Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Time of the Saison

Tucked back into the corner of Saturday's Funk and Farm Fest at Nighthawk Brewery, Trinity Brewing and Mu Brewery had an intriguing duo of beers on tap. Trinity was pouring a Saison Delivery - made with apples and grains of paradise and aged in chardonnay barrels - that was blowing everyone away by being tart and fruit-forward without being either blistering or cloying. And Mu was serving up a Key Lime Saison with Brett aged in Merlot barrels that, if slightly less polished, was a bold experiment at amping up both the sweetness and the pucker factor.

While different, the two beers offered great examples of just how many exciting directions the world of saison brewing is going. Surrounding them were farmhouse ales that tasted vaguely of cotton candy that cut through your taste buds with a sour golden bite and that clashed a sharp tartness with the big taste of the whiskey barrel in which they were aged - each one worthy of kudos.

To think, when New Belgium tried to introduce a saison 20 years ago - a story I recounted in my book, "Mountain Brew" - beer drinkers didn't take to it because they largely weren't ready for the traditional Belgian style to blend with the rising flavors of hops and roasted barley in America. Now no major brewery is without one in its portfolio, and the best are rolling out more and more variations - Great Divide's full, fruity and slightly flowery Nadia Kali hibiscus saison being the latest really tasty one to hit the market - just to keep up with demand.

To what should we attribute the saison boom? A big factor is the demand among beer geeks for more that is different and cutting edge. Saison as a style allows for greater experimentation that most, presenting a slightly estery, slightly spicy base that lends itself to a ton of different adjuncts. But it also is a medium-bodied beer that can appeal to a wide range of drinkers, depending on what is thrown into the brew kettle.

I think back to my birthday party in 2015, when I asked friends to bring a saison and we did a blind taste testing to determine our favorite. That a Casey Brewing and Blending Saison won the general poll was not a surprise, as the Glenwood Springs beer auteur has managed to craft a version of the style that is bright and slightly tart and excites the taste buds continually. But the variety of saisons that scored high in our tallies - from Epic's Sour Apple Saison to Three Barrel's peppery Pemba Sherpa Saison - made it clear that there was a lot to like on the market.

Similarly, Nighthawk's farmhouse festival left few stones un-turned. Wynkoop's Forethought Barrel-Aged Sour Saison was a jolting and fascinating combination of strong flavors. Atom Brewing's Arlo farmhouse-inspired ale presented a huge sweetness developed surprisingly through open-air fermentation. Spangalang's Ethel, a sour saison, was bright and eye-opening without being punishing on the taste buds.

There is a lot to enjoy in the greater saison field today. But what is more exciting is the nearly blank slate from which brewers can develop more creative and more challenging saison varieties to come. The style may have originated with farm owners in Belgium and France. But what American brewers are doing with it is taking it to a whole new level.

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Friday, May 27, 2016

American Pale Ale Rising

Earlier this month, Great Divide took the 17-year-old recipe of its third-best-selling beer and kicked it to the curb. It wasn't that people weren't buying Denver Pale Ale anymore; it's just that brewery founder Brian Dunn felt that the English-style pale ale was outdated and needed to be replaced with an American pale ale more attuned to the modern palate.

On June 5, Odell Brewing will introduce Drumroll (see below), its American pale ale that will be sold beside its traditional but subtle 5-Barrel Pale Ale. Press releases emphasize that it will be "bold, juicy ... and tropically hop-forward," differentiating itself from the existing pale ale in its lineup.

So, what is going on here? Two things, really. First, brewers are recognizing that the loyalists who have been drinking IPA for the past decade want something less alcoholic, like a pale ale, now that they are having children and aging into their 40s. But they also see that the traditional step down in ABV among hoppy beers to a pale wasn't rewarding the floral-seeking taste buds of those drinkers.

"We fell that it just needed to be modernized a bit," Dunn said in an interview about the new DPA. "We felt that we needed to update the beer to reflect the changes that have happened in Denver."

When Dunn was developing the DPA recipe in the late 1990s, Bass Ale was all the rage in town, and he wanted something that resembled that. He got a malty, subtly hopped 5.5 percent ABV beer that caught the imagination of the more limited craft beer scene and met the expectation of drinkers then.

That was before Titan IPA and its grassy, big hops became the best-seller for the Denver brewery, however. And that was before double IPAs became standard issuance and triple IPAs began to show up in cans to meet the increasing demand for hoppy beers that were edgier and had more bite.

So, gone from DPA are Centennial, Sterling and Golding hops — the last one of that trio the most English of English-style hops. And in are Centennial and Simcoe, two hops that scream American yearning for something more citrus and more bitter.

And the DPA, which will be sold only in Colorado in six-packs and on draft, really is an improved beer with them. Though still not a product that anyone would mistake for a biting IPA, its got a carbonated and slightly acidic bite on the front and a woody, mellow hop feel on the back of the sip. And at 5% ABV, it's a little more session-able than its predecessor recipe.

