Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10 Colorado Beers of 2013

Thinking back on the best that Colorado had to offer in 2013, I am struck most by the scrappy and transient natures of the honorees.

Just two of my favorite 10 beers of the year was made by breweries — Ska and Epic — that distribute to more than one state outside of Colorado. That's not to say that the giants of Colorado craft brew that usually dominate this list — Great Divide, Odell, Avery, etc. — did not produce great beers; they just seemed to be outshined by some of the creativity emanating from the state's little guys.

Also, my greatest beef with the beers on this list was that many came and went so quickly, available for limited times and sometimes in extremely limited quantities, that the conversation around them was too limited for them to become part of the common beer vernacular. In those cases, I can only hope their brewers realize the gems they have created and crank them up in greater volume so that more people can experience their joy in 2014.

That said, without further ado ...

10. Cinnamon Almond Ale - Colorado Plus
At a time when brewers are becoming bolder about incorporating uncommon flavors, Adam Draeger took two flavors no one associated with great beer and made them sing in one of the most unique concoctions of the year. Allowing the almond to serve as the smooth landing for the spice of the cinnamon made this intriguing and unforgettable.

9. Watermelon Kolsch - Fate Brewing
This was the beer that proved that summer beers don't have to be boring - a light but crisp kolsch with a hearty dose of watermelon that provides huge refreshment at the same time it ups the complexity of this traditional German style.

8. Penitente Hermano - Three Barrel Brewing
One of the most exciting "exports" of the year was the arrival in Denver liquor stores of this creative brewery from the San Luis Valley. Penitente Hermano, a Belgian sour ale with a coriander kick on the back, paved its entrance after being one of the most gushed-over efforts of the 2013 Vail Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines festival.

7. Sentience - Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project
The way this Denver brewery is turning out fascinating sours, you could almost throw a dart blindly at a board of its offerings and put whatever it lands on onto this list. But the Sentience stood out as the "it" beer of the Avery Strong Ale Festival this year, a tart wild quad whose whiskey-barrel aging accented its sharpness perfectly.

6. Snowed In - Copper Kettle Brewing
We're so far into the Christmas beer trend that you don't think anything can surprise you anymore. Then you have a sip of this imperial oatmeal stout aged six months in bourbon barrels with coffee and chocolate and you're not only blown away by its easy-drinking big-alcohol complexity, you have to tell yourself to hang out more at this east Denver brewery.

 5. 4.0 Grapefruit Pale Ale - Bull & Bush Brewery
The idea of hopping a pale ale or an IPA to resemble a grapefruit was a very popular one this summer. But this Denver brewery took it a step further, adding grapefruit juice to the mix and turning out a low-alcohol summer creation that was one of the unique tastes of the entire year. Can't wait for this to come back in 2014.

4. Two Tone Montanya - Ska Brewing
The most impressive Colorado sour of this year was this Belgian dubbel aged in Montanya rum barrels to take on a tart citrus character combined with a big, sweet body. This is arguably the finest beer made by the 18-year-old brewery.

3. Fan Boy - Elevation Beer
At some point, you really believe that no matter how good a new IPA can be, it won't be inherently different than what it out there already. Then you taste this oak-barrel-aged double IPA, filled with a full mouth of hops but also with oak and vanilla and introducing to this market something acutely original - and phenomenal in its flavor.

2. Devil's Riddle Ale - Grimm Brothers Brewhouse
The most unique beer I tried in 2013 was this strong ale aged nine months in Buffalo Trace barrels with Brettanomyces. It was musty, it was big, it was biting me with a strange tartness that came out of nowhere. It was complex. It was great. And it may just signify a new era for these German beer makers from Loveland.

1. Big Bad Baptist - Epic Brewing
Those outside of the Denver area were able to enjoy this monster of an imperial stout (10.5% ABV), made with cocoa nibs and with a tone of coffee. But when Epic opened its Colorado brewery in May, it was a revelation to the rest of us, a darker-than-night whirlwind that could knock you down with its alcohol but somehow was just smooth enough to allow you to drink more than you should. No beer generated more talk this year, whether in its classic form or when it was mixed with Strange Brewing's Cherry Kriek - a combination that shouldn't have worked but somehow did. Few beers were more satisfying. And that's the mark of a beer of the year.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Santa Fe's Brewing Scene - A Work in Progress

There are several reasons you head to Santa Fe - the art, the food, the history, the beautiful churches. But on a trip down there earlier this month, I also wanted to take some time to understand whether the rumors of a resurgent New Mexico brewing scene were true.

After a week imbibing in Taos and the "City Different," it becomes apparent that while there are a few gems to be found in northern New Mexico, the quality and consistency of the beer remains hit-and-miss. And the scene, however growing, still lags behind that of the one south in Albuquerque.

Nothing embodied these traits quite like Blue Corn Café & Brewery, a locally loved brewery/restaurant that recently took home two medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Both of those honored beers - the End of the Trail Brown Ale and Gold Medal Oatmeal Stout - are solid offerings that are smooth and, in the case of the stout, pleasantly sweet. But much of the rest of the menu ranges from dull to cloying (the 40K Honey Wheat Ale especially), and you leave without any specific memories of the products.

