Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Best of the GABF 2009

When beer aficianados look back on the 2009 Great American Beer Festival, they may view the event as a turning point in the way that American brewers like to push their flavors to extremes.

A good half-decade after the hopped-to-the-hilt double IPA boom began hitting a crescendo, and two or so years after it became the hip thing to brew your own Belgian sour ale, brewers veered in another direction this year. It's no longer enough to push the hops and malts, they seemed to say - you have to find that new flavoring that's going to light out taste buds as well.

So, we saw coconut stouts and lemon pepper saisons and acai berry wheats. There was peanut butter and pumpkin and watermelon beers that somehow seemed to taste like Jolly Ranchers. Sure, you could spend the day drinking IPAs as usual, but then you'd be missing something interesting that is just starting its march against American breweries.

And sadly, you'd be missing some really good experimental flavors that lay out there.

Against that backdrop - and now that I've spent two full days letting my liver recover - I wanted to present my annual roundup of one man's opinion of the finest that the American beer world had to offer.

Best in Show: The Great Pumpkin, Elysian Brewing. In a year in which the fruited and vegetabled beers leaped to the head of the conversation, it seemed only appropriate that this pumpkin-flavored style-bending masterpiece was harder to keep on tap than most of New Glarus and Russian River had to offer. Almost soothingly cooling as it asserted its nutmeg and pie tastes, this showed how intricately and perfectly a brewery could blend spice notes with a smooth and well-made ale.
Best Sour Beer: Cuvee de Castleton, Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. New Belgium's La Terroir and Cambridge Brewing's Cerise Cassee were eyebrow-raisers in just how sharp and pucker-worthy a tasty beer can be. But this small New York brewery made the most satisfying and drinkable creation of the genre, one that was smooth and remarkably golden yet wonderfully apple-tinged.
Best Hoppy Beer: Hopnotic Imperial IPA, San Diego Brewing Company. The 2008 gold-medal winner battered you with hop sweetness, then massaged you with its heavy smoothness. It should enter the conversation as one of America's best IPAs.
Best Dark Offering: Coconut Joe, Papago Brewing. This gem of an Arizona brewery blended coconut into a coffee stout, giving it more backbone than many of the new coconut offerings while invigorating the stout with just enough distant sweetness to make it more interesting.
Best Wheat Beer: Mothership Wit Organic Beer, New Belgium Brewing. I tried watermelon, orange, acai berry wheats - and nothing compares to the placid smoothness in this creation that stands above all twists on the classic style.
Best Colorado Offering: Brett Barrel Brown, Odell Brewing. Making Brettanomyces beer is sort of like making chili beer: If you do it badly, it can go very, very wrong. And there were some awkward brett offerings from some good breweries. But this blend of a brown that is not overpowering with the wild yeast and the barrel aging spawned a greatly balanced dark beer that was just the slightest bit sour.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Notes from Day Two of the Great American Beer Festival

I've been going with my buddy Eric to the GABF since I pulled into Colorado in 2001. His comment after last night's session was that this was the best festival he can remember. I think that testifies well to the depth and variety of beer being served.

*While hitting Colorado booths is not always high on Coloradans' list of things to do, stopping by the Odell and New Belgium booths in particular is well advised this year. Odell is serving rarities like a Bourbon Barrel Stout and a phenomenally balanced Brett Barrel Brown, and New Belgium reached into its vault to crack out La Terroir, possibly the most sour beer ever brewed.

*I confess that the hype over Blue Moon's saison was a bit of hype; it's decent but not a genre-definer. But one of the most fascinating beers of the festival was Blue Moon's Peanut Butter Ale, which really approximated a glass of Jiffy that is tasty and smooth. Get it while you can: I asked a pourer when this would be out in stores, and she laughed.

*The Midwest, once the breeding grounds for water American lagers, seems to be serving better beer every year. Fat Head's Brewery is offering some eye-openers, Bell's is getting even more of a cult following (and running out more quickly) and the variety of offerings is becoming impressive.

