian River Brewing, whose barrel-fermented, cherry-soaked Supplication had for a while served as the peak of the sour beer style, overshadowed its monster with a new creation, Consecration, aged in Cabernet barrels with 33 pounds of currants. (This will be available in Colorado liquor stores by March, brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo said.)

Dogfish Head, no longer content with breaking new barriers in hoppiness, is spending more time developing ancient recipes discovered by university archaeology professors. Take the Theobroma, an ancient Aztec recipe brewed with chiles, annetto seed, honey, cocoa nibs and cocoa powder. Sweet, slightly punchy on the back taste, absolutely unique.

"What I love is, (exotic) is subjective," Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione said at brewers' talk at the festival. "You've got to remember that 20 years ago, Anchor Steam was an extreme beer."

It's not hard now to walk into a store and find a quadruple Belgian or oak-aged imperial stout. What once was exotic in its rareness is now becoming exotic and yet accessible.

Some breweries have their rare beers that don't get sold with the rest. (If somebody finds Deschutes' sour brown The Dissident somewhere in the Denver area, I beg you to write me.) Other breweries are dedicated only to exotic beers.

That's the theory under which Jeffries founded Jolly Pumpkin in 2004. A man who used to brew a different wheat beer to be enjoyed with each pizza that was served at a pub where he used to work, he decided to be the first U.S. brewery to age 100 percent of its products in oak.

Its beers (available at a select number of Colorado liquor stores), like the tenderly spicy Fuego del Otono, don't shock the palate as much as they demand you to think about their complexity. And where there was nothing five years ago, there is now a determination to try what hasn't been tried. Jeffries admitted that he wakes up every day thinking of a new beer style.

So where does this trend, this experimentation, end? Talking to Jeffries, to Cilurzo, to Calagione, it doesn't.

"I don't think there's a lot off the top of my head I wouldn't consider," Jeffries said.

And remember, this is coming not from a Belgian, but from a guy who lives in Michigan.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

The Best of Colorado, GABF Style

First, I want to apologize to anyone I met at the Great American Beer Festival who was expecting to come to this site and see something that was updated continuously afterward. The only excuse I have was that as soon as I recovered from four days of wonderful tasting, the world of politics (my real job) kicked in, and it drew me away from my passion. I'll try not to let it happen again.

Before I leave behind the best of the festival and start talking about some trends and surprising tastes that I found, however, I want to pause for a moment and congratulate those Colorado breweries that took home medals. I always find it amazing and, in some cases, almost random what can walk out of a room full of 2,900 beers and claim that it is one of the three best of its style in the country. Consider that Avery, New Belgium and Great Divide - the breweries that some consider the three best in the state - combined for one less medal than The SandLot. Or chew on the fact that the only medal won by Odell Brewing was in the Pro-Am competition.

That said, I'd like to list all of the local winners with a few comments here. And maybe if you didn't get to try them all on the floor (A tough task: I know because I tried but failed), you can at least sample them throughout the state over the next year.

