Thursday, June 30, 2011

Louisiana Beer Revival

When I first traveled to New Orleans in 2004, the size of the beers was big, but there was nothing easy about them. This was a mass-produced, taste-free beer town, and even the local products, with the exception of an occasional brilliant flourish from Abita Brewing, did not stand out.

So, when the Beer Geekette and I went back two weeks ago for a friend's wedding and her fiancee told us that he was taking us to places to get the best local beer, I was skeptical. New Orleans gumbo? Yeah. Po' boys? You bet. Louisiana craft beer? Uh, really?

So, here's the pleasant surprise: A craft beer culture is growing in the town and the state, and its even taking on its own unique, refreshing and often fruit-flavored style. Many of the local breweries demonstrate daring in a different way than their peers in Colorado or California, but the results are very rewarding.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Abita, a brewery that went national in the early '90s with its then-bold Turbodog dark brown ale but slipped into the background as the years advanced. In addition to its highly drinkable Amber and sticky-sweet Andygator doppelbock, the suburban New Orleans brewery is now offering a Double IPA in its Select Series. Thick with the strongly sweet citrus taste of Cascade and Centennial hops, this is a little more sugary than some of its ilk but packs a flowery punch.

More on the local-is-unique scale was the Hurricane Saison from Nola Brewing, which incorporates the eponymous street-strolling sugar bomb of a drink with a beer style that tends to embrace its quirks. This rolls sharply over your tongue - and it's definitely not for those who don't like sweeter beers - but leaves a memorable impression.

Most impressive among the lighter, fruitier selections that seemed to dominate menu boards at the Bulldog, a fantastic beer bar with two locations, was the Covington Brewhouse Strawberry Ale. The eye-opening jolt of strawberry puree brewed into this cream ale took on a semi-sour edge that made this beer acidic enough to have some heft yet sweet enough to enjoy. And, for the record, very few member of the Fearless Tasting Crew drink beers with the word "berry" in them; this is a fantastic exception.

Even some beers that didn't bring their own stamp to the genre were fantastic sippers. The Weiss Beer (pictured lovingly above with me in its nearly finished state) at Crescent City Brewhouse, the only brewpub in the French Quarter, was a smooth unfiltered wheat with just the right mix of banana and clove to aid you after walking the city in 92-degree heat.

The only beer that left a wholly negative impression was Perfect Tin Amber, a vile bastardization of an English-style ale from Tin Roof Brewing that left a highly metallic taste and unnatural aftertaste. Only then did one long for the "Huge Ass Beers" of mass appeal that are advertised by sign-twirlers on Bourbon Street.

New Orleans isn't ready to be mistaken for Denver yet. But what is growing there in its beer culture is something enjoyable and unique. Now I can't wait to find someone making a Po' Boy Pilsner.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Colorado's Newest Brewery: Pikes Peak Brewing

Back in 2007, Chris Wright burst onto the Colorado beer scene with his publication of The Beer Journal, a spiral-bound 226-page notebook allowing the true beer geek to record their every sipping or food pairing experience. The book (which I still use to take notes) was such a hit that Wright produced a smaller second version available for sale nationwide.

But Wright's greatest contribution to Colorado brewing is his latest - the opening, less than three weeks ago, of Pikes Peak Brewing Company in Monument. There the computer parts salesman turned professional brewer has opened a brewpub as quaint as the bedroom community around it that serves a trove of interesting beers defying your stereotypes of their styles.

That stereotype-busting begins with The Brits Are Here!, a mild English brown ale that may be Wright's finest creation. Typically, adjectives like "light," "quiet" or even "dull" describe mild ales, but none of those can be used here. What you get is a light-bodied but surprisingly full-flavored beer that is low in hops but high in the toffee taste stemming from its crystal and chocolate malts.

Then there's his Rocky Wheat, a weissbeer that is less free-flowing wheat and more concerted clove and citrus bite because its lower-temperature fermentation compliments the fruit taste of the hops. The banana taste is low but the clove feel is especially high, specifically on the backtaste.

And just when you think you might get something you expect, Wright throws at you the Devils Head Red, a highly hopped, 7.9 percent alcohol-by-volume take on the style in which the malt and hops flavors clash for superiority. By the end, the alcohol-laden bitterness might come on a slight bit too strong, but you're still impressed at what he's tried.

The offerings are, in the words of the Beer Geekette, "the marriage of originality and drinkability."

All of this - Wright also offers three other beers currently, including a solid and warming Summit House Stout - plays out in a six-table, fireplace-laden strip-mall storefront just off of Interstate 25's exit 161. Pikes Peak Brewing has a small but satisfying menu of soups and sandwiches, and it offers four guest taps from other El Paso County brewers. (Big kudos too in the fact that the four guest beers on tap this past Sunday were of different styles than the six house beers, giving drinkers an even wider range of options.)

But while Pikes Peak is the kind of place you'd bring your parents to kick back near the fireplace with a pulled pork sandwich, it remains, true to Wright's reputation, a beer geek's delight. A chalkboard lists the IBUs, ABVs and OGs of each brew, complete with a notes section in which he breaks down the hops and malts used in brewing, just in case you were wondering.

The Beer Journal was a great gift to the world because it allowed you to geek out on its style and glass-pairing notes or to simply write down your thoughts on brews, whatever you wanted. Pikes Peak Brewing is, in many ways the descendant of that, offering complex but very drinkable brews in an atmosphere where you can break down the ingredients with the omnipresent brewmaster or just take in the homey, friendly atmosphere. Once again, Wright gives you whatever you want.


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