Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top 10 Colorado Beers of 2011

The past year has been an exciting and experimental year for Colorado beers, even by its lofty standards. And so, to try to categorize the best offerings from 2011 is no easy task.

This list is not necessarily a list of the best beers you could buy at any moment in the state - don't worry, Avery Maharaja, I haven't forgotten about you - but a list of the most exciting beers of the past 12 months. These are the brews that inspired conversation in just the past year, excited taste buds and made you appreciate the brewing craft of this state so much that you wanted to share it with everyone.

10) Cherry Bomb Belgian Stout - Strange Brewing

This fascinating combination of roasted malt and tart cherries is not a new brew. But in the past year, the evolution of the beer to a happy medium between the stout and Belgian fruit styles, as well as the decision to keep it smoothly on nitro, has continued to make it one of Denver's most fascinating brews.

9) Steamworks Berliner Weisse - Steamworks Brewing

Many breweries experimented ) - and did very well - with this previously little-produced German sour wheat beer in the past year. But none made anything quite as tasty as the Durango brewery that is continuously experimenting and coming up with options like this that strike the interest of the palate without beating it to death with tartness.

8) Belgian Yeti - Great Divide Brewing

Great Divide has made a small amount of beers better than Belgian Yeti. But it's been a while since the last time it made something so provocative to combine Belgian yeast with its already bold and flavorful imperial stout recipe. And the fact that Great Divide was ballsy enough to release this in the summer lets you know how countercultural a good beer can be.

7) Summer Cab Ride - Breckenridge Brewery

Breckenridge's SummerBright Ale was a run-of-the-mill light offering - right up until the brewery decided to age it in cabernet sauvignon barrels and turned it into a fascinating and complex lighter beer with wine skin and slightly sour overtones. Now it's one of the most approachable and enjoyable barrel experiments in this state.

6) Mexican Chocolate Stout - Copper Kettle Brewing

Copper Kettle opened in late April and won a Great American Beer Festival medal in late September - a gap that brewery owners believe to be the shortest in history. But it was well-deserved for a beer that so artfully combined spice, cinnamon and dark malt that it felt like you were drinking dinner, not an aperitif.

5) Le Terroir - New Belgium Brewing

New Belgium had displayed Le Terroir in its taproom and at the GABF before. But it wasn't until this year that the dry hopped sour ale became a part of its Lips of Faith series that received general distribution. Tart like a cherry and yet grassy in its hops, it combines the best of Belgian and American brewing and gives you a beer that warms your cockles.

4) Brain of the Turtle - Trinity Brewing

Colorado complexity reached its peak in this sour ale aged with cherries, coffee and almonds - Jason Yester's latest freak show of a beer that conforms to no style but just turns heads and makes experimental beer fans smile. Nothing was talked about more among Colorado beer geeks at the Great American Beer Festival. And no other new beer deserves a statewide release so much in 2012.

3) Myrcenary Double IPA - Odell Brewing

Colorado has become the king state of double IPAs, which makes it particularly hard for a newcomer to break into its market. But Myrcenary, released at the end of 2010, ranks with its best products as a sharply hoppy offering with enough of a malt backbone to make it grassy without being overbearing. It's a four-pack worth picking up.

2) Nitro Milk Stout - Left Hand Brewing

No Colorado beer has been more hyped in its release than this one - which makes it incredibly impressive that the Longmont brewery not only met but exceeded expectations with a magically carbonated and sweet stout that may well the most drinkable beer in Colorado right now. I have turned IPA drinkers into stout drinkers with this selection, and Left Hand's influence is likely to turn a lot of typical dark beer producers into auteurs who put their beer on nitrogen to make it more interesting.

1) Buddha Nuvo - 14 breweries, led by Rockyard Brewing

Collaboration beers are, by their nature, complex and full of flavors that everyone wants to contribute. But no beer pushed the taste envelope so much to the edge - without sailing over it - as this collaboration saison from 14 breweries that presented drinkers with the combined tastes of grape skin, plum, pumpkin and a perfume-like overtaste that fades into simple fascination at the realization of what is in here. One of the highlights of my year as a writer was the opportunity to participate in a multiple-blog collaboration review of this masterpiece. But nothing we said could equal the melange of flavors cavorting in your mouth and making you realize that Colorado beer is producing experiments that will push it further up the charts as the state that should attract national attention both this year and in the future.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holiday Beer Week, Part Five: The New Champion of Christmas

For the past two years, no holiday beer has brought more to the season than Port Brewing's Santa's Little Helper, a fiercely dark imperial stout that could keep you warm if you were sitting outside in the snow. It just seemed that nothing would dethrone it as the Christmas beer king.

