Thursday, April 28, 2016

Something Totally New - and Tasty - from Left Hand

Considering of all the things Left Hand Brewing has done in its 22 years, the most surprising omission from its resume has been "make a year-round American IPA." With this month's release of Extrovert, however, that feat no longer is lacking - and what the brewery's done is introduce something that can only be called uniquely Left Hand.

Extrovert's main hop is Jarrylo, which gives it a tropical taste with even a little hint of pineapple. Beer makers at the Longmont brewery had been experimenting with a number of single-hop ales ever since they purchased a seven-barrel pilot system last year, and when they tasted the stone-fruit flavor this one gave off, they decided that it was going to be their centerpiece in the IPA, said Nick Cassaro, the company's Denver sales rep who was showing off the beer at Freshcraft on Thursday.

At first blush, Extrovert might remind you of Boulder Beer's Mojo IPA for its unusually fruity quality. But it breaks from many others in the genre by finishing crisp and dry with only a touch of bitterness on the back of the tongue - a quality developed with the use of Acidulated and 2-Row Rye malts, Cassaro said.

These characteristics also make the release of Extrovert perfectly timed to take advantage of a summer beer market where beer geeks are seeking something light but flavorful. Good IPAs always fit the second part of that description but not always the first; Extrovert stakes its territory there.

One may be tempted to ask why a major brewery would add an IPA after waiting, almost stubbornly, for two decades to jump into the most popular style of craft beer. (Left Hand's biggest forays into the IPA world have been 400-Lb. Monkey, an English-style IPA, and Introvert, a session IPA.) Said Cassaro: "It was time."

Yeah, it was time. But the truth is, Extrovert was worth the wait. It may not blow your taste buds away like an Odell or Melvin Brewing IPA. But it carves out its unique niche. And it's a beer you may come back to time and again.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Samuel Adams: Still Got It

Thirty-two years into your lifespan as a brewery, you might think you'd get a little staid and just rely on people coming back for the drinks they know so well.

But while sitting down for an interview today with Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch, I realized that settling wasn't something that would come naturally to one of craft beer's true pioneers. And the brewery's new nitro series is evidence of that.

Boston Beer released three nitro beers a couple of months ago - an IPA, a White Ale and a Coffee Stout - in cans with widgets (for lack of a more scientific term) in them that offer pressurize the vessel with nitrogen. Though rare, other breweries have done this before, meaning that Koch thought his brewery had to develop truly unique beers for them in order to stand out.

And this was where Boston Beer really earned its stripes. Too many nitro IPAs that are found on tap are softer versions of a brewery's regular offering, with the hops taste ending up muted. But Koch said he understood that carbonation is an essential part of the IPA, and so taking that away required him to change the recipe for the beer entirely.

What he arrived at was a 100-IBU delicacy that lacks the acidic bite of many IPAs but packs a grassy taste that fills your mouth and makes its hops presence known. And it's so smooth that the beer could go down more easily and quickly than expected, as I found out today.

"It's been a lot of 'Wow, that's different.' Other brewers, they say "How did you do that?'" he said. "Not everybody likes it, which is OK. You have to be open and knowledgeable about transforming beer flavor."

The Coffee Stout too is notable. Though it carries a pillow-like softness typical of the genre, it's imbued with a deep roasted flavor that can be lost in some nitro efforts. It's quite a flavor bomb.

Koch was in Denver Tuesday for a signing of his new book, "Quench Your Own Thirst," which details his three-plus decades in the beer business, examining both successful philosophies and notable mistakes. There have been times that Sam Adams has seemed to fade from the beer scene over that period. But the new nitro series ensures it will continue to be a pioneer - and shows that the first craft brewery to do things correctly on a national scale still has some great tricks up its sleeve.

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Spangalang: One Year In, Exceeding All Expectations

I've been having a debate in my mind lately that probably isn't worth having: What was the best Colorado brewery to open in 2015? Early on, I kept coming back to Ratio Beerworks, which I've gushed about both as opening with a bang then producing more unique and complex beers as it progressed over its first year.

But it's unrealistic to crown a single champion in any year that also saw the arrival onto the scene of Spangalang Brewery, the gutsy venture from three former Great Divide guys that opened in an old Department of Motor Vehicles office in Denver's Five Points neighborhood. Every experimental beer release seems to add a new twist to its repertoire, and a recent visit to the brewery showed just how much it has going for it.

Any brewery creates a certain lore when it wins a Great American Beer Festival gold medal less than four months after opening, as Spangalang did for its Belgian table beer, Sugarfoot. But while this lower-alcohol offering is light and solidly estery, it is not one of the multiple beers on the menu that actually will make you exclaim "Wow."

Pretty much anything in the Nightwalker series of imperial stouts will make you do that, from the deceptively smooth original to barrel-aged editions like the 2016 version that take on the feel of its Breckenridge Distillery vessels without being overbearing. Both, however, seem like common offerings compared to the Nightwalker Con Alma, which was re-fermented with grape juice and takes on a wine-beer hybrid quality that is head-scratching in its ability to incorporate both the chocolaty dark flavor of the base beer and the fruity mustiness of its addition.

