Monday, March 31, 2014

What the New Kids on the Block can teach us

Last week, a few of Denver's brewers and beer writers - and a lot of people in bad '80s outfits - got together for a "New Kids on the Block" party celebrating area breweries under two years old. It was revealing.

First, it's worth noting that outfits remembered as the typical clothing of the 1980s get worse every time someone throws a nostalgic party - and worse than those we were wearing in any high school pics from that actual time. But second, the event put on by Imbibe, Denver Off the Wagon, Porch Drinking and the Colorado Brewers Guild at The Lobby showed a few things about where we are evolving to in our new craft beer scene.

* These new kids are willing to try things.
Sure, a few people brought lagers and pale ales. But many offered styles that they are clearly making to try to set them apart from the old guard.

Verboten's Orange Blossom Honey Wheat has more a citrus bite than a drink this mellow sounds like it should - and to good effect. Meanwhile, Loveland Ale Works' Darkest Day, a chocolate coconut porter, was so full of malted righteousness that it subsumed the coconut enough to allow it to blend well with the chocolate without becoming overly sweet.

* These new kids are trying to take Belgians where their forebears didn't.
The aforementioned Loveland Ale Works, a rising star on the scene, whipped up a raspberry saison that was so tart as to be almost pucker-worthy, and it presented a full body as well.

Meanwhile, Black Bottle Brewing brought its Social Insecurity, a Belgian session ale that was a little light-bodied for its own good but was still a gutsy attempt at a new style.

* The next generation of new kids might be even better.
Maybe the most talked-about beer of the event was Intergalactic IPA, a fragrant and hop-bountiful double IPA from Powder Keg Brewing of Niwot, which is set to open this summer. With that as a lead-in, I can't wait to see what else may be on its way.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

5 Events Not to Miss Still Scheduled for Colorado Craft Beer Week

It may be about this time when you look at the calendar and think, "Oh (insert expletive here), Colorado Craft Beer Week is halfway done and I haven't gotten out to anything yet."

Fear not. For while you may have missed Collaboration Fest and a few cool tappings, there is still a lot to catch before this springtime celebration of the state's most wonderful beverage ends on March 29. And here's a quick primer to five of them.

1) Colorado Springs Tap Takeover at Brewer's Republic
Today, 3 to 10 p.m.
Lots of beer bars are welcoming one or two breweries to pour a plethora of beers from their collections. But this downtown Colorado Springs watering hole is putting the whole city's craft beer collection on display. Makes me wish I was back in my old hometown tonight.

2) New Kids on the Block
Thursdsay, 8 to 11 p.m., $25, The Lobby in Denver
Roughly 100 new breweries have opened in Colorado in the past two years. Not all of them will be pouring at The Lobby, but the good folks at Imbibe and promise enough will be there to let drinkers really sample the breadth and depth of this new wave of beer makers.

3) Twisted Pine Blind Beer and Bites Pairing
Friday, 6:30 to 8 p.m., $20
Of all the beer/food pairings this week, this may be the most unique — an event where participants are literally blind-folded as they make their way through five small-plate pairings without knowing until the end what they are eating and drinking.

4) Hops and Handrails at Left Hand Brewing
Saturday, noon to 6 p.m., $30
This will be the only beer festival this year in which the brewery installs a 25-foot ski ramp and invites people to come by with their snowboards. Oh, and there will be a good number of brewers there as well at this truly Colorado-centric event.

5) 2nd Annual Western Colorado Craft Beer Celebration
Saturday, 2 to 6 p.m., $10, Edgewater Brewery in Grand Junction
The Western Slope beer scene is growing more quickly than most Front Rangers would realize. This gathering will bring about a dozen of those breweries together, and it will be a great chance to learn about some new beers if you happen to be crossing the Continental Divide.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Love to the Lovibond Series

Heard about Collaboration Fest yet? Or the Lovibond series in general? If not, it's worth getting up to speed on one of the cooler new innovations to the Colorado beer festival scene this year.

The Colorado Brewers Guild is working together with event creator Imbibe! to produce four new beer gatherings, each focusing on a different aspect of the brewing scene than one typically finds celebrated. And the first one, Collaboration Fest, goes off Saturday at The Curtis Hotel to kick off Colorado Craft Beer Week.

This initial party is a celebration of the cohesiveness and willingness to work together within the craft beer community. Beer makers from both within and outside of Colorado have combined to make 41 beers that have never been released to the public before. And if you don't catch them at Collaboration Fest, you may have a hard time finding them elsewhere.

The idea for Collaboration Fest actually rose out of last year's Colorado Craft Beer week (a springtime celebration that is different than Denver Beer Fest, which occurs in the week surrounding the Great American Beer Festival, for those of you following along at home). A number of out-of-state breweries wanted to be involved, but organizers didn't want to water down the all-Colorado feel of the tappings and tastings, said Steve Kurowski, CBG marketing director.

