Friday, September 30, 2011

GABF, Day One: The Colorado Breweries

When a company selling a retail product tells you that it's about to release a "game changer," you should be skeptical. Yet, just a couple of sips into Left Hand's bottled Nitro Milk Stout last night, and I knew they were not exaggerating the importance of this beer.

The Longmont brewery has found a way to smooth out the best milk stout in America without the gadgetry that is normally required to be in a nitrogen-aided can. It brings out the subtle sweetness of the dark brew without pushing that attribute too hard for people who might not like it. As odd as this may sound, it makes a great beer better.

So, why is this important? Because an American product, which the brewery ships to stores today, is about to give Guinness a run for its money. I confess I've never been a Guinness drinker because I find it a little dull. This beer offers the smoothness that stout drinkers with less envelope-pushing palates than mine will appreciate, as well as the added kick of flavor that will grab the attention of someone who might normally go for a big IPA. It has the chance, I believe, to be the biggest thing to emanate from Colorado since Fat Tire.

Yet, Left Hand's big announcement was just one of the things that jumped out at the first night of the Great American Beer Festival, which I spend mostly talking with Colorado brewers and trying to find the next great thing coming out of the state. Here's what is there:

*If you haven't been to Lao Wang Noodle House in Denver, you haven't tried anything from the three-month-old Caution: Brewing Company, as that is the location of its only account. Go. Brewer Danny Wang's Lao Wang Lager, brought to life with a proprietary mix of Asian spices in the brewing, jumps across your taste buds more noticeably than many of the finest ginger beers in the country. You'll want to pair this with food.

*In the discussion of the state's best IPA, Avery's Dugana IPA is often overlooked. It shouldn't be. It has a larger pop of ass-kicking grassy hops than many, and it may be the best thing the Boulder beermeisters are serving at their booth this year.

*Want to play a fun game? Go to Shamrock Brewing's booth, try the Poacher's Pale Ale and try to identify what kind of hops are in there. Brewer Jason Buehler picks them from his favorite mountain biking trail - hence, the name - and the mystery hops give an interesting but slightly indiscernible taste to this subtle but enjoyable beer.

*In a world of wheat experimentation, Dostal Alley Brewpub & Casino has found a good niche. Buddy Schmalz's Summer Ale is sopped in chamomile with an orange backtaste. It's worth a try.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Coloradan's Guide to the Essential GABF Breweries

With 466 breweries pouring 2,375 beers at Great American Beer Festival, it can be a bit intimidating trying to figure out where to go. So, here is one GABF veteran's thoughts on 18 booths you have to stop by, even if you are going for just one session.

While I normally fawn over Colorado breweries, I've shied away from listing most of the state's best beer makers here - with a few exceptions - because you can find the brilliant beers from Great Divide or Avery or Odell largely in liquor stores or on tap. Instead, this is meant to serve as a quick-hit guide to what you can't get easily in Colorado and, therefore, should be prioritized in your tasting hunting this weekend.

1) Altitude Chophouse and Brewery - Booth N5
This Wyoming brewpub is one of the quiet stars of every festival it attends, showing off complex beers with an edge. And because so few people know about it, lines are fairly short at its booths
Required tasting: Mexican Chili Ale: If this is half as good as the brewery's 2010 chili porter, it will be memorable.

2) Bell's Brewery - C3
People haul this beer cross-country from Michigan, ala Smokey and the Bandit. It's easy to drink at the festival.
Required tasting: Any of them

3) Boston Beer Company - M1/M2
You may think you know Sam Adams. But its booth will also be serving a kriek, a tripel, five beers made by winners of an amateur brewing contest and Utopias, a $100-a-bottle, 25% ABV creation.
Required tasting: Utopias. It's divisive, but worth trying.

4) The Bruery - F5
Nothing made by this Orange County brewery fits a style, and everything is eyebrow-raising.
Required tasting: Oude Tart. Good sour stuff.

5) Cambridge Brewing - D36
Sold only in the Boston area, Cambridge makes experimental sours and tosses in ingredients to more normal styles that other breweries won't.
Required tasting: CBC Heather Ale, the only beer I know that literally uses heather as an ingredient.

