Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Travel Planner: Baltimore's Budding Beer Scene

Growing up in Maryland, you learned to associate the term "Baltimore beer" with one beverage - National Bohemian, a stale, watery lager whose customers could be taunted by Busch Light drinkers for their lack of taste. And even as the craft beer scene blossomed in other large cities in the 1990s and 2000s, it seemed a distant vision to this mass-market brew town.

But in recent years, new breweries have come to the Clipper City and have added greatly to its pedigree, offering both updated takes on classic styles and some original twists and ingredients that few others have dared to try. And after several trips to the city since late 2014 to visit family, I can recommend that even if visiting the city isn't in your vacation plans, getting a hold of some of its newest craft offerings when you're anywhere in the vicinity should be.

Coloradans likely are most familiar with two Baltimore breweries - Stillwater Artisanal, which distributes here, and Flying Dog, which left Colorado about a decade ago to relocate to Maryland in a move that shocked many in the Centennial State. Those beer makers' familiarity to locals makes it unnecessary to dwell on them at length, other than to say that Stillwater's Of Love & Regret - a saison made with chamomile, dandelion, heather and lavender - is one of the more unique takes on the farmhouse style in America and that Flying Dog's experiments with East Coast ingredients, especially in its Dead Rise Old-Bay-seasoned summer ale, offer it a wholly different personality.

More curious are some of Baltimore's local-only purveyors helping to define its scene.

The Brewer's Art, for example, mirrors Stillwater's focus on experimental Belgians (and recently collaborated with it on a Biere de Garde entitled Debutante), even if its variety of bold efforts isn't as grand. Still, its Green Peppercorn Tripel offers a wonderfully dry backbone to its sweet character, and its Birdhouse Pale Ale is a spot-on rendition of the classic American style.

Jailbreak Brewing works unusual ingredients to different effects. Its Welcome to Scoville jalapeno IPA offers intriguing flavors of pepper and cilantro without an unnecessary burst of heat, even as its B. Limey Key Lime Pale Ale overdoes the sugary sweetness and blots out the hop character. Still, its Punisher Double IPA is one of the better hop bombs coming out of Maryland.

Then there is Union Craft Brewing, a beer maker that doesn't stuff seafood and picnic ingredients down your throat so much as it holds up traditional styles in a new light. Its Duckpin Pale Ale, made with Pacific Northwest and Southern Hemisphere hops, is light-bodied but bold-flavored. And while its Anthem Golden Ale lacks in backbone, its Balt Altbier is a well-deserved Great American Beer Festival gold-medal winner for its style, crisp and smooth.

There are other worthy offerings. DuClaw Brewing stretches its wings to offer everything from a strawberry milk stout to an excellently balanced chocolate peanut butter porter. Clipper City Brewing doles out a variety of hopped creations and an excellent marzen. And RaR Brewing, located across the Chesapeake Bay, has one of the state's subtle gems in its earthy, coffee-hinted Bucktown Brown.

Baltimore won't soon be mistaken for Denver, San Diego or Portland as a beer town. But it's come a long way from the beer wasteland it used to be, and it will be worth watching the scene as it grows.

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Denver's Enhanced West Side

When talk of Denver's best beer neighborhoods comes up, River North, South Broadway and the beer-bar-laden downtown all jump to the forefront. But in recent months, some new arrivals are doing their best to make sure the city's west side is beginning to get its due.

It's not like the vast area west of Interstate 25 has been a craft-beer wasteland. Hops & Pie is one of the best beer bars in the city, offering a variety of hard-to-find taps. Hogshead Brewery serves spot-on English-style ales. And Diebolt Brewing, after a relatively slow start, is making some exceptional ales, particularly its fig-infused Algerian Biere de Garde.

But the introduction of two new breweries in particular to the scene in the past six months is beginning to raise the profile of the area, and deservedly so. And as such, it's worth paying a little more attention to Call to Arms Brewing and Little Machine Beer.

Call to Arms, the brainchild of three former Avery Brewing workers, opened in July with a full 14 taps and is getting accolades for its craftsmanship as well as its variety of beers. Located on the northern end of the increasingly hip Tennyson Street corridor, it's also very family-accessible, as Lincoln (pictured with coaster) was one of four kids there for early happy hour during a recent visit.