Amicas: The Weekender Red Ale, a well-deserved bronze in the double red ale category, was strong but very smooth.
Avery: Its Fifteenth Anniversary Ale, silver in experimental beer, combines a flowery nose with a wonderfully spicy Belgian character.
Blue Moon Brewing: The Honey Moon Summer Ale took home a bronze in specialty honey beers. This is nowhere near my favorite category, so I'll let you reserve judgment for yourself.
Bull and Bush: Silver medals for Hopsmith Pale Ale (mild pale ale) and The Legend of the Liquid Brain Imperial Stout (barrel-aged strong beer).
CB & Potts Highlands Ranch: Its Golden Armor snagged a bronze among Belgian-style strong ales.
CB & Potts Westminster: Two medals for two very different beers. The Java the Hut (gold in coffee-flavored beer) was a very dark and very tasty number. The Westy Export (silver in German-style Oktoberfest) was a mild pilsner.
Dillon Dam: Its Sweet George's Brown is a gold medalist among English-style brown ales.
Dostal Alley Brewpub: Its pleasant, light, dry Shaft House Stout was a silver among classic Irish-style dry stouts.
Dry Dock Brewing: Its USS Minnow Mild Ale (silver session beer) wasn't available at the festival.
Durango Brewing: Its Derail Ale (gold among other strong beers) was a pleasant find, a very smooth and shockingly strong golden ale. The Pleasantville Pils (gold in Bohemian-style pilsner) wasn't at the festival.
Great Divide: Big and smooth, the Yeti Imperial Stout took a bronze in imperial stouts.
Kannah Creek Brewing: Grand Junction's little-known brewery won a bronze among extra-special bitters with its Standing Wave Pale Ale, a nicely subtle copper-hued ale.
Left Hand Brewing: All hail the delicious Milk Stout, the easiest-drinking stout in America, which shockingly only took silver among sweet stouts. The Sawtooth Ale nabbed a pale mild ale bronze medal.
New Belgium: Mothership Wit won a gold won a gold among Belgian-style witbiers, but the truth is they just need a new category to describe the incredibly crisp organic taste.
Odell Brewing: Its light Irish Red won a bronze in the pro-am category, but suffice it to say there were other beers that seemed to leave without their deserved bling.
Pug Ryans: The silver-winning Bohemian-style Pallavicini Pilsner is one of the best summer beers around here.
Pump House Restaurant and Brewery: Its Brush Fire Ale, silver among American-Belgo-style ales, can be found at this Longmont eatery.
Rock Bottom Brewery: The Louisville-based restaurant chain took home the large brewpub of the year award nationally, but that was for its body of work in restaurants across the country. Its one Colorado-based winner was the Red Rocks Red Ale, a gold-medal-winning Irish-style red ale from its Westminster location.
The Sandlot: The annual pilsner-awards gobblers once again led the Colorado delegation by bringing home four medals. They were: Bock Gold for its sweet Goat Rancher; silver among international-style pilsners for its never-available Yep, Still Boneheads; bronze in the Munich-style helles category for its easy-drinking BS Helles; and a well-deserved bronze among smoke-flavored beers for its Second-Hand Smoke, a smoked bock that seems to glue its aroma to its pleasing beer.
Tommyknocker Brewery: Idaho Springs' pride and joy spun a tale of two bronzes: Prospect Porter (brown porter) and Butthead Bock (bock).
Twisted Pine Brewing: Its full and bold Big Shot Espresso Stout earned its silver in the coffee-flavored beer category.
Walnut Brewery: Its Old Elk Brown Ale won silver for English-style brown ales.
Wynkoop Brewing: One of only two double-gold winners in the state (along with Durango Brewing) for its B3K (German-style schwarzbier) and its Wixa Weiss (south German-style hefeweizen).


Sunday, October 12, 2008

GABF: Best of the Fest

If 2005 was the apex of extreme beers, as Brewers Association President Charlie Papazian said in a talk this weekend, then the 2008 Great American Beer Festival showed that beer makers are toning down their experimentation but getting better at what they've concocted.

Sour beers and big IPAs once again seemed to be the talk of the festival, but those that drew the most raves were not pushing the alcohol boundary as much as smoothing out their bold tastes without mellowing them. You didn't see chai and green tea ending up in every conceivable style of beer anymore, but the coffee beers that used to be hit and miss seemed more universally to be filled with java flavor.

Trying to encapsulate all that happened and was learned over the three best beer days in America isn't easy. Over the next few weeks, I'll be writing multiple pieces about trends and beer books and even optimism that the craft brewing industry will survive this recession with a measurable dent.

But to start with, I just want to rattle off one man's impression of the absolute best of this year in just a few categories. And then you can either tell me that I'm a genius or that my taste buds should be cast aside into the seventh level of hell. Sound fair?

Best in show: In a year of high-minded sour ales, Cambridge Brewing's Cerise Cassee reached the highest point. This barrel-fermented wild sour ale from Massachusetts came onto you with a sour cherry nose but evolved several times in your mouth, finishing with a bold green apple pucker. Just to make sure I wasn't hallucinating, I urged nearly everyone I was with to try it as well, and I got the same reaction. There was nothing gutsier or as well done as this gem.

