Sunday, October 27, 2013

Adventures in Beer, Houston Style

Anyone who's wandered through the Southwest section of the Great American Beer Festival in recent years knows that Texas breweries are creating some pretty bold and tasty concoctions. But on a trip to Houston last weekend, I wanted to find out if those making excellent beers were few in number or part of a larger shift in that area's brewing culture.

The answer: Something impressive is afoot in the Lone Star state. And it doesn't involve Lone Star beer.

One of the first things you notice on a trip to Spec's (the omnipresent liquor-store chain in Houston) or first-rate beer bars like Ginger Man (pictured below) is the variety of breweries and styles. Unlike some other places in the South, expertise isn't limited to lighter ales and beers made with Pecan.

There are, for example, a number of tasty double IPAs bubbling up. Southern Star Brewing's Valkyrie (pictured at top, in the bullhorn-laden man cave of a friend) is extremely balanced between a malt sensibility and an earthy hops that make this 10% ABV creation big but easy. And the Endeavor Double IPA from local institution St. Arnold Brewing - made with Simcoe, Centennial and Columbus hops - is a more traditional hop bomb with an iced-tea aftertaste.

And there is Belgian goodness. Ranger Creek Brewing's La Bestia Aimable is a Belgian dark strong ale made with honey that is a very sweet blend of molasses and esters. The Philosophizer from Adelbert's Brewery of Austin (which made its way to a Galveston Spec's) is one of the fullest saisons you'll find, a big body that's a cross between a non-sweet banana and an earthy backbone.

There is originality too. Yellow Rose, a single-malt and single-hop IPA from Lone Pint Brewery that a friend led me to at an out-of-the-way beer bar called D&T Drive-In, had a huge grapefruit/slight strawberry taste with subtle malting that calmed its bitterness.

And finally there was Real Ale, the brewery that beer fans really should watch. It ran the gamut on offerings from a dark-roasted Brown Ale that pumped excitement back into a boring style to Scots Gone Wild, a tart but balanced wild sour ale.

There were some stumbles. Several people recommended beers from Karbach Brewing, a rising Houston brewery. But its IPA and double IPA were bitterly out of balance, making them unpleasant to drink.

Still, this visit was an eye-opener. And it would be worthwhile to watch the growth of this young craft beer market, as it shows great promise.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Best of the GABF, 2013

What stood out about the recently completed Great American Beer Festival was that so many beers stood out, maybe more than at any time in the past 10 years. And what's more, beer aficionados didn't have to wait in the 70-person lines at the hottest breweries to find experiments that were both fascinating and extremely well done.

With that said, here is one beer geek's opinion about the best the industry showed off in Denver this past weekend. I've deviated from past formats by failing to narrow it down to just one beer in several categories because, well, too many beers deserve recognition.

Best in Show: CHP, Heretic Brewing
This is almost a random pick with so many equally worthy contestants, but this northern California brewery's chocolate hazelnut porter was the most surprising and refreshing find of the weekend. At a time when more brewers are stepping up their games with use of chocolate, this offered the perfect blend of nuttiness and sweetness in a beer that went down smoothly and made you want to try it over and over again.

Best with Hops: Muffin Top (Clown Shoes) and Fan Boy (Elevation Beer)
The push to over-hop beers seems thankfully to have been replaced by a push to add new flavoring to go with big hops. And these two seemed to lead the way in that respect.

Muffin Top is a Belgian Tripel IPA from Massachusetts, blowing your taste buds with the sweet ester of a strong Belgian beer combined with mouth-consuming grassy hops. Fan Boy is a soon-to-be-released (if the government gets its act together) barrel-aged double IPA from Poncha Springs that imbues oak and vanilla through its big, bold character in a way that may even appeal to non-hopheads.

Best Traditional Sour: Salado Kriek, Freetail Brewing
This San Antonio brewery's kriek is both eye-openingly tart and wonderfully fruity, leaving it cherry-like and sharp at the same time.

Best Barrel-Aged Sours: Saint Dekkera Reserve Sour Paw Paw Ale (Destihl) and Farmer's Reserve No. 3 (Almanac Beer)
To hell with cherries. Breweries from across the countries are throwing rare fruits and fruit blends into barrels and producing complex and pucker-worthy beers of unique flavor.

