Friday, February 20, 2015

New Left Hand at Old Chicago

Sometimes you find gems in unexpected places. And that's exactly what happened last night during a visit to Old Chicago.

The longtime beer-themed restaurant chain is about a year into its Explorer Series, in which it partners with craft breweries to feature a temporary lineup of beers including one typically made specifically for the promotion. It's now two weeks into the installment featuring Left Hand Brewing.

Left Hand has expanded its portfolio significantly in recent years, ramping up its seasonal and limited releases and increasing the number of offerings it's putting on nitro. But in that growth, it hasn't broken out anything quite like De'Nile Coffee Ale, its new Explorer Series creation.

De'Nile is reminiscent of Beer Week Sauce, Left Hand's draft-only coffee porter that you typically find for special occasions like Great American Beer Festival week. But by putting this Allegro Coffee blend into a lighter-bodied base, it lets the coffee flavor shine a little more, unobscured by the extra bitterness often found in the roasted malts of most breweries' favorite base for the style, the porter.

In doing so, Left Hand has created what could be called an easy-drinking coffee beer, one that is accessible both to the coffee-adventurous who prefer their java in barrel-aged imperial stouts and to drinkers who like the flavor of coffee without the harshness that often accompanies it. And it's done so not in a wide-ranging release but in a limited edition found at just one restaurant.

I've written before about Old Chicago stepping up its game in recent years, and this Explorer Series is a good example of how that is happening. But it was interesting to see last night that its menu, at least at its Lakewood location, is stacked with smaller local craft breweries like Bonfire and Station 26 as well, and to learn that its St. Patrick's Day Mini Tour will feature Comrade Brewing's Defcon Red in Denver-area stores, right next to the Guinness and Smithwick's offerings you would expect.

The next suggestion for Left Hand: Don't let this be a purely limited-time offering. De'Nile would be a nice addition to the permanent collection.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Welcome to the Neighborhood

At a time when breweries are proliferating in hard-to-fathom numbers, the ones that seem to fill the greatest unmet niche are those going into neighborhoods that have somehow remained without their corner beer maker. Denver's Regis and Berkeley neighborhoods are two of those rare locations still - but on Saturday that will change.

Goldspot Brewing opens at 4970 Lowell Boulevard this weekend, bringing a long-awaited upgrade to a building that formerly housed a barber shop and sign-making business and sits just a block from Regis University, one of the area colleges that has invested in its own brewing program. It will offer a half-dozen beers that revel in some ways in understatement but also bring a unique brand of creativity to the Denver brewing scene.

Co-owners Matt Hughes - a one-time Wynkoop brewer who continues to work for an insurance brokerage providing coverage to some 25 breweries in three states - and Alex Sward open with a lineup of offerings that are largely familiar styles, with twists.

Take, for examples, Julia's Blessing, a kolsch-style ale that is crisp and drinkable but makes an unremarkable first impression - until you can pick up on the honey that also is mixed into the brew. It provides an underlying sweetness to an also late-breaking hop finish and adds just a touch of complexity to a style not known for being described with that word.

That some honey - Hughes eventually hopes to use product from his beekeeper father in Texas - is in Uh Huh Honey, a big, bitter IPA that Goldspot brewed in collaboration with the yet-to-open Cerebral Brewing. It's made with significant quantities of El Dorado, Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin hops, so the honey here just seems to add to the back-of-your tongue wallop that is especially intriguing after the beer introduces itself with a unique, almost grape-must aroma from the New Zealand-based hops.

While people may talk about the honey ales, however, the one they're likely to remember the most is the  Coffee Cocoa Porter, a medium-bodied dark beer that expertly blends the sweetness of the chocolate with the bitterness of the coffee into an easily quaffable treat. The taste is more subtle than the nose, but it's very pleasant and well made.

Two other offerings, the Belgian Pale Ale and Cutter IPA, also take on the characteristic of understatement. Cutter is an English-American hybrid style where the malt plays more of a role than the hops, while the Belgian pale really sticks to pale-ale style guidelines and lacks a big hop bite. Both are subtly tasty beers but not as flashy as the porter or Uh Huh Honey.

Hughes and Sward say they have no immediate plans to package their beer or to distribute much outside their neighborhood location. That's good. At a time when a number of breweries are opening with plans to take over Denver's tap and shelf space immediately, the city needs more corner establishments catering to people wanting to walk or drive to a place where they can meet the owners and enjoy good beer that doesn't overwhelm the senses. Goldspot fits that bill.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Mighty Opening

Truth is, even the best of Colorado's breweries invariably opened with a hiccup. There was that beer that tasted slightly of butter. Maybe there was a selection on the menu that didn't measure up to the rest. Or maybe there just wasn't any standouts. It's happened to everyone.