Best porter/stout: Bluegrass Brewing's Kick in the Baltic Porter was four things at once: Chocolatey, smooth, warming and even slightly sweet. I never knew beer this well-crafted could come out of a state (Kentucky) that I've only associated with whiskey.

Best hoppy beer: After drinking Breckenridge 471 IPA, I hit as many great IPAs and double IPAs as I could in succession, wanting to put them up against each other. While Great Divide's Hercules Double IPA came close, nothing equalled this double's combination of flowery goodness and a sweet back taste that makes it dangerously easy to drink.

Best Scottish/red ale: Texas-based Real Ale Brewing's Real Heavy is a big, big take on the Scottish style that amps up everything in even measure and leaves you surprised and how nice it can turn out.

Best wheat: Few things are as enjoyable as the way that New Belgium's Mothership Wit glides over your tongue. This organic wheat beer touches several taste buds but does so in a gentle way, leaving you wanting more.

Best eye-opener: There are so many to choose from here. But to my mind, nothing bends a style better than Papago Brewing's Orange Blossom. The Arizona brewery's orange wheat beer tastes somewhat like a cream soda with a kick and with a fine yeast profile to boot. Friends who dislike wheats and dislike fruity beers admitted to me that this is something they would drink.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

GABF Day Two

Just a few notes before I head back to finish off the murder of my liver and taste buds that I began on Wednesday night:
*I am firmly convinced that Six Rivers Brewery out of McKinleyville, Calif., is one of the great undiscovered gems in America. The Fearless Tasting Crew has made it a necessity to stop there every year for its chili beer, made with four types of chili and standing out as the best of its kind in the country. But last night we delved deeper and found a Sour Bomb that ranks as one of the most pucker-worthy of the festival and a robust porter with as deep a java taste as I've found.
*Every year there is a hip flavor that more breweries seem to be trying. This year, it's honey. And, wow, does it not work. I've tried a couple of honey lagers or ales, and the result is the same: The honey taste either is lost or just confuses what the brewer seems to be trying to do. I had a honey saison last night from a brewery that shall remain nameless that was by far the worst beer I've tried this show. Let's see if we can move past this trend as quickly as possible.
*Midwestern beers are not just the Milwaukee's Best clones of the world anymore. An increasing number of breweries from that region are generating talk and respect. Wisconsin's New Glarus, of course, has always been one of the attention stealers of the festival. But Goose Island, Jolly Pumpkin, Lakefront, Three Floyds and Upland are among those giving you good reasons to stay over in the far section of the convention hall after you've waited in the 15-minute line for your NG Raspberry Tart.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Notes from Day One of the GABF

First, I'll just say that it's great to be in this time of year again. I think that's something upon which we all can agree. But on to beer talk . . .
*The buzz of the festival once again seems to center around the many great sours out there. Smaller and smaller breweries are bringing their versions, and there are more framboisens and Flemish browns on the floor than I can remember.
There was a long line of people waiting to try Vinnie Cilurzo's new creation, Consecration, at Russian River, and it was well worth the wait. Aged six months in a Cabernet barrel and brewed with 33 pounds of currants in each barrel, it is tart and dark and a worthy competitor to his Supplication for the best sour of the festival.
That said, the beer that my group of friends and I couldn't stop raving about was the Cerise Cassee from tiny Cambridge Brewing Company of Massachusetts. It's a barrel-fermented wild sour ale that absolutely blows your taste buds off.
*As mentioned before, the lines were long from the get-go at New Glarus, Russian River and the Lost Abbey. For some reason, there was little gathering around Stone Brewing. And yet the southern California brewery brought its best lineup in years. The 08.08.08 Vertical Epic Ale is sweetly hopped and flows easier than a beer that strong should, the Ruination IPA is its fantastic self and the 12th Anniversary Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout is a thick, dark piece of work that mellows nicely after a couple of sips. Anyone skipping this booth is doing so at their own peril.
*Finally, I have to thank last night's Fearless Tasting Crew for their walking me through Texas breweries that they used to haunt. Some of them were forgettable, but tucked in the back of the convention hall is a gem of a beer called Real Ale Real Heavy. A 9.7 percent Scottish ale, this is deep and rich and somewhat sweet and is an all-around taste-bud-kicking experience.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

An "A" for Avery

The night before the Great American Beer Festival is all about excitement, looking forward and seeing what pre-treats await that you may not necessarily find at the GABF itself. In that sense, Avery Brewing came through in a big way tonight.

