Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What's Cooking at Odell

Every once in a while, you can get a peak inside a great brewery's mind not by watching its bomber release schedule but by visiting its taproom. And a trip to Odell Brewing this weekend showed that the brewing legend continues to push the envelope with taste but also is adding a new dimension in subtlety.

Yes, there was the Hiverrano New American Wild Ale, the wild-yeast-fermented alcohol bomb that comes on with a low-profile sour sting but leaves you with a root-y, earthy feel of experimentation in your mouth. And there was the Bourbon Barrel Stout, complete with a whiskey mouthfeel that complimented the dark malt.

But the gem of the day was the Fall Harvest Ale, a citrus-and-coriander-laden concoction with a very smooth malt backbone that resembled a summer ale with actual heft to it. And there was the Nacho Cuppa Joe, a nitro-infused coffee porter that didn't scrimp on the java taste but smoothed it out with nitrogen to make it more accessible. The taproom also featured a Raspberry Stout that was neither fruity enough nor dark enough to match up to the other experiments on tap.

What does this all say? Well, it means that the brewery that dedicated 50 percent of the space in its 2010 expansion to barrel-aged and experimental beers isn't looking just to go over the top. And while one might wish it was when you taste something sublime like the multidimensional sour Friek - set for release Saturday - it also means Odell can broaden its appeal to a lot of different drinkers.

And it can surprise you with tastes like a Fall Harvest Ale, which, much like the superbly crisp Kolsch it rolled out at select beer festivals this summer, could hit shelves one day and serve as a fantastically easy-drinking alternative to other seasonals on the market. And, subtle as that may be, it is an experiment to redefine the styles that everyone - not just us hard-core beer geeks - are drinking.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mexican Chocolate Stout: En Fuego!

As a fan of chili beers, you grow to think that nothing could be better than that singe of multiple peppers coming just before a well-balanced ale puts out the fire with refreshing malt and hops.

Then you try Copper Kettle Brewing's Mexican Chocolate Stout - this year's Great American Beer Festival gold-medal winner among herb and spice beers - and realize that a chili beer really can offer so much more.

This gem - and I rarely write blogs about just one beer unless it's a superlative creation - presents an up-front cocoa taste, deep and rich and sweet. Before that has time to fully settle, though, you're hit by the rare taste of cinnamon, which makes you feel you've gone from a dark beer to some kind of mole sauce that you weren't expecting.

Then comes the piece de resistance, the Mexican guajillo chili peppers, that greet you with just a flare of a burn on your tongue that accentuates both of the previous tastes. The cinnamon/fire combo leaves you with a slight scorch on the back of your throat, but one easily soothed by the swirling combination of the three flavors.

This isn't a beer you think you can drink several 10-ounce glasses of, but it is shockingly soothing, like the aroma of a spicy potpourri setting in. And it truly is a uniquely pleasing taste that offers something for spiced and dark beer drinkers without letting them feel comfortable enough to assume they've ever tasted a flavor quite like this before.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Walk through Colorado Breweries, Radio-Style

I had the great please of talking with Ariana Brocious of KVNF radio in Paonia not long ago about my new book on Colorado breweries. But while the conversation centered around "Mountain Brew," I found that we ended up hitting more Colorado breweries in one interview than any I've done yet.

If you're interested in taking a 15-minute walk through the Colorado brewing industry, here is the link. Enjoy.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

GABF Wrap: Colorado Shines

By now, you've probably heard the stats on Colorado's props from the Great American Beer Festival, and they are impressive. Thirty-nine medals go to 29 breweries, including 15 gold medals. The state places second in overall medals and golds only to California. Pandemonium ensues.

But before we shut the door on the recaps of this year's magnificent gathering of American brewers, it's worth delving a little deeper on some of the honors that were garnered - and a few that weren't.

*Great Divide, Avery, Left Hand and Trinity make make most of the short lists for the best breweries in Colorado. It is worth noting, however, that none took home a medal this year. That is partly due to the fact that these four breweries simply don't make beers that fit easily into any of the 83 categories in which beers are judged. ("And the medal for best imperial stout infused with Belgian yeast is ... Belgian Yeti, the only one made in America.") But is it shocking all the same. And it tells you something about the state when it can garner 39 medals without any tallies from these big four.

*Two other omissions worth noting are the lack of medals for Bristol's Laughing Lab Scottish Ale and Steamworks' Steam Engine Lager, the two most honored beers in state history, with 15 combined medals. Without rifling through my notes, I can't remember the last time neither medaled. Both are still great beers; sometimes it's just not your year.

*Colorado's big winners, meanwhile, were Dry Dock and Oskar Blues, which took home three medals each. Dry Dock, which scored with its Hefeweizen, Coffee Milk Stout and Pro-Am Kriek, is making a habit of this, tying or leading the state in medals for the third year in a row. Oskar Blues, honored for its Old Chub, Mama's Little Yella Pils and Deviant Dale's (which needs to be canned) is certainly worthy as well.

*Copper Kettle Brewing opened in April and Denver Beer Co. cut its ribbon just in August. Yet, both walked away with medals in their first half-years of existence. Copper Kettle scored gold among herb and spice beers with its Mexican Chocolate Stout and Denver Beer a bronze in specialty beers with its Graham Cracker Porter. Grimm Brothers Brewhouse in Loveland, which opened last fall, also was a medal winner at its first GABF, taking gold among altbiers for its Little Red Cap.

