Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Tale of Two Heavy Metal Breweries

Ever since Black Sky Brewery opened during the 2013 Great American Beer Festival, it's been the living personification of how mature Denver's craft brewing scene is — mature enough to support two heavy-metal-themed breweries.

But as much as Denver might have two darkly-adorned, guitar-deifying beer makers — TRVE Brewing opened on Broadway in 2011 — have you ever spent time comparing and contrasting their beers and atmospheres? Just for fun, I decided to do that recently. And I discovered that while they may fit together into a very small niche, there are actually few similarities between the suds purveyors.

It doesn't take being inside TRVE long, for example, to feel like you are in a very different place than other breweries. The interior is black, the art is foreboding and the loud-but-not-so-loud-you-can't-talk-over-it music sounds like it's played by someone in real pain (at least that's how it sounds to a bluegrass listener like me). Pentagram-emblazoned goats and multiple mammal skulls adorn the bar, and there is not a kitchen in sight.

Black Sky is painted black as well, and larger wall art (pictured below) resembles proposed album covers for metal bands. But the music is turned down, there are TVs in the corners and there's a full menu of pizzas and calzones. Recently, the Beer Geekette and I took our five-month-old son there for dinner, and we didn't feel out of place.

Even more glaringly different than the decor, however, is the contrasting styles of brewing between Black Sky's Harry Smith and TRVE's Nick Nunns.

For all its metal atmosphere, Black Sky serves up lighter-bodied, often surprisingly lively beers. Its signature beer now is its Petal to the Metal, a 4.9% ABV rose and hibiscus ale with an appropriately flowery mouthfeel that seems to be the source of a late-breaking bitterness in an otherwise malty (16 IBU) effort. Usually you can also find on tap such offerings as a quite-sweet pomegranate wheat, pale ales with toned-down hoppy presences and even a light American ale with a citrus hop character. Guest taps are omnipresent as well.

TRVE, however, presents beer that is as challenging to the taste buds as its music is to the ear (though in a much more pleasant way). In recent years, Nunns has ramped up his barrel-aging and sour experiments, producing taste-bud busters like its eye-openingly tart Manannan sour brown ale and its dangerously drinkable Liquid Funeral Russian imperial stout that show both a great deal of complexity and strength. And just when you think you know TRVE, he'll pour you a Cursed — a sour pale ale dry-hopped with Citra and Amarillo that is neither too hoppy nor too tart but is a shockingly refreshing addition to his portfolio.

So, black metal may be black metal (though, clearly, I won't pretend to explain the musical genre). But one black-metal brewery is certainly not equivalent to the other. Black Sky is the place to go to walk just slightly on the wild side, try some accessible beers and throw down some good food. TRVE, meanwhile, is the place that tempts your beer-tasting inhibitions, immerses you fully in its culture and leaves you just a little more rattled by both its beer and scene when you leave.

Whatever your poison, though, both are worth a trip.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hopping into the Colorado Market

Colorado is a state that takes pride in the amount of hops its brewers can pack into one beer. Citrus-forward pales, piny double IPAs and even the occasionally well-balanced triple IPA ring beer bars and liquor stores, making any brewery that wants to expand distribution into this state and compete on the basis of its bitterness one that's taking a leap of faith.

But Ninkasi Brewing, which has been flowing through draft and retail accounts in Colorado since Dec. 8, seems up to that challenge. Though the Eugene, Oregon brewery makes a variety of beers, including an expanding selection of lagers, many come at you hard and fast with a hop wallop and leave a more resounding impression than many beer makers that cross the Centennial State's borders.

Jamie Floyd, who co-founded the brewery in 2006 with Nikos Ridge, said during a recent interview, in fact, that expanding into Colorado - the eighth state where one can find Ninkasi - is "a great bridge for us to taste hoppy beers and share ours with others." And sampling just a few of what is here in six-packs and bombers will show you he's not messing around with those hops.

