Saturday, January 28, 2017

Still Craft After All These Cans?

Last week, Oskar Blues opened a beer bar/restaurant/donut place in Denver. The expansion shouldn't come as a surprise, since the one-time Lyons brewpub has grown already into Longmont (four times), North Carolina, Texas - and soon into Colorado Springs.

But with the multi-state empire, not to mention the two other breweries Oskar Blues has purchased with capital from venture firm that is a part owner of the brewery, one can't help but look at the company that pioneered craft beer in cans and ask: Is Oskar Blues still craft, or has it gone corporate?

The new CHUBurger location at 3490 Larimer Street in the RiNo neighborhood actually presents some good points in pondering this question.

It's the kind of place simple craft breweries don't put up. The burger-heavy restaurant - the same concept the brewery operates in Longmont and at Coors Field - is connected by a walkway and a courtyard to its Hotbox Roasters shop that serves coffee, beer and donuts. When asked why the beer maker started making donuts, Oskar Blues Fooderies executive Jason Rogers, who worked as a baker in college, said it just sounded like something that went well with coffee. That makes sense.

The restaurant opened about 18 blocks west of an 11,000-square-foot restaurant and music venue that the brewery will open in the renovated Market Center development downtown later this year. Two major investments in the same general city area isn't Starbucks-level saturation, but it's not exactly boot-strapping it either.

Then there are the questions that swirl around Fireman Capital Partners, the investment firm that purchased a major share of Oskar Blues in 2015 and then provided the capital for it to buy Perrin Brewing of Michigan and Cigar City Brewing of Florida, the latter of which had been scoped out also by by some major non-craft brewing interests. But before Fireman bought into Oskar Blues, it bought Utah Brewers Cooperative, restructured it and laid off a couple of long-time brewery operators, making some in the industry question if it was just AB-InBev in a craft-brewing disguise.

Then again, I spoke last year with Jarred Sper, co-founder of Perrin Brewing, when the company entered the Colorado market last year about the influence of Oskar Blues. He told me - not surprisingly - that its role with his brewery was the furthest thing he could imagine from an Anheuser-Busch-style takeover. But he laid out some pretty good arguments for why he felt that way.

Oskar Blues and its charismatic founder Dale Katechis changed zero about Perrin's small-brewing culture when it purchased the brewery. Instead, it used its resources to help Perrin scale up and begin distribution outside of Michigan, as Perrin had wanted. It offered its expertise and influence to get into sales channels but didn't change the recipe for beers like its tasty Grapefruit IPA.

"When people talk shit about Fireman Capital, you know what? It's giving us opportunity to do what we were going to do anyway," Sper said. "I really believe Dale has a vision of what he wants to do ... The culture still feels like 'Middle finger up, what the f--k do we want to do?"

And while CHUBurger may be starting to grow like a chain, there are some things that don't resemble any other chain out there.

There are 10 Oskar Blues beers on tap, as you would expect. But there are 20 other taps too - including those from the likes of Call to Arms, Hogshead, Ratio and Wibby, small and local breweries that benefit greatly from the inclusion on a beer list like that.

Rogers said Oskar Blues reached out to beer makers like them because they were in the position it was a decade or so ago - making great beer and looking for their opportunity to get noticed. The restaurant will do burger specials with their beers because they know it will bring in locals who are growing a dedicated following to them.

And while Oskar Blues restaurants may be multiplying like rabbits, it's not an indication of selling out so much as it is a sign of Dale's constantly burning entrepreneurial fire, looking to see what new project or new market he can grow into next, Rogers said. (These are, after all, the folks who became the first craft brewery last year to expand into all 50 states.) The fooderies side of the business has almost 300 employees now, which means more people on a payroll and more opportunities to generate money for charity like its Can'd Aid Foundation that's done things like send pallets of canned water to Flint, Michigan when it was in the depth of its water crisis.

"It hasn't lost that craft spirit. It hasn't," Rogers said emphatically when I asked whether the company had gone corporate. "Obviously, there are efficiencies we have to put on as we grow. But I think we really navigated that and stayed real to who we are."