Then came Four Calling Birds, this year's addition to The Bruery's now-4-year-old collection of rotating holiday specialties. And it just yanked that title away.

Four Calling Birds (the one on the left with less head in the photo) brings its own inky darkness to the table, a trait that leaves even more of an impression in your mouth with the resounding hint of high alcohol in its backtaste. But it adds both the smoothness that defines Belgian-style strong ales and a spice presence - largely, gingerbread - that floats through your mouth. Thus, it becomes the rare beer that will both pound your taste buds with its flavor and soothe you with a cookie-like flavor profile, leaving you thinking this is the beer you really want to leave out for Santa.

Don't get me wrong: Santa's Little Helper (on the right in the photo, with the thick head) remains a rare highly drinkable imperial stout in which you can literally chew on the roastiness of the malt and be wowed. But, at least this year, it's only second on my list of the beers that I want to keep drinking throughout the winter.

And if you need to decide yourself, head down to Freshcraft, which should have both of the offerings on tap throughout most of next week.

This is the last of a five-part series examining the beers of this holiday season. Merry Christmas and happy new beer!

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday Beer Week, Part Four: Nowhere Near Style

There isn't an official style for "Christmas Ale." But if there was, there are several beers that it would not include - some of which should feel very proud to be outside the lines.

First among them is Jolly Pumpkin's Noel de Calabaza Special Ale, a beer that combines so many different flavors that trying to tie any description to it would do it injustice. But know this: This might be the most appealing beer yet produce by the Michigan brewer of barrel-aged ales.

Noel, like most Jolly Pumpkin beers, has a wild-yeast sour flavor to it. But this version backs it with a malt body that lays down such a solid cushion to the tart character that it evens out the bite and spreads it across the entire palate. This really is an extraordinary beer, one that defies any expectations of a Christmas beer - like most of what comes out of the brewery - but manages to be extremely pleasing despite the complex body.

Gift of the Magi, Lost Abbey's Christmas offering, serves up Brettanomyces, but not in as palatable an offering. This one is equally style-breaking, but more sharply alcoholic. And its fairly translucent amber body gives way to a sharp ale that presents itself more as a melange of flavors than as a coherent taste profile, leaving it too open to interpretation to make it an easily enjoyable package.

Then there's Breckenridge Christmas Ale, a beer that very well could have gone into the first part of this series as a dark, wonderful ale. But it has such a cult following that you feel it really ought to stand out somewhere else. This is a beer that blends malt darkness with just a touch of hops to make one of the most balanced beers of the year. It is dark, yet it is special. And that's how a beer goes beyond any particular labels.

This is day four of a five-part series examining the beers of this holiday season. Merry Christmas and happy new beer!

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday Beer Week, Part Three: A Belgian Christmas

No one knows quite how to do the holiday season quite like the Belgians, do they? A cold country that's used to serving complex, warm beers, saving up what they have for one big month. Americans shouldn't even compete, right?

With the kinds of lush offerings that Belgium offers, that was once a rational mindset. But this year, at least one U.S. brewery produced an extraordinary Belgian-style offering. And so, it seemed worth a little comparison shopping to test its merit.

The American beer of note is Grand Teton Brewing's Coming Home 2011 Holiday Ale. A medium-bodied but thick-tasting golden ale reeking of cotton candy and orange, it is one of the most accessible and yet enjoyable European-style holiday offerings to come out of a U.S. brewery in recent memory. It has a soft feel, and its 9% ABV weight warms you considerably. And it is infinitely drinkable.

Paired against two notable Belgian holiday offerings, it stands the test.

Affligem's Noel Christmas Ale (pictured above) went over less well with the Fearless Tasting Crew. An amber-brown offering that sits somewhere between a Belgian double and triple, it presents a licorice-heavy front taste that sweetens with warming but still leaves an anise presence in your mouth after it's gone. It's interesting and, in some ways more simplistic than the multi-layered Coming Home, but it doesn't make you refreshed and warmed in quite the same way.

