Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Short History of Discovering the Yeti

Great Divide's latest iteration of Espresso Oak Aged Yeti is on liquor-store shelves again for a limited time. Spoiler alert: It's fantastic. It exudes a huge java flavor enveloped in a medium body that allows you to savor the coffee without feeling like you have to cut it with a knife.

People may forget, though, that the now 12-year-old imperial stout series from the Denver brewery began under a different name and with an uncertain future in an industry that was just starting to figure out how much Americans liked huge hops and huge roasted malt combined in one beer. Since then, it's evolved into arguably the finest of its genre that is made in Colorado and has broken down old barriers associated with the style by coming out in the forms of different variations and selling even through the hot months when many people go searching instead for a wheat beer.

"Back in the day, I never thought that we could sell so much imperial stout in the middle of the summer," Great Divide founder Brian Dunn joked earlier this year when discussing his signature beer at a Vail Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines seminar.

It's worth delving into the creative history of the Yeti series to understand both where it has been and where it is going. For as Great Divide has introduced new versions of the creature — first oak-aged, then espresso, then chocolate — it's not only captivated beer geeks but it has helped to launch new trends and further exploration by other craft brewers into their own takes on the imperial stout.

Yeti actually began life in 2003 as Maverick Imperial Stout. "You don't recognize the name because I screwed up a trademark search," Dunn explained in Vail. But the recipe — a burly 9.5 percent ABV offering hopped with Centennial and Simcoe and featuring seven kinds of malt — stuck and took home Great American Beer Festival medals in 2005, 2008 and 2009.

The Yeti series is notable for being so alcoholic without having any taste of alcohol that is found in lesser imperial stouts. And each successive variation of the beer stands on different merits.

Oak-Aged Yeti has a big taste of wood without a big taste of whiskey because it uses oak chips rather than barrels. Chocolate has just a slight heat to offset its sweetness because ground cayenne pepper is part of the recipe. Oatmeal is the thickest beer around and perfect for the cold nights when you get just one beer. And Espresso is the perfect blend of multiple flavors into a complex product.

Hell, I even enjoyed Belgian Yeti, with its uniquely roasty body blending with Belgian esters, before Great Divide discontinued it. Asked about its disappearance while in Vail, Dunn said simply: "We give beers about a two-year run, and they're either going to make it or they're not. Beers get the hook once in a while."

The good news is Yeti as a series hasn't gotten the hook. And before Colorado's schizophrenic weather turns from winter into spring for good, it's worth grabbing another bottle of the Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti while waiting for the next beast to appear.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

A Quickie Guide to Colorado Craft Beer Week

Do you really need an excuse to celebrate locally made beer? The guess is that if you're enough of a beer geek to read this blog, you probably get twitchy if it's been over a week since you've been to a brewery or beer bar, and you use that as reason enough to go back out.

But if you need that extra push — like, purely hypothetically, if you have a 7-month-old at home and feel a little guilty calling home and telling your wife that you have to go support the craft-beer industry before you can feed him and put him to bed — this week gives that to you. It's Colorado Craft Beer Week, and a whole bunch of breweries and bars are offering one-of-a-kind or only-once-in-a-while activities that hold great interest.

This is not a comprehensive guide to what's out there; you can find that on the Colorado Brewers Guild's official event page. But for those who want the CliffsNotes version, here's a couple of the most interesting offerings over the next six days.

1) New Kids on the Block
Imbibe once again is bringing together many of the breweries that opened in the past two years, to show off what is new and what is experimental in the Colorado scene. Scheduled for 7:30 to 10 p.m. Thursday at The Lobby, the $45 event serves as a great opportunity (last year's is pictured above) to catch up with some of the non-Denver innovators especially that you might not find in every bar or liquor store yet.

2) 2nd Choice Collab Fest
Those who missed Saturday's Collaboration Fest missed one of the most audacious collections of beers in one room in a long time, from fascinating new takes on the IPA style to Basil blonde/cherry kriek combos. The Terminal Bar at Union Station will be serving a number of the offerings all week — and it might be the last chance you'll have to try them.

3) Fuss Off
Speaking of collaborations, the most intriguing event of the week will be a Wednesday-night gathering of a number of breweries that decided to make a pumpkin-peach ale of some sort after Budweiser's Super Bowl ad mocked the style. Only people who buy a ticket will be informed of the location of the get-together. That's planning something the hard way.

4) New Beer Tappings
Countless ales will make their debut this week. A few of the more intriguing ones are:
• Denver Beer Co. releases its Cocoa Creme Graham Cracker Porter at 4 p.m. Thursday;
• Also at 4 p.m. Thursday, Odell will tap a smoked juniper and pepper version of its classic 90 Shilling at Stapleton Tap House; and,
• At 5 p.m. Friday, Trinity Brewing taps a 45th Parallel Oregon-style IPA.

5) Book Festival
From 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, Dry Dock is hosting a Book Showcase at its North Dock facility. Signing and selling their wares will be beer authors Emily Hutto, Dan Rabin and ... well, me. So, seriously, stop by and say hello, even if you already have your copy of "Mountain Brew."

