Tuesday, December 30, 2008

This Week in Colorado Beer

To kick off the new year in style, I want to introduce a new feature to the site that will try to keep readers up to date on tappings, beer dinners and other events you may not want to miss at Colorado breweries. This is a new experiment at building an online community, so please contribute with things you know are coming over the next week, and we can all be better people for it.

New Brews
By the time you read this (unless you're on a laptop at a bar right now), two Colorado Springs breweries have tapped a couple of beers.
Trinity Brewing on Monday unveiled a Farmhouse 32 Noel Blanc brewed using juniper berries, rose hips, coriander, and "grains of paradise."
Bristol Brewing, meanwhile, tapped its aged wheat tonight. The last batch was a wonderful Frankenstein of a creation that was part sour beer and part cloudy wheat. You kept ruminating on how to categorize it exactly until you realized that you'd finished your glass.

New Year's Eve
Just about every brew pub and beer bar in the state is doing something, so I won't single too many out. But the favorites I've seen include Trinity's tapping of four Belgians and four domestics, including supposedly the only keg of Breckenridge Whiskey Barrel Porter ever made. And Carver Brewing in Durango deserves props for its free barleywine/champagne toast at midnight. Take that, stodgy old traditions!

Beer and Food
This one's close to my heart: Avery is hosting a beer dinner on Jan. 5 at Gelman's Bistro, which is a block-and-a-half from my house in northwest Denver. And it's not just any old beers they'll be serving. White Rascal, Hog Heaven, The Reverend and Samael's Oak Aged Ale (the best-kept secret at the brewery) will pair with a likely fancy menu at a place I know for cooking a mean cheeseburger.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Back to School
It's a truism that during times of high unemployment, more people go back to school. And, coincidentally, studies have shown that beer sales typically weather recessions.
So, it's only natural that in these hard times, Bristol Brewery is offering a series of 10 classes on Thursday nights beginning on Jan. 8 and running through mid-March to help people better understand that magical liquid that will help them get through it all.

The Colorado Springs brewery offered its Bristol Beer School last year as well, and members of the Fearless Tasting Crew who attended a few of the sessions report that it was wildly educational. Actually, they mentioned that part only after they went on and on about all the good beer they got to drink. But it was educational all the same, they say.

The 2009 course catalogue includes everything from Intro to Beer and Intro to Homebrewing to graduate-level courses like Sour Beers and Intro to Brewing Chemistry. Each of the classes runs you $25 (plus a food-pairing class with a $15 lab fee), but hey, that's just your way of helping the economy right itself.

So, go smarten up and save the ales at the same time. Maybe I'll see you at one of these classes.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

What a Difference a Year Makes
No respectable beer snob can talk about big or dark beer these days without bringing the idea of cellaring a few bottles and seeing how their tastes change over time. This, however, has two drawbacks. One is that you have to be patient enough to let good beer sit for a year or more without drinking it. Second, you have to remember exactly when you cellared the beer in order to know when to open it.

While I have no proposals on how to make the first drawback acceptable, I found an easy way to get around the second one: Buy a holiday seasonal beer and open it one year later. And for my first cellaring experiment, I chose what is my favorite annual dip into Christmas beers: Left Hand's Snowbound Ale.

The 2008 version, which is rushing quickly out of stores, is a magnificent specimen of complexity. Brewed with crushed cinnamon, honey, chopped ginger, orange zest, cardamom and cloves, it is especially clove- and ginger-heavy, and its 8.6 percent ABV body takes a surprising back seat to the abounding spices. All in all, it is a very enjoyable beer.
After a year, spices remain stand-out and Snowbound is still something you want to be cooped inside with when the blizzard hits. But two big changes set in when consuming the 2007 version.

First, the beer frankly feels bigger. The head seems a little heavier, the darkness in the body feels a little more prevalent and while the spices raise their voice, the lingering taste is a little more hoppy bitterness showing its personality.

Second, the tastes feel a little more layered. Yes, they're all swirling together to bring about the same warming mix. But with age you can feel the steps more: The honey is on the nose, the ginger is in the initial bite, the cloves are on the full mouthfeel.

So, what's to be learned from this? Well, it's really the same message that many crooners say about Christmas cheer, rather than Christmas beer. Grab it and let the spirits be enjoyed all year through. Those spirits, after all, might be even more enjoyable if you let them nestle in your fridge long enough.

Now I can't wait to see what my 2007 Alaskan Smoked Porter is like after two years . . .
Anyone else got good cellaring stories or ideas?

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Best New Beer of the Season . . .

. . . is not a seasonal at all. But if you haven't stumbled across New Belgium's Giddy Up!, released in the fall but just gaining popularity around holiday time, you're missing a beer that should go to the head of the pack among all of the dark and darker beer offerings of the season.

Brewed with lemon peel and infused with espresso, this is a genre-bending offer. Sure, it fits neatly into the overall category of coffee beers, but yet it's more than the very subtle lemon that appears on the backtaste that makes this stand out.