Santa Fe Brewing, which distributes some of its beers in the Denver area, left a similar feel. While the Freestyle Pilsner is classically German and largely enjoyable, its resonance is offset by beers like a Pale Ale that seems little more than a dressed-up copper ale with a slightly stale-tasting malt.

Then there is the beer scene in Taos, a 5,700-person artists' community frequented by area skiers that can tout two breweries in the downtown area. But one, Eske's Brew Pub, offers 8 beers (see board at left next to the Beer Geekette) with only one real winner - a Taos Green Chile with a light, crisp body and a late-activating spice that flavors nicely without burning. And the other, Taos Ale House, offers mostly other breweries' beer (see picture at right), which may not be a bad idea after you gulp down the uneven malt sweetness in its West Coast IPA.

One of two real discoveries of the Santa Fe trip was Second Street Brewery, a brewhouse/restaurant that didn't push the envelope on styles but did them all very well.  Its dark beers were terribly appropriate for enjoying while the snow fell outside, especially its easy-drinking Cream Stout fermented with an English yeast strain and its Old Pecos Porter with its solid, slightly roasted feel. And the Civil Rye - a new offering on the menu - is a keeper, with a nice punch of sweetness and bitterness in a medium body.

The other is a reminder of just how good some of the Albuquerque breweries are. La Cumbre Brewing's Elevated IPA, served at a number of local restaurants, had a gigantic mouth of citrusy-sweet but earthy hops. And Marble Brewery, which has a downtown taphouse, went beyond its normal offering to put out creative one-offs like Lambert's Pale Ale, giving you a huge mouth of grass and flowers in a body that is decidedly easy.

Certainly, the Santa Fe beer scene is coming along. But it still has improvements to make.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

The 12 Beers of Christmas, 2013 version

Digging one's way through the best Christmas-seasonal beers in Colorado and elsewhere has never been so easy. Between festivals like American Craft Beer Radio's Holiday Beer Bash and the excellent recent Denver Beer Festivus, as well as the profusion of seasonal taps scattered around local beer bars, the joy of the season is everywhere.

Therefore, it feels only appropriate this year to laud not just a few but a full 12 days worth of holiday beers .... which you can enjoy in the next three days if you're really ambitious. And in the theme of the song, these range from 1 to 12, with 12 being the best - because then you can get 12 of them for Christmas instead of lousy beer of that style in a pear tree.

First Day: Avery Old Jubilation Ale
Roasted and almost sweet, with a firm but not overbearing amount of hoppy back bitterness, this continues its run as one of the season's complex ales.

Second Day: Lagunitas Brown Shugga'
Part barleywine and part experimental sugar hop bomb (yes, really), it's floral and sweet and something unique.

Third Day: Upslope Christmas Ale
The kings of the seasonal offering have conjured a spiced Belgian dubbel that has hints of sugar, cinnamon and a whole lot of flavor.

Fourth Day: Left Hand Widdershins Oak Aged Barleywine Ale
One of the smoothest barleywines in memory, its mix of dark-fruit malt flavors, subtle hopping and surprising alcohol (10.7% ABV) make this the perfect beer to bring to a family gathering where you need a little extra pep to keep your smile up.

Fifth Day: Bull and Bush Yule Fuel
Cinnamon chips, honey and ginger combine to create a beer that might tend to the sweet side but still possesses a piney freshness.

Sixth Day: Port Brewing Santa's Little Helper
Year in, year out it's a Christmas-time champ - a Russian imperial stout so dark it's impervious to light but oddly smooth, with just a hint of chocolate in its malt.

Seventh Day: Wit's End Ugly Sweater
An English brown ale fermented with Belgian yeast and laced with roasted pumpkin seeds and palm sugar, this combines ingredients in the same way that  '80s sweater knitters fused bright colors. But the result is both dark and intriguing and something you want to wear (inside your stomach) again.

Eighth Day: Lone Tree Brewing Gingerbread Old Ale
How do you stand out from the crowd of seasonal ginger beers? Re-use the yeast employed in making your chili pepper ale, adding just enough spiced light heat to the backtaste to scream that you have something different.

Ninth Day: Great Divide Hibernation Ale
This old ale is always well made. But this year's version just felt fresher, with its roasted malt and hazy chocolate flavors appearing as if a whole new taste in your mouth.

Tenth Day: The Bruery Six-Geese-a-Laying
The sixth annual version of this genre-defining seasonal series - a Belgian-style dark ale with gooseberries - is sweet, chewy and mildly tart. It's a great drink, though maybe not as jaw-dropping as 2012's 5 Golden Rings.

Eleventh Day: Crooked Stave Cranberry and Spice Vieille Saison
Just as tart as you'd expect from the sour masters but also surprisingly universal in its appeal, this latest of Vieille iterations may be the best yet.

Twelfth Day: Copper Kettle Snowed In
The blow-your-mind best beer of the 2013 holiday season is an imperial oatmeal stout aged six months in bourbon barrels with chocolate and coffee. It's a big roasted flavor profile in a thick but not overdone body that may be the perfect beer for cold winter days. It's exceptional. And the only complaint was that the Denver brewery's release was far too limited.

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