Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Sweet Song of Saisons

Interviewing New Belgium's Kim Jordan while writing "Mountain Brew," I was struck by a comment she made about brewing a saison in 1996 and receiving such a bad reception that they didn't brew one again until 2008. What a strange beer world, it would seem, that didn't want the refreshing taste of a saison in it.

But we are now living in the age of the saison - the classic, the crafty, even the absolute crazy. Want it with just a hint of spice to it? OK. Want it brewed with sarsaparilla, sassafras, coriander and hibiscus? That's fine too. Hell, they're both made by the same brewer, in fact.

At Vail Big Beers, Trinity Brewing's Jason Yester, that aforementioned brewer and the man who's made 60 different saisons with 80 different ingredients, pointed out the number of saisons judged at the Great American Beer Festival grew from 37 five years ago to about 90 in 2013. But he also noted one of the great key's to the style's success: There is little definition to what exactly a saison is, other than a beer in a genre that evolved from a non-specific style in Belgian farmhouses to one that allows for great creativity today.

One of the beers that the Fearless Tasting Crew kept in its fridge at that festival - you know, the beers you can drink even when your tastebuds are shot - was Trinity's La Capitaine, a blond saison regale brewed with pumpkin, cacao nibs and Buddha's Hand, then tossed about with some brett and lacto until it's done just right. It's sharp and pungent and slightly spicy, with a feel that oscillates wonderfully between grape and perfume.

But if Trinity is the known - and if you don't know it, you should get to - festivals like Big Beers allow for the exploration of the unknown as well.

Dann Paquette, owner of Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, brought in his Jack D'Or, a smooth beer (with blurry label art above)
 that's higher on the bitterness scale than most other saisons but still very dry. And it, like the style, was both intriguing and drinkable.

Then, there was Mystic Brewing - like Pretty Things, a Massachusetts brewery - which offered its Descendant, a black saison made with molasses that was sweet but not overdone.

And, staying in Massachusetts for a second, there is also Cambridge Brewing, which has found a way to make a black-pepper farmhouse ale in its Sgt. Pepper (at right) and feel welcoming without being overpowering.

More Colorado breweries too are cranking up saison offerings. Both Funkwerks - the 2012 GABF Small Brewery of the Year - and Black Fox are all-saison maestros, blending peppers, fruit and everything you might think shouldn't go into a beer. And doing it well.

And you see non-saison breweries experimenting more with their offerings too. From Great Divide's Colette - which it makes even more special by kicking it up with orange zest and pepper - to Crooked Stave's slightly tart Vieille Artisanal Saison, the variety out there can be stunning.

So, what's the point? Unlike 1996, it's a damn good time to drink saison, whether you're in Denver or Boston or anywhere in between. And if you encounter one that might seem a little strange, drink it all the same; chances are it will be dry, smooth and just exciting enough to make your night.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Five Things I Learned from Vail Big Beers 2014

Sam Calagione set the tone appropriately in declaring at Thursday's dinner that kicked off the 2014 Vail Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival that the event was "one of the top 10 beer festivals ... in the country." The next three days proved that, if anything, the Dogfish Head Brewery founder undersold it.

This was the year the Fearless Tasting Crew went big, splurging for a fantastic eating experience and gobbling up pretty much every seminar possible. And around every corner seemed a beer, a pairing, a bit of knowledge that opened more eyes.

The full spectrum of the lessons - and what they reveal about the current craft beer scene - will be played out here in the coming weeks over numerous columns. But it is worth saluting organizers Laura and Bill Lodge and noting a handful of things that stood out with all the subtlety of a Crooked Stave barrel-aged sour (which was on hand and wonderful).

1) Great Divide can still bring it
In a festival where one struggled to identify even a single disappointing beer (zero pour-outs in 3-1/2 hours of tasting for this guy), nothing stood out quite like Great Divide's Barrel Aged Grand Cru Cuvee. Aged in a single Syrah barrel, this creation screamed out all the joys of the festival - experimental, giant (12% ABV), tart (though not too much so) and stunningly balanced and drinkable.

Sometimes at the best festivals, people run to find the newest, hippest tastes - and those, mind you, are great. But 20 years into its life, this Denver legend still produces eye-opening surprises - enough to outdo even all the new kids on the block.

2) Sour is the new triple IPA
Sours have become more common, more clever and mixed with more ingredients in recent years. But now they appear to be going in the same direction that hop bombs went several years ago -  more extreme. The difference is, these results might speak better for the genre than the envelope-pushing hop races did.