Destihl, the barrel-aging masters from central Illinois, outdid themselves with their use of the "prairie banana" to  make a very tart effort that leans somewhere between a citrus and sweeter fruit but satisfies immensely. San Francisco's Almanac, which earned its reputation as one of the "it" beers of the festival, brought strawberries and nectarines together and kept you guessing what you were tasting.

Best Aged Non-Sours: Dragon's Milk Reserve - Smaug's Breath (New Holland Brewing) and My Turn Series: Chris (Lakefront Brewery)
 The increasing diversity of aged beers may be the biggest trend in craft brewing. And two one-off products showed why it should continue.

Michigan's New Holland offered a bourbon-barrel stout made with chile that left you with two extreme tastes surprisingly blending in your mouth rather than competing for your attention. Milwaukee's Lakefront rolled out a vanilla maple doppelbock - not barrel-aged, but aged naturally for 10 months to give it smoothness - that allowed the vanilla to mellow the maple while putting forth both tastes.

Best Unique Additives, Colorado Style: Basil Blonde (Copper Kettle Brewing) and Card Your Mom Saison (Caution Brewing)
Colorado isn't the only state using herbs and spices to liven up beers. But these two Denver breweries deserve a special call-out.

Copper Kettle's addition of basil allows the taste to permeate the blonde ale and give it an earthy, sweet feel without overdoing it or, most importantly, teasing you to the point where you can't taste it. Caution's cardamom saison offers flavors both big and exotic and raises the question of why there aren't more breweries trying Middle Eastern and Asian ingredients.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Tasting notes from GABF 2013, Day One

As the line swelled to get into the  brewers and media entrance of the Great American Beer Festival Thursdsay, there was much anticipation about what could be found inside. And here is what this beer geek discovered.

1. Destihl exceeds expectations
After last year's eye-opening showing of sour beers in 2012, everyone wanted to try Destihl, the previously unknown brewery from Bloomington, Ill. again. And everyone agreed they hit it out of the park - again.

The biggest winner was the St. Dekkera Reserve Sour Paw Paw Ale, a tart and fascinating creation using the "prairie banana." But also fantastic was the Saint Dekkera Reserve Flanders, a sweeter but still tart cherry/raspberry mouth-filler.

2. Unknowns starred too
One of my favorite things to do is drop by a brewery with little to no name recognition - and even less of a line - and try their wares. That produced two great finds Thursday.

First was JAFB Wooster Brewery's Never Winter IPA, imbued with New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops that give it a wonderfully grassy mouthfeel without being harsh. The second was Freetail Brewing's Salado Kriek, both fruity and tart and full of flavor.

3. Dark is the new hoppy
It seems brewers have reached their limits somewhat in pushing the hop; there don't appear to be any quadruple IPAs on the floor. But beer makers are going increasingly bigger, darker and more creative with their stouts.

It should be no surprise that a stand-out in this genre was Bell's Black Note, which combines their imperial stout and double cream stout to black out your taste buds in a satisfying way. Some other breweries, though, seemed to push it a bit too far, making stouts so roasted they were burnt.

4. Remember this name: Almanac Beer Co.
I didn't discover the San Francisco brewery's sours until the end of the night, but people hovered around its strawberry- and nectarine-laced barrel-aged projects for a reason. I'll be back there tonight.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

A State-by-State Guide to the Great American Beer Festival

The beautiful thing about the Great American Beer Festival is that it's not just a festival of great beer, but it's all-American, dammit! And if you come to the event and spend all your time in the Pacific Northwest section, you've kind of missed the point of 624 breweries from all across the country being crammed into one area for your drinking pleasure.

So, with that said, here is one beer geek's opinion of the one beer you should have from each state (excluding Iowa and Mississippi, which have no representatives at the GABF) while you are making your way through the Oct. 10-12 event. These may not be the most famous or most popular beers from each domain, but they give you a feel for the wonderful products being made from sea to shining sea.