Take, for example, the Total Domination IPA, a beer that uses the flavors of multiple hops to combine into one grassy, piny ball of mouth-filling taste. Maybe the most surprising aspect you'll find after swishing this around your mouth is that it weighs in at "only" 65 IBUs.

Tricerahops Double IPA brings more of the same brings with two notable differences. The alcohol is a bit more noticeable in this 8% ABV offering, and the taste has a less nuanced sharpness and more of a straightforward, challenging bitterness.

Even traditionally non-hoppy styles take on a whole new characteristic under Ninkasi's tutelage. Vanilla Oatis - a dark-as-night oatmeal stout with vanilla beans - has a velvety creaminess that appears in mid-sip. But it finishes with such a rush of roasted malt and surprising earthy hops that you're not at all shocked to see it reach 50 IBUs.

In fact, if there is one drawback to Ninkasi's beer, it is that you're left wondering what it would be like if they pulled back the bitterness just a little bit. And what happens when you find that out is that you discover what may be the brewery's best offering.

Sleigh'r, the winter seasonal, is a dark double alt ale that doesn't shy away from ramping up the IBUs. But the slightly high-alcohol body is complex, changing from a more classic German dark beer to one that brings forward an initially hidden taste of chocolate to one that sheds even a little touch of licorice and roasted sweetness as it flows down your throat.

Ninkasi is not for the light of taste bud. But, then again, in this state that just means it should fit in and become a more permanent fixture in many beer bars.

"I think there's a lot of similarities between the lifestyles people choose in Colorado and Oregon," Floyd said. "Culturally we have a lot in common. And I can take that to the next level with beer."

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Eight Beers That Stood Out at the 2015 Big Beers Festival

It was hard - really hard - to find a bad beer at the Big Beers Belgians & Barleywines Festival in Vail last weekend. Whether it was the slew of barrel-aged stouts, the profusion of tart but not overdone sours or the exciting number of beers that were brewing extremely well with spices, experimentation was alive and well.

But with the advantage of a few days to simmer on the multitude of flavors, a few beers rose to the top of the well-sipped heap at this wonderful event. And these are beers that will be worth looking for all year long - if some of these rarities can even be found.

Altitude Chophouse's Your Royal Chai-Ness
Year in and year out, this small Wyoming brewery brings something that makes you look - and return to their booth - twice. But it exceeded all of its past performances this year with what may have been the best beer of the festival, a chai-infused dunkelweizen that was so mellow in body and so sharply spicy in taste that it resembled a beer-y ginger soda.

Dry Dock Whiskey-barrel Aged Double Hazelnut Brown Ale
No brewery made the statement that malty beers are back quite so well as these Aurora auteurs, who offered up four dark, double barrel-aged beers. Easily the best, however, was this one, presenting a taste that was sweet and creamy and also vanilla and nutty, with the barrel standing out more than the whiskey did.

Goose Island Proprietary Blend
Bourbon County Stout is an awfully well-made beer. But this take on it, which added coconut water and simple syrup, made it not only more complex but dangerously drinkable for something this big.

Casey Brewing & Blending Saison
Troy Casey (seen here pouring for some clever beer writer) brought a lot of impressively bold farmhouse ales re-fermented with fruit like grapes and peaches. But at a festival of big beers, nothing was so palate-catching as his "simple" Saison - a concoction that was oak-barrel aged and wickedly sharp without being acidic.

AC Golden Dark Kriek
It was good to see that Casey left his former brewery in good hands, however. This blend of a golden sour and burgundy sour featured sharp, sharp cherry and a slight grape taste.

Former Future Brewing Black Project #2 - Jumpseat
Completing the dream sour/tart trio was this spectacularly tart spontaneously fermented ale that offered a taste of green apple on top of what could only be described as a gose-like beer made in a Belgian, rather than German, tradition.

Papago Brewing Coconut Joe
The star of Friday night's excellent Papago/Brouwerij Van Steenberge traditional brewmasters' dinner was this surprisingly sessionable (5.5% ABV) but roasty-sweet coconut coffee stout that paired spectacularly well with spiced peanut caramel apples (as the Beer Geekette ably demonstrates here).