*This is the year to go home with free schwag - and good stuff. Filmmaker Anat Baron was handing out copies of her "Beer Wars" to people attending her talk, and the only qualifications for winning free Simpsons DVDs, at least late in the night, seemed to be showing up to the booth and attempting to listen to a TV in the loud crowd. You could furnish a bar and an entertainment collection with everything that's going out free this year.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Notes from Day One of the Great American Beer Festival

*The extra 33,000 feet or so of space that was added to the hall this year really makes a lot of difference. It was easier to make your way through crowds, there was less bunching even by booths with long lines (New Glarus, Russian River) and the extra bathrooms that were opened up made that experience a whole lot more pleasant.

*The coconut beers were, as expected, flowing from multiple sources this year, and the initial results were very pleasing. Papago Brewing of Arizona crafted a coconut stout, for example, that was thick with java tinges but really accessible with the coconut sweetness. Hopefully, this a trend that will stick around.

*I always believe that one way to tell where you should be drinking is to watch what booths brewers go to on the first night. One place that had a surprisingly large gathering of beer makers was Cascade Brewery of Portland, which specializes in unique sour beers. In addition to its cherry-heavy Cascade Kriek, it featured an apricot ale, a Northwest sour red ale and a lighter sour fermented with the juice of pressed white wine grapes.

*Speaking of sours, there are two things to note this year: You're seeing more of them, and they're, frankly, more sour than they have been in years past. Cambridge Brewing's Cerise Cassee, for example, nearly takes your taste buds off with its pucker worthiness this year. Bon appetit.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Essential Beer Guide to the GABF

The Great American Beer Festival - the beer world's combined version of the Olympics, a national political party convention and a super-cool family reunion - begins tonight and runs through Saturday night. But if you're reading this, that shouldn't be a surprise.

Last year, I wrote a general tip sheet on how to attack the event when you have only four hours to do so. But with 453 breweries set to offer up about 1,900 beers this year, I thought about the question: What does a festival goer truly have to try in their time there?

There's no one answer. You want to grab beers that aren't available at your local liquor store but also ones you know you love. You want to try the biggest, boldest brews ever made but also know that if you spend the whole night drinking nothing but imperial stouts, you may forget where you are by 9:30.

So, what follows is one man's opinion on the 28 beers you really, really shouldn't miss as you make your way around the hall. This is just a starter set, as 29 is an extremely low number of stops to make in a night. And I realize there are some fabulous breweries (Lost Abbey, Brewery Ommegang, Avery, to name a few) that are must-hits but aren't included on here. But this is an overview of many different styles - and presented in a way that you can grab your festival program and use it to meander the stations as they are numbered below in the most efficient way possible.

