Saturday, October 22, 2016

Best of GABF 2016

Yes, there was creativity in the envelope pushers once again at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival, in those creations that dialed up the hop bitterness, the wild sourness or the alcohol content. But there was something else underneath of that typical striving this year as well.

Some of the best offerings were subtle. Or were peppered with unique flavors, even if they were not the most extreme beers. They were an evolution unto themselves - a new way in which beer tastes continue to change and break through new boundaries.

And, in recognition of the week-long celebration that the GABF has become, I've expanded this annual list to include beers found at events outside of the Colorado Convention Center walls as well. These are the beers still running through my mind and taste buds even two weeks later - and beers I will seek out until the festival returns to Denver next year.

Best in Show: Funky Buddha Aged Chocwork Orange
Served at the Denver Rare Beer Tasting, this 11 percent offering was a stunning blend of heft - an imperial milk porter - and sweetness, as this Florida brewery made the deft choice to age it six months in Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels and infuse it with whole cocoa nibs and orange peel. The orange dominated the nose and the mouthfeel, but all of the ingredients combined to taste like one of the most sophisticated and intricate chocolates you would ever try - in beer form. True genius.

Best on the GABF floor: Rare Barrel Dubious Nights
Tequila barrels can add an intriguing flavor, but they also can be overwhelming. As a vessel for this California brewery's dark sour, though, the barrel effectively electrified the sour notes without making the tartness pulverizing. You were left with a fantastic sensory experience.

Best Hop Bomb: Weldwerks Double Dry Hopped Juicy Bits
With all the hype surrounding the Greeley brewery, the GABF was a good time to really test out its signature beer against the rest of the country. And at a tasting at The Lobby, this New England-style IPA stood up to any hoppy beer being poured, offering an earthy citrus body worth sinking your teeth into but rearing back to just 55 IBUs in order to keep it palatable.

Best Subtle Hop Bomb: Alvarado Street Mai Tai PA
If the pale ale truly is making a comeback, this silver-medal winner from California in the international-style pale ale category is a poster child of why. Flush with grassy overtones and a citrus bite but imbued with a medium body, this is the kind of hoppy beer you can drink all night without burning out taste buds.

Best Sour Bomb: Two Roads 2015 Kriek, aged 18 months in oak barrels
There was nothing subtle about this offering, which greeted you with a sharp cherry bite that managed to accent both the fruit flavors and their sour quality without being acerbic. It hit like a ton of bricks. And it was phenomenal.

Best Beer Darker Than Night: Mockery Brewing Party at the Moon Tower
The little Denver brewery in the RiNo neighborhood has made a bevy of unique offerings but none that put all of its talents together quite like this bourbon-barrel-aged porter with Madagascar vanilla beans. It presented a serious whiskey overtone with a soothing, almost sweet vanilla flavor that landed right when you needed it on the back of your tongue.

Most Surprising Beer: Sam Adams Rebel Juiced IPA
When Jim Koch introduced this new year-round IPA at the annual Sam Adams brunch and said it was blended with mango juice, it sounded like a bad gimmick. Then you put it to your nose and smelled a Hawaiian tropical drink. And then you put it in your mouth and realized that the juice added just enough of a subtle sweetness to make this dangerously drinkable and unique without being cloying. And then you realized, "Oh, this is why they're still at the top of their game."

Most Surprising Trend: Subtle sour-mash fruit beers
Across the GABF floor, breweries were pouring what could be termed gateway beers to the sour genre but stood out in their own right as eminently drinkable and outstanding offerings. Upstream's elderberry Thug Passion and Black Star Co-Op's Waterloo sour-mash wheat were just two of the standouts in this rising style.