* Alabama: Railyard German Style Pilsner
There's one Alabama brewery here, and in the South they drink lighter beers. See how they make a crowd-pleaser.

* Alaska: Alaskan Smoked Porter
Yes, you can get this in many states. But wait around the Alaskan Brewing Co. booth long enough, and they're likely to pour aged versions of it.

* Arizona: Papago Orange Blossom
This Scottsdale beer maker creates a lot of interesting flavors, but none as charming as this orange-vanilla wheat that resembles a Creamsicle.

* Arkansas: Diamond Bear Two Term Double IPA
This is likely the only beer at the GABF referring to a specific president. Don't spill it, or it may stain your blue dress.

* California: Six Rivers Chili Pepper Ale
It's the best chili beer ever made, and you can't get it outside a limited radius around this McKinleyville brewery.

* Colorado: New Belgium Le Terroir
How do you pick just one beer from the home state? Make it a rarely available, unique dry-hopped sour ale.

* Connecticut: Cambridge House Ebijah Rowe IPA
Hoppy, bitter, pleasing - and historically named. It's all the things that get you through a cold New England night.

* Delaware: Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron
The beer-geek joke is that you read about this in the New Yorker. But the dark, oaky tones of this strangely aged beer are no laughing matter.

* Florida: Cigar City Humidor Series IPA
You can drink a lot of IPAs at the GABF, but no others are aged in cedar barrels to take on a cigar-like quaffing quality.

* Georgia: Red Brick 20th Anniversary
Imperial stout. Bourbon barrels. Special occasion. Local brewery. Any further questions?

* Hawaii: Maui Brewing Coconut Porter
Coconut's become a more common and popular ingredient. This is the beer that started the trend.

* Idaho: Grand Teton Pursuit of Hoppiness Imperial Red Ale
It's just a different taste, a fuller mouth than you find from many hop bombs. Even non-hopheads enjoy it.

*Illinois: Destihl St. Dekkera Reserve Sour Raspberry/Strawberry Ale
This sour beer upstart almost got shut out of the festival. With this tart but fruity original, you'll see why so many people were glad they didn't.

* Indiana: Three Floyds Arctic Panzer Wolf
Coming in around 100 IBUs, this will kick your taste buds around but also wake them up late in a GABF session.

* Kansas: Free State Brewing Oatmeal Stout
At a show full of jaw-droppers, this is simply warming and well done, like the first oatmeal stout that made you fall in love with dark beer.

* Kentucky: Bluegrass Brewing Company Bourbon Barrel Stout
They make bourbon pretty well in Kentucky. So why not try a barrel-aged beer from where the barrels are the most recently employed?

* Louisiana: Nola Brewing Mechahopzilla
It's a big, hoppy beer. But the best thing about it is that Nola is being sued by the creators of Godzilla to drop the name. Go support them.

 * Maine: Shipyard Pugsley's Signature Series Smashed Pumpkin
Allagash isn't coming to the GABF this year. Content yourself with a big burst of pumpkin instead.

* Maryland: Union Craft Old Pro Gose
A confession: I haven't tried this before. But a friend I respect can't stop raving about this low-alcohol sour.

* Massachusetts: Cambridge Brewing Cerise Cassee
A former GABF Beer of Show by this blog, this sour is pucker-worthy and complex at the same time.

* Michigan: Bells Black Note Stout
A blend of two giant stouts, this beer might leave you unable to sample anything else effectively for 10 minutes.

* Minnesota: Minneapolis Town Hall Russian Roulette
This local brewery is an annual award winner. And few beers scream chocolate quite like this one.

* Missouri: Boulevard Saison-Brett
Yes, you've probably had it before. But this funky monster is always good for a second try when sampling the best beers in the U.S.

* Montana: Montana Brewing Custer's Last Stout
The best-named beer in this state (which is saying a lot) is also a big, bold flavor bomb.

* Nebraska: Nebraska Brewing Barrel Aged Hop God
Barrels and big hops don't always go together well, but this one blends them fairly seamlessly.

* Nevada: Chicago Brewing Cocoa for Coconuts
Yes, beer can be made well in a casino town. And it can be made with a combination of flavors that make you stop to admire it.

