Sunday, September 29, 2013

Denver's Hidden Gem: Wit's End

In a week-and-a-half, beer geeks from across America will stream into Denver. They will flock to well-known breweries like Great Divide and Dry Dock and Crooked Stave that are worthy of their admiration.

A few - though not nearly as many - will make the trip to Wit's End Brewing, tucked away as it is in a space near 2nd and Bryant streets that easily could be mistaken for an oversized storage locker. And those hoards that don't rush there will be the lesser for it, as the 2-year-old brewery has become the hidden gem in Denver's often flashier brewery collection.

It's unlikely owner/brewer Scott Witsoe (pictured above) will win a lot of awards at the coming Great American Beer Festival, for a simple reason: Little that he makes fits a standard definition. Visitors noticed that when Wit's End opened with a collection of tasty core beers like Wilford (a Belgian oatmeal IPA) and Kitchen Sink Porter, a dark beer with so many malts it could actually be called complex.

But what makes Wit's End special - aside from the fact that Witsoe brews on a one-barrel system that makes his beers hard to find outside the taproom and increasingly in demand - is that he's ramped up his game significantly. That was on display vividly last weekend at the brewery's second anniversary bash (pictured below).

The overtones running through his initial beers - from a sly Belgian presence to an attitude of pushing the envelope one step further without going too far - have found new partners. Now, he's doing it with unique ingredients and, at times, just taking old styles of beer and making them better than most anyone else - an undervalued skill.

Take, for example, the brewery's Dubbel Impact, a Belgian dubbel that easily could have fallen into the "Nice beer, what's next?" category so many others of that style do. For this, however, Wit's End caramelizes some sugar in the boil, moving the taste from the traditional amaretto overtones to one that has an almost chocolaty note added to its smooth, surprisingly easy and satisfying body.

Or there's the Green Goliath, an imperial version of the brewery's Green Goliath IPA/red ale hybrid that goes beyond just bigger hops. With a method Witsoe described as "wort hopping," he imbues a fuller taste without any of the high-alcohol or overly sweet characteristics sometimes present in such an amping of ingredients.

And then there's the Mick Jaggery, an ESB with Indian jaggery sugar that I named one of the state's 10 best beers of 2012. It's still that good.

There's no frills in Wit's End, and lines don't form around the corner to wait for a new barrel-aged release. But it's a small brewery doing big, bold beers in unique ways. And you have to appreciate that.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cheers to the All-Colorado Beer Bars

While Colorado Plus gets a lot of well-deserved attention from the beer geeks on the west side of Denver, there is another recently opened all-Colorado beer bar on the east side meriting the same kudos.

Stapleton Tap House, which owner Michael Kearns (above left, with fearless assistant Justin) debuted seven weeks ago in the Northfield shopping center - and which the Fearless Tasting Crew visited last night - offers up 35 Colorado craft brews on tap. Kearns adds the twist, though, that not only will he not serve you out-of-state crap, but you won't even find the likes of the state's largest craft brewers - such as New Belgium, Breckenridge or Odell - on his tap list. (Kearns acknowledged, however, that he would think about tapping a rare or one-off beer from the "big" boys if offered.)

Instead, patrons get to choose from the likes of smaller gems, such as Trinity or River North, or even breweries you won't find at a lot of places yet, such as Copper Kettle or Echo. Upslope IPA is as mainstream as you get at Stapleton Tap House - and while that's a tasty brew, Kearns noted that he doesn't sell much of it, because people are keen to try things they haven't quaffed before.

Stapleton Tap House also eschews food trucks, but for a more practical reason - there's a half-dozen restaurants within steps of its front door happy to serve up to-go plates for you to bring back to the bar. While many are larger chains, one is Jim ' N Nick's BBQ, whose local owner, Paul Bestafka, is a big supporter of craft beer.

In its first visit, the tasting crew enjoyed a variety of quality beers that included Crabtree Cezanne Apricot Saison, Trinity Soleil Farmhouse Saison, Elevation Little 'Mo Porter and Twisted Pine Hoppy Boy IPA. The night was complete only when Stapleton kicked a keg of the excellent Copper Kettle Mexican Chocolate Stout but stifled our tears by replacing it with River North Hoppenberg Uncertainty Principle, arguably the tastiest beer made in Colorado.

One can question the business sense of opening a craft beer bar in shopping center surrounded by chains; several times we were shocked to see that there were a number of open tables at the taphouse on a Friday night. But you've got to give credit to what Kearns and his staff are doing, and it gives you a reason to head east for craft beer for a change.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Black Shirt: True to Itself

(This is part of a semi-regular series of posts about breweries that have opened since May 2011, when I published "Mountain Brew: A Guide to Colorado's Breweries.")