Best Portfolio: Great Divide Brewing
The week began auspiciously with the roll-out of the new Velvet Yeti, a 5 percent nitro stout that may be appropriate as an apres-ski warmer but seemed a distant, smaller cousin of the great Yeti line of beers. But Denver's best brewery then knocked it out of the park with The Smoothness, a Jameson-barrel-aged black lager that soaked in the whiskey flavors but kept them balanced with the malt. And then it made an adambier - a subtle dark German-style offering that also reflected a wonderful oak barrel - as it rolled out a new line of glasses it made with Spiegelau just for barrel beers. Finally, by the time you were sipping Barrel-Aged Old Ruffian barleywine at the Barrel Bar, you realized that Great Divide is on the top of the national game when it comes to its barrel-aging prowess.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Best Outside Event of GABF Week

Half a mile east of the Colorado Convention Center and the hubbub of the Great American Beer Festival sits the McNichols Civic Center Building, which hosts smaller and typically more staid events. But on Friday afternoon, it was the site of what is arguably the best non-GABF event of GABF week, and it was for three hours the center of the beer universe.

Denver Rare Beer Tasting, now in its eighth year, is at its heart a plea for better health. Founded by beer enthusiast and cancer survivor Rick Lyke, it is the largest annual fund-raiser for his charity Pints for Prostates, which has brought in $1.3 million over the past eight years to raise awareness about prostate cancer and to offer free testing both at the event and outside the convention center this week.

But while Lyke can brag of how much the event has helped those who come by - more than 10 percent of men getting the testing have elevated prostate-specific antigen levels that require them to see the doctor for treatment - he realizes free testing alone won't garner so much attention. So, he uses the help of 54 acclaimed breweries, with another 40 still on the waiting list, that donate and pour some of their rarest, most complex and often barrel-aged creations to lend a hand.

Strolling through the event is like looking into the minds of the best beer makers in the country. Funky Buddha's Aged Chocwork Orange - an imperial milk porter given six months on Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels then infused with cocoa nibs and orange peel - was like biting into the fanciest chocolate you've ever tried and letting it swirl around your mouth.

The sours flowed as if they were water. Two Roads' 2015 Kriek, aged 18 months in oak barrels, delivered a phenomenally sharp cherry bite without being acidic. Russian River's Intinction - its STS Pils aged nine months in sauvignon blanc barrels with sauv-blanc grape juice added - was intriguing and easy on the palate. And it was being poured publicly for just the second time.

And if you just wanted to see how brewers could take a traditional flavor and turn it on its head, Holy City Brewing's Schmetterling, a smoked marzen aged 10 months in whisky barrels, was example number one. Both sweet and smoky, it broke all style guidelines and took you on an adventure.

Getting tickets to Denver Rare Beer Tasting isn't easy - they're $115 and sold out a full three months ago. But Lyke said that he knows of people who fly out to Denver for GABF week and attend this rather than any of the festival sessions. And after seeing the offerings the tasting has and understanding the impact the event can have on people's lives, it's not that hard to see why.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The New Beer Bar You Need to Try During GABF

Visitors to Denver this week will stream into the growing number of beer bars that are awash with special events, each adding something unique to the local scene. But those who want to hoist a pint in a location with a special tie to the recent history of craft beer in Colorado must be sure to stop in at Walter's 303 Pizzeria and Publik House - and to honor the couple that's taken yet another chance in launching it.

Though the pizzeria at 19th and Pearl in the Uptown neighborhood has been going since 2010, the restaurant took on a whole new feel in mid-August when John and Stacy Turk  collaborated with owner Mike Kienast to put in a 24-tap bar in the adjacent space, a former ceramics shop. Since then, the now-connected bar and restaurant has been rotating beers nearly as quickly as one is tapped, offering a Colorado-heavy selection that mixes in some national and international favorites from John's career in local brews.

Turk is best known for being a co-founder of the now-retired Colorado Craft Beer Show, the first beer-focused radio program in the state. He continues to work as a sales rep for Epic Brewing, but opening a space where people can enjoy and discuss great beer has always been a dream, he said.

Selections for the taps at the Publik House are evenly divided between John, his wife Stacy and their general manager, but they collectively are meant to represent as many styles as possible. Far from clogging the lines with Epic beer - there are all of two offerings from the brewery on currently - the Turks try to reach out especially to up-and-coming self-distributed beer makers to give patrons a better glimpse at the statewide scene.

"I've been to hundreds of taprooms across the country, so what I've tried to do is pick little things that I love from them," John said. "I do believe I can make this a destination taproom."