Does it signal that an American pale ale uprising is around the corner, with the style being begged for like IPAs or sours today? No. People will continue to want to see brewers push the envelope past this easy-drinking pleasure.

But it does portend that, like the amber and copper ales that once dominated Colorado taps, the English-style pale ales that represented a gateway into craft in the 1990s may be on the ropes, replaced domestically by a more assertively hopped pale that will help to define American craft beer going forward.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Subtle, Surprising Tastes of Summer

Past summers have been marked by brewers taking intriguing turns with fruit beers or pulling unexpected flavors out of their hats, and 2016 is likely to see more of that. But as Memorial Day weekend rolls around, there also seems a pattern this year toward something decidedly old-fashioned - crisp, clean lagers or golden ales that don't dazzle the palate so much as they go down smoothly with a surprisingly high amount of quality.

Nothing typifies this trend as much as the new Colorado Native Pilsner from AC Golden. This is a Coors offshoot that has tried and missed with a number of bland variations on the all-Colorado lager before. But the recently released pilsner is a spot-on, authentically German-style creation that cleanses the palate and finishes with a very subtle bite of hops to remind you it's got something more.

And if AC Golden surprises with its fresh entry into the lager market, maybe an even bigger surprise comes from Rock Bottom Denver. The Burro is an exceptionally smooth Vienna lager with a straw-hued body and a hint of nutty malt. Though one of the lightest beers currently on the brewpub's menu, it's arguably the most satisfying of the bunch.

It was be inaccurate to call maibocks summer beers, as they specifically are made for the spring season. But there are a couple that bring different characteristics to the current shoulder season. Strange Craft Beer's version weighs in at a meaty 7.5% ABV, and the slight alcoholic sting adds a new-world robustness to the old-world German flavor. Bristol Brewing's take on the style is more traditional and without much sweetness, but its full flavor reflects a good use of malt. I recently debated a server at Colorado Plus (see taster picture below) about which was better; the consensus was that you couldn't go wrong.

Not everything appropriate for the warmer-weather palate has to be of the lager variety, however. Dillon Dam's Go Devil Golden Strong Ale, sampled after a recent late-season ski run to the area, comes in at a full 9% ABV and packs the punch you might expect from the Belgian-style ale. But it also has a sweet, estery smoothness that translates well to mountain porch drinking, and should be sought out as such.

The summer season is almost upon us. Luckily, the beer offerings have beaten the calendar to our door steps, and the bounty looks impressive.

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

Perrin Enters Colorado with Panache

When Oskar Blues Brewery purchased Perrin Brewing of Grand Rapids, Michigan in early 2015, few Coloradans took notice. Yeah, it was interesting to see a local craft brewery buying rather than being bought out, but Perrin wasn't even packaging its beers at the time, regardless sending them halfway across the country for anyone to discover.

Last week, Perrin cans and kegs arrived in Colorado, the product of a far bigger, more capital-flush company that, after about nine months of canning its beer in its home state, is taking a big leap into America's most competitive craft beer market in its first expansion outside Michigan. And while it's hard to pin down exactly what place it will occupy in the Centennial State, its offerings show it clearly brings a uniqueness in style that helps to define it.

Take, for example, its Grapefruit IPA - a seasonal that's part of a growing trend of grapefruit-tasting hop beers. But while many others of the ilk rely on the hopping to produce a citrus taste or might infuse a little grapefruit juice into the product, Perrin adds whole grapefruits during the fermentation process. The result is an IPA less defined by its hop attributes than by its semi-tart, bitter flavor that comes on with an intense zip and finishes clean.

Or there's Perrin Black, a style with limited competition in this market or, frankly, in many others. It introduces itself with a medium body that belies its murky dark color but that contains a full, semi-roasty flavor. The beer is Perrin's best-seller in Michigan and officials are betting it will wear the same crown here.

And then there's a beer like its Lotsa' Problems IIPA, an 8.5% ABV kick to the gut that is being
distributed locally in mixed 12-packs with its regular, session and seasonal IPAs. That a company owned by Oskar Blues has a hop bomb should leave no one surprised. That this is a musty, malty imperial IPA that overwhelms the taste buds rather than blisters them with acidity - well, that's worth noticing.

Jarred Sper, co-founder of the four-year-old brewery, said that Dale Katechis and Oskar Blues have been light-handed in their influence over Perrin, providing financing to launch a canning line and influence to open doors in Colorado, but not a script to follow on recipes or marketing, And he said all that growth was in the game plan anyway for the brewery; it just is coming sooner that many thought.

Coloradans should like Perrin for one primary reason - it's making unique beers with a bit of a carefree attitude. In fact, it's easy to see why Oskar Blues found it to be a kindred soul.

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