Copper Kettle Brewing Mexican Chocolate Stout
This beer is way too well-known to call it a find anymore. But the reason it makes this list is that in a festival where high-gravity, experimentally spiced stouts had a bigger presence than ever, none packed the spicy/cinnamon/taste-bud-jolting punch of this emerging Colorado classic.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A Big Beers History

The throngs of people who will flock to the 15th annual Vail Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival this weekend might have a hard time picturing it being anything other than a magnet for some of the boldest beer in the country and most serious beer geeks in Colorado. But festival coordinator Laura Lodge can remember a time when Big Beers wasn't quite so big.

In 2001, Lodge's brother, Bill Lodge owned distributor High Point Brewing Co. and had a portfolio of imported European beers and American craft beer that was one of the finest in the area. But in those days he also had a problem convincing bars and stores and restaurants to buy the beer because, even though they liked what they tasted, they couldn't get customers to pay more for the offerings.

So Bill decided to hold a trade show above the Hubcap Brewery where he would gather 20 to 25 of the different brewers and importers in his portfolio and have them pour their products for the people who could put them on their menus and shelves. And what's more, Bill and Laura decided it would be a good idea to invite the public so that they could, as Laura now says, "sample an ounce of this crazy beer and then decide if they'd pay a little more for it."

What happened next is what you might expect. Nearly 200 people showed up. Their eyes bulged at the assortment of flavors available to them. And they begged the Lodges to do it again. And again.

Today, it is arguably the best beer festival in Colorado, rivaled only by the girth and variety of flavors at the Great American Beer Festival but having a per-pour quality level that is unmatched anywhere.

"Big Beers has never had a marketing budget," Laura (at right) said. "It was built by the brewers. They'd say 'I'll see you in Vail.' And the people who figured it out have come."

There have been changes, mind you. But each one has added onto the appeal of what is now a full four-day weekend of taste exploration.

Just one year later, the Big Beers homebrew contest came to bear. It now draws entries from across the country.

In 2005, Adam Avery talked Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head into coming out, but they insisted they do a beer-pairing dinner together. They offered one of the first double-pairing suppers in beer-dinner lore, with each course coming with high-gravity pearls from both breweries, and this year the now-annual "calibration dinner" sold out in 15 seconds.

Around that time, Lodge added what might be the most unique feature of the festival - an early-morning Saturday seminar (starting at 9:30 a.m. this year) in which brewers come to talk about an experimental genre. Tables are set with white cloths and 8-10 beers are poured into small snifters to remind attendees that it's an educational forum rather than a tailgating-style morning chugfest. But it still is a place where you can enjoy a barrel-aged imperial stout while others are eating breakfast and no one will look down upon you.

In 2013, the festival's main tasting session sold out for the first time, like a long-held secret that finally had to be passed around. Last year the Lodges moved it to a more spacious area on the Vail Cascade property, but this year Laura had to limit the number of vendor tables at 126, creating her first-ever wait list for breweries to get into it.

The reason for the limit is simple: Laura refuses for it to become one of those festivals where lines get 10 people deep and breweries send marketing reps to pour the beer rather than brewers.

This, after all, is not just a festival where you can sip a one-off, taproom-only barrel-aged beer from Great Divide and then turn around and discover the latest experiment from Bell's Brewery. This is a festival where the people who continue to pour and explain your beers are Avery and Calagione - brewing-industry rock stars who settle upon this ski town once a year because they know they can learn as much about the brewing art as the patrons trying to sip up every ounce they can.

"I don't want it to get any bigger," Laura said. "I want to keep it a small, connected opportunity for the people who are there. And I want to make sure we have brewmasters and owners attending ... It is the brewers who have made this event happen."

(The general tasting session once again is sold out. But if you have not gotten tickets for this year, I can't recommend enough that you plan to make this festival in 2016.)

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