The Boulder beer geniuses rolled out a sextet of experimental beers at Falling Rock Tap House that challenged and pleased. (I tried four.) Writing about them is dicey only because I can't tell you exactly where you can get them yourself again. But if you happen to see Adam Avery or if they happen to have any left over tomorrow at Falling Rock, tell them you want the good stuff.

The best of the bunch, in my opinion, was the Reverend Rare, Avery's big Belgian The Reverend aged in an Eagle Rare Barrel. That's a lot of inside jargon, but the best way to describe it is a beer with both a lot of hops and a lot of ester characteristics that leaves a pungent, almost apricot-y backtaste to enjoy.

My friend Sarah had higher praise for the Bad Sally, which is the fascinating combo of Salvation aged 6 months in oak with a secondary Brettanomyces fermentation. I loved this beer too, as it came on with the bite of a Belgian sour but hit the tongue, gave a quick bitter aftertaste and dissipated more crisply than your average beer of that ilk.

The Platypus was a pleasant if almost wonderfully unremarkable beer that had a pale come-on but one of the cleanest finishes you could imagine. And then there was the Deviation, the Kaiser Imperial Oktoberfest fermented with a Belgian yeast strain; I loved the complexity of this creation but was left with the odd impression that I was drinking a hoppier-than-average ESB.

But this is what the festival is all about: The best and the boldest in the American brewing industry today. Hopefully I'll see you over the next three days at the show while I try to bring you at least daily updates. If you want to come up and say hi, I'll be easy to find: I'll be the guy drinking beer . . .

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A Few Tour Ideas to Get You Through the GABF

There are as many different sets of taste buds as there are beer drinkers at the Great American Beer Festival. Some people (like me) love to pour the full spectrum of flavors into their mouths. Some like to clamp onto their favorite style and ride it for the night. Most people just go where they want on a whim.

Thus, the following lists serve not as any complete tour or definitive guide (because, yes, I realize they're pretty short lists) but just as suggestions of a few booths to stop by if you like a certain kind of brew. Some are well-known treats that shouldn't be missed even when you're surrounded by more than 1,900 beers. Some are hidden gems that I keep going back to over the years. Take it for what you will, but make sure you stop long enough to enjoy whatever you're drinking.

Remember that the booths are grouped by their region of the country inside the convention center and lined up alphabetically within those regions.

Hop Heaven
Avery Maharaja (Colorado)
Bear Republic Apex Ale (California)
Breckenridge 471 IPA (Colorado)
Cambridge House Brewpub IPA (Massachusetts)
Firestone Walker Pale Ale (California)
Great Divide Hercules IPA (Colorado)
Iron Hill Brewery Ironbound Ale (Delaware)
Lagunitas Hop Stoopid (California)
Odell IPA (Colorado)
Pizza Port Solana Beach Shark Attack (California)
Rogue Old Crustacean (Oregon)
Stone Ruination IPA (California)

Belgian Goodies
Allagash Tripel (Maine)
Big Dog's Belgian White (Nevada)
Brewery Ommegang Three Philosophers (New York)
Flying Fish Abbey Dubbel (New Jersey)
Michigan Brewing Celis White (Michigan)

Sour Belgian Goodies
Bristol Skull 'N Bones Cuvee (Colorado)
New Belgium Eric's Ale (Colorado)
New Glarus Belgian Red (Wisconsin)
Russian River Supplication (California)

Dark and Lovely
Alaskan Smoked Porter (Alaska . . . duh)
Bison Brewing Bison Chocolate Stout (California)
Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout (New York)
Butte Creek Blue Marble Organic Porter (California)
Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout (Colorado)
Snake River Zonker Stout (Wyoming)

Smooth and Easy (Lagers, Hefes, lighter ales)
Flying Dog In-Heat Wheat (Maryland)
Great American Restaurants Crazy Jackass Ale (Virginia)
Live Oak Oaktoberfest (Texas)
Sandlot Brewery Pinch Hit Pils (Colorado)
Steamworks Steam Engine Lager (Colorado)