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Five Things I Learned from Collaboration Fest

It was impossible to drink all 75 beers poured Saturday at the second annual Collaboration Fest, but not just because no liver could handle that load. Much of the event was taken up with stopping and chatting about what you found, what others had tried and how breweries working together were pushing the envelope in ways they may not have on their own.

But between the talking and tasting, it was pretty easy to come away with some distinct impressions about beers done both boldly and expertly.

1) Cherry and basil: two great tastes that taste great together
The stand-out of the show was the Cherry Kriek/Basil Blonde Ale combination created by Strange Craft Beer and Copper Kettle Brewing. No, it doesn't sound like it should work. But the collision of the big and pleasant spice with the big and non-tart fruit taste ended up bringing to mind a beautifully crafted Italian food with a soothing sweetness. Comparisons to both margherita pizza and caprese salad were apt.

2) We have yet to max out the flavor variety of the IPA
There were some fascinating efforts on tap, from the complex Cigar City/Station 26 Imperial White IPA to the deeply bitter Elevation/Black Bottle Double Black IPA. But nothing opened eyes quite like the Fate/Cannonball Creek German IPA that was crisp and easy of body and finished with a melon aftertaste. Here's hoping more of the breweries are inspired to do these on their own.

3) River North is entering "can do no wrong" territory
River North burst out of the seas of sours and big IPAs with a Barrel-Fermented Brown Ale it made in collaboration with Red Leg Brewing that offered the best flavorful malting of the resurgent brown ale style with a funk strain of rye whiskey barrels that made it pop even more to life. I'm not discounting the role of Red Leg here, especially after the Colorado Springs brewery took home a medal at the 2014 GABF. But having this just a few weeks after River North pulled the near-impossible by making a 17-percent-ABV saison that was hugely flavorful without being overly alcoholic seems to confirm that these guys are becoming one of Denver's best breweries.

4) Pumpkin peach ales might not be the next big thing
The most hyped beer of the show was the nine-brewery Peach Fuss Ale collaboration that represented a giant middle finger toward Budweiser. But while the beer was pleasant and creamy - the pumpkin served more as an oatmeal-like texture provider than a spicy heavy flavor addition - it certainly didn't steal the show in terms of its taste profile. It was, however, a hell of a lot better than anything made by the brewery that made fun of the style.

5) Imbibe and the Colorado Brewers Guild have learned some things
I was critical of the festival organizers after beers ran out at alarming speeds during their Sesh Fest last summer. But Imbibe's PJ Hoberman said months later that he had changed the way he requested how much beer must be brought, and on Saturday few things bit the dust before the final hour of the event, with most still available at last call. Combine that with the variety of beers, strong presence of pouring brewers and the great scene site when attendees arrived to pick up their glasses (pictured above), and this was a very well-run event that bodes well for more gutsy efforts in the future.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Collaboration is the Fulfillment of the Craft Beer Ideal

If the craft-beer movement has been a revolution against the bland, watered-down beer that America got served for 50 years after Prohibition ended, then the nine beer makers that gathered at Caution Brewing Co. on March 4 were taking part in the Colorado Peach Party.

The action was minimal; mostly brewers talked about each others' businesses, though some sharing of recipes and tips on maintaining equipment pervaded the conversations. But by creating a Peach Fuss Ale - a pumpkin-peach beer made in reaction to Budweiser's ridiculous Super Bowl commercial attacking a segment of the beer industry that is growing rapidly while American light lager stagnates - they let the world know the brewing war will be fought by coalition.

And as that beer and roughly 75 others are served today at the second-annual Collaboration Fest, a massively expanding festival from the folks at Imbibe and the Colorado Brewers Guild, these craft brewers will be joining together in a way that no other industry does. They'll share tips with competitors that will help their businesses grow, they'll figure out new joint projects to undertake in the next year and they'll have a hell of a lot of fun doing it - maybe the most important and defining characteristic of the event and the movement.

"Brewers like getting together. They really have a good time when they all get in the same room," said PJ Hoberman, co-founder of Imbibe and proud father of his growing Collab Fest child. "I think the fact that craft beer in America has grown up under the shadow of these behemoth companies means it has always had the attitude of 'we will band together, because we can't take down these giants on their own.'"

There will be giant collaborations - more than 10 female brewers and brewery owners pitched into the Lady Collab, for instance - and there will be plenty of one-on-one teamings. And beer geeks will overrun Sports Authority Field to find them.

Peach Fuss will be one of the stars of the show for its ability to capitalize on the hottest and strangest beer style out there. But there are a lot of other stories that will be worth examing.

One of the favorites that I discovered in hitting a couple of the collaborations, for example, was that of Diebolt Brewing and Denver Beer Co. getting together to make a Biere de Mars for the festival. Denver Beer's new production facility isn't too far from Diebolt, which made it somewhat of a natural collaboration. But when Jack Diebolt and Denver Beer's Nick Bruno got together (pictured above) to make it, they also dreamed up the idea of creating a Sunnyside Beer Festival to announce to the metro area that this up-and-coming westside neighborhood is a place to which beer travelers now can journey.

"We're trying to get Sunnyside on the map," Diebolt said.