The venture-fund ownership remains a worry even to those in the industry who are fans of Oskar Blues. But as of now, Fireman Capital has done nothing to change the feel of the brewery and its bold beers - or that of Perrin and Cigar City - and it should be given the benefit of the doubt until it makes a move that runs counter to that.

As far as the growing number of restaurants and breweries and music halls, what they show is that Oskar Blues is no longer the scrappy little craft brewery that it was when people thought it was nuts for putting Dale's Pale Ale in a vessel that was as corporate as the can. And, to be sure, the brewery needs to be cautious as it moves into more and more neighborhoods not only that it doesn't step on the toes of local breweries but that it doesn't step on the toes of the local restaurants and beer bars that have been promoting those breweries since before it came to town.

But a close look at what it's doing at CHUBurger and other locations, I feel, shows you that is hasn't sold out. It's taking full advantage of its increasing resources, maybe in a way that no craft brewery in America other than Stone Brewing has done before. But it's also churning out new beers and doing what it can to give taps at its places to breweries that can reach a wider audience through their association with Oskar Blues.

So, call Oskar Blues the behemoth of the craft-beer industry if you will. But don't call it corporate. There's still too much of the "FIDY" attitude to denigrate it that way. And we can only hope that further growth and success does not change that.  

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, January 20, 2017

Craft Malting: It's What's Next in Beer

In a small facility in western Massachusetts, Andrea Stanley is doing everything she can to come up with varieties of small-batch malt that are going to differentiate the small-batch brewers who use them. Sometimes that involves dipping back into brewing history to revitalize brown porter malt. And sometimes that means going where no one thought beer makers would want to go — like soaking malt for two weeks in a crock pot with kimchi to invent a whole new flavor.

What Stanley, owner of Valley Malt, and a small number of other craft maltsters — there are 44 operating in the United States now, with 26 more malt houses under construction — are doing is taking back an industry sector that largely is in the hands of big corporations. Craft maltsters produced just 0.4 percent of the supply in North America in 2016. Then again, that's about the percentage of American beer that craft brewers were making in the early 1980s as well.

And while big malt houses will churn out exciting products every once in a while, they are not coming up with the Kvaas malt or bourbon-barrel-smoked malt that Stanley is. And most are not offering single-variety malts like Colorado Malting Company of Alamosa, experimenting with the flavors that a lone crop can give to a beer.

"This is the way that things are moving," said Chad Yakobson, the founder of Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project who recently worked with Casey Brewing and Blending to make two versions of their Von Pilsner with two different malts and produced strikingly different flavors. "Malt is beer ... So, without it, what do we have?"

Stanley, Yakobson and others gathered at the recent Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival in Breckenridge for a panel discussion on experiments with local malt. The talk was eye-opening in regard to the possibilities of flavors not yet achieved by American brewers through the use of new varieties of one of the four main ingredients (with water, hops and yeast) that go into a beer.

Jason Cody, president and CEO of Colorado Malting Co., explained that he worked with the ever-experimental Three Barrel Brewing to make three varieties of the same ale, each with their own strain of single-variety malt — unusual in an industry that relies heavily on blended malt. And the samples of the beers they poured at the seminar were wholly unique - one light and jasmine-tinted, one traditionally earthy and a third almost flowery.

"This was a huge eye-opener for me," said Will Kreutzer, brewer and manager of the Del Norte beer maker, who works closely with father-in-law owner John Bricker (both pictured with Cody, above).

Yakobson's two Von Pilsners — one with Weyermann Pilsner malts and the other with Leopold Brothers floor-malted barley — also felt like different beers. Weyermann malts made the beer feel exceptionally clean and seemed to accent an airy quality, while the Leopold Brothers malt gave its offering qualities that were sweeter and somewhat chewy.

Stanley didn't bring beer samples but presented the malts almost as a breakfast supplement. (This, after all, was the 9:30 a.m. seminar on Saturday of the festival.) And while the kimchi malt was the most vibrant and palate-startling of the bunch — even if it would be difficult to pinpoint exactly what style of beer would benefit from its characteristics — varieties like the Kvaas malt, made from rye, gave hints of the bready, almost historical flavors that could be brought out with such new efforts.

