Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ten Best Colorado Beers of 2014

If the past few years have been a period when Colorado brewers went bigger and bolder every year, 2014 could be called a settling - not a settling for lesser beers, but a settling back into more traditional styles or ABV strengths, leading to a resurgence in less complicated but tastier offerings.

That's why this fourth annual edition chronicling one beer geek's thoughts on the best the Centennial State had to offer includes lost gems like a session beer, a brown ale and more pale ales than double IPAs. But it also includes some intensely complex beers and one-off gems, proving that Colorado's beer scene is hard to put into a box - but easy to put into your stomach.

Here, then, are my thoughts on the 10 beers that most shined and defined 2014 in Colorado - both new beers and beers that may have debuted previously but grabbed a new spotlight this year.

10) Odell/New Belgium FOCOllaboration
Fort Collins' two largest craft breweries seemed overdue to combine forces on a product. But it proved worth the wait - a pale ale with the flower and citrus bite of an IPA and the smoothness of two beer masters who know how to do beer without overdoing it.

9) Crazy Mountain Neomexicanus Native Pale Ale
In a year when pale ales made a resurgence, the best thing found in them was completely new - the Humulus Lupulus Neomexicanus hop, a style that is native to North America but never had been used in a Colorado beer. It offered a lemony profile that blended perfectly with Crazy Mountain's approach to letting the hop do all of the talking and not over-malting the beer.

8) Caution Brewing's The Earl
Tea-infused beers aren't made widely enough to be considered a trend just yet. But anyone who tries this dynamo will think they should be. Despite its lighter body - the base beer is a low-alchohol dark mild ale - this creation zings to life with an aggressive addition of Earl Grey tea. It is highly aromatic and can take over your palate without destroying your taste buds.

7) Strange Craft Beer Fresh-Hopped 1000 Barrels Imperial IPA
The regular version of 1000 Barrels is no slacker. But adding pounds upon pounds of CTZ, Cascade and Chinook hops to it cut down the malt sweetness and accented the grassy beauty of the hop like no beer in Colorado did in 2014. Here's hoping that the crew there bring this back for a 2015 encore.

6) River North Grand Unified Theory
Maybe the most unique Colorado beer of 2014, this version of River North's imperial wit aged in cocktail barrels added a sour zing plus the eye-opening tastes of sweet vermouth and bitter liqueur to a body that already was heavy in flavor while being slightly lighter in weight. Coming in near 10 percent ABV, it was the rare beer whose flavor was aided by the clear presence of alcohol, as that just piled on to its complexity.

5) Telluride Face Down Brown
This offering from Telluride Brewing has been around for a few years. But 2014 was the year that it announced that it not only was the best American-style brown ale in the country - it won gold in a Colorado sweep of that category at the Great American Beer Festival - but that it has become one of the state's most essential beers. With noticeable hops backing a solid roasted body, this has started showing up on a lot more beer menus this year, and for good reason.

4) Great Divide Barrel-Aged Grand Cru Cuvee
Known for its dark and its hoppy treasures, Great Divide took a new pathway to excellence at the start of this year by churning out a Syrah-barrel-aged version of its already bulky Grand Cru that added a pungent but not pucker-worthy tartness and somehow remained amazingly drinkable at 12% ABV. Like Strange's offering, this is a one-off that needs to come back.

3) Copper Kettle Snowed In
The debate may be over in regard to Colorado's best winter seasonal. Copper Kettle followed up its fascinating 2013 version of this beer, a barrel-aged imperial oatmeal stout, by adding a heavy dose of coffee and a heavier presence of underlying roasty malt that made this not only the talk of Denver Festivus but the hands-down best Christmas beer in the state. This is technically the only holdover beer from the 2013 top-beers list, but with its makeover it feels brand new.

2)  Trinity Super Juice Solution
No brewery in Colorado breaks more new ground more consistently than Trinity Brewing. But for all its high-gravity and barrel-aged experiments, nothing hit the bulls-eye - or, more correctly, created a new bulls-eye further down the road for everyone else to catch up to - like this sessionable sour IPA. First it presented a raw grassiness, then a second layer of punch bearing both cherry and apple tartness. Finally, it left you considering not only what was in it but where session beers could go next if this is their experimental standard-bearer.

1) Boulder Shake Chocolate Porter
Complexity be damned, the best Colorado beer of 2014 had an absurdly simple premise: Add cacao nibs to a traditional American porter and see what happens. The result was the smoothest but arguably most pleasing beer ever from the nation's oldest craft brewery - a mouth-filling waft of cocoa, caramel and balanced body that was equally good in the summer and winter. And it was every bit as good on nitro as it was in standard form. Dark-beer lovers lauded it, and even those who tended toward more complex beers - me included - had to step back and challenge their assumptions about what makes a beer memorable. It will set a high bar for porters and should jump-start the chocolate-porter trend to match the vanilla-porter wave that's rolled across the state.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Fort Collins' Newest Breweries Adding to Its Reputation

In a city like Fort Collins, where any new brewery competes with established national craft-brewing giants for residents' love, newcomers had better bring their A-game. And that is why it's so good to see that two of the newest kids in town — Snowbank Brewing and Horse and Dragon Brewing — have something to offer to the local and statewide scene.

Horse and Dragon, opened on May 1, brings a constantly rotating menu of offerings to town, and while it offers a variety of hopped and dark staples, it also leans toward experimentation. (And is good for families, as you can see below.)

The Sad Panda Coffee Porter — one of the standouts of this year's All Colorado Beer Festival — hits you not just with a java taste but a creaminess that makes this one of the more eye-opening dark beers of the year. The Scottish Tradesman Coconut Porter rewards those who prefer that style with a touch of coconut rather than an overabundance of cloying sweetness. And one sip of the whiskey-barrel-aged IPA shows the daring that will mark the expanding barrel program.

Snowbank, meanwhile, does more classic styles but does them well — and with an emphasis on hopping all of its beers without over-hopping them. It (pictured at top) opened about four months ago.

Inclination IPA is one of the best new Colorado IPAs this year, seamlessly blending citrus, grass and malt tastes. The Pawnee Porter doesn't skimp on the roasty finish but still greets you with a cocoa taste. And the Moon Arete Wheat offers a heavier body and, consequently, a bigger taste of banana and clove than most of what can be a forgettable style.

Best of all, both are located along the same general touring route that takes you to such established greats as Odell, New Belgium and Funkwerks. So, it looks like those bike tours through Fort Collins just got a little longer.

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