Sunday, March 17, 2013

Roll Out the Barrels

If barrel-aging was the top beer trend among big, established breweries in 2012, then 2013 looks to be bringing something just as exciting: Micro-barrel projects.

Take, for example, yesterday afternoon's festivities at Denver beer bar Hops and Pie, which tapped five barrel-aged creations (pictured above) from five Front Range breweries. These weren't just any concoctions chosen by the beer makers, though - they were gems aged six months in Maker's Mark  barrels given specifically to the breweries by Hops and Pie. And when barrel aging becomes that accessible, it's a joy to celebrate.

One could talk about the brilliant offerings of the quintet. Odell's combo of Mountain Standard and Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout, known as "Decadent Double Black Hooch," integrated the tastes of chocolate and hops with the vanilla touch of oak and a background of whiskey. And River North's Avarice became a complex, dark-as-night beast intertwining tastes of bourbon, chocolate malt and licorice when aged.

But what's worth noting even more is that such profusion of barrel-aged experiments means the average drinker no longer has to save up the better portion of a week's paycheck to get a corked bottle of barrel-aged beer. It may not be long before every brewery and beer bar of merit will keep an oak-aged offering on tap at all times. 

To think: Just 15 years ago, old whiskey and wine barrels were seen as aged wood, used up from their original purpose with nothing more to do.

Even the early experiments with barrels nearly scared some of the great artisans off. Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker noted at this year's Vail Big Beers festival that his early experiments with chardonnay barrels tasted like salad dressing. Now the California company is busting barrel barriers with Sour Opal, one of the most exciting beers of the new year.

Ah, yes, it's good to live in a time when brewers push boundaries every day. And while barrel-aging may already be going big time, the wider use of the practice may turn up new tricks and styles of which we haven't yet thought.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Irish-American Spirit

Truth be told, the Fearless Tasting Crew doesn't go out a lot on St. Patrick's Day. It's one of those holidays that just seems to draw the amateurs out to ruin any good drinking experience you might have. (Yes, we're looking at you too, Cinco de Mayo and day before Thanksgiving.)

But we've at least had to think about reconsidering our thoughts after a recent experience at Fado Irish Pub here in Denver. Yes, Fado is a chain. But it seems to be doing something right on the local level.

That right thing can be divided into three categories: food, beer and atmosphere. (And, no, I didn't intend that to rhyme originally.)

First - and most importantly - the beer part. An Irish pub must have Irish beer, and Fado does. But making it creative - such as the new Black Velvet drink (pictured above) that combines Guinness and Strongbow Cider in a dry combo with an apple backbone - is notable. And to be able to wash that down with quality American beers like an Odell Myrcenary, well, that's just knowing your good beer audience.

Second, the food. The restaurant just introduced a new menu with a number of options. You should avoid the pulled lamb French dip, a tasty-sounding entree that's a bit too fatty and greasy for its own good. But the blackened chicken & shrimp boxty (pictured above) is a dinner big on the taste and small on the spice burn. And the cheese dip and wedges, an appetizer that combines boxty bread and a thick peppery cheese, is just good beer food (appropriate especially for post-10 p.m. snacking.)

Finally, there is the atmosphere. In 2005, I traveled with a group of six other friends to Ireland, and the task of finding actual Irish music in a pub was equivalent to finding Waldo in a striped-shirt convention. But on Monday nights at least, Denver's Fado welcomes impromptu Irish music, gathering fiddlers and guitarists and letting it flow in a way that is pleasant without being overwhelming. And that is a nice addition to the city's drinking scene.

This is not an recommendation to go out on St. Patrick's Day, when the crew of idiots drinking Bud Light and wearing "Kiss Me" badges can be overwhelming. But the changes are pleasant enough where Fado becomes a legitimate post-Rockies-game gathering place for  beer geeks looking for an atmosphere that's slightly different.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Four Things I Learned at the Boulder Strong Ale Fest

For those of you who have never been to one of Avery Brewing's on-property festivals, it is hard to put into words how decadent they are.

At this past weekend's Strong Ale Fest, tasting stations offering eight beers each left participants with the choice between, say, Pliny the Younger, Strange's award-winning barleywine or several oak-aged offerings. Quality, normal porters and saisons stood little chance of being requested.

Even as attendees got accidentally drunk from tasting so many high-alcohol beers - and I defend the use of the term "accidentally," no matter how many people laughed when I used it Saturday - there was much to be remembered. (Especially if you were one of those geeks, like me, carrying around a notebook.) Here are some of the highlights:

1) The beer trend of 2013? How about monster coffee stouts? Sour beers have been hip for at least half a decade, and the offerings at the last two Great American Beer Festivals showed that oak barrels aren't up-and-coming; they're here. But the coffee bombs are truly on their way up.