"Are we going to transition all of our beer to be flavored with kimchi malt? The answer is obviously 'no,'" said John Mallett, the director of operations for Bell's Brewery who was presenting with Stanley. "But I love that malts like that are being made."

Craft brewers have used hops, yeast and additive ingredients to create new flavors and whole new styles of beer over the past 25 years. So, it's wonderful to see that by tweaking what is arguably the most staid of beer's primary ingredients, they may be about to push the flavor profile of this traditional beverage that much further.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, January 09, 2017

4 Things I Learned at Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival 2017

Colorado's best themed beer festival found a new home in Breckenridge after 16 years in Vail and, frankly, found a new energy. There was vibrancy throughout beer bars in the town and vibrancy throughout the Beaver Run Resort, where most events were held. And brewers clearly tried to raise their games with the beer they were pouring — and, in many cases, succeeded.

Here, then, are four big thoughts about what took place over the past four days, both in regard to the beer and in regard to the good folks who were ensuring the beers were poured.

1) The new wave of imperial stouts will redefine the style.
It may sound obvious, but you can't drink Russian imperial stouts for three-plus hours without them beginning to taste a lot alike. That is why the growing number of brewers adding unique ingredients to these creations — ingredients that go beyond the coffee and chocolate that brewers like Epic already have pioneered so well — were the ones most often turning heads at Big Beers.

Station 26 Brewing stood at the head of the pack with its German Chocolate Bourbon Barrel Aged Dark Star Imperial Stout, which felt every bit like the desert it was named after and flowed so easily at 13 percent ABV that you didn't know whether to be enthralled or frightened. And very close to that creation in its palate-pleasing level was Weldwerks Brewing's Barrel Aged Mexican Achromatic, which bubbled over with cinnamon and vanilla and made Mexican coffee weep at what it could be with hops and barley added.

2) The barrel can make all the difference.
With more breweries trying more ways to age their beer in barrels, the possibilities are almost limitless at the flavor profiles that can come from the experiments. But not every decision to throw a beer into a barrel is a solid one — a truth that could be seen in the number of barrel-aged saisons from very good brewers that felt listless and undefined. (A major exception was the Old Order 6 bourbon-barrel-aged imperial black saison from Solemn Oath Brewing, whose malt backbone allowed the beer to stand up against the barrel).

But there were brilliant decisions with barrels too. Paradox Beer's Trois Ans Anniversary Ale, aged in Spanish Cedar barrels, gave off a wonderful blend of tart and smoky-wood complexity and made you stop to think about what you were tasting. Similarly, the choice by Grimm Brothers Brewhouse to age its Magic Mirror imperial koltbusser in oak barrels turned an adequate malt monster into a tart and challenging beer that showed off its honey and molasses in new and vibrant ways.

3) More chai beers and imperial IPAs are needed.
Two years ago, tiny Altitude Chophouse had maybe the beer of the festival with a chai-infused dunkelweizen, making one ask why more breweries don't use this palate-enlivening ingredient. This year, New Holland Brewing absolutely startled with its Dragon's Milk Reserve Vanilla Chai, which was a full-throttled expression of how bold flavors can make big beers seem like pleasant tea.

But while chai beers remain maybe unsurprisingly rare, it was a little shocking to see the lack of barrel-aged IPA and double IPA beers on display when the style combines the two most popular craft-brewing trends of the past 10 years. And one sip of Steamworks Brewing's 50/50 Barrel Aged Imperial IPA, with its huge whiskey mouthfeel almost perfectly balanced by its big hops, showed why this is a trend that needs to pick up.

4) One never needs to leave the resort to really enjoy Big Beers now.
A primary advantage in moving to Breckenridge was to plop the festival in the midst of a town that could support it with days of special tappings and beer/food pairings around the main event. And while reports where that the gatherings at places like Aprés Handcrafted Libations were phenomenal, you didn't have to step foot into the negative-11-degree weather to truly enjoy the event.

