Friday, August 08, 2014
One of the common refrains in conversations between area beer writers goes like this: There are some good breweries opening along the Front Range this year, but not that one great brewery that has stood out as in years past.
Chain Reaction Brewing isn't that towering standout yet. But the month-and-a-half-old brewery in southwest Denver is showing some signs that it has the potential to be the next big thing.
The first thing you notice about the effort from homebrewing cousins Zack and Chad Christofferson is the pure number of beers on tap for a start-up. There are six flagship beers, four seasonals on at all times and six more open taps for whatever experiments the guys want to unleash on the public.
The next thing that catches your eye is the overwhelming presence of beetle-killed wood throughout the brewery at 902 S. Lipan St. It's in the boxes holding your flights, it's in the bar, it's even in a giant Colorado flag on one wall that is made completely out of the wood. It's cool.
Zack and Chad do what they are supposed to do with the high number of taps — they reserve some for the more standard beers and leave others for slight or sometimes wild experimentation; these, after all, are brewers who already have served styles such as a Cilantro Serrano Lime Wheat and a Watermelon Ginger Hefeweizen. And the impressive thing is that both the normal and cutting-edge efforts work very well.
On the more standard side, the Pale Ale is a standout. Made with belma hops, which bring a character of honeydew and melon, it presents a slight bit more bitterly than is typical for the style but then settles in with a sweetness that will leave you remembering it.
The IPA is bitter, but in a way that spreads the bite throughout your mouth and leaves it taste-laden without being overwhelming. The Porter has a good chocolate punch without being cloying. And the Orange Cream is simply a nice beer - not overwhelming in the orange attributes but perfectly pleasant as a summer sipper.
On the more experimental side, the big winner is the Pink Peppercorn Saison, a beer that supplies the perfect amount of sweetness with just a hint of pepper to balance it. The Belgian Rye Stout cuts a very fine malty, sharp blend on the back of the tongue and will be a wonderful winter warmer. And the Lemon IPA, while decidedly bitter from its single-hopping with sorachi ace hops, does not lack for ambition.
Chain Reaction is still going through some growing pains, mind you. On a recent weeknight, three separate tasters — the seasonal/experimental Blonde, Pale Wheat and Chai Wit beers — all had a plastic residue taste, one that Zack apologetically attributed to the lines. And the Red Ale, a flagship beer, felt like an unchallenging version of the style ripped from the late 1990s.
But between the variety of offerings, the experimental touch and the clever hopping, Chain Reaction stands out as a place that is going to take chances and, clearly, is going to succeed a lot. And that makes it an exciting brewery to watch as it grows.
Monday, August 04, 2014
Saturday's event, hosted at Sculpture Park by Imbibe Denver and Colorado Brewers Guild, was a time of experimentation, both for better and for worse. Here are a few lessons drunken in from it:
1) Sour + Session Beers = Powerfully Good
It could be said that the most talked-about beers at just about any festival are the sour experiments, but that was especially true this weekend - and specifically because everything had such a big taste and ran in at less than 5% ABV. Fate's tart but refreshing Uror Gose and Great Divide's eminently drinkable Berliner Weisse were just a couple of examples of what you could do with subtle tartness without tearing apart your taste buds or leaving you with a hangover from trying too much.
But the big winner of the sour experiments was ...
2) Trinity Brewing Scored Again
Hands down the best beer of the festival was the Colorado Springs brewery's Super Juice Solution, a sour session IPA that mingled the sharp orange/grapefruit tart flavors with an earthy hop in a way that married the seemingly disparate tastes very well. I enjoyed it so much I had to stop by Stapleton Taphouse the next day to get a full pour, and I'm still impressed at how the flavors blended so artfully and also were measured enough that they meshed together rather than seemed to compete for being the loudest taste in your mouth.