K26: New Glarus Raspberry Tart. Yes, starting here requires you to jet immediately to the middle of the convention center rather than start on the edges. But if you don't get into the giant line forming by this brewery early, you may not get a chance to enjoy it later.
M24: Thirsty Dog Old Leghumper Robust Porter. Every year I drink this beer, I want it to be a little darker. But I keep going back because you just have to honor the best-named beer in the show (and enjoy the bottle label if it's on display).
O4: Cambridge Brewing Cerise Cassee. A wild-fermented sour ale that was hands down the best beer of the festival last year. It can't be missed.
L13: Snake River Zonker Stout. As far as bold and chocolately beers go, there's nothing smoother and more enjoyable than this Wyoming creation.
L8 The Sandlot Goat Rancher. The small brewery inside Coors Field wins a ridiculous amount of medals every year, but you rarely get their medal winners on tap at Rockies games. This bock is an example of why they're so honored.
H20: Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout. You can get many of Brian Dunn's beers on tap year-round, but not this one. It will be one of the most complex flavor patterns you'll taste all weekend.
H12: Pug Ryans Helles Good Beer. Most of the Colorado beers you want to drink are available throughout the state, so you can skip them in a time crunch. This malty, sweet helles is on tap only at the brewery and only during the summer. It may be the best lager you have.
D33: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. A ferocious and dark-as-night offering that I've heard more than one brewer call their favorite beer at the show. A rarity that shouldn't be passed up.
H1: Sam Adams Utopias 2009. The truth is that I think the world's strongest beer at 25% ABV tastes more like cognac than beer. But it only gets offered up only a few times a show - when you hear a little bell ringing in the booth - and the lines form quickly to get it.
I8: Russian River Consecration. Currants are added to this strong dark ale that's aged six months inside cabernet sauvignon barrels. Maybe the most talked-about beer of last year's festival, it is a worthy member of Russian River's sour family.
I6: San Diego Brewing Hopnotic Imperial IPA. This is the beer that won the gold medal for double IPAs last year. 'Nuff said.
E14: Six Rivers Chile Beer. Brewed with four kinds of chile, this joyride from a small California brewery will snap your taste buds back to life without burning them.
E36: 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon Wheat. Strangely satisfying, this San Francisco concoction puts a new and pleasing spin on wheat beers.
O34: Kona Coco Loco. Browsing through the festival guide, it appears that coconut is the hip new taste being added to a number of beers this year. I haven't tried this particular beverage, but Kona Brewing is to be trusted with crafting a new style.
O24: Moylan's Hopsickle Imperial Triple IPA. Another one that I haven't tried yet, but just look at the key words here: Imperial Triple IPA. I'm not sure how you pass up something like that.
M4: Lone Star. No GABF is complete without stopping to get one of those cheap beers you drank in college and then realizing how far beer has come. Lots of people drink PBR, but you can get that anywhere. And Lone Star won a gold medal in its category last year. No kidding.
J19: Blue Moon Saison Farmhouse Ale: Think you know this Golden brewery? Think again after you taste this exquisite Belgian offering. Then beg them to package and release it.
K16: Bell's Two-Hearted Ale. Few regionally available beers inspire the passion that this giant hop monster does.
K11: Atwater Brewery Vanilla Java Porter. The former Stoney Creek Brewery made a vanilla porter that outshone most of the festival early in the decade. This is its successor.
K5: Vino's Pizza Pub Holidaze: The most complex and unique Christmas beer around - and it comes out of Arkansas.
G8: Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale. It isn't the pecan taste that makes this unique so much as the fact that Lazy Magnolia is Mississippi's only brewery. And you just have to support that.
G31: Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout: Many festival beers are aged in bourbon barrels. This may be the only one that actually mixes bourbon into the brew. And in a one-ounce pour, you can try it and truly appreciate it.
G34: Collaborative Evil 2009. Nine brewers got together to make this golden strong ale. Stop by award-winning Flossmoor Station to try it.
C12: Breckenridge 471 Double IPA. After you've tasted a lot of better-known double IPAs, stop by and drink what I've come to believe is the best one in America.
B18: Dogfish Head Theobroma. No GABF is complete without tasting one of Sam Calagione's crazy historical beers. Made with Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, this will do the trick.
F34: Elysian Brewing The Great Pumpkin. This will make you actually think you've stuck a straw into pumpkin pie. A remarkable beer for the season.
F38: Alaskan Brewing Smoked Porter 2008. Too few breweries bring cellared beers, and few aged beers are finer than this classic.
F16: Papago Brewing Orange Blossom: A wheat beer that tastes like a Creamsicle. You may think that sounds weird, but just wait until you try it.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rock Bottom's Finest Hour

After a slightly disappointing week of Denver Beer Fest events that so far has included restaurants not serving the beer dinners they've advertised and bars blowing special kegs 10 minutes before I walk in, I found the event I was waiting for tonight.

Rock Bottom Brewery in downtown Denver broke out 11 specialty, limited-time beers for the festival, and the featured menu ranks as likely the best ever seen at the restaurant. Several in particular shined as brewmaster John McClure's finest creations.