Late-night activities at Beaver Run featured welcoming collections of brewers and beer lovers alike, particularly the Friday night beer-cigar pairing that let drinkers try to combine smoking and drinking if they wanted - or just wander around and sample some of the best beer in the nation, often while talking to the man or woman who made it (without any pouring lines).

The seminars have ramped up throughout the morning and early-afternoon of the main tasting, providing attendees with more knowledge than you could ever want about the brewing process (more to come on that in a later blog about experimental malts). And the resort bar became a place to go by yourself, knowing you'd run into industry friends.

Laura and Bill Lodge exceeded expectations this year. And the festival keeps getting better.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, January 06, 2017

A Lost Opportunity for Capitol Hill

After more than two years on East Colfax Avenue, Lost Highway Brewing will be moving to Centennial this spring, joining the growing craft beer scene in that southern Denver suburb. That's good in many ways for owners Sir James and Tina Pachorek, who sold their Capitol Hill property and shut down their Cheeky Monk restaurant last year to focus on the brewery and now will have room to can and distribute their beer finally.

It's bad news, though, for the stretch of East Colfax avenue in Capitol Hill that was just on the verge of becoming a beer destination. Once a beer wasteland, the area had seen Lost Highway make significant strides in its quality in 2016 and had witnessed the same growth from Alpine Dog Brewery, which will remain in place.

In the past year-plus, the Pachoreks and brewer T.J. Compton diversified and intensified their lineup, moving away from more traditional beers and toward fresher takes on styles. Yes, staples like the bland District 6 Pils remain. But they are vastly overshadowed by the likes of Grave Robber Fraud Quad, a 9% ABV Belgian-style quadruple that is cherry, plummy and unique in its easiness to drink. Or Almond Coconut Porter, a medium-bodied beer bursting with both flavors that is particularly smooth. Or Fourth Estate, a sweet and full-bodied Belgian chocolate stout made for Collaboration Fest 2016 in conjunction with a bunch of us beer bloggers (whose contribution was to suggest the style and let Compton do all the work).

Progress can involve pain. The Colfax location is so small, Sir James said, that delivery trucks would drop palettes of malt and Compton would have to carry them inside one at a time because there wasn't a way to deposit them en masse in the brewing area. The Pachoreks also were looking at the option of installing a mobile canning line that they'd have to use in the taproom before it opened to the public and then clear out the equipment to make room for customers. Those problems won't exist in the new location. And along with the likes of Resolute Brewing, Dad and Dudes Breweria and Two Twenty Two Brewing, they can grow a new craft community in the Centennial/Aurora area.

But it leaves a hole in a slowly revitalizing neighborhood that seems like it would be an ideal location for locally owned small businesses like breweries. And it puts pressure on the similarly two-year-old Alpine Dog to continue to try to draw beer aficionados to the neighborhood until someone else steps up to the plate.

Set in a bare-brick-walled location in a gritty area of East Colfax where the brewing equipment is visible to all patrons, Alpine Dog exudes the feel of the neighborhood. And its 14 taps of beer show the ambition of the venture, even as the beers themselves sometimes feel as gritty and still-maturing as the surrounding area.

Its Wild Peach Saison that was on tap this fall, for example, was imbued with a funk that made the peach taste jump out in a relatively wild way but felt a little granulated. And its Notorious M.O.N.K. Belgian-style dubbel has a mild hop character that makes it stand out from the style, though it feels slightly medicinal on the taste buds.

That's not to say Alpine Dog isn't doing some exceptional beers too. Its Electric Thunder Hop Double IPA sports a full-mouthed flavor profile that is both woody and bright, and it's exceptionally smooth for a 100-IBU beer. And its Howl at the Moon Imperial Red Ale has a rich caramel and toasted-malt backbone that balances well with its extremely bold hopping.