Style Benders
21st Amendment Watermelon Wheat (California)
Elysian Brewing The Great Pumpkin (Washington)
New Glarus Raspberry Tart (Wisconsin)
Papago Orange Blossom (Arizona)
Six Rivers Chile Beer (California)

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Beer Run on Web TV

I just wanted to give a quick nod to my old friend Erik Boles at Beer Tap TV. Erik is going to be putting up Monday's Beginner's Guide to the Great American Beer Festival on a broadcast tomorrow, and I appreciate anyone who spreads the word about good ways to drink great beer.

Once the GABF programs get distributed this afternoon, I will post a series of suggested tours to find the best pales, Belgians, easy beers, dark beers and style benders at this year's festival. Please check back later today to get - and to pass along your own - suggestions.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

GABF: The Pre- and Post-Parties

One of the wonderful things about Great American Beer Festival weekend is that you don't actually have to attend the festival to enjoy at least some of its benefits. Sure, nothing beats the energy pulsing through the convention hall as you scurry from table to table trying to find that brew you'll always remember. But if you didn't plan ahead to get tickets, there are a few area watering holes where you can find beers of the same level - and in some cases even rarer - than what's going on inside.

1) Falling Rock Tap House
If you're reading this, I can only assume you already know about the joys of Denver's most diverse beer menu. But on the off chance that you don't, any night between Wednesday and Saturday will introduce you to its pleasures.
For a complete list of the week's activities, go here. And remember that this is the place to find the brewers after the show. Here's a few highlights:
*9 p.m. Wednesday: Avery, which already produces some of the most experimental Belgian-style and hopped-up beers that you'll find in liquor stores, rolls out five recipes that make, say, The Reverend look tame. The only downside to this is that you have to pace yourself enough that you're not hung over for the first day of the festival.
*Noon Friday: Sierra Nevada kill-a-keg. You and multiple dozens of your closest friends see how fast you can put down a keg of the wet-hop Harvest Ale. Try to enjoy its taste while you're doing so, however.
*10 p.m. Saturday: New Belgium galore. If you attend all four sessions like I do, your taste buds are usually a distant memory by Saturday night. For me, only one thing shocks them back into life: sour Belgian beers that are like the defibrillator to the tongue.

2) Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs
Coming from down south for the event? Here's where you go the night before to prep for your drive to Denver the next day.
Brewmaster Jason Yester has always been the guy I go to at the GABF to try to find out what's worth trying from around the country. Seeing the list of beers he will be serving at his new place on Wednesday night reminds me why. Experimentals from around Colorado will not only prep your palate but will give you that much more reason to fan out and try what the rest of the country has to offer over the ensuing three days. Thanks to reader and longtime Fearless Tasting Crew member Larry Fish for sending me that link.

3) Most every brewpub is going to be putting something new and bold on tap this week to show they're not just your average amber-and-hefe joint. I don't have everybody's schedule, but here are two I'd like to mention:
*Bristol Brewing in Colorado Springs has rolled out its Skull 'N Bones Old Bruin - a Flemish-style brown ale that brewmaster Joe Hull has been keeping under wraps for a while - and the annual batch of Winter Warlock, which has run the gamut from chocolatey smooth to pound-your-taste buds dark in recent years.
*Great Divide wasted no time in moving from Friday's introduction of its newest Fresh Hop and Hibernation releases to putting out barrel-aged versions of its Yeti Imperial Stout and Old Ruffian Barley Wine. I can't say I've gotten to try these yet, but their descriptions - both have been sitting for 20 months in Stranahan's whiskey barrels - are enough to make me clear space on my calendar.

So, there's a few ideas for extra-curricular festival activities. Anyone else have any bars or breweries they recommending visiting in the coming days?

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Monday, October 06, 2008

A Beginner's Guide to the GABF

I don't fashion myself an expert on the Great American Beer Festival; Charlie Papazian is the world's one great expert on the GABF he created. But after seven years of attending it like the very life of my taste buds depended on it, I feel I at least have a few things to offer. And so, for anyone who wants a few tips, here are some that I have discerned to make your three-day tasting fest the best experience it can be.