Every brewery has its own story. But few can claim such great back stories that they simply compel you to like them as much as Black Shirt Brewing, which opened roughly one year ago in Denver's RiNo neighborhood.

Walking in and ordering a pint, you'll notice two things right away. Every option on the menu is red in color. And the glassware is like nothing out of which you've ever drank, a convex wine-like glass (pictured above) that covers your nose while you sip to require you to take to take in the beer's full aroma.

The red is an homage to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that overlooked the boyhood home of brother-owners Chad and Branden Miller in Westcliffe. It was a small town they ran from in order to make more of themselves, but it was a place they came to appreciate more when they were gone, explained Chad (pictured at right) on a recent night.

The glassware speaks to the originality and nonconforming spirit of this brewery, which doesn't have big bottling aspirations and doesn't enter competitions like the Great American Beer Festival. It doesn't blow your palate with extreme beers; it just wants you to enjoy a variety of red delicacies, served in what is now an out-of-the-way location that soon will be one of the new hearts of Denver's brewing scene.

There is, for example, the Red Ale, which is a well done red, with notes of coffee and caramel on its edges, that adds just a bit more hops than usual for the style to make its backbite more interesting. And there's the Red IPA (they have almost no unique names in order to note the simplicity of their beers), which is sharp, bubbly and malt-balanced to the point where you almost want more hop astringency. These are good beers, but not complex.

The flavor profile ramps up a bit with the Sour Mash Red Saison, which gets the sour from its malt rather than its yeast, leaving it with an overall tart-cherry taste, but one that's not blistering. The Red Porter too is an eyebrow-raiser - a musty, heavy dark beer that has a subtle overtone of blackberry to it and is more refreshing than most of its ilk.

Maybe the best of the bunch is the one uniquely monikered beer on the menu - the once-a-year-made Red Evelyn Ale, named after the Millers' grandmother, who raised them as she ran the town store. Her house was surrounded by pine trees and she served grapefruit for breakfast, so the boys concocted a piney hop bomb in which Citra, Simcoe and Amarillo hops all are featured prominently. It's an impressive mouthful, though one that never goes too far.

That beer, in fact, may be emblematic of the full spirit of this brewery, which is well worth a visit. It's based in Colorado roots. It's unpretentious. (The Millers wore black shirts as kids because they were poor but at least could look like Johnny Cash.) And it's going to serve you a variety of beers that won't reset your standards for the art of brewing but will leave you walking away knowing that everything you tasted was quality, done in a very unique way.

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Beers of Summer

Saying goodbye to summer is never easy. But after a year like this one, in which Colorado brewers added ingredients to beer that were quite unexpected - and, in almost every case, succeeded - it is especially difficult to want to turn the page.

From new fruits to vegetables to combinations of styles and additives that were a bit off track, breweries experimented and seemed almost to one up each other.

There were, for example, the grapefruit wars, in which beer makers went beyond describing their hop bombs as "having a citrus taste" and actually imbued it with a specific citrus fruit flavor. Strange Brewing made a Grapefruit IPA impressive in its combination of traditional hop flavor and acidity. But the best of the bunch - and maybe the beer of the summer - was Bull and Bush's 4.0 Grapefruit Pale Ale, which tasted remarkably similar to a fresh squeezed glass of juice with a malt balance and a tiny 4.0% ABV.

It was the summer too for watermelon. Fate's sublime Watermelon Kolsch (pictured to the left)
was full of both refreshment and watermelon pulp, adding to the joy of discovering a new style. Strange, ever the experimenter, also offered a Watermelon Hefe that brought a twist of excitement to a sometimes dull category of beer.

Trinity Brewing kept rocking its new sours but may have turned more heads with its Electrick Cucumbahh, a summer saison that used the natural sugars in the cucumber to sweeten the beer and make you see the vegetable anew.

Not content to stick just with fruits and vegetables as the new darlings of the season, Colorado Plus whipped out a Cinnamon Almond Ale that let the almond cream feel mellow the sharp cinnamon quite expertly.

Peach isn't a new beer additive, by any means. But Odell Brewing's Tree Shaker Peach IPA used the fruit in a different way. And even if the peach was only slightly perceptible, you knew you were drinking a hop bomb that had a different edge to it.

The summer became so ubiquitous with new additive experiments, in fact, that more traditional efforts almost felt half-hearted. A trip to Yak and Yeti for its summer wheat series left the Beer Geekette and I disappointed in a Strawberry Wheat that just didn't feel unique anymore.

The experimentation should continue in the raft of pumpkin and Christmas beers that are coming out now and soon will be on the horizon. But it wouldn't hurt to drop into some of the brewers mentioned above and remind them that a good idea works all year round, not just when it's hot.

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