So, letting them work in conjunction with Centennial State beer makers to do something truly unique not only brings more of a focus to Colorado, but it also shows off the ties between brewers that still bind the industry.

"We consider Colorado to be an epicenter of the craft beer revolution that's going on throughout the country," Kurowski said. "We think this event will have a national feel that people will want to come to the state to explore it."

And what kind of collaborations will be served from 3 to 7 p.m.? To understand their breadth and depth, just look at all that Breckenridge Brewery is doing.

Along with the four other Summit County breweries, it's collaborated on a black saison. And in conjunction with the other "Beermuda Triangle" brewers - those on the south end of downtown Denver - it's made a black IPA aged with rum (not rum barrels, just plain old rum). But it's also got one of its brewers participating in a collaboration brew made by all of the former beer makers from Mountain Sun who have staked out on their own. And, finally, it worked with Sweetwater Brewing of Atlanta to create a red wheat wine ale.

"I just love the whole camaraderie of the whole thing. It speaks to the spirit of craft beer," said Todd Thibault, the eponymous marketing director for the brewery. "I think more people in the industry are excited about this festival than possibly consumers."

But it doesn't stop there for the Lovibond series. There also will be a Brewery 5K this summer in Fort Collins, a Sesh Fest highlighting session beers during the summer in Denver and a fresh hop festival in September.

"These will be unique events in unique places. They will not be the typical beer festival in a square room with breweries around the room," Kurowski said. "We want to create something much different for the Colorado beer drinker."

Sign me up.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Breckenridge Invents a Whole New Barleywine

A confession to start this post: I'm not the world's biggest barleywine fan. The whole genre can tend toward the overboard, either with an insensitively overbearing prune taste or an overdose of hops that seems out of place.

So, walking into Breckenridge Brewery's release party Saturday for Barleywine Batch #1, there was trepidation that the old-school Denver brewery had, like many others, made an old-school, too-big-to-enjoy beer.

As it turns out, that trepidation was wildly misplaced.

Instead, what Breck has created is maybe the most drinkable barleywine served in Colorado - and one that is still bold enough to please both those looking for something to push their taste-bud envelopes and those wanting something more evenly enjoyable.

What appears on the palate with this beer is not a big raisin taste but something that tends more toward black cherry. A beer relying on malt characteristics is dark and thick, but it's also approachably sweet-tinged - offering lots of different levels of flavor, none of which is overpowering.

The secret to its easiness, said brewmaster Todd Usry, was the decision first to keep it in cold fermentation for an unusually long three months, smoothing out the rough alcoholic edges in the same way the brewery makes its similarly 10% ABV 471 Double IPA easy to enjoy. Then it spent another six to seven months in oak barrels, adding just a hint of woodiness to give the body enough gravitas to make an impact.

Said Katie Nierling, co-host of American Craft Beer Radio: "A lot of barleywines get too malty, too raisin-y. I can't finish them. I can finish this."

I couldn't have said it better. In fact, I had to pry myself away after two snifters of the barleywine, as its alcohol was hidden deceptively well.

If you're a barleywine fan, grab a 22-oz. bomber of this to appreciate its difference. And if you're not, grab one anyway; it might surprise you how tasty one of these monster styles of beer can be when it's brewed so well.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Beer Drinker Lost in a Pork-tastic World

Navigating a beer festival is relatively easy. Yes, you often have a lot of choices with a limited amount of sobriety in which to make them. But the basic navigation is simple: Find good beer. Drink. Move to the next good beer. Repeat.

What is harder is navigating a high-end food festival while trying to get the most enjoyment out your beer at said event. And on Sunday, I tried to do just that at the Denver stop of America's foremost pork festival, Cochon555.

For those unfamiliar with the event, it is a celebration of heritage pigs - smaller, more intensely flavorful porkers whose higher cost can scare off people unless they know to ask for them. For Cochon, five restaurateurs are paired with farmers, given one animal and told to make six dishes using every part of the pig. Attendees then spend four hours dining on 30 small-plate pig-dish samples while imbibing an unlimited supply of cocktails, wine - and beer from one brewery.

That brewery at each of the Cochon stops is Goose Island, and the Chicago beer maker brought five selections: Sofie farmhouse ale, Matilda Belgian pale ale, IPA, Honker's Ale and 312 Urban Wheat Ale. Armed only with a press pass (I fricking love my job!) and that quintet of options, I set out to find how a beer guy navigates his way through a room full of people in sport coats knocking back Manhattans while watching a pig get butchered.