One of the newest breweries at the Peach Fuss gathering was Broomfield's Nighthawk Brewing, whose owner, Ethan Hall, also owns a paintball business. There's high competition and little collaboration in that industry, Hall said. In brewing, it's completely different.

That's why Collab Fest is such an important statement. It lets the world know that craft brewing is not only on the rise but is doing so in a way no other industry has done. And that's worth celebrating.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Finally, a Session IPA Done Right

The session IPA trend has been one of the most perplexing of recent years. Tons of breweries have tried to create a low-alcohol hop bomb, but even those that make exceptional IPAs have, for the most part, produced beers that taste like watered-down pale ales short on the hop characteristic that makes their regular offerings shine.

It has been a great relief, then, to discover Oskar Blues' Pinner IPA, which is the first session IPA that seems to have nailed the goal for which this style was reaching. And while it may not be that surprising that the Longmont beer maker did something remarkable with hops, it is, frankly, a little shocking that a brewery that considers 7 percent ABV the low bar for most of its creations has come up with one of the most successful beers to date in the lower-alcohol genre.

To start, cracking open a can of Pinner is equivalent to sticking one's nose into a freshly crushed hop flower. The vibrant pine-tinted grass scent that comes at you is half of the battle to master the session IPA niche — it tells you this is a hop-forward beer, even if the 4.7-percent ABV level noted on the label makes you think otherwise.

Then the taste itself follows with an eyebrow-raising combination. The body is appropriately lighter than the brewery's flagship Dale's Pale Ale, and the hops are not as pronounced or astringent. But there is a full-mouth feel to signature ingredient — not a biting or acidic taste but one that makes its hop presence felt all the same.

Others have put unique twists on successful session IPAs. Trinity Brewing's sour session IPA, Super Juice Solution, is one that gives you some hops blended with a lot of other complex flavors, for example. But no one longing for the straight-up bitter bite of an IPA has yet written to me to suggest that they are getting the flavor they need out of a beer with the word "session" on it.

Pinner won't replace the big-bodied grittiness of Dale's or the blow-your-palate bravado of Gubna Imperial IPA, if that's what you're craving. But it may change your perception of what a lower-alcohol IPA can do.

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Sunday, March 08, 2015

Colorado's Best Breweries of 2014 Have Risen to the Top

Good beer leads to good conversation. And so it was recently at New Belgium's excellent Lost in the Woods sour celebration, when talk arose as to what Colorado's best new brewery of 2014 was.

There was no shortage of standout entrants. Casey Brewing and Blending brought new precision to the centuries-old saison style. Comrade Brewing brought a freshness and excellence to the IPA genre. And Chain Reaction Brewing arguably made the single best beer produced by a rookie brewery with its Pink Peppercorn Saison.

But with two months of the new year fully gone - the same amount of time Oscar voters get to look back before having to decide a top movie of the previous year, I'd like to point out - two of last year's new breweries have, in this beer geek's opinion, risen above the rest. And not only have Former Future Brewing and Mockery Brewing elevated themselves to the top of the class, but they've done it in different ways.

Former Future, which opened less than a month into 2014, earns its stripes with some really bold experimentation that has produced increasingly better results over the past year. The standout of the offerings is the Black Project spontaneously fermented series, especially the Jumpseat dry-hopped sour ale that came out a few months ago and offered a unique level of pucker combined with an earthy backbone.

But that same creativity can be found in Former Future's everyday beers as well, from its SweeTart-scented Synthia wild sour ale to its cotton-candy-tasting Bel Esprit Bretta saison, a beer that makes as good a case for the current session-ale movement as anything out there. And when they mix up regular offerings with experimentation - as they did last month in producing a 12.7 percent ABV coffee-infused bourbon-barrel Russian imperial stout that was dangerously sweet and drinkable - it reminds you how much more can come from these artists on South Broadway.

Mockery, meanwhile, opened only in November, meaning that it's still working its way into the vocabularies of Denver beer lovers. And it's doing it not by coming up with its own new styles of ales but by perfecting types of beer that have been around for a while - and then often adding a twist.

Its Oaked Southern Hemisphere Black Pale Ale arrived after the black IPA trend seemingly had come and gone, but the oak chips and Aussie and Kiwi hops gave it a vibrancy that made it much more than a pale ale. Similarly, many other breweries have tried their hand at making a smoked lager, but there may not have been one in Colorado that produced anything as tasty as Mockery's Lapsang Souchong, made with a smoked Chinese tea that brings a sweetness to the burn and gives this a giant taste.

Mockery offers a variety of treats (as noted in the photo below), from a Peach Blonde Ale fortified with a creamy body to a Double IPA whose flavor is amplified by zests of lemon and orange peel. Then there is arguably its best beer, a Vanilla Bourbon Barrel Export Coffee Stout that the Beer Geekette described as "like vanilla and a stick of butter had a baby and dunked it in coffee."

Truth be told, 2014 is the first year since I started designating a best new brewery that it seemed irresponsible to choose just one. But if more breweries like Former Future and Mockery grace Colorado's landscape in the coming years, the concept of "best" may disappear itself, replaced by "everything in this state is great."

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