Big Beers presented sours that were pleasantly pucker-worthy (Cambridge Brewing's Cerise Casee Solera-aged American Sour Ale) and brimming with fruit that accented the wild yeast perfectly (Grand Teton Barrel Aged Huckleberry Sour). But if that wasn't enough, you could find an intriguingly good smoked sour (Paradox Skully Barrel No. 7) and a tart beer made with local ingredients (AC Golden Gooseberry Colorambic). Amp it up and push the envelope away; it only seems to be getting better.

3) The art of pumpkin beers is not dead
Less than three months ago, I lamented that every pumpkin beer of 2013 seemed to be over-spiced or under-flavored. Then I found at Big Beers that I was just trying the wrong ones. Brewing's Barrel-Aged Imperial Smoked Pumpkin Ale had all the complexity that its name implied, but the smoke was light enough to be unobtrusive and the pumpkin was pure baked sweetness. Meanwhile, Wiley Roots Brewing's Apumpalyptic Imperial Ale was filled with non-biting spices and alcoholic warmth, just begging to be enjoyed in greater quantities than it should be.

4) Any Fort Collins tour without a stop in Loveland is wasted
Those who haven't visited Grimm Brothers Brewhouse in the past year are missing a significantly evolved beer maker that has moved beyond its traditional German roots to incorporate new styles. At the Vail Cascade, it broke out a complex Devil's Riddle again and supplemented that with a lightly soured Once Upon A Time American wild ale and a Grandfather Grim foreign export stout that was dark like a cookie.

But Verboten Brewing, also of Loveland, showed up every bit as big, especially with a Bourbon Barrel-Aged Mountain Man that had a vanilla underbelly softening the bourbon kick in a way that made it approachable. And Loveland Aleworks didn't slack a bit with an Imperial Stout that was as dark and rich as its 12.5% ABV denoted but surprisingly easy-bodied and pleasant.

5) For the 2015 festival, go big. You won't regret it.
Even at $108 per person, the Tasting Crew walked away from the Avery/Dogfish Head dinner convinced it was a bargain. The chefs at Atwater on Gore Creek crafted five courses of incredible offerings (beef sushi and Gingersnap-crusted venison, to name two) and not only paired them in a spot-on fashion but did so with beers - especially from Avery - that ranged from hard to impossible to find. (The return of the very limited Thensaurum, aged 18 months to tart perfection in rum barrels, may have been the biggest highlight.)

Beyond that, though, the chance to meander around not just for one day but for the weekend allowed good time to learn about nuances, whether it was at Friday night's winter seasonals session with four brewers or at a beer-cigar pairing where non-presenting breweries (I'm looking at you, Epic Brewing) brought their own stashes to share with crowd. And after a weekend of walking through so many treasures, one could treat Saturday not like a rush around the bigger and more spacious tasting area (pictured a few paragraphs above) but a chance to catch up again with brewers and enjoy the scene calmly.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Big Beers Gets Bigger

Vail Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival, once one of the state's hidden gems, has grown in reputation to the point where it's now an accepted fact that it's the best non-GABF annual beer event in Colorado. That's enough to make any organizer rest on their laurels.

But resting is something that festival coordinator Laura Lodge doesn't do so well. And so, this year's event, scheduled for Thursday through Saturday, has added more sessions, more beer knowledge and, maybe most importantly, more room for both extra patrons and extra breweries.

The biggest news, if you haven't heard - and if you haven't heard anything about the event, I'll just say: Drop your plans for the weekend and head to Vail - is that the grand tasting has moved to a bigger area with space roughly twice that of the past two years. While lines have never been a problem at the festival, elbow-to-elbow maneuvering at times has been, and this will eliminate that and give more breweries a chance to strut their stuff.

That the festival will be accommodating to more beer makers is evident from the list of just how many small but talented brewers will be pouring at sessions throughout Saturday. Trinity Brewing and Mystic Brewery will be among those discussing experimental brewing at 9:30 a.m., sour savants Captain Lawrence Brewing will co-host two seminars with Deschutes and both Bell's Brewery and Cambridge Brewing - two of the best breweries not selling in Colorado - will be part of a featured early-afternoon talk.

And for those who like to divide their gigantic-beer drinking over multiple days, there is a Brewers Association-led Friday night talk on winter seasonals and a varied lineup of rare beers from Thursday through Saturday in the Cascade Lounge.

If this all sounds like some sort of commercial for the festival, it's no more so one than all the hype that I and other bloggers try to sort through before the Great American Beer Festival. But in the case of Vail Big Beers, it's all laid out in one location - the Vail Cascade Resort - and happens to center around an event about which too few people still seem to know.

Maybe I should keep quiet and go on acting as if I know a secret. But I'd rather shout about it - and spend the next month writing blogs based on things I learned this upcoming weekend. See you there.

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