Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Beer Drinkers' Guide to the Grand Canyon

There are few places on Earth where beer should be relegated to being a minor footnote on a trip. The Grand Canyon is one of them.

Still, during a recent family vacation, I could find just enough well-made beers to pair well with the grandiose sight of the canyon at sunset (a pairing which you really are allowed to enjoy). And here's a quick guide to grand beer in the Grand Canyon.

* The general store in the canyon has a great selection of beer. From the rich, grassy Lumberyard IPA to sweet Four Peaks Kilt Lifter (being enjoyed above by the Beer Geekette) to the subtle but citrus-y Prescott IPA, it has a wide variety of Arizona beer, especially - and you can mash up your own six-pack. Throw it in your backpack and enjoy it while watching the sun dip over Hopi Point. Seriously.

* Each of the park's restaurants stocks beer by Grand Canyon Brewing, from the nearby town of Williams. The amber ale, pilsner and Starry Night Stout won't knock your socks off by any means, as they are stylistically unchallenging and appear to be made to please large crowds. But they're not bad beers either. And, somehow, it just feels right to drink Grand Canyon beer in ... well, you know where. (It is worth warning, however, that the service at the restaurants was terrible - some of the slowest and least customer-focused that I've ever experienced on a trip.)
* Flagstaff is the nearest major town to the canyon, about 90 minutes away. And there are five breweries in town. Beaver Street Brewery is the dean of the group, and it serves up relatively familiar styles in very well-done ways. The Lumberyard Raspberry is malty to the point where it has a chocolate hint, leaving the strong fruit flavor intriguing rather than cloying. And the R&R Oatmeal Stout has a light- to medium body with a surprisingly strong coffee palate.

* If you fly in, there's only one way out - through the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport. And you'll be pleased to know that the Blu Moon Cafe there has no less than five taps of Arizona beer. (You can't miss it; it's literally the only watering hole/restaurant in the airport.) Flagstaff specialties mingle with Phoenix- and Sedona-brewed creations. Try the Oak Creek Pale Ale, which is very aromatic and hop-heavy for its style.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Blue Moon Meets Bold Flavor

Maybe you too have stood at the Blue Moon booth at the Great American Beer Festival, sipping bold and creative beers that have never been bottled and thinking: "Seriously, when are they going to sell these?"

I had thought the answer would be never. The good news is: I was wrong.

The Coors affiliate shocked a lot of people by tapping a Farmhouse Red (pictured above) at the SandLot Brewery that it operates for the Rockies' opening home game this year. Though its primary flavor is more reminiscent of a hibiscus Sweet Tart than a traditional Belgian sour, it quickly became the best beer you could find at Coors Field - and the company was selling it in stores a month later.

But just wait until you see what is coming next. I got a chance to sample the creations of Blue Moon founder Keith Villa and SandLot brewmaster John Legnard while working on a story for the Denver Business Journal that runs Friday, and some were shockingly good.

In August, the company will release a reboot of its seasonal pumpkin ale that takes a bland, stale beer and infuses it with fairly heavy and exciting notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. At the same time, it will release a Caramel Apple Spice beer that's been tested across the country; this one' s a bit lighter on both of its main attribute flavors, but it gets points for effort.

Not set for any release yet - but ripe for beer drinkers begging the company to put it out - is an IPA/double IPA hybrid brewed with juniper berries that greets your palate with deliciously fruity hops and a scent of peach. That was the best of the backroom offerings that the company is toying with, though a 9% ABV cherry imperial wheat that brewers have served at a couple of beer festivals already was not short on a malt-heavy, fruit-tinged taste that would make you do a double-take on its brewer.

Nor was it disappointing to taste a chocolate bacon porter that Villa and Legnard have been toying with - a beer in which all of the aforementioned tastes are subtle but offer more combined than a typical smoked dark ale.

And anyone who's stood in the aforementioned GABF lines might also ask: So, where's the thick, fascinating Peanut Butter Ale that people actually queue up to try (even if putting down a pint might seem a stretch). Villa says that one's nowhere near releasable, but at least he's working to get it ready for the big annual tasting.