* New Hampshire: Smuttynose Straw-Barb Short Weiss
Just look at all the different flavors in the name alone. And then picture something smoother than you think.

* New Jersey: ???
Help me out, folks. I can't find a New Jersey brewery listed anywhere in the GABF program.

* New Mexico: La Cumbre Elevated IPA
It was just a couple of years ago that this smaller brewery took home some serious hardware for its hoppy beers. This will show you why.

* New York: Captain Lawrence Brewing Rosse e Marrone
This grape-tinged sour is one of the best of its style in America. And Captain Lawrence somehow remains a secret.

* North Carolina: Foothills Brewing Sexual Chocolate
The name will make you laugh. The taste of this multiple award-winner will make you feel warm and a little bit full.

* North Dakota: Laughing Sun Brewing Sinister Pear
Is pear the next big flavor among craft brewers? Let this serve as a barometer for you.

* Ohio: Hoppin' Frog Brewing BORIS The Crusher Oatmeal-Imperial Stout
When you walk into Falling Rock Tap House, ask the bartender for a great beer and this is the first one he recommends - as happened earlier this week - you know it's building a reputation.

* Oklahoma: Choc Beer Choc
There are few truly American styles of beer, but this Choctaw Indian-originated beverage will open your eyes to one of them.

* Oregon: Deschutes Brewing The Dissident
The best advice is to walk to the Deschutes booth and tell them to pour you something you've never tried. If you get this sour brown ale, you're doing very well.

* Pennsylvania: Weyerbacher Riserva 2012
There's a lot of good options in this state. But something one-off and rare from Weyerbacher won't let you down.

* Rhode Island: Revival Brewing Double Black IPA
Doesn't this just sound like something you want to drink when sailing off the coast?

* South Carolina: Holy City Brewing Pecan Dream
There may be no style that represents the South so well as pecan beer. This one is nice.

* South Dakota: Crow Peak Brewing Pile-O-Dirt Porter
If Rate Beer calls this the best beer in the state, who am I to argue?

* Tennessee: Boscos Brewing Isle of Skye Scottish Ale
Confession: I was weaned on Boscos while at my first job in Arkansas. Retasting their beers is like a walk down memory lane.

* Texas: North by Northwest Barton Kriek
The most overlooked sour of the 2012 GABF. All of the Fearless Tasting Crew agreed this is fantastic.

* Utah: Redrock Zwickel Bier
Have it early, before you blow out your taste buds. But this may be the most well-built and pleasing low-alcohol drinker at the show.

* Vermont: Magic Hat Barrel-Aged Belgo Sutra
A lot of the newer, hipper Vermont breweries aren't pouring at this year's GABF. Having this barrel-aged Belgian dark ale brewed with figs and dates will take your mind off of that.

* Virginia: Blue Mountain Dark Hollow
Devil's Backbone wins a lot of awards. But bloggers I know talk more about this brewery and this imperial stout, among other offerings.

* Washington: Elysian Space Dust
This brewery has bolder beers, but maybe not any made more solidly to please than this IPA.

* West Virginia: Morgantown Brewing Coal City Stout
If it's good enough and dark enough for the top party school in America, it's got to be worth a try, right?

* Wisconsin: New Glarus Strawberry Rhubarb
I tremble with fear at the lines that will form but quiver with excitement about trying the latest of their fruit beers.

* Wyoming: Snake River Zonker Stout
The most-awarded beer in Wyoming history (at least that I remember) isn't zany. It's just damn good.



Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The New Shades of Gluten Free

There is some controversy in the world of gluten-free beer. Where in the past the only gluten-free breweries were those that used barley alternatives like sorghum and millet, several breweries now have begun using typical ingredients to create the beer while adding an enzyme to break down the binding properties of gluten. That, they tell you, makes the beer safe for the gluten-intolerant to enjoy.

Not being a scientist, I won't try to break down the scientific argument here. But after consuming both old-school gluten-free beers and this new version of what some would call gluten-free beverages in recent weeks, I can tell you there is a world of difference in the taste. And it's enough to make drinkers re-think their ideas of what "gluten-free" means.

