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.

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