*Colorado breweries took the gold and bronze in the pro-am category. C.B. & Potts Westminster had the best collaboration brew with its Before Capone pre-Prohibition pilsner and Dry Dock nabbed bronze for the aforementioned Kriek. This is no coincidence. No other state in the country fosters such an atmosphere of amateurs working with pros, and it's beginning to show.

*Bash Coors all you want, but four of its breweries - Blue Moon, SandLot, AC Golden and the main house all won medals for various creations. And none went to anything in the American lager or light lager categories.

*All of the medals were well earned, but several were exceptionally good choices. New Belgium's Le Terroir snagged the gold in American-style sour ale, as it should - no beer out there combines Belgian technique and American hopping quite as well. Odell's Friek, which mixes sour beers from three differently aged barrels, walked away with a richly deserved gold among wood- and barrel-aged sour beers. And the Funkwerks Saison that took silver for French- and Belgian-style saisons is delicious without being overwhelming.

*Best name out of all the winners: The SandLot's Move Back, the gold-medal recipient among dortmunder or German-style Oktoberfest beers. As brewer Tom Hall told me for my book, it's dedicated to all the Chicago Cubs fans who moved to Denver but complain that Chicago is a much better city.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

GABF Wrapup: Best of the Fest

After three days of attempted recovery from the Great American Beer Festival, I can still taste some of the beers I sampled - and in a good way. Sours took on more nuanced and fresher flavors, IPAs seemed to have a more uniform grassy backbone and it seemed you could find a surprise beer around every corner, especially at the pro-am booth.

So, per annual tradition, here is one beer connoisseur's opinion on the very best that America had to offer this year.

Beer of the Festival: Never in 11 years of attendance have I tapped a Colorado brewery for this honor. But Trinity Brewing's Brain of the Turtle - a sour ale aged with cherries, coffee and almonds - defied every known category and blended terrific flavors into a masterpiece. While I was in line at the booth, two separate people told brewer Jason Yester that other brewers recommended they try his beer. The reputation is well earned.

Close Runner-Up: Tiny Captain Lawrence Brewing of New York state opened a lot of eyes with its Rosso e Marrone, an ale fermented in grapes and aged in oak barrels. In a world of increasingly complex beers, this went beyond pucker-worthy and was smooth and almost exotic on the tongue.

Best Lager: It isn't to style in any way, but Danny Wang's Lao Wang Lager, from Denver start-up Caution Brewing, should inspire admirers and copycats with its proprietary blend of Asian spices.

Best Wheat: Tumblewheat, from perpetual festival attention-getter Altitude Chophouse and Brewery of Wyoming, came across like a vanilla cream wheat with an exceptional blend of smoothness and sweetness.

Best Hop Monster: Coloradans got a gift earlier this year when Firestone Walker Brewing of California finally began distributing out here. Anyone IPA fan who doesn't demand their local liquor stores bring in Double Jack, an imperial IPA that blends flowery earth tastes and sweetness artfully, is missing out.

Best Malt Monster: Sun King Brewing of Indianapolis took home a festival-best eight medals, but none were more deserving than the one earned by Pappy Van Muckle, a barrel-aged Scottish ale that is big, sweet and ignites the taste buds with a lightly whiskey-sodden flavor.

Most Interesting Beer: Anyone who failed to wander over to the pro-am booth Saturday missed out on the Indra Kenindra Curry Export Stout submitted by Ballast Point Brewing of San Diego, which had the nose of a south Asian rice bowl and backed it with a dark undertaste that helped it settle smoothly. It makes you excited about the next generation of beers to come in the years ahead.

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Saturday, October 01, 2011

GABF, Day 2: Small Breweries' Triumph

The Fearless Tasting Crew waited through the endless line at Cigar City Brewing last night, grabbed some Guava Grove saison and collectively shrugged as the less exciting version of the beer it found last year. Then we wandered over to Captain Lawrence Brewing (of New York state), strolled up to the lineless booth and went back again and again. Everything - but particularly the Rosso e Marrone grape-fermented, barrel-aged ale - was that good.

It's a growing adage that is proving particularly true this year: A crafty brewery, no matter how small, can make products on par with the greatest beers in the world. And those wares are on display at this year's Great American Beer Festival.

Nobody seemed to be talking about McKenzie Brew House in Malvern, Pa., before the start of the show. But one sip of its Saison Vautour, a bitingly sharp barrel-fermented citrus explosion, and the conversations should turn to that brewpub quickly.

Ditto with Freetail Brewing of San Antonio, whose Bandito - a double honey red wheat ale aged in barrels from a local winery - provides a rich apple-like taste that jumps out as one of the most unique at the GABF.

More than one person has now fawned over Angry Birds, the American Belgo Rye IPA trucked out to the festival by Haymarket Pub & Brewery of Chicago. It really is as complex as it sounds.

And the too-often-overlooked Six Rivers Brewery of McKinleyville, Calif. may have the best combination of completely opposite styles of beer. Try the Chili Pepper Spicy Ale to see how a company makes a hot beer drinkable, and then wash it down with a Raspberry Lambic Style Ale to see how a brewery makes an ancient beer style relevant.

It isn't that the big guys didn't bring great stuff. Odell's Myrcenary IPA may earn its true place on the landscape if it rightfully captures a gold medal in the double IPA category today.

But the lesson is this: Don't spend all your time in the big lines at the biggest booths, as you'll miss some incredible finds at the smaller ones.

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