What catches your attention is a body that seems too light to hold the gigantic shot of java it's pumping across your tongue. That body feels partially creamy and partially just easy, ab antidote to the nearly sludge-like consistency of coffee beer makers who take it too far. Yet, the sharp taste - the coffee beans are grown in Brazil, espresso-roasted locally and then pressed into the ale - is a lingerer, enveloping your mouth like you were swirling around a caffeine boost, without burning your tongue.

In the line of recent New Belgium experiments, this ranks just about up there with the absurdly delicious and sour Eric's Ale - and far, far above the more subtle Skinny Dip seasonal. But I do have one qualm with it. You can get Giddy Up! just two ways right now: In mixed 12-packs and in kegs. (I discovered this beer last month at a dive sports bar in Greenwood Village, of all places.) This is a great beer and should be celebrated. Make it more readily available.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

A Sam Adams Christmas

Most liquor stores have yet to realize the true joy of the season that can be spread by putting together six spicy or malty holiday beers into one pack. And most brewers don't have the portfolio to make one of these mixed batches on their own.

It might be safe to say, in fact, that the only brewery in America that can meet at that curious intersection is the Boston Beer Company, the folks who reintroduced America to craft beer and then became a brewing giant themselves. A recent sipping of their winter 12-pack (two of each kind) was quite a ride through the different styles of the season (or at least kinda of the season) and, as my favorite liquor store clerk said to me, it is worth a shot. Here is what you will find and can expect.

Winter Lager

Most lagers aren't complex, and this wheat bock spiced with orange peel, ginger and cinnamon doesn't break out of that mold. But while it is easy drinking, it is also refreshing and cooling and presents a slightly minty backtaste (not like sucking on a peppermint but like that strangely enveloping and pleasing burst on the back of a menthol cigarette).

Once you've taken in all of the initial sensations, you're most left with a mouthfeel of caramel - not an overwhelming one, but a soothing one. While this may get lost in the greater beerography that Jim Koch has offered us, it's just easy and nice in the winter.

Boston Lager

Yes, I was thinking the same thing when I got the six pack: What is Sam Adams trying to pull by adding its oldest, distinctly non-winterized beer to this mix? Putting a little filler in, like those last three songs on the CD or the last 30 minutes of Saturday Night Live? There's nothing particularly Christmas-y about this.

Then I realized that as long as you're wrapping up your seasonal best for people to give as presents - some of which are new and may not please everyone - you might as well throw in something that's sure to make people happy. And that's what the Boston lager is. An eye-opener in the early 80s, it feels almost antiquated in today's double imperial IPA Belgian days. But it's hoppy and smooth, and if you let it linger long enough on the back of your tongue, you'll find that same hint of roasted malts that defines the rest of this 12-pack.

Cranberry Lambic

This six-pack reminds you that one of the reasons to admire Koch is that he's gotten to the top of the beer world and isn't resting on the three to four beers that got him there. Take this tart-nosed take-off on a classic Belgian style: No average beer drinker in America was clamoring for it. But here is the only beer you'll find that features cranberry so prominently, and here is how Sam Adams is still trying to create.

That said, the Cranberry Lambic drew decidedly mixed reviews from the Fearless Tasting Crew. Some liked its sweet consistency, though the general opinion was that you want just one rather than a night full of these. Others, including me, wondered whether the cranberry taste was misplaced here in a slightly sour and fruity concoction that leaned toward the classic Belgian lambic but didn't quite commit fully toward the style. Either way, you are unlikely to forget this addition to the pack.

Old Fezziwig Ale

Nor are you likely to forget this gem of a beer. But there was no mixed opinion on this.

The Old Fezziwig, a brownish-red ale brewed with cinnamon, orange and ginger, brags on the label that it gets its character from a large amount of specialty roasted caramel and chocolate malts. But what really makes it interesting is that it just feels like it was touched by some magical spice wand without being buried beneath said spices.

The malts stick around in your mouth here but mingle with the orange-chocolate aroma. By the time you're done sipping this, you will find that this is the most complete and complex surprise in the pack - and one that Boston beer should put out more often.

Cream Stout

Like the Boston Lager, this isn't really a holiday-style ale. But when it's 22 degrees outside (as it is now), you want warmth in a bottle. And that, the Cream Stout is.

Brewed with extra portions of roasted chocolate and caramel malts, roasted barley and English hops, the initial taste here is one of cloudy darkness. Eventually it morphs into a more subtle stout, with a slightly toasty overtone. But what surprises you is that this dark-as-night creation carries a medium body rather than a feel that is overly heavy.

Holiday Porter

Just look at the art here. You think 19th century. Maybe something Dickens drank. Hell, the label tells you it's modeled after the drink of London's Victorian-era luggage porter. (Now, there's a piece of trivia designed to impress someone at a party.)

And in this bottle is Boston Beer's most English creation yet. Yes, there's the hops that keep Britain hopping - English Fuggles, East Kent Goldings. But it is deep and dark too, one of those full spheres of blackness that wraps around your mouth and consumes all of your taste buds.

The porter is fuller than the stout, a malt-centered treat that is made for distance, rather than sprint, drinking. And it's good that you take it slow: the more it warms, the more you taste the roasted chocolate.

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