The vast selection of styles almost ensures that no one beer on Call to Arms' tap list stands out,
though the bold, dandelion-esque Son of a Beesting IPA that was on this fall stood above many others. But the surprisingly hoppy sessionable Clintonian Pale Ale, open-fermented Burkhalter dunkelweizen and Oats and Hose - an oatmeal porter with a hint of dark cherry - rank among the brewery's other standouts.

Even more impressive in many ways is Little Machine, which opened in October in the Jefferson Park neighborhood north of Sports Authority Field. It presents a more experimental vibe and has been able to score touchdowns with a few of its efforts.

Most exciting has been its Coffee Oatmeal Stout, a Nicaraguan-coffee-infused version of its solid Tractor Beam Oatmeal Stout that has both a big coffee flavor and an almost creamy undertone. Another more limited release, the Alternating Currant Kettle Sour, offered a hard-to-nail-down raspberry/blackberry feel in a way that did not overwhelm the taste buds.

Among its more regular beers, Little Machine's Colorado Stock Ale has a hop-forward taste for a pale ale that, at 5.3 percent ABV, could be sipped through the night. And its The Reason Saison, if not challenging to the palate, is malty and very drinkable.

Like in pretty much every neighborhood in Colorado, more breweries are sure to follow. But Denver's newcomers on the west side, following in the footsteps of a couple of their predecessors, are making the area worthy of a full-day tour.

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Top 10 Colorado Beers of 2015

First, I have to apologize to all of you — and yes, I mean both of you — who have been asking what's happened to my blog as of late. Between the Jan. 3 due date for my book and Jan. 16 due date for my second child, I've had to pull my attention elsewhere. But, hey, nothing gets a writer like me going quite like a deadline.

That said, 2015 as a whole was another year of experimentation by Colorado breweries but also a year of taking simple styles and just making them ridiculously good. And with that, you will see that the following list contains a little of both, with a complete rainbow of flavors that show once again how the biggest experiments can have some of the biggest payoffs.

10) Odd 13 Humulus Kalecumber
Few breweries took as giant a leap forward this year as this Lafayette beer maker, which dialed in on its sours and increased distribution in the metro area. But nothing was as shockingly tasty as this Berliner Weisse brewed with kale, cucumber and mint - tart and yet undefinable.

9) CaseyBrewing & Blending Saison
Troy Casey is building a cult following with the tart and fruit-infused beers he is putting together in Glenwood Springs. But his greatest feat was offering a clean and crisp saison that jumped to the top of its style in Colorado — and one that appeals to both edgier and more traditional palates.

8) Mockery Brewing Lapsang Souchong
This brewery tucked around the corner from Great Divide's Barrel Bar made its name in 2015 with beers that were made perfectly and had just a little twist. None was more satisfying that this smoked tea lager that was light-bodied but permeated the palate completely.

7) Ska Estival Cream Stout
Ska took your expectations and tossed them out the window twice with this masterpiece. First, it made its primary summer seasonal a stout — and one that was easy to drink even in the warmest weather. And then it added cream and orange zest and made a dark beer smooth and slightly fruity.

6) Avery Antonius' Carmen
The opening of Avery's destination brewery in Boulder County gave it more taps to dole out its growing barrel-aged collection. The biggest and best surprise of the year there was this dark sour ale aged in Madeira barrels, beautifully chewy and bright.

5) River North Third Anniversary Ale
A 17 percent saison designed to celebrate an anniversary of these Denver auteurs sounded at first like a gimmick that would backfire. On the contrary this was bold and sweet and shockingly smooth, and the alcohol was muted enough to make it both delicious and dangerous.

4) Horse & Dragon Sad Panda Coffee Stout
The best thing to come out of the craft-beer mecca that is Fort Collins this year not only was introduced originally in 2014 but was made by one of the smallest and newest breweries in the city. Yet, this coffee stout with a hint of sweetness drank like one of the most perfect blends of big and accessible in Colorado, and the hope is that it gets more widespread distribution this year.

3) Ratio New Wave
Arguably the best new Colorado brewery of 2015 opened in Denver's RiNo neighborhood with a saison and a scotch ale that tasted like the works of seasoned veterans. But what announced Ratio's presence with authority was this summer-released strawberry Berliner Weisse that sizzled with tartness and big, juicy fruit. It was a combo that worked with a touch of genius.