That's not the most impressive thing Spangalang dreamt up for its one-year birthday celebration, however. That honor goes to its simply named Anniversary Ale, a blend of several hoppy offerings, some of them barrel-aged and some not. Deep, oak-y, full of complexity and offering you a chance to taste both the woodiness of the aging and the non-acidic underlying flavor of Simcoe, Chinook and other hops, this may well be the best beer a Denver brewery has produced so far in 2016.

Still, Spangalang comes back a third time to jolt you with its Protocrat Gose, a traditional offering with its hint of salt that is kicked up in tartness to match the American palate. At a time when gose is becoming one of the hip styles on the market, this could set the standard, at least in Denver.

Truth be told, there was nothing on the 11-beer tasting menu last week that could be called even a slight miss. The D-Train IPA was a big and slightly sweet hop bomb, the Hop Colossus Double IPA was surprising in its woodiness (despite its lack of barrel aging) and the Beatrice Saison, while not a stand-out, had a classical quality to it.

So, should Ratio or Spangalang wear the title of best new Colorado brewery of 2015? Or should that go to WeldWerks, which USA Today proclaimed the best new brewery in the country? In truth, it doesn't matter. But what is apparent is this: Whereas even the best new breweries would take a year or two to get up to full speed half a decade ago, there are places bolting from ribbon-cutting to national-interest-demanding in less than 12 months now. And Spangalang is absolutely one of them.

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Friday, April 08, 2016

How do beer bar chains blend with the Denver scene?

It was both somewhat surprising and slightly predictable to learn in February that World of Beer had shuttered its downtown Denver location after just 18 months.

There was surprise because the location offered more than 50 beers on tap, including an array of impressive local and national offerings and had the on-the-surface credibility of some of the better beer bars in the crowded LoDo scene. Its Sunday BEERunch (pictured below) had a tasty menu extending from breakfast classics to tasty chipotle porter wings.

But World of Beer, which still operates locations in Cherry Creek and Lakewood, also carried in its description a series of words that can spell death to craft-beer enthusiasts — "out-of-state chain." And while I visited the location occasionally until its demise, I also noticed that the crowds never appeared there the way they did at places like Freshcraft or Lucky Pie or Falling Rock Tap House.

It's worth noting that chains were some of America's original craft-beer bars, including the Colorado-based Old Chicago chain that opened its doors in 1976, the same year that the first beers rolled off the lines at New Albion Brewery. But in today's farm-to-pint, uber-local beer-drinking society, it's also worth asking what the place of chains is here in the Napa Valley of craft beer.

One way to do that is to look at two other chains that remain downtown and seem to be thriving, at least by the size of the crowds I encountered there in the past two weeks.

The California-based Yard House chain actually was one of the early beer bars in downtown, finding its way into Denver around the time that Freshcraft and Euclid Hall were opening. At 120 distinct taps of beer, it actually has more flowing from kegs than even Falling Rock, though no one has ever confused the two businesses.

Yard House has suffered rightly from those who take a cursory look at its beer list and note the number of macro beers and "crafty" macro-owned breweries that inhabit its taps - a far higher percentage of its lineup than those previously mentioned beer bars. But at the end of March, it rolled out 25 new beers at the 16th Street Mall location, and they showed its commitment to quality.

Dry Dock, Crooked Stave, Grimm Brothers and Odell's sour series found a permanent place on the tap list. Bigger national craft breweries like Rogue were on there too, but with offerings like its coffee/IPA-hybrid Cold Brew that you can't find everywhere else. And Yard House folks found a few gems, like the flowery and grapefruity Almanac IPA, that would have a proud place in any locally owned beer bar.

Yes, faux-craft breweries like Elysian and Kona still have quite a few taps on the Yard House list. But, despite its corporate nature, one can't walk into the bar anymore and not be able to find enough palate-pleasing originals to keep you busy for the full happy hour.

Two blocks down from Yard House is Henry's Tavern, a Portland-based concept that opened in the Denver Pavilions just before Great American Beer Festival last year. It brandishes a tap list of 100 offerings, including some new-to-market goodies like La Cumbre (the New Mexico brewer that's one of the country's up-and-coming IPA makers) and some atypical locals like Left Hand's Great Juju.

Henry's adds the bonus of a fairly impressive upscale beer-bar menu, featuring goodies like accessible sushi and Gorgonzola fries. And it's got a nice patio, which I discovered yesterday because a friend and I couldn't find a seat inside the bar.

Again, there is more of a splash of corporate beer on the menu than you'd ever find at a place like Star Bar or Hops 'n Pie. But it's clear the owners support more than just the 50 largest craft breweries also and are willing to pick up locals, like Comrade Brewing.

So, yes, it's still OK to prefer the locals. They support even more of the small and rising craft breweries, and keeping 100 percent of the money within the community can do nothing but help the craft beer scene grow.

But at this point, it at least is worth acknowledging that some of these out-of-state chains are making more of an effort to resemble the tap lists of the local joints. And that too is a win for the local beer scene, as we all appear to be Denver-fying the national chains and making them realize how important it is to know your crowd.

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