There were saisons and the infamous Silver Mullet, but the two that deserve the highlighting are a pair of whiskey-barrel aged concoctions with similar backgrounds but definitively different personalities to show off.

One was the 5W30, an 11% ABV barrel-aged imperial stout matured for eight months on Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey barrels. It comes at you with the oaky heartiness you'd expect but offsets any belligerence with a whiskey sweetness sometimes lacking from this style. The scent is of a complex chocolate/oak combination, and the bourbon tinge gives way to a more chocolate fullness as it advances. Rarely are beers this ass-kicking also this drinkable.

Its brother in arms is Woody Bomb, a 10.6% ABV Hop Bomb IPA aged in a Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrel for nine months. This features a more assertive whiskey sharpness, which seems to grow in taste when mingled with the hoppy beer. It's more prominent on the nose and on the tongue. And though it may be lower in alcohol, it comes at you more strongly and sticks around longer as well.

Rock Bottom's offerings have at times been hit and miss. This one's all hit. And it couldn't have come at a better time if you're looking for something to spice up your week while it's on tap.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Colorado's Newest - and Smallest - Brewery

Heading east out of Montrose, very few people are looking for a brewery on the main highway. But if you cast your eyes quickly to the south side of the road just past a giant Chevrolet dealership, you will see Horsefly Brewing, in its two-week-old splendor, located in the office of a former tractor dealership at 2320 E. Main St.

Former homebrewer Nigel Askew and business partner Melanie Freismuth opened this 1-1/2-barrel brewery after seeing other small shops around the state and realizing they could do it too. By all accounts, Horsefly is now tied with the Ourayle House in Ouray as the smallest brewery in Colorado. It's still open only during limited hours from Friday through Monday and doesn't have a website yet . (Even the picture I posted with this blurb has nothing to do with the brewery; it was just the best shot of a horsefly I could find.) But anyone who happened to stop in last weekend - as the Beer Geekette and I did - could see this is a fully functional place to hang out.

There are three tables and a four-seat bar inside, as well as a couple of places to sit down outside. A giant TV screen has football on most of the time (hence, the reason Horsefly is open Monday night as well). Multiple board games available for playing, and between that and the owner's kids showing you to your table, you realize quickly this is one of the more family-friendly breweries in the state. And - this is the best part - they bring you peanuts to your table and are just fine with you throwing the shells onto the floor when you're done.

The beer selection, as might be expected from a 50-gallon production system, is limited, especially now. A Pale, a Scottish, a Red and a Nut Brown were on tap last weekend and are available in an affordable taster menu. All have a very English feel, befitting Nigel's background as a native Zambian who attended a Scottish boarding school as a child. The pale has a slightly fruity character, while the smooth Scotch is highly malty with a hint of chocolate in the background. The Red is semi-sweet and highly drinkable, and the Nut Brown has a lighter body and medium color.

Horsefly becomes the only official brewery in Montrose (there is a Smugglers Brewpub here, but the beer it serves is made in its main location in Telluride). And while the beer styles aren't breaking any new ground, the brews are pleasant - as are the owners and staff who looked really happy to see the crowds show up the first week. Nigel said about 40-50 people packed the place on its second Friday night in business.

With the comings and goings of breweries these days, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where Horsefly is in terms of the oldest beer makers in the state, though most people guessed it falls around 105th or 106th (and will see fellow brewers in back of it when new brewpubs open in Norwood and in the southeast Denver suburbs in the coming months). Regardless of its standing, though, it's a welcome addition to an industry that is still burgeoning in Colorado despite the economic downturn.


Friday, September 18, 2009

It Begins: Denver Beer Fest

If you haven't heard yet about Denver Beer Fest, then let's just say this: You may want to clear out the next week of your calendar.

Visit Denver, the city's convention and visitors bureau, has assembled a lineup of roughly 150 events involving beer and food, beer and tappings, beer and trivia, beer and ice cream, hell, even beer and breasts. And between 5 p.m. today and sunset on Sunday, Sept. 27, there's a chance that if you plan things correctly, you may not have to do anything but drink beer for 10 days.