Knowing this, then, is what makes Saturday's coming debut of Ratio Beerworks such an eye-opener. Yes, it's yet another brewery going into the most crowded beer neighborhood in all of Denver, RiNo. But unlike almost everyone else, it will open without an obvious flaw - and with a lineup of offerings that should impress even the most hardened beer geek.

Lead brewer Jason zumBrunnen - who founded the brewery at 2920 Larimer Street with partners Zach Lowery and Scott Kaplan (L to R in picture) - has brewed at Wynkoop and at AC Golden, and there are touches of both in his products. He shows the willingness to make a wide array of beer that has defined Wynkoop in recent years, while he also brings a creative edginess to his work that is reminiscent of the one-off releases that have made AC Golden so sought-after.

Take, as an example the beer that could become Ratio's calling card, a French saison named Dear You. Brewed and dry-hopped with Citra and made with 50 percent white wheat, this beer (also pictured above) presents itself with just a hint of tartness. And it finishes with a dryness that leaves you sated while also being intensely interested.

For the hop head there is Repeater, a 50-IBU extra pale ale with a lingering bitterness that is more effusive than biting. And for the lighter-bodied drinker there is Domestica, a 4.9% ABV American standard ale this is whirlpool-hopped in a way to create such a crispness that it makes you unable to brush this off as just another entry-level ale.

Along with Dear You, though, the standout and market original may be Hold Steady, a dark Scotch ale that manages to be highly roasted - almost peaty, in fact - without being overly heavy. For a limited time, Ratio will open with a second version of it infused with local Novo cold-pressed coffee that envelops the mouth in java without coming off as bitter.

Ratio already has a number of beers in the back aging in whiskey and other spirit barrels, and it's opening big - a 20-barrel system that will supply about 10 off-premise accounts almost from the day they tip the taps in their tasting area. And going into the former Mile High Spirits Distillery building, it begins life in a spot that's already been a center of RiNo activities.

Ratio won't be called one of the best breweries in Denver just yet. But with a solid and extremely flavorful lineup and ambitions to produce more complex beers quickly, it starts a step ahead of where many of the city's most advanced beer makers did. And that's a new and exciting trait to bring to a crowded local scene.

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Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Art of the Sour Beer Festival

At a time when more people than ever are expanding their palates to enjoy sour beer, it's only natural that a niche sector is emerging for beer festivals dedicated to this once fringe art. But that doesn't mean that all of these celebrations of wild yeast and funky taste leave your palate in the same state.

Take, for example, New Belgium's now-annual celebration of its sour styles, the Lost in the Woods party, shown above. (The brewery is throwing a party at its location in Fort Collins tonight and then hosting a celebration in Denver tomorrow night at the Terminal Bar.)

Themed around its annual releases of its La Folie and its Transatlantique Kriek, the party is swimming in sour, from the new editions of the aforementioned beers to cellared versions of past efforts. (A 2007 La Folie served last year, for example, remained exquisitely tart with a slightly lighter body.) But in addition to just pouring beer, the brewery also offers a symposium detailing its souring efforts and has cellar-room officials both leading tours and pouring various concoctions not typically released to the public, giving attendees a sense of why this is all so experimental and important in today's beer world.

Less talk, more tasting, you say? Actually, this is not only educational, but in some ways needed. For a full night of tasting sour beer can wreak havoc on both tongue and tummy. And that can become apparent even at the most celebrated funk festivals in the state.

The annual "What the Funk" festival that runs parallel with the Great American Beer Festival (or the Craft Brewers Conference, when that was in Denver last year) is the biggest, boldest collection of wild-yeast and barrel-aged beers you can find. The beer geek can find themselves in a deliriously exuberant state as they bounce between Jester King's Cerveza de Tempranillo (a tart barrel-aged sour with Tempranillo wine grapes) and Wicked Weed's Amorous (a bold barrel-aged, dry-hopped sour IPA), as the Fearless Tasting Crew did last year.

But repeated doses of sour beers over a several-hour period can add up quickly; I, for one, found my stomach rumbling and myself looking for something "mild" by the end of the show. And while I couldn't stop talking about the myriad flavors I'd discovered the next day, I also found myself with a limited desire to drink anything more, even though it was in the midst of a brewers conference.

Pace, then, may be the key. And to that end, it is worth seeking out the smaller, site-specific sour fests that the best breweries and beer bars may offer.

Last year, for example, World of Beer Cherry Creek presented a one-day sour tasting featuring 19 different beers - not as many as you'll find at What the Funk or Avery's Sourfest, but more than you'll find in many decent liquor stores. We sampled offerings from the Bear Republic Tartare to the Green Flash Little Friek and left sated but not overburdened. Plus, had things just gotten too tart, there was an available menu of a couple of hundred other beers to us as well. It was a great day.

Truth is, it's had to go wrong with a sour festival. And the best news is that more and more are cropping up. But be warned that overindulging in even the best beers may leave you wishing for a mellow German lager for a few days afterward.

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