Blue Moon Belgian White was a bold beer when released in 1995. But to a fair number of connoisseurs, it seemed that the creativity that was exhibited in that wasn't allowed out of the bottle in subsequent years at Blue Moon.

That restraint is being pulled back by parent company MillerCoors now. And just seeing what the brewmasters are toying with is enough reason to sit through a few more Rockies games this summer, if only to discover what Brewmaster's Choice might pop up next at the SandLot.

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Thursday, June 07, 2012


Drinking through Seattle and Alaska

A trip to Seattle is like wading into a museum of America's craft beer history. At a time when non-Boulder craft beer remained a mere idea in Colorado, the state of Washington was jump-starting the microbrew revolution. Even the frontier land to the northwest of it was an early adopter, when Alaskan Brewing opened in 1986.

Today, the region is no longer solely synonymous with experimental American beer - it's fair to argue that Colorado holds that title more - but its selections are even more diverse. And a recent 10-day trip through Seattle and Alaska demonstrated this quite well.

The first thing one might note about the Emerald City beer scene is the profusion of craft beer available seemingly on every restaurant menu. Brunch place? Check. Sushi restaurant? Yep. Waterfront seafood place? Why would you think otherwise?

And the IPA selections were laudable across the board. Skagit River Sculler's IPA (pictured in the capable hands of the Beer Geekette) was aggressive, though more earthy than acidic. Boundary Bay IPA presented a well balanced ambiance perfect for mid-day enjoyment. And Fremont Brewing, worth a trip off the beaten path, rocked a flowery, viscous, hop-heavy Brother Imperial IPA that made one appreciate small breweries.

All of that was but prelude for the highlight of any beer journey to Seattle - a trip to Elysian Brewing, whose Great Pumpkin earned this blog's award for the beer of the 2009 GABF. But one run through the specialty beers taster menu informs you how much more it has to offer.

Space Dust - "a totally nebular IPA" - exploded with a sweetly bitter bite of grapefruit and apple. The White Woods Wit was a complex marriage of ginger and carbonated wheat. And the Peste chocolate chili ale lit up the palate with waves of coffee, cinnamon and a late-breaking heat that excited your taste buds; it was so good that we felt it necessary to sneak one onto our cruise ship.

Combine that nationally known treat with local finds like Pike Pub and Brewery, which was offering a bubbly and sharp honey saison, and there was little that could steer you wrong in the city. The only big disappointment was pioneer (circa 1983) brewery Hale's Ales, which presented an array of bland and light-bodied offerings more appropriate for the time of its founding, its Supergoose Double IPA being the exception.

While one couldn't trip over a grande mocha latte in Seattle without landing on a hefty craft beer menu, it was admittedly a little harder to find such variety in Alaska.  That can be blamed partially on our chosen mode of transport - a cruise ship that, not shockingly, had a minimal craft selection. But there still were a few goodies to be found.

Alaskan Brewing, known foremost for its often-imitated smoked porter, also makes a sturdy, if unspectacular list of more standard beers. The IPA is hoppy enough to please without assaulting the tongue. The amber has a surprisingly full body. And the Belgian white, which seemed all the rage at the port-side bars (such as the Red Dog Saloon pictured above), was light for its style but still pleasingly refreshing.

But The Hangar on the Wharf, a Juneau beer bar, served a Kodiak Nut Brown from Midnight Sun Brewing of Anchorage that was nutty to the point of being chocolaty and served at an appropriately cold temperature to heighten its taste.

And the find of the trip was Skagway Brewing - a good-sized pub in a noted former Gold Rush town that every beer fan on the ship seemed to visit when we stopped in town. And for good reason - its hop-heavy Chikloot Trail IPA had a deep but not overly biting taste, its Boom Town Brown had a surprising hop backbone and its Blue Top Porter had a simplistic chocolate-java goodness that was comforting far from home.

There shouldn't be too much surprise, I suppose, in discovering a land of beer goodness in Seattle and Alaska. But until you actually visit to find it, you don't know what you're missing.

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