To see this locally, one needs to go to Brewery Rickoli, a roughly 1-year-old Wheat Ridge beer maker that doesn't openly advertise itself as using the new gluten-breaking enzyme. This is important, because drinkers likely wouldn't look at the variety of beers brewer Rick Abitbol makes and think of them as a gluten-free lineup. There are numerous hop bombs, including a 13 percent ABV triple IPA that is deceptively easy-drinking. There is the Thrilla in Vanilla vanilla rye stout that, while coming off a little flat, is packed full of dark and sweet flavors. And the brewery whose motto is that it makes gluten-free beers "that don't suck" is making waves.

Then there is Omission IPA, a beer that Craft Brewers Alliance took national on Aug. 5. Made with the same enzyme as Brewery Rickoli uses, it's not likely to replace any hugely grassy or citrus IPAs in your rotation. But it has an ever-present hop feel (think of it like a strong pale ale) and, as CBA innovation brand manager Lorin Gelfand told me, it's a beer that you can take to a party and have both the gluten-tolerant and the gluten-intolerant enjoy.

But while these new styles of gluten-reducing beers may remind people less of the old sorghum-substitute gluten-free beers, there is concern they may not be gluten-reduced enough to protect people, especially those with Celiac Disease. Peter Archer, marketing manager at New Planet Beer of Boulder, noted to me that his is still the only gluten-free brewery in Colorado, according to federal designation. The enzyme that's becoming more popular has only earned gluten-free status when it comes to food, not beer, he noted. And he's worried that people can be misled.

And the truth is, you really can tell the difference in taste. New Planet's new Brown Ale, for example, hits you with a mouthful of sweet molasses, but as you run it over your taste buds, you can feel that plastic aftertaste that comes with a sorghum beer; it's a good effort to approximate the regular taste of beer, but one that won't make the gluten-tolerant forget its difference. And the company's Belgian Ale, similarly made with sorghum and brown rice extract, hits you even more with a mouthfeel of cellophane, unfortunately dwarfing the prototypical Belgian spice and yeast flavors in a way that was commented on by everyone in the Fearless Tasting Crew who sampled it. It's a shame, because I knew in talking to Archer how much the company - which is wildly successful - is looking to make a craft beer that appeals to everyone. But the palate doesn't lie.

So, are we entering a new era in gluten-free beer, or is there a new crop of gluten-reduced beers masquerading as a safe alternative for the gluten-intolerant? I don't know. But I can tell you as a beer drinker that there is a major gulf in taste between the two. And that gulf is likely to remain the difference between acceptance by a specific group of drinkers and by the general drinking population.

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Sunday, October 06, 2013

Must-hit events during Great American Beer Festival week

If you have all the time in the world, you can scan through every event listed on the Denver Post or Westword Great American Beer Festival calendars and pick a few to put on your to-do list. But if you're like most people, you might prefer a few suggestions on what to do in the coming week, which Visit Denver sponsors as Denver Beer Fest.

Here, then, are a few ideas of how to find the best beer around the Thursday-Saturday festival without actually having to go into the festival.

1) Go to "Beers Made by Walking"
Maybe the most unique event before the 2012 GABF was Focus on the Beer's gathering of 10 beers, inspired by hikes, for which area brewers used fascinating ingredients like chokecherries and sumac. And this year, Eric Steen has ramped up the count to 17 different breweries using everything from dandelion to wild nectarines. Running from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wynkoop Brewing, the event is worth far more than its $30 ticket price.

2) Find out-of-town breweries tapping their wares
This happens more than you think with breweries that otherwise are not available in Colorado. Sun King Brewery of Indiana will tap its barrel-aged goods at Falling Rock Tap House (9 p.m. Wednesday) and Freshcraft (4 p.m. Saturday), among others. Freshcraft also will host a Cigar City tapping, along with some rarer New Belgium offerings, at noon Thursday.

3) Find in-town breweries tapping one-of-a-kind offerings
So far, the most interesting include: Great Divide tapping Rhine & Heart American Sour (10 a.m. Saturday);  Falling Rock tapping Trinity Brewing's immensely sour Old Growth (5 p.m. Tuesday) and Odyssey Beerwerks tapping a Pina Colada Hefeweizen (all day Friday).