6) Captain Lawrence Brewing - H32
Often overlooked because of its small size, this brewery consistently medals for its sours and Belgian ales.
Required tasting: Pretty much anything

7) Cigar City Brewing - G20
The best thing ever to come out of Florida, this brewery experiments with many styles and ages its beers in cedar barrels, giving them a cigar-like aroma.
Required tasting: Guave Grove, a guava saison that may have been the best beer at the 2010 GABF.

8) Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery - G23
Here's a great debate: Does the best milk stout in America come from Left Hand Brewing or this North Carolina brewery? This is your chance to find out.
Required tasting: Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout

9) Elysian Brewing - B16/B17
Some of this Seattle breweries more mainstream beers are circulating through Colorado, but not the ones that make your eyes bulge.
Required tasting: The Great Pumpkin, the closest thing you'll find to sticking a straw into a pumpkin pie.

10) Grand Teton Brewing - O14
Quite simply, the Howling Wolf Weizenbock is one of the most complex beers made in America. The others ain't bad, either.
Required tasting: Howling Wolf

11) New Belgium Brewing - H1
Why on earth would I include the state's largest and most accessible craft brewery on this list? Because, aside from Fat Tire and Ranger IPA, nothing it will be serving is easy to find or available year round - except La Folie, which might be the best beer in Colorado.
Required tasting: It's not on the serving list, but ask them if they brought any La Terroir - one of the most sour beers you'll find.

12) New Glarus Brewing - D18
I once counted a 93-person line at this Wisconsin brewery that doesn't distribute very far. It's worth it.
Required tasting: Raspberry Tart. Nothing like it in the fruit beer world.

13) Papago Brewing - M36
An Arizona brewery with a penchant for sweet, creamy and easy drinkers, this shouldn't be skipped.
Required tasting: Orange Blossom, a wheat beer that tastes like a Creamsicle.

14) Rocky Mountain Brewery - P14
The king of Colorado's flavor experimenters, Rocky Mountain doesn't stray far outside of its Colorado Springs brewery.
Required tasting: Tatonka Blueberry Cobbler, which tastes exactly like a blueberry pie.

15) Russian River Brewing - F36
This California brewmaster sends its wares to Colorado these days, but it's bringing some beers that are rare or not out here at all.
Required tasting: Supplication, the sour ale against which all others should be measured.

16) Six Rivers Brewery - F35
Small and quiet, this California brewery doesn't get nearly the attention it should for its multiplicity of American, Belgian and spiced beers.
Required tasting: Chili Pepper Spicy Ale, made with four kinds of chilis that set off a party in your mouth.

17) Trinity Brewing - P29
Jason Yester may not be well-known to the general world outside of Colorado Springs, but brewers from across the country call on him to talk about how he pushes the envelope.
Required tasting: Slap Your Mammy, a double IPA oozing with hops.

18) Weyerbacher Brewing - M4
One of the quiet hop kings of the festival, this uses simple ingredients very well.
Required tasting: Double Simcoe, which takes a trendy new hop and makes you want to beg for more.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Good News from Durango
Denverites, who are blessed with an abundance of breweries within just an hour's drive, too often tend to forget that southwest Colorado holds its own special draw.
The Beer Geekette and did a couple of book-signings this past weekend at the close of Durango's Beer Week - right before the start of GABF week up here - and found several fantastic pieces of beer news to recommend:
*Steamworks Brewing continues to diversify and master a number of styles. The Berliner Weisse on tap this weekend was smooth with just a hint of citrus sour - just like sour and wheat fans could hope.
*If you're looking for hop bitterness without it being overdone, Ska's Operation Ivy wet-hopped IPA packs it in. The brewery will have it on tap at events in Denver this week; try to catch it.
*And, yes, the guys at Ska still know how to party. Their 16th birthday bash, fueled appropriately enough with music from ska bands like The Toasters, seemed to bring out every brewery and beer drinker in southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico.
*Pagosa Brewing, still selling its wares only out of the brewery in tiny Pagosa Springs, continues to have beers worth driving for. The Belgian Amber in particular was about as easy-drinking yet still satisfying a beer you can get when mixing in a large quantity of Belgian yeast.
*Kudos to Mark Youngquist at Dolores River Brewery for continuing to make some of the best beers you've never tried (unless you've visited the 800-person town). His Snaggletooth double pale ale, packed with five different types of hops, made you stop and think about what you were drinking more than anything else at the Ska party.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Denver Beer Fest/GABF Week Highlights

Is it GABF week already? These things sneak up so fast, and you just don't have the proper amount of time to get your liver in shape. But rather than complaining about it, you might as well dive right into the mayhem. After all, this is not a week you want to miss.