That means going beyond the beer selection and filling the bar with beer books and old copies of Zymurgy and Beer Advocate to get people thinking about and delving deeper into the styles that they are trying. Though the Uptown neighborhood is blowing up with different restaurants and bars, there is nothing with this intense a craft-beer focus in the area anymore.

And the tap list the Publik House is featuring before the Great American Beer Festival shows off that approach. Nationally sought breweries such as Russian River, Wicked Weed and 21st Amendment are pouring. So are the Colorado beers visitors might expect, from the likes of Odell and Weldwerks. But those visitors also have a chance to discover a few of the secret-gem libations we Centennial State beer geeks are swooning about, from Comrade's Superpower IPA to TRVE's intriguing Scorn pale wheat ale to the latest surprise from Ratio, which currently happens to be its India black lager.

Yes, there are other tap houses in town with longer draft lists and rarer servings this week. But John Turk has always tried to promote beers in new ways in this state. And to sit inside the casual trappings of the Publik House or at one of its community tables is to salute someone who's trying not just to sling good beer at you but to educate you about it.

"It's the same idea I had when I did the craft beer show - I want to turn people onto craft beer," Turk said. "For me it's not about making a profit. It's about sharing beers with good people."

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Monday, October 03, 2016

At 22, Great Divide is Still Learning New Tricks

Sitting on the small patio of Great Divide's original brewery on Arapahoe Street with Brian Dunn is like a trip back in time. Twelve years ago, this is where the Great American Beer Festival really began every year - with a media party at noon on Thursday, just five hours before the festival opened its own doors.

Fast forward to 2016, and it seems like GABF celebrations began this past weekend, as breweries started to welcome out-of-town writers and connoisseurs. But there was Dunn, the founder of the 22-year-old iconic Denver brewery, still kicking off the unofficial festivities for the week by tapping the newest in the Yeti series and musing on how it symbolizes the way things have changed.

Velvet Yeti, you see, is the session Yeti of the family. A 5% ABV nitro stout, it tastes more like a meatier, creamier Guinness than it does like the taste-bud-pelting hops-and-alcohol combination shown off by the likes of Espresso Yeti, Oak-Aged Yeti or the dearly departed Belgian Yeti.

In fact, it feels almost out of place in some ways as a beer debuting during the week that enthusiasts across America descend on Denver to find the latest in wild-fermented ales, barrel-aged beers and triple IPAs. But there was Dunn, who explained in an interview that he believes this is the Yeti that will get even the skeptics to believe, to draw in the people who haven't previously gone looking for the mythical beer that helped put his brewery on the national map.

"Yeti is such a fun beer, but at 9-1/2 percent, it has its limitations as far as how many you can have," acknowledged Dunn, now a father of three and a man who looks for beers that can be enjoyed without fear of an imminent hangover. "This is approachable but still roasty to me. It's a different Yeti. There's going to be some people who want 9.5 percent. But I think more people will try this."

The new Yeti will a year-round beer - joining the original Yeti as the only ones in the largely seasonal series to fit that description - but will be draft-only. Dunn hopes it will get people talking this week.

If you are one of those who think of Great Divide as a big-beer brewery, its other releases this week will fit more easily into your expectations. The Smoothness - an 8-percent-plus black lager aged in Jameson Whiskey barrels that smacks with a heavy alcoholic nose but surprises with subdued, roast-heavy peat overtones - is arguably the star of the group. Its official release comes Friday.

But there's something fulfilling in knowing that as much as the GABF has grown, and as much as Great Divide has added a second production facility and tasting room on a 5-acre campus along Brighton Boulevard, some things are constant. There is Brian Dunn, welcoming the world to Denver, with one more taste profile that you weren't expecting but that just might make you think differently about the brewery before the week is over.

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Your Guide to GABF Week 2016

Let's face it: You abused your liver in college in many horrible ways, often with no reward for your taste buds. Later, you looked back on it and realized it wasn't the sharpest thing to do, especially because there was no upside, even in retrospect, to assaults by Busch Light and Keystone.

