Monday, August 30, 2010

Summer Beers 2010: The Pure Refreshers

The Beer Geekette yelled at me the other day about something I've posted and talked much about since. When I explained that Avery's hop-forward Joe's American Pilsner was my favorite summer beer in recent memory, she asked: "Can't you just enjoy something that isn't hopped, sour or amazingly strong?"

I thought about it, and the answer, truthfully, was "no." For the most part, a good beer should be like a good movie: Stacked with layers of complexity, throwing in a few surprises around selected turns and leaving an impression well after you've finished it. But then I began thinking that maybe a good beer sometimes could just be like a quality comedy: Pleasing without being challenging, satisfying without being sharp. And that's when I thought about a whole new breed of summer beers.

There are certain beverages out there made for the hot and sticky season that go down easy and leave you with a smile on your face. And to a few of them this column is dedicated - the lighter beers made with just enough heft to keep them interesting but still appealing to everyone.

1) Manana - Del Norte Brewing
No beer captures the enjoyment of the much belittled Mexican lager style more than this creation from Colorado's only all Mexican-style brewer. As an amber lager, it fills the mouth with a malty, slightly caramel feel but backs it with a smooth and deceptively easy body. Most beers shipped north from south of the border can only wish they were this enjoyable.

2) Newcastle Summer Ale
The wet-rope taste that defines the most mediocre English beers is gone from this creation, replaced by a citrus hop zing that is terribly easy on the mouth but tasty enough to maintain interest. It carries a slight more copper hue than many of its summer brethren, and the color reflects a commitment to more flavor than many breweries' summer renditions.

3) SummerBright Ale - Breckenridge Brewery
Poured with a hazy gold consistency and minimal head, the light citrus aroma in this seasonal from the Denver brewer belies a pleasant body. What you have is a slightly dusty but very refreshing golden ale with a background hint of lime that splashes up its personality just enough. This is a beer that cools you without challenging you, a summer edition that really should be sipped at a grill or after mowing the lawn.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Manitou Festival Highlights

Yes, there were a few problems getting all of the beers you wanted at the Manitou Craft Lager Festival this year. But, showing why the event is so good, there were also some finds. Here's a look at a few things that stood out among the entries from the the 26 participating breweries:

*Avery Brewing is officially through the looking glass in terms of hopping a lager. Its recently released Joe's Premium American Pilsner blends a truly refreshing lighter body with a jump-up-and-grab-your-attention amount of hops to create one of the most interesting summer beers in recent memory.

*Looking for the next impressive beer trend? Think Helles. The bolder, sweeter style of lager was on fine display at several breweries. Pug Ryan's brought the biggest and toughest of the bunch, and its charge could not be ignored. The soon-to-open BierWerks of Woodland Park also rolled out a very medium-bodied, balanced and refreshing entry.

*Oak aging is doing wonderful things to lagers. This was most evident for the short window of time in which Odell was pouring its Woodcut #4, a shockingly smooth 11% ABV vanilla wonderland of a double-marzen-style lager aged in virgin American oak barrels. And even a smaller brewery like Rockyard showed with its Excavator Doppelbock that oak aging can make what is considered by some to be the simpler style of beer into a complex and meaty creation.

*Left Hand Brewing's Oxymoron was tapped a little early at the festival - it had yet to be filtered, I was told - but it portended a fascinating experiment to come. This "teutonic India pale ale" was brewed with a lager strain and was the hoppiest entry of the festival.

*If you're looking for someone to push the envelope a little further, look no further than Trinity Brewing. This year's debutante beer was the Kinky Reggae, an unhopped lager brewed with Jamaican jerk spices. There was considerable debate among the Fearless Tasting Crew about the merits of unhopped beers, but the rising spice level left this alone in terms of unique flavors at the event.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Manitou Festival Growing Pains

It didn't take long last weekend to remember why the Manitou Craft Lager Festival is one of the highlights of the Colorado summer season. Breweries from up and down the Front Range converged on an eclectic small town. Many brought beers well outside their standard fare that can be found in any liquor store. Some even brought beers that they were debuting at the festival (or, in the case of Left Hand Brewing, were showing off even before its official debut).

But by late afternoon Saturday, the increasingly popular gathering was starting to show its growing pains. By 4 p.m. - two hours before the five-hour session was over - two popular breweries had run out of beer. By 5, a full 13 out of the 26 breweries present had gone dry, though Trinity Brewing deserves credit for tapping another keg late in the day after it had run out originally. And the lines at the remaining booths had moved from resembling Russian River crowds Thursday night at the GABF to bearing a similarity to those New Glarus giant queues at the Saturday afternoon tasting session.