Pizza Port Brewing's Bacon & Eggs, made with 25 pounds of roasters, was as smooth as it was bulky and java-heavy. And Epic Brewing's Big Bad Baptist - coming soon to Denver - offered a full mouth of coffee and cocoa in a startlingly tempting 11% ABV package. They were just two of many such offerings in a show that may point the way to the next great trend.

2) It's OK to use fruit in a big beer. Really. Anyone who got the joy of trying The Bruery's Five Golden Rings this Christmas season realized a brewmaster could add pineapple juice to the mix and still blow you out of the water with alcohol.

Avery's Missionary Position - its Reverend Belgian Quad with guava and pineapple - was refreshing and, dare we say, almost light and easy for a 10% booze blast. And the grape must that Odell added to its Amuste imperial porter was smooth enough to make it stand out in a room of darks.

3) The new generation of double IPAs are far more earthy and astringently bitter than their forebears. Classics of the style, such as Firestone Walker's Double Jack and Avery's Maharaja were assaulting in their citrus-fruit and flower-petal qualities, making them dangerously easy to enjoy. But the new breweries on the block have a different idea.

Gravity Brewing's Acceleration Double IPA, for example, showed off its 9.8% ABV in the most malt-forward way possible. And Telluride Brewing's Fishwater Double IPA presented a caramel initial taste before rolling out its bitterness gradually. Both were head-turners in their surprisingly non-citrus character, though it's yet to be seen whether they were unique to the style or the new - and slightly less approachable - standard bearers.

4) Sometimes the hype is worth it. For the most part, the Fearless Tasting Crew avoided long GABF lines in favor of exploring unknown breweries, and it's never stood in line for hours to get a ticket for one 10-oz. pour. But on Saturday, two almost cliched offerings really stole the show.

Crooked Stave - it of the ridiculous lines at every festival where it's pouring - put up the best beer of the fest with Sentience, a tart wild quad whose whiskey-barrel aging accented its sharpness perfectly. And the hands-down best hop bomb there was, yes, Pliny the Younger; Russian River's line-inducing triple IPA was pure benevolence, sliding sweetly over tongues of everyone who made the smart decision to seek it out.

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Friday, March 01, 2013

Colorado's Best - or Greatest - Winter Seasonal Collection

The looming end of winter (20 days and counting) causes the mind to wander toward thoughts other than the general lack of mountain snow this season. It makes one think too of the beers that keep you warm during the coldest part of the year.

And while there were many beers that brightened the winter, as usual, one crop of seasonals stood far and above the rest: Those from Great Divide. In fact, the Denver brewery's winter seasonals could arguably constitute the best temporary collection of the many that Great Divide ever has put out.

There was little surprise in the 22-oz. bottle of Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti, arguably one of the 10 best beers made in Colorado. (Admit it, you're now trying to put the rest of that list together in your head.) That the espresso felt just a slight bit toned down from past versions seemed to even make it more appealing, offering a swirl of flavors that you had to stop to identify in a dangerously accessible package.

But something tasted different - and significantly more pleasant - about the Old Ruffian Barley Wine this year. This bomb of malt and hops greeted you with an alcohol-heavy feel of aged Scotch and segued into a mouth-filling sharp bitterness that was less citrus than it was earthy hops. It was the rare beer that managed to be huge in hops and malt and eminently drinkable - a true treat to find.

And finally there was Orabelle (pictured above), the new addition to the collection and one that should come back annually. This Belgian tripel is shocking in its lightness of body and fullness of taste. The yeast is cranked up a notch with added candy sugar and lemon zest, then it's enlivened by orange peel and coriander. But as a grainy semi-spice creeps up, nothing about it is overbearing, leaving an exquisitely gentle beer for a style that sometimes can be chaotic in its heaviness.

All of this is worth mentioning not because there should be great shock that Great Divide produced a good collection. It's one of the five best breweries in the state (yep, you're finishing that list too) for a reason.

But after blowing palates away with the introduction of the chocolate and espresso Yetis a couple years back, some of its more recent releases, like the Nomad Pilsner, have missed the mark. Not only was this season's threesome great, they each stood up to any beers you could walk into a liquor store or a beer bar and buy. And that is what's worth celebrating: Three home runs, across the board, all out at the same time.

Now, let's talk about some year-round distribution of these ....

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