St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, a Belgian abbey ale with a sweet, rich amber body was far more enticing. With candied sugar and tastes of dark fruit such as plum and blackberry, it almost seemed to be made for a holiday associated with sugar-plum ferries dancing in your head. The mouthfeel is not overwhelming, but it carries a deep, burgeoning richness.

Still, Grand Teton's effort just struck one note more original, more pleasing, more for a holiday celebration. And both the Idaho-based brewery and American beer drinkers should rejoice in that.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Beer Week, Part 2: Hoppy New Year

The concept of a hoppy holiday beer - as fun and alliterative as it may sound - is still a relatively untouched idea in the American beer spectrum. But why should it be?

The idea behind most holiday beers is adding a little something extra to the standard recipe or brewing with spices that you use only once a year. So, why not take hops that are normally outside of a brewery's line of ingredients, pair them with a typical malty backbone and create something new? It can be done without making the Christmas season an excuse to rev up the IBUs on a recipe just for the heck of it.

Maybe nothing demonstrates that better this season than Full Sail Brewing's Wreck the Halls, a 2011 brewmaster reserve that doesn't hold back on the hops. Rather than trying to do anything too dazzling, this creation simply layers Centennial hops onto a deep amber body, giving you a mouth full of grass but also a pleasant malty backtaste to minimize the sting. And thus, it proves you don't have to use cinnamon to designate that you make make a special beer in the winter.

Odell Brewing's Isolation Ale approaches the concept of a hoppingly refreshing beer from a different angle - that of a beer that presents its caramel characteristics first and foremost but surprises you with a sharp hop backtaste. In that way, the hop is the special flavor of the season, bursting into what otherwise would be a more standard medium-colored ale and warming your palate beyond what the malts can do.

Newcastle seemed to be going for a similar taste this year in its first-time Winter IPA, a take on the style that is decidedly light on bittering hops and that comes with just a hint of holiday caramel in the body. It's about as far from Wreck the Halls as you get in terms of intensity. But, more than being a hophead's delight, this is the kind of hoppy beer that you can serve to the whole family gathering and use it to ween people onto the idea that holiday beers with a different taste don't have to mean an overpowering malt or spice base.

This is day two of a five-part series examining the beers of this holiday season. Merry Christmas and happy new beer!

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holiday Beer Week, Part 1: Dark and Daring
Holiday beers come in many styles, from the hopped to the heavy, but none seems as prominent as the dark beer that just reeks of warming on a cold winter night.

The bad news is that a number of the holiday darks push, like summer light ales, adventurouslessly toward a color rather than a unique flavor. But there are those that can pull of the label "dark and daring," and for them we should all be grateful.

*Bristol Brewing's Winter Warlock has long been a favorite of mine for its chewy roasted oat flavor, and this year the Colorado Springs brewery just cranks up the goodness by putting it on nitro (at least at the brewery). This smooths it out and lets the softly burned chocolate flavor stand out above the carbonation. Try it if you can find it this way.

*Great Divide's Hibernation Ale is another old standby - at 8.7% ABV it was the first big beer sold throughout Colorado. But this beer feels fresh every year. It's a big hit of both malt (on the aroma) and hops on the back of the tongue. And the high alcohol really does leave you warmed.

*If you're looking for something of the sweeter variety, Tommyknocker's Cocoa Porter seems to be picking up that characteristic more every year. It has just a hint of a vanilla cream taste and a medium-sized body, making this a perfect post-ski beer if you're stopping at the brewery on the way back down I-70.

*Left Hand's latest iteration of Paint It Black should only be drunk when not exhausted, as it's a jolt to the system. Ink black and thick as soup, the 2011 version outstrips the daring 2010 Baltic porter version because this adds just a hint of chili fire on the backtaste that lights up an otherwise fully dark mouthfeel.

*Finally, for those who like their Christmas beers like the ones that would have been drank in the 19th Century, there is Lump of Coal Dark Holiday Stout (pictured above) from Ridgeway Brewing of England. While British porters often tend to leave you with a mouthfeel of wet rope, this provides you with a dusty, even musky chocolate taste that feels it's blending old-world and new-world beer sensibilities.

This is day one of a five-part series examining the beers of this holiday season. Merry Christmas and happy new beer!

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