An overabundance of beer drinkers is not always a fatal problem; it's certainly no worse than, if not less of a problem than, throwing a tasting where nobody comes. But the great joy of the Manitou festival has always been that it felt just a little different from many of its summer cohorts, more like a laid-back gathering of beer aficionados hanging out on a summer day than a cram-packed room of people searching for any beer they could find. It got to the point this year where a close friend told me: "That's it, I'm not coming back next year." I'm not ready to take that step, but any time you get longtime fans - this buddy and I were at the very first Manitou festival together - spouting that level of frustration, it may be time to re-examine things.

So, before I laud some of the stellar creations that were served at the festival (which will be tomorrow or Saturday's post), I want to make a plea to organizers as a fan: Some changes are needed.
*Ask the breweries to bring a few more kegs. Even if people are drinking, say, Ska's standard fare rather than their tasty, rarer schwarzbier late in the festival, they'll have something there to enjoy.
*Consider limiting limiting the number of tickets sold. While I can criticize a certain other friend who didn't show up until 4 p.m. (and I did), his tardiness should not have left him largely without options for most of his time there, since he did show up for 40 percent of the festival.
*Create more activities that didn't involve standing in line. You've already got a headier crowd than at most summer festivals. Rather than just throwing up your standard music stage, have some big name brewers give a talk or pour a special creation for seated crowds at various times. This might pull some people away from the long lines and slow down the taps just a little.

Again, I will be back next year. The festival is too interesting and the beer entries too creative to ignore. But once you start losing hard-core beer geeks who have been there for eight years - the kind of people who will step out of lines to discuss the beer with strangers who want to have the same conversation - you run the risk of taking away the joy of what makes the event special.


Friday, August 13, 2010

This Week in Colorado Beer

There are very few weekends that I mark early in the year and reserve, but this is one of them ...

Beer Festivals
*Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 6 p.m.: One of Colorado's finest beer festivals, the Craft Lager Festival in Manitou Springs, takes place this weekend in Memorial Park. Colorado's finest brewers bring in their wheats, their pilsners and their special creations, some made just for this festival. And a few breweries will pop in from places like New York, Massachusetts and Oregon as well. The sun is hot, the atmosphere is casual and the cost is $35 - or $65 for a couple. Plus the money goes to benefit open-space preservation.
*Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.: Won't be on the Front Range for the lagerfest? The Winter Park Beer Festival features 19 breweries, many of them doing double duty at both gatherings. Tickets are $30 for unlimited tasting, and there's tons of music planned at Hideaway Park as well.

New Releases
*Friday, 5 p.m.: Trinity Brewing of Colorado Springs releases its Kinky Reggae, a Jamaican jerk-spiced concoction. Word from the brewery is that it tastes like a spice-filled Christmas beer.
*Tuesday, 5 p.m.: Bristol Brewing of Colorado Springs releases its Cheyenne Canon Ale, a pinon nut-roasted brown ale that benefits the Friends of Cheyenne Canon.
*Just got an e-mail this week that BJ's Brewhouse has put out its Light Switch Lager, for those of you looking for something really light this summer.

Beer/Food Pairing
*Tuesday, 7 p.m.: It's like man vs. beast or soccer vs. football. Great Divide Brewing engages in a beer vs. wine dinner at Denver's downtown TAG restaurant. Weigh in for $60.

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Sunday, August 08, 2010

A Whole New IPA Experience at Great Divide

The Beer Geekette doesn't drink IPAs, period. It's not just the hop bombs she doesn't like; she eschews lousy, watered down ones too because the acidity to the hops flavor is off-putting to her, no matter its strength. But on Friday night, she discovered Great Divide's new Rumble IPA. And suddenly, this one beer that she had just met did something that her husband of four years had never been able to do: Convince her that IPAs can be a truly wonderful thing.

But while my wife's awakening was shocking, it was not, as I talked to others, the only such mind-changing that occurred during Great Divide's release party for its two newest beers, which are expected to hit liquor store shelves later this week and be available for the next two months. More than one person who had looked askew at hop heads suddenly found themselves relishing this new creation, which truly does present the IPA in a new way.

Rumble, you see, is an American IPA aged on American and French oak, and while the hops provided the bass line that helped to tell the story of this beer, it was the oak flavoring that played the main guitar. It lent the beer an air of a soft Scotch whiskey, a woody taste that permeated every taste bud without overwhelming them. And, in what may be the key to its cross-over appeal, this was an IPA that made its mark but then faded without leaving behind the bitter aftertaste so familiar to the style.