*Lesson 1: All pork may come from one animal, but that doesn't mean every preparation calls for just one type of beer. The soft touches of Sophie, for example, offered a compliment to tartare on pork cracklins or to the briny taste of the (non-pork) oysters being served outside the main hall. But when you're sucking down a Georgia Bloodswick Stew made with actual pig's blood, you're going to want the fuller body that a Belgian pale like Matilda gives you. This is valuable to know.

*Lesson 2: IPA actually goes with just about everything. I tried one or more dishes from each chef in pairing with the type of beer that might as well be the official beverage of Colorado. Sure, I could have gone for something lighter and more German with Beast and Bottle's traditional German sausage sandwich, but even that wasn't what one would call a bad combo. And the spicy fruity hops were the perfect accompaniment to the pickled cucumber in Oak at Fourteenth's pork ramen, making me want to ask why I can't find more hoppy beers on traditional Asian restaurant menus.

*Lesson 3: Beer cocktails may be vaguely hip, but they don't substitute for the hearty and refreshing taste of an actual beer. Breckenridge Distillery was combining its bitters with IPA, and the resulting beverage could have been called "Double the Bitter." It was curious for a couple of sips, but it was more experimental than satisfying.

*Lesson 4: Get ready for more of these kinds of combinations, because breweries love being a part of it. National Goose Island brand ambassador Russell Woelfel told me he was shocked how popular the booth has been at these shows (though it probably didn't hurt to have a company serving duck salumi and foie gras at the station). And beer educator Patti Mandel said the brewery is ramping up its presence at beer dinners and culinary events, feeling it can attract the following of foodies who may see beer in a new way. I'm guessing it's not the only one thinking that way.

So, yes, it is possible - and quite enjoyable - to go all-beer even as you're going whole hog (excuse the pun) on enjoying upscale food at a festival. And you can learn a thing or two about mixing and matching your brews that just might make you appreciate the beer in your hand as much as the pork belly on your plate.

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Sunday, March 09, 2014

Two Divergent New Breweries

Two of Denver's newer breweries celebrated big events yesterday. Jagged Mountain Brewery held its "grand opening," about four months after its soft opening. And Diebolt Brewing released its International Ale, a white IPA, seven months after opening.

The two events are separate points in the breweries' development, for sure. Both both are significant enough to allow to step back to look at their growth, which, it turns out, is actually a bit divergent.

Jagged Mountain came onto the scene with an early reputation that it was going to be among the biggest brewers in town in terms of alcohol-by-volume products. Its First Descent Old Ale, at 13 percent, quickly became the strongest regular offering in town. And it wowed crowds at festivals like Denver Beer Festivus with offerings like its Red Point Double Red Rye IPA that were both strong and creatively tasty.

But part of what makes this brewery someplace worth going out of your way to visit is its mastery of styles that are considered less than challenging. Its Junta Dog Enigma, for example, might be the best brown ale in town, fully of nutty sweetness with a hinted but not overpowering feel of chocolate. And its Spearhead saison — stronger than much of the style at 8.2% ABV — is a little short on the traditional peppery notes but makes up for it with a honey sweetness.

Jagged Mountain still has its flaws. Its Zero Gravity session saison, meant to appeal to the gaggle of Coors Light drinkers it expects to file in before Rockies games, tastes far too much like a bubble-gum-flavored jelly bean. But overall, its body of work ranges from solid to eyebrow-raising.

Diebolt, meanwhile, made less of a splash even as it presented a menu full of bold styles, from multiple saisons to an IPA to a Belgian dubbel. It's even hand-bottled several of its beers. But whatever Diebolt has done, it's seemed to draw little attention. And the reason is this: Whether the style is a big one or a more traditional one, the taste of its beers seems undersold.

The Diebolt Standard Porter, for example, is a little sweet but also watery, hinting at chocolate but not roastiness. The Colorado Greenback IPA, coming in sessionable at 4.8% ABV, has almost no hop mouthfeel. And while the Saison Voila is largely smooth, it's also quite boring, without a stand-out flavor to grab your attention.

Yet, to see the potential that Diebolt holds, one needs only to try its C'est La Saison, a winter saison bursting with a cherry-like flavor that resonates but is not overdone. It's the most flavorful beer on the menu, and one that shows such a level of originality and mastery of saison's possibilities that you can feel it as a gateway to the next level. The decision to age a separate version of the beer in tequila barrels, giving it both a smoky flavor and a fruit/vegetable edge that hints of sweet cucumber, shows even more potential.

So, Jagged Mountain and Diebolt have split somewhat in their growth so far, with the "big" brewery enhancing its reputation with well-made mainstream beers and the smaller brewery succeeding most when it's gone big and bold. It will be interesting to see what the next year brings for them.

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