Know the Set-up
The GABF is laid out in one giant, cavernous hall in the Denver Convention Center. Stumbling blindly around there and coming upon random beers can be fun for a while. But two hours into it, when you keep asking yourself "Where the @#$! is the Russian River booth?" you'll wish you had done a little more planning.
Each ticket comes with a program at the door that lays out the entire hall by regions of the country (northwest, Rocky Mountains, Midwest, etc.) Figure out what region is where and at least get a general area of where your favorite brewery is. Even better, know a couple of specific breweries that you want to try and make sure your path wanders by them. Then at least you won't miss anything for which you're really dying.

Hit the Popular Ones First
This is not to say you should have a high-school-style go-with-the-flow mentality. I suggest it because if you don't get to a couple of the most sought-after breweries in the first 90 minutes the doors open, you may not get anything from them at all. For the Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoon sessions, Wisconsin's New Glarus will get crowded fast. After getting my first sip during the Saturday afternoon session last year, I went down the line and counted 91 people waiting in it. That sounds like a pain, but trust me, it's worth it. You won't taste anything in America quite like the Raspberry Tart, and if you miss it, you'll just end up wondering what everyone else is talking about.
I have found four other breweries tend to get the longest lines: Russian River, Stone, Alaskan and Dogfish Head. Dogfish Head usually sets up a giant booth at the head of the aisle, but it tends to serve about a dozen beers at once. Again, I say hit these early for fear that they - or at least the signature brews like Russian River's Supplication - may be gone. I'm not sure whether the increased local availability of Russian River and Alaskan will bring lines down this year.

Don't Just Go with What You Know
Over the years, I have found some amazing beers by just randomly stopping at booths on my way between planned stops. I have also found some liquids that should be buried in the ground and never dug up. But more times than not, some small brewpub from a different part of the country will offer you a treat.
I'll discuss in the coming days some of the ones to look for if you like particular styles or if you just want to impress your friends by pointing out a hidden gem. But I always recommend looking for the small breweries making more experimental kinds of beer. Yeah, maybe you don't want the chai stout. But if a brewer's got enough guts to make one and then show it off to America's biggest beer crowd, he must be confident enough in his other styles that they're sufficiently good.

Know the Night You're There
My personal favorite is Thursday night because that is the one time you can usually be assured that the guys and gals serving you are the actual brewers of the beer, or at least brewery representatives rather than untrained volunteers. Talk to them. Brewers are the coolest people in the world, and they're happy to share their thoughts not just on their beer but on others that they love in the show.
Friday night is crowded and loud and most apt to follow the pattern: Award-winning rare beers go first, beers you've heard of and love go second and the smaller pubs typically don't run out until after 9 p.m. Learn to text your friends; it's hard to hear the phone ring in the crowd.
Saturday afternoon is less densely packed because it's the more expensive connoisseur session. This is when the lines at certain breweries get really long (the longest lines you'll see all weekend at gems like The Lost Abbey and Brooklyn Brewing) but a lot of smaller breweries do less business because the beer snobs don't feel like visiting them. Festival awards are given away in roughly the middle of the session. The fun thing is that as soon as a brewery wins a medal, they'll note that at the table. The last hour or so of this session can thus be spent doing nothing but tasting award winners.
Saturday night is complete amateur hour. I swear that I have seen lines stretching longer at the Coors booth than the New Glarus stand. The good news is that for the first hour or so of the evening, you can more quickly get some of the good beers that you've had to wait for over the past two days. The bad news is that a lot - and I mean a lot - of good beers are gone by then, assuming the brewer even bothered to show up for this session at all.

Eat Before and After the Festival, if Possible
I too succumb to the urge to get a pizza after some 30 tastings at times. But I always kick myself for doing so, because it takes up a lot of valuable time. Most of the food at the GABF is overpriced and pedestrian. Follow the lead of many others and string pretzels around your neck. They sustain you sufficiently and allow you to clear your palate if you're like me and feel it a good idea to go from, say, a hefeweizen to a Belgian sour. Plus you'll look like a veteran.

That's just a few thoughts. Anyone have any more tips to share?