But this week, you can return to teaching that liver who is the boss - while also finding an incredible variety of complex tastes to cross your palate and making the vital-organ abuse a side product, rather than goal of your activities. And this blog is here to help you do it.

Once again, I don't claim this to be the comprehensive list of everything going on in the week leading up to the Oct. 6-8 Great American Beer Festival at the Colorado Convention Center - websites like Westword, Brewtally Insane and Porch Drinking can lay out everything happening in town for you. Instead, this is meant to be a highlight sheet, offering you the can't-miss and shouldn't-overlook fests, dinners and tappings for those of you with a desire to experience the week fully but a limited amount of time to sort through all of your options.

With that said, happy tasting. Even your liver will forgive you for going nuts this week.

* Noon - GABF veterans may remember the days when Great Divide Brewing essentially kicked off the festival with its media party on Thursday mornings. Now the party goes all week. But the Denver brewery will release a new Velvet Yeti on Monday at its taproom, and then keep the momentum with a tapping party from 6 to 9 p.m. at Avanti F&B.
* 5 p.m. Falling Rock Tap House tends to be the gathering spot all week for out-of-town brewers, throwing rare kegs on tap for all to try. That officially begins tonight, and only owner Chris Black knows exactly what he'll be busting out to commence the activities.
* 7 to midnight. GABF week is a haven for people seeking the cutting edge in sour beers. Freshcraft dives right into the melee with its Wild and Sour Monday, featuring beers from auteurs like Wicked Weed, Jester King and New Belgium.

* 5 p.m. First Draft, the beer bar where you pay by the ounce and get to sample from 40 different taps, is working with a lot of national brewers on special tappings during the week. But its Tuesday showcase of Odd 13 beers, featuring both hop bombs and sour gems like Hawaiian Bartender, gives locals unfamiliar with the Lafayette brewery the chance to see why it's growing an increasing reputation for being one of the best in Colorado.
* 5 to 9 p.m. IPA remains the king style in America, and Ernie's Bar & Pizza gets right to heart of the style, hosting a tour of some of the best hoppy beers in the country. Beers from Dogfish Head, Stone, Green Flash, Alpine and Comrade will be among the tasty options on the menu.
* 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Beers Made by Walking has become one of the signature events of the week in recent years, showcasing beers that were dreamed up when brewers were hiking and spotted intriguing local ingredients. The $35 festival is at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science this year.
* 6 p.m. to midnight. Another marquee event is What the Funk?, the annual celebration of wild-fermented ales that tends to leave far more of a (spectacular) beating on your taste buds than on your liver. For a cool $100, you can get access to a number of breweries that won't even be pouring their wares at GABF.

* 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Anyone who attended What the Funk? on Tuesday night will still be recovering on Wednesday morning. If you didn't, head to Hops & Pie for the Cliffs-notes version of the event, where the pizza restaurant/beer bar will be delving deep into the Crooked Stave Artisans collection of distributed beer.
* 1 p.m. Blunt honesty is good in assessing the week. So when Little Machine, a still-somewhat-secret treasure in the Jefferson Park neighborhood, puts on a pig roast, busts out new beers and calls it a "Brewers Health Fair," all are advised to check it out, purely for medical reasons.
* 5 p.m. River North, the recently displaced RiNo-neighborhood pioneer, will be all over the place during GABF week. Few, if any, of its events are as alluring as its tapping, in combination with Fort Collins masterminds Funkwerks, at Lucky Pie in downtown Denver.

* 5 p.m. Tivoli Brewing (pictured above) operates a distribution company that's accumulated 20 up-and-coming breweries and cideries in its portfolio, from local stand-outs like Grimm Brothers to national eyebrow raisers like Pipeworks Brewing out of Chicago. Tonight it holds its "pre-party," featuring rare offerings from throughout its catalog.
* 5 p.m. One of the highlights of this week is the number of bars and restaurants not normally associated with rare tappings that are getting their full beer geek on. A prime example: el Camino Community Tavern in the Highlands neighborhood will be brandishing beers from the likes of TRVE. Creature Comforts. 4 Noses and more today.
* 6 to 10 p.m. Possibly the oddest recurring event is Offensively Delicious, the Renegade Brewing-organized celebration where brewers not only pour their beers but then get up on stage and try their hands at stand-up comedy - before real comedians finish out the show. Curious? It's on again this year at the McNichols Building.
* 7 p.m. Ginger Johnson gained a name for herself in the beer world with her Oregon-based consulting/event business Women Enjoying Beer. She just released a book chastising breweries for their poor marketing to women. And she'll be at Kokopelli Beer Co.  tonight annotating the book.