2) Dry Dock Whiskey Barrel-Aged Double Hazlenut Brown Ale
Dry Dock's introduction of a series of barrel-aged big beers at the start of 2015 was the herald of what already one of the state's best breweries turning a corner toward a whole new level. In this effort especially, the barrel didn't assault your taste buds; it blended remarkably with the muted alcohol and stunning malty sweetness of the beer to take a complex experience and make it more pleasing.

1) Strange Craft Beer/Copper Kettle Brewing Basil Kriek Blonde
Collaboration Fest ranked as one of the best beer festivals of 2015, largely because of the wide variety of experiments that worked so well. But the one that soared above the rest - and continued to strike wonder as Strange and Copper Kettle served it throughout the year was this combination of Strange's Cherry Kriek and Copper Kettle's Basil Blonde. Two beers that are laud-worthy in their own right took seemingly clashing strong flavor profiles and turned them into a blended burst of fruit and spice with a soft blonde base beer that fortified it without overpowering it. It was a truly memorable effort from a truly memorable event that proved its mettle as more than a 2-ounce one-off creation.

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Friday, January 08, 2016

5 Tips for Enjoying Vail Big Beers

For the first time in 10 years, I won't be attending the Vail Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival this year. The impending birth of our daughter had to trump plans to indulge in beautiful, high-alcohol beer all weekend — though don't think I didn't have to pause at least a little bit before making the decision to stay home.

For those of you lucky bastards who will be headed up Interstate 70 for the festivities, however, a world of tasting and pairing opportunities awaits you over the next two days. And if I might be so bold as to offer a few suggestions, here are the tips from a veteran on how to get the most out of the experience.

1) Start Saturday at the experimental tasting seminar.

One of the best things about the festival is that it allows you to start your day Saturday by tasting beer at 9:30 a.m. without anyone casting aspersions on your character. These seminars — which have ranged from barrel-aged beers to saisons and which this year focuses on Koelschips — feature the best brewers from Colorado and the country expounding on daring ways to make their beer. And, yes, you get to be trying a sour ale at the same time that most people are pouring milk on their Fruit Loops. But it feels less like an early-morning tailgate and far more more like a fine-dining experience.

2) Ask what they made for the show.
Few Colorado beer festivals inspire brewers to create products specifically for that show. But breweries from Great Divide to Grimm Brothers have been known to bust out barrel-aging experiments just to try them out on the crowd. Hell, Crazy Mountain Brewery debuted at the 2010 festival just to get reaction to its first beers. If something doesn't look familiar at a booth, ask about it and try it; it just may be the best thing you find there.

3) One (pseudo)-secret brewery is a must-stop.
Brewers from Sam Calagione to Adam Avery will be the people actually pouring the beer for you, and that is a wonderful perk to Big Beers. You can ask them about their experiments and try the latest thing in their arsenals, and the national places you love should be on your hit list. (See my wife, Denise, above, loving her Rumpkin in 2015.) But the smaller brewers in attendance are there for a reason, and there are some diamonds among them.

It was about three or four years ago at this festival that Three Barrel Brewing of Del Norte stopped being the best-kept secret in Colorado brewing and just became one of the up-and-coming sour makers in the state. Owner John Bricker typically brings up between five and 10 experiments that may involve chili, chocolate or other ingredients not often found in the genre. And chances are that at least one of them will be among the most talked-about offerings of the event.

4) Stop afterward at the Fireside Bar.
The bar at the Vail Cascade, home resort of the event, is one of the great craft-brewing outposts off of the Front Range. Featuring a beer program launched by festival co-founder Laura Lodge (pictured above), it's a place that has a cellar list, taps from mountain craft breweries and a good range of options. Plus, this is where the brewers themselves hang out when not serving up their creations, so it's a good chance to talk beer with the biggest experts in the industry.

5) Attend a dinner.
Beer dinners abound, both those arranged by the festival and more that are just popping up at locations around Vail. If there ever was a festival meant to pair beer and food, it's one that showcases the highest-ABV creations that are not 12-ounce bar beers so much as they are perfect to sample in smaller portions with, say, wagyu beef sushi. The dinners are incredibly chill events and, as this picture from 2015 demonstrates, even infants can sneak in if you're polite to the organizer. But this is a chance to experience and enjoy beer in a new way.

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