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Good News from Great Divide

The hop-heavy brewery rolled out a couple of its classic seasonals last night, and I can report gladly that they are worth a trip down to 22nd and Arapahoe to try.

The Fresh Hop Ale - made with hops harvested in September and inserted into the brewing process the moment they arrive at Great Divide - is one of the mellowest American pale ales around. Compared to the brewery's other hop monsters, such as the Hercules Double IPA, this beer almost feels light. But it's not in any way a slight taste. Though we were munching on cheese and cured meats at the rollout, I could picture this going perfectly with a brat or a slightly spiced chicken breast that you just yanked off the grill.

The Hibernation, meanwhile, is no sipping beer. Big and chewy, the newest iteration of this aged winter strong ale feels, well, stronger than in years past. It's super malty and its hop characteristics linger in the background. It also has a potent bitter finish, as if to remind you that it took a while to age and you too shouldn't rush your way through it.

The most interesting offering of the night, though, was a 2007 Hibernation. Normally, I expect a big beer to become stronger as it sits longer. This, however, was a tamer and more enjoyable version of the beer. Its bitterness had become a full chocolate flavor, a murky beer with a lot going on. This is the one I'd recommend that you get down to the brewery for quickly.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

The Other Debate: Alaskan vs. Dogfish Head

Last night's debate didn't pit vice-presidential candidates from just any two states. It pitted representatives of two states with a great beer each. (For those of you following at home, that's one excellent nationally exported beer for each member of the U.S. House that Delaware and Alaska have.)

Coincidence? Maybe. But I surely thought this meant a head-to-head matchup between two of the breweries' products was necessary. And, of course, they should be judged only on issues of national importance that were brought up in that other debate.

Alaskan Winter Ale vs. Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale

Category 1: Richness (as in, economic questions)
Alaskan brings a lighter, easier touch that is about smoothness rather than any overwhelming punch. Dogfish is dark, sharp and, on the bittering back edge of the tongue has just the slightest spark of tartness. What's impressive is it's heavy without being too dense.

Category 2: Naturalness (as in, I'm trying to relate it to climate change)
There are no false flavors in the Alaskan, whose lightly hop-tinged goldenness was a classic brew with just a little more flavor than many American ales. Dogfish, meanwhile, presents us with a thicker brown than most, an earthy taste that feels conjured by skilled hands rather than just being allowed to produce itself during fermentation.

Category 3: The Surge of taste (yeah, I know this is stretching it a little)
Alaskan gives a mild smooth ride, nothing that sends a wall of flavor rushing at you. I'm not sure there is a surge here as much as the taste troops just waltz in gently and occupy your mouth. Dogfish Head, meanwhile, comes on like a quick strike and then sticks around. This is a booming brown and slightly bitter presence that echoes through the recesses of your mouth.

Category 4: Clarity (as in, somebody needs to give a clear answer)
Alaskan is golden and slightly translucent, natural and refreshing. Dogfish Head is dark but clean. It's certainly not a clear beer. Then again, it isn't doubling back on itself or ducking questions either.

Category 5: Achilles Heel (as in, a fair question for beers too)
Alaskan is a smooth, enjoyable beer, but it's also a little lighter than other winter ales, making its performance a little less memorable than, say, its excellent smoked porter. Dogfish Head concentrates on its malty, alcoholic darkness, so if you're looking for something to drink four of in a night, this ain't your session beer.

The winner: Well, it was me. I got to drink two good beers while watching an important debate. All elections should be this fun.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Friday's Pre-GABF Activity

For those who can't wait until the Great American Beer Festival kickoff on Oct. 9 - and if you're reading this, I assume that's you - Denver's Great Divide Brewing has a little activity on Friday that may whet your whistle.

Colorado's most hop-tastic brewery will roll out its wet-hopped Fresh Hop Pale Ale and its maltastic winter seasonal Hibernation Ale. Tapping party from 5 to 8 p.m. at the brewery on 22nd and Arapahoe. The $15 surcharge gets you some cured meat and artisanal cheese tasting as well. And since the GABF seems to officially open with the official media-welcoming party at Great Divide at noon on Thursday, this is like a pre-party kickoff.

See you there.


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