* Strange Craft Beer makes a habit out of rolling out its most experimental offerings around GABF. Today you can not only try but take home its medal-winning Doctor Strangelove, as the Denver brewery offers up its annual bomber release of the complex ale.
* 11:30 a.m. Sun King Brewing burst onto the national beer consciousness a few years back by taking home seven medals from the GABF. You still can't get the Indianapolis brewery out here anytime but this week. But it will be pouring a boatload of its offerings all day today at Hops & Pie.
* 4 p.m. Among Colorado breweries, Casey Brewing and Blending is one of the rarest gems, offering occasional hours during which it released some of the most sought-after bombers of saison and sour beers in the state. It'll be easier to grab some today at Freshcraft.
* 5 p.m. Three Floyds produces big, beefy beers that are admired nationally - but not sold far beyond the doors of its Indiana brewhouse. Today however, it will be tapping a number of them at LowDown Brewery + Kitchen in Denver.
* 7 p.m. to midnight. Epic Brewing offers its 50 Firkin Fiasco tradition each year after the opening night of the GABF. The intriguing twist this year: Other breweries than just the Utah/RiNo beer maker were given a chance to take its beers and create their own firkins with them.
* 10 p.m. Avanti F&B has the closest relationship with Dogfish Head of any beer bar in Denver. That's why when it holds an after-party featuring Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione, you almost have to show up to see what he is breaking out for the festivities.

* 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Start the day the only way you should - with a Gospel brunch hosted by Oskar Blues at its Tasty Weasel taproom in Longmont. Yeah, it's a ways north of Denver. But by now, you need some time behind the wheel when you actually won't be drinking.
* Noon to 4 p.m. The most expensive ticket of the week is also one of the most sought-after - a $115 ducat to get into the Rare Beer Tasting at McNichols, offering a peak into the cellars of some of America's best breweries and beers you may never seen again.
* 4 to 11 p.m. Crafty Fox has made a ballyhooed entrance into the Denver beer-bar scene this year with a fantastic tap list. And today it adds to its mystique by featuring the beers of Bellingham, Washington - including award winners such as Chuckanut and Boundary Bay Brewing - with a side splash of hop king Melvin Brewing and sour king Crooked Stave.
* 7 to 10 p.m. New Belgium and Ratio Beerworks aren't as hard to find as, say, Bellingham beers. But when they throw something as specific as a fruit luau at Illegal Pete's, it's a focused collection of pucker-worthy beers worth seeking out.
* 10 p.m. After the GABF session, you may find your palate somewhat wrecked. Freshcraft will be tapping the beers of Stone, Green Flash and Melvin, among others, which is guaranteed to either resuscitate your taste buds or finish them for good.

* 9 a.m. to noon. After drinking heavily for five days, you may think that nothing new can come down the pipe. And then you discover that Denver Beer Co. is offering a Burritos and Barleywines breakfast event, and you happily say to yourself, "Well, I was wrong."
* 10 a.m. For those wanting to leave town with a few souvenirs, Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales will begin a two-day sale of some of its tucked-away bottles, suitable for enjoying when your liver has begun to recover somewhat.
* 9 p.m. There will be lots of after parties beginning tonight - but few that test whether you can cross the last boundary of the week quite like Ratio Beerworks' karaoke after-party. Oh, and the killer brewery will be breaking out some new and rare brews.
* 11 p.m. For many years, I viewed the traditional post-festival tapping of New Belgium sours at Falling Rock Tap House as the defibrillator to shock my taste buds back to life. Whether or not you agree, this event offers a great chance to find out.

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