The 7.1% ABV concoction was served slightly warm, giving drinkers a chance to observe even more its nuances. (One really should think about serving this in a tumbler, in fact.) You are likely to walk away considering this a "thinker" beer in which every taste gives you a chance to mull the many flavors without jerking your head back in any taste-bud assault.

That said, the other star of the night - though clearly the Apollo Creed to Rumble IPA's Rocky - was also impressive. The new Smoked Baltic Porter takes a classic dark-and-thick as night style and lays a not-so-subtle smoke flavor on top of it to toughen up a genre that wasn't lacking in manhood before. The smoke competes with but ultimately outstrips the malt, leaving this a beer that almost seems better made for cold nights months down the road.

Regardless, it's a daring style that, like Rumble, will take your taste buds for a ride. Unlike Rumble, however, it stops short of redefining an entire genre of beer.


Friday, August 06, 2010

This Week in Colorado Beer

Beer Festival
*Saturday, 1 to 6 p.m.: If you've got some time to kill while you're at the Larimer County Fair, stop by the Gnarly Barley Brew Festival. Ten bucks gets you four tokens ($1 apiece for each additional token) and the chance to try offerings from 22 breweries, including a couple that don't often make it out of the northeast Colorado area.

New Releases
*Friday, 5 to 9 p.m.: Black Fox Brewing in Colorado Springs (specifically in Bristol Brewery) releases "Don't Call Me Wit," a summer saison.
*Friday, 6 to 9 p.m.: Great Divide Brewing releases its Rumble IPA, an American IPA aged on French and American oak, and a Smoked Baltic Porter. Fifteen bucks gets you four beer and two food tickets. The Fearless Tasting Crew will be there in style.
*Friday, 6 to 9 p.m.: Avery Brewing cracks out Quinquepartite, a sour ale that blends beers aged in port, chardonnay, zinfandel and two cabernet sauvignon barrels. It's made only 60 cases of the fifth beer in its barrel-aged series.
*Saturday, 4 to 7 p.m.: If you've got any liver left after those Friday night tastings, Odell Brewing is releasing its Deconstruction Golden Ale.

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Summer Beers 2010: The Innovators
Summer too often is a time when breweries can rest on their laurels, turn out the lightest and blandest beer they've produced and claim that this is what the weather demands. But something odd has happened in the summer of 2010.

This is the year, it seems, that brewers across Colorado are finding ways to infuse not just bold tastes into their straw-golden beers but fully new tastes with which few of their peers have experimented. And so, in the first of what should be an occasional series over the next month looking at the beers of the season, I'd like to salute three Front Range breweries that are opening eyes during what once was considered the throwaway time for beer-making.

1) Golden City Brewery - Watermelon Kolsch
It's not often that you admire the pulp in a beer. Yet, sitting on the lively outdoor patio at Golden's second largest brewery and watching the sun hit the floating pieces of watermelon in this beer, you admire the creativity even more. This is a concoction that manages to take one of the subtlest tastes in the fruit world and infuse it into a beer just light enough to let it stand out without overkill. And while other popular beer fruit, such as strawberry or apricot, can make you ask why someone thought the addition was a good idea, the slighter sweetness of the watermelon actually compliments the gummy maltiness of the kolsch and really does make this stand out as a particularly appropriate and memorable combination of tastes.

2) Wynkoop Brewing - Tut's Royal Gold
Making an "imperial Egyptian ale" to go with the King Tut exhibit at the Denver Art Museum sounded at first like a cheap publicity gimmick. But tasting this unique unfiltered beer that approximates a Belgian golden ale with honey and Egyptian spices indicates that Andy Brown and his staff at Wynkoop put a lot of thought into its creation. Tut presents itself with the taste of honey sweetness, but this thick, vaguely musty beer finishes with spices that remind one of saffron and yet don't remind them of other beers. A few friends noted that the taste could have been more assertive, but overall this is an ambitious effort that should be tried.

3) Phantom Canyon Brewing - Dompfbier
Alan Stiles arrived at this Colorado Springs brewpub earlier this year with a clear desire to shake things up. And while the litany of new beers that he is producing is impressive in its length alone, none of them have been as jaw-dropping as this amber ale made with hefeweizen yeast that debuted at the start of July. This clash of American and German styles produces a vaguely Belgian product, one in which the cooling yeast fizz cascades over the tongue, mixing with the peat-like malt in a way that gives it a sizzle. Refreshing, meaty and daring, this is one of the best examples of how a beer can be a perfect summertime treat that is suitable for admiration at any time of the year.

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