Drinking at Alpine Dog, you feel the brewery will grow into its big ambitions as it matures and perfects its recipes. But you want to hope too that it finds a fellow brewery or two to liven up the neighborhood with it and bring Capitol Hill the beer culture it deserves.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Big Beers Has Some Big Changes

For 16 years the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival was synonymous with drinking in Vail. And now, for its 17th edition, it's being almost completely reborn - in a new city, in a new format, in a changing craft beer universe.

That kind of massive change would be enough to ruin some other festivals, or at least leave them caught in an identity crisis. But for Big Beers, whose festivities officially kick off Thursday evening (and whose tasting and seminar tickets are, shockingly, still available), it appears at first glance to be giving what already is one of America's best beer festivals a shot in the arm that allows organizers Laura and Bill Lodge to re-imagine the gathering in a whole new way.

Moving 38 miles down the road, the three-day celebration of the finest envelope-pushing beers in the state and the country lands this year at Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge. There the main tasting event on Saturday will be split between two ballrooms in order to accommodate all of the breweries clamoring to pour their wares at the event - more than 150 will be in attendance, even as roughly 40 more beer makers had to be put onto a waiting list this year/

But, much like with the Great American Beer Festival, not all of the action will be on the floor of the event anymore. When Laura Lodge went searching for a city to replace Vail because the former host hotel is in the midst of massive renovations, one of the things she found was a willingness on the part of Breckenridge restaurants and bars not just to embrace the beer geeks coming into town but to line up a whole series of special events on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings to give visitors a chance to experience great beers outside of just the grand tasting.

From rare tappings by the likes of Odell and Avery to tap takeovers of luminaries like Melvin and Casey to beer dinners themed around everything from burgers to exotic small plates, Big Beers attendees almost could skip the festival and still have their palates sated. Then again, no one really would want to do that.

The festival, after all, remains a showcase of barrel-aged rarities (such as a Law’s Rum Barrel-Aged Sour Ale with Pluots and Elephant Heart Plums from Black Project), full experimental lines (the Metallurgy Sour Collection of beers aged in stainless steel barrels from Destihl Brewing), beers that have been cellaring for years and are impossible to find outside this event (2009 Fort from Dogfish Head) and a collection of breweries (Jester King, Surly, Troegs) whose beers can't be found elsewhere in Colorado. (See the program here.)

In fact, there's a good chance that this wholly new Big Beers festival will be its best one yet and lay a foundation for even more innovation to come. And Lodge feels very fortunate that she has this opportunity, even if it means having to leave her hometown for the weekend.

"It's been very gratifying to find out that not only is there a great beer culture here but everyone's very enthusiastic," she said. "We didn't lose any enthusiasm."

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Top 10 Colorado Beers of 2016

At a time when it seemed everyone was focused on something other than beer, Colorado breweries flew seemingly under the radar with their greatness during the year that just ended. The best and most memorable offerings came not from adding exotic new ingredients (with one exception) or from trying to ratchet alcohol or tartness to new levels, but from simplifying, aging a bit and just doing everything well.

So, before we bid goodbye to 2016 altogether, let's stop and admire once again the 10 beers that made the year one worth remembering.

10) 4 Noses Pump Action Imperial Pumpkin Ale
When your beer takes gold in the pumpkin categories for both the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival in the same year, you know you have something special on your hands. What makes Pump Action stand out so much is its offering of a significant body (nearly 8 percent ABV) without overbearing alcohol or spice content. It's just smooth and silky.

9) Trinity Saison Delivery
One of Colorado's true saison specialists broke new ground even by its lofty standards with this gem, first made for the 2016 Craft Brewers Conference. Colorado apple, grains of paradise and dark candy sugar made this decidedly fruit-forward, while the Chardonnay-barrel aging gave it a slight pucker. Wrap it up, and it became a pretty eye-opening combination.

8) Great Divide The Smoothness
Black lager can be a forgettable style - right up until you decide to age it in Jameson barrels and imbue the lighter-bodied beer with a whiskey flavor that was perfectly balanced and managed to breathe new life into the simple malts in the beer. I'll come back to Great Divide at more length later, but this beer was shocking in its simplicity and tastiness.