The idea of a celebration of a city's brewing industry isn't anything new: San Francisco and Philly have done it for a couple of years now. But what's impressive about the effort here in Colorado is the number of happenings they were able to set up in such a short time - Philly, for example, had about 60 events at its first beer week, Visit Denver officials tell me - and the variety of them. Brian Dunn, owner of Great Divide Brewing, noted that he's doing six beer dinners as well as about a dozen other events from tastings to meet-the-brewer gatherings before he collapses from sheer exhaustion in a week-and-a-half.

I've written about this several times for my real job (you can see the latest Internet article here but unfortunately have to be a subscriber to see the bigger story I wrote on the success of the Beer Fest and the Great American Beer Festival last week) and it's because it transcends the world of beer geeks. This is a chance for Bobby Blatz-chugger and Marty Miller-drinker who may not have found the full array of beer that is out there to stumble into a great beer and meet its brewer while out for dinner this week.

Rather than try to list all of the events, or even the highlights, I'll just go ahead and post a link to the full schedule here. But rest assured I'll be hitting dinners and new tappings and, yes, even trying some beer ice cream this week and trying to chronicle it (far more regularly than I have been) on this site.

And I've set my watch to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, for the start of the Great American Beer Festival. I imagine many of you have as well.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A New Bully in Town

It was six months ago today that a new player entered the Colorado beer market, though the change in local liquor stores and at local bars has been marked.

Boulevard Brewing, the 20-year-old Kansas City institution, quietly rolled into the state with six-pack and mix 12-packs and bombers from its Smokestack series. Now, it's hard to stroll into a cooler area without seeing its products lining shelves, nor are you likely to go to too many parties before running into someone who is enjoying the brand.

I admit that Boulevard had an early effect on my beer-snob formation. I don't remember exactly how I got a hold of my first Bully Porter - I think it was from the mix-a-six cooler at my college liquor store - but I remember vividly tasting it and getting hooked on dark beer. Whenever I went to visit friends in K.C., I would search out places where I could have it again.

After running through all of Boulevard's Colorado-available offerings - no small task, considering there have been at least 13 - the overwhelming impression you're left with is this: the porter is still a good beer, as are several of the year-round offerings. But a brewery that sprang up fairly early in the microbrew revolution with an offering of one of the classic English styles has found itself in its new experiments.

Take, for example, the new Two Jokers Double-Wit, which presents a big, sweet nose followed by a thick orange taste that is full-bodied and daring. The orange mellows as you sip, but the acidic citrus finish, tangy but not harsh, stays with you throughout the golden amber ale.

Each time the brewery pushes the envelope, it seems to find a little more within itself. Its Double-Wide India Pale Ale comes on sharp and bitter but warms to a slightly tart, very flavorful grass-scented offering. The Sixth Glass Quadruple Ale presents a smoky, slightly toasted licorice flavor that leaves a toffee caramel impression on the tongue. The Tank 7 farmhouse ale that was one of the hits of the Manitou Craft Lager Festival is a pleasantly strong experience with a slight bitterness on the backtaste.

The seasonal and year-round offerings - there are 11 altogether - are simpler, a little less exciting but more classically representative of their styles, without any major flourish like the big bomber beers. The Irish Ale has a dusty feel of cocoa to it. The Unfiltered Wheat is smooth and drinkable with very subtle citrus. The Single-Wide I.P.A. is for people who like their hops with a bitter bite.

What Boulevard has brought to the state is simply another quality product. Its big Belgians are a joy to crack out with friends and are reasonably priced. Its experimental beers leave the hope of even more to come, in even more styles.
And its porter, well, let's just say it will always be a gateway beer for me into a world that I was just beginning to discover as a 22-year-old. Personally I'm glad to see that the little brewery that hooked me has grown up into something bigger and bolder.


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