3) The "Session IPA" Remains a Work in Progress
Before the festival, Ska's Dave Thibodeau made the case that low-alcohol IPA was a legitimate style rather than just a watered-down version of America's most popular beer, and it was easy to find examples that both proved and disproved his theory. But for every "hopped lager" that seemed to offered only a hint of grass or citrus over a light biscuit body, there also were beers like Black Bottle's Doby Session IPA and Upslope's Session IPA, which offered big squirts of hop juice in a light body and made you think there is hope for this style yet.
4) The Uber-Tasty Low-Alcohol Malt Bomb is a Thing of the Past ...
... Or maybe all of the other high-alcohol specialty festivals have ruined all of our taste buds. But efforts to find the next Guinness in the crowd were not met with success. Red ales were dull, dry stouts were more dry than stout and when another member of the Fearless Tasting Crew suggested that a dark mild I was drinking would be much more appealing if I paired it with fried chicken, I really felt someone was stretching it. Aside from TRVE's American ESB, a dusty beer with a charming bitter backbite of hops, the beers most likely to pass for traditional English session beers didn't jump out.
5) Bring Enough Beer For Everyone.
This can not be emphasized enough. Crooked Stave ran out of beer in less than an hour. One entire side of the festival was tapped just over two hours into the four-hour event. With 40 minutes left, there were all of three breweries still serving beer (see picture below). When you're the Great American Beer Festival and 75 of your 700 breweries are out of beer by the end of one session, you'll be forgiven; when 90 percent of your breweries are tapped with an hour left, it leads to a heck of a lot of grumbling in the crowd.
In a rush to judgment - one that I've been called on - I assumed that this was the fault of the organizers, especially when a fellow beer writer told me a similar beer drought occurred at the Collaboration Fest also sponsored by CBG and Imbibe earlier this year. But one of the organizers scolded me and pointed the finger at brewers, saying very few brought enough beer. And one brewer that I ran into simply shrugged and said his whole side of the event got slammed with people in a hurry. So, without placing blame on anyone, I'd just ask that everyone involved learn something from this and fix the problem so that the murmurs that cascaded through the hard-core beer drinkers Saturday don't grow into cries that could endanger any future festivals - especially ones like these that showcase a creative side for breweries who otherwise might be content with pouring their standards and calling it a day.
Friday, August 01, 2014
Lowdown Brewery + Kitchen, which is just reaching six months of age, has everything a brewery seemingly could want. It's got a killer location, complete with patio at 800 Lincoln Street. It has a food menu chock full of locally raised produce. And it has two industry veterans at the helm of its beer program.
But then you taste the beer. And while the fair-sized menu is not low-brow, the offerings on it could might best be described as "lowest common denominator."
Of the nine beers the Fearless Tasting Crew had on a recent visit, none were awful. Many were brewed to style. But it was not until the very last tasting on the sampler tray — of the chocolaty and sweet Sherwood Porter — that you really felt any gusto, any creativity, any special attributes to the taste of the beer.
Over and over, we wished for more flavor. Sure, maybe you're not going to expect knock-your-socks-off mouthfeel from the Patio Pounding Pilz or the Whil Wheaton — to to that end, the two lighter-bodied beers didn't disappoint. But the sentiment of wishing for more continued throughout the menu.
The Lowdown IPA, for example has a full bitter taste, but without any particular citrus or grass characteristics —just bitterness. The Boxer India Red Ale has bitterness that's almost overshadowed by hops, but no sweetness or stand-out personality. The Belgian dubbel, Two Times a Lady, is light-bodied, lacking in both the candied sugar and esters you might expect. Eventually, you find yourself sipping, nodding and then just wishing that the brewers took more chances with their recipes.
Selfish — a pale ale with pilsner malt — gives a hint of what those chances might produce, as it introduces tastes of passion fruit and muted citrus but leaves your palate a little too quickly to be memorable. It's really just the robust porter, with hints of both chocolate and caramel, that makes you smile with appreciation. But then, unfortunately, you realize you've just run the entire menu.
There is no doubt that the former Rock Bottom brewers who opened Lowdown know what they're doing from a business perspective. One can just hope, though, that now that they are established, they can throw a few curve balls into an otherwise staid beer menu.