7) Beryl's Beer Trent's Plums
If plum was a favorite new additive in 2016, no one made it sing more than this too-often-overlooked Denver brewery that brought out the fruit's tart properties by letting it age for two years in red-wine barrels with a sour brown ale. It took your taste buds right up to the edge but walked that delicate line of being significantly sour without being too acerbic.

6) AC Golden Kriek Noir
Speaking of pushing sour taste to the edge, Coors' experimental brewery - which also did some excellent work on the lighter end of the spectrum this year - made its own statement with this wine-barrel-aged Belgian ale with sour cherries added (pictured above). Almost sweet on the nose, this was aggressive and cutting in its flavor profile, rewarding drinkers with a constantly evolving complexity that was simultaneously edgy and refreshing.

5) Comrade Yellow Fever
Colorado's new poster child for hop-drenched beers showed off its versatility by ramping up the flavor profile of this Citra blonde ale infused with jalapenos and nabbing a World Beer Cup medal for it. With a mild look and less-than-fiery nose, this beer surprised twice. First, it announced its rising heat only as you swirled Yellow Fever in your mouth. Second, it let that heat cool just when you thought it might be too much, creating an exhilarating experience.

4) Weldwerks Double Dry Hopped Juicy Bits
You may love or hate the "New England IPA" trend, but you can not walk away from this beer (pictured above) - a hopped-up version of the Greeley brewery's hazy IPA - without feeling like you have somehow found a new frontier of a style of beer (IPA) that leaves few surprises anymore. It pelts you with fruity and grassy overtones without any lingering bitterness, allowing you to enjoy the hops for all the flavor they can impart. It's the kind of IPA that can make hop haters rethink their sentiments.

3) Crooked Stave Raspberry Petite Sour
While Crooked Stave is known rightly for its astringent, taste-bud-pushing creations, it may have found its greatest success yet by stepping just slightly off the pedal and letting the fruit and wild yeast mingle in a pleasing, almost soft way here. Eye-poppingly pink in its pour, this is both sweet and tart, both bullish on its wild side and more concerned with its fruit than its acid. It simply is delicious.

2) Spangalang Anniversary Ale
To celebrate its first birthday, this rising Denver star blended several of its hop-forward beers, combining barrel-aged and fresh IPAs in one big, never-again-reproducible batch. In doing so, it produced the most interesting one-off beer made in this state in years, a taste-bud-wowing experiment that was simultaneously hoppy and woody, earthy and pleasingly bitter. Before it turns two, Spangalang already is making some of the best beer in Colorado; this was evidence of just how much better it can be.

1) Great Divide Barrel-Aged Hercules
Ever since my book "Mountain Brew" came out in 2011, I've been asked what is my favorite brewery in Colorado. I usually duck the question but, when cornered, have tended to identify Great Divide as the single best in this state. By the end of 2015, though, I was starting to question that long-held assumption, wondering if the long-time experimental brewery was starting to lose ground to others that were innovating more. Then, everything changed this year.

Great Divide's barrel-aging program, which has been in place for years but got a major boost with the 2015 opening of its Barrel Bar on Brighton Boulevard, elevates this brewery into a class of its own for several reasons. First, it allows it to rediscover and reinvent already top-tier offerings and bring out new flavors in them, from its Old Ruffian barleywine to the aforementioned black lager. But second, it does so without simply dropping beers into wild-yeast-ridden barrels and turning everything sour. Its usage of oak and whiskey barrels that deepen the flavor and body of the beers gives it a real personality in an atmosphere when even great breweries begin to seem a little bit like each other in their experiments.

Putting its Hercules Double IPA into whiskey barrels for two years before unleashing this beast at its 22nd anniversary party this summer was the best beer idea of the year. The hops retained an amazingly out-front presence despite their age, and the whiskey took on just a supporting role, as wood and vanilla notes blended seamlessly with Cascade and Simcoe hops. Like much of the best of 2016, this didn't break new ground in flavor profiles. It just brought a classic recipe to bear in a new and better way that will set the mark for this brewery and all others going forward.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?