The official website for Denver Beer Fest has the most extensive list of events from now until Sunday. But here are a few highlights for those of you who either didn't get tickets to the Thursday-Saturday Great American Beer Festival or simply can't wait that long:


* 5 p.m: Falling Rock Taphouse hosts its official GABF kickoff party, with beers galore.

* Vine Street Pub releases Four Virtue Reserve, a new Belgian beer


* Strange Brewing will be showing the movie "Strange Brew" all night - and serving special sausage plates.

* 5-7 p.m. Oskar Blues Brewery hosts its own rare beer tasting downtown at the Paramount Cafe.


* 5-8 p.m.: Shameless self plug: I'll be signing copies of my book, "Mountain Brew: A Guide to Colorado's Breweries," while chefs pair appetizers with Colorado beers at 16Mix downtown.

* 6-9 p.m.: Rackhouse Pub hosts a rare beer tasting for $35.


* Shmaltz Brewing will be at Freshcraft all day, starting with a rare bottle tasting at 2 p.m.

* Falling Rock brings in out-of-state beer stars for some rare tappings, including Anchor Brewing (2 p.m.), Full Sail Brewing (10 p.m.) and Green Flash Brewing (11 p.m.)


* Avery Brewing is breaking at some rarities at Falling Rock at 2 p.m. and then hosting a Heaven and Hell party at Freshcraft at 10 p.m.

* Falling Rock's lineup includes tastings from Rogue (3 p.m.), Dogfish Head (10 p.m.) and Alaskan Brewing (11 p.m.)


* Freshcraft features tappings from Upslope Brewing (11 a.m.), Oskar Blues (2 p.m.) and Widmer (10 p.m.)

* 10 p.m.: Still have a functioning liver after the GABF closes? Finish it off with rare beers - including a number of sour ales - from New Belgium Brewing at Falling Rock.

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Saturday, September 03, 2011

Denver Beer Co.: Nice Stuff

When the Fearless Tasting Crew tried to visit Denver Beer Co. on its opening night in mid-August, we were rebuffed because it was just too crowded. Grousing ensued, but there was one strain running through the group: This place must be pretty good to attract that crowd.

Now, a couple weeks into its development, it is safe to proclaim the city's newest brewery, at 1695 Platte St., was indeed worthy of its initial "pretty good" prediction and may even be on the verge of the sought-after "pretty damn good" moniker. But this much is for sure: co-owners Charlie Berger and Patrick Crawford are at their best when they are not brewing to style.

Denver Beer, it should be explained first, is not a brewery like say, Oskar Blues that is going to be known first and foremost for one beer. The brewers plan to rotate beers all the time without any single constant presences but with a desire to experiment, the staff will inform you.

That experimentation takes its best form in the Saison It Ain't So!, a Belgian farmhouse ale brewed with black pepper, "dry-hipped" with rose hips (their pun, not mine) and aromatically driven by lemongrass. It is a beer bursting with flavor, an impressive display of bravado for a fruity saison that keeps you looking for different flavors.

That's true too for its Storm Summer Stout, which is light-bodied but offers a very coffee overtone and an eye-opening grape-skin feel on the back of the tongue that sweetens the overall taste. This isn't going to win any style-driven awards, but it will make you look at the beer in your glass and ask admiringly: "How did they do that?"

On more by-the-book beers, Denver Beer is fully competent and enjoyable, just not as likely to cause you to do a double-take at your glass. The Pomegranate Wheat is refreshing and light, the Rye 25 Pale Ale has nicely competing sweet and bitter flavors and the the Smoked Lager has a mesquite overtone with a slightly thicker body than you might expect.

Still, it's always hard to judge a brewery that plans to rotate its selections based on what one had a couple of weeks ago. But in terms of atmosphere, the place just feels nice: a hollowed-out garage with big, open windows that make it seem even airier and roomier than its ample room space provides.

And in terms of the feel of the beer, it just feels like a place you want to go back to at least once a month, to see what they're working on next. Not every beer will blow your mind, but it's likely there's something on the menu that will - and will make you break into spontaneous discussion about the ingredients used in there.


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