4. Drown yourself in barleywines
Well, don't really submerse yourself in the strongest and often most complex of beer styles. But if you love you some barleywine, the Rackhouse Pub will pit 30 barleywines from Colorado against the same number from California, starting at 10 a.m . Thursday and running through the end of the week. And the only real winner here is your taste buds.

5. Enjoy tap takeovers at restaurants not normally swimming in craft beer
Many places will have this, but maybe none so intriguing as Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza, which will offer eight Odell Brewing beers, including harder-to-find Mountain Standard Black IPA and Wellspring Saison Ale. Pair them with the Coal-Fired Lemoncello Wings or the Pizza Del Pappa - stacked with roasted bell peppers and smoked bufala mozzarella on roasted butternut squash - and it's everything you could want from a drinking experience.

6) Step away from the festival for a night
More events are going on simultaneously with the Great American Beer Festival this year than anyone can remember. On Thursday evening alone, you could hit a 50-firkin fest at Epic Brewing, a barleywine fest at Renegade Brewing or cheese pairing with River North Brewery at Stapleton Tap House.

7) Recover well on Sunday
Most brewers want to crawl into bed for a week after the GABF ends on Saturday night. Odell Brewing is hosting a 9 a.m. brunch on Sunday at Highland Tap and Burger, however, and Oskar Blues Home Made Liquids and Solids is inviting California hop king Green Flash up to Longmont at 11 a.m. Sunday to help it ring out the festivities.

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Saturday, October 05, 2013

Where Have the Tasty Pumpkin Beers Gone?

September and October have, in the past decade or so, become a time when breweries can freely experiment with adding spices galore to dark beers and sometimes saisons and creating a pumpkin wonderland. As more beer makers have ventured into these efforts, many of them have become quite good at it.

But something seems to have gone awry in 2013, as the pumpkin experiments have become more of the mad-scientist or bland-scientist variety. And finding a great pumpkin beer has become decidedly difficult this year, even from breweries that otherwise make some great ales.

One of the problems is an over-reliance by brewers on cinnamon to spice the beers, creating what might be called "cinnamon bombs." Hop bombs can be pleasantly challenging; cinnamon bombs, not so much.

 The primary example of this is Elysian Brewing's The Great Pumpkin, a beer that, at its best, has been one of most flavorful in the country, approximating the taste of sticking a straw into an alcoholic pumpkin pie. The imperial 2013 version, however, is so cinnamon-heavy it's almost medicinal, and it creates a whole new level of bitterness.

Similarly but not as offensively, the Dry Dock Imperial Pumpkin also relies so much on cinnamon that it brings to mind the taste of mulled wine.

Then there is the opposite but just as prevalent trend — "pumpkin" beers that have just a hint of pumpkin and seem to concentrate far more on the base style than the special spicing. These are not necessarily bad beers, but they are disappointments when you go in looking for a new kind of creation.

A prime example of this is Denver Beer Co's Hey Pumpkin! (which I'm drinking at Freshcraft in the photo above). Denver Beer Co. normally doesn't skimp on flavor, but this is more like an amber ale with barely a hint of nutmeg, almost a starter pumpkin beer.

Epic Brewing created an Imperial Pumpkin Porter that is impressive in its strength and darkness, but the pumpkin is almost an afterthought. Ditto for Tommyknocker Brewery's Small Batch Pumpkin Ale, which is so light in pumpkin that it's forgotten even before it's down your throat.

There are a few notable exceptions to this year's patch of disappointment. Rogue Farms Pumpkin Patch Ale, for example, is a full-mouthed taste aided by a pinch of ginger that cuts the sharpness of the cinnamon.

The biggest surprise of the season, though, is St. Ambroise Pumpkin, the product of McAuslan Brewing of Quebec A full but not heavy beer with a big taste of nutmeg, it has both sweet and spicy tones and seems to capture the mellowing but intriguing spirit of the fall season. And that seems to make it a rarity this year.

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