Friday, June 30, 2017

Pagosa's Play-Friendly (Brew)Pub Scene

Pulling into the Pagosa Springs Visitor Center last week, I was a little taken aback to be told by a worker that the city was "not a great place for families with little kids." The activities, from rafting to steeper and longer hikes to exploring Ancestral Puebloans' ruins, did seem to skew older than my 3 and 1-1/2-year-olds would prefer.

However, Pagosa Springs' three breweries bucked that trend in a serious way. From outgoing purveyors to big outdoor patios to an entire play area set up at Pagosa Brewing, it was a town that embraced both adults and kids spending languorous hours enjoying its creations. And at two of the three breweries, it was worth taking extra time to enjoy some wide-ranging and well-concocted beer.

The 1,700-person town in southwestern Colorado is known foremost, in beer circles at least, for its namesake Pagosa Brewing, which gained fame when Tony Simmons won a national contest to produce a recipe for Ben Franklin's 300th birthday — before the brewery even had opened. Simmons turned the publicity from that excellent Poor Richard's Ale into a small gathering place west of downtown that recently expanded into a bigger brewpub and offers so many beers on tap that you'll need two eight-sample taster trays to try them all.

In that vast array of offerings, the range of styles — and, quite frankly, the quality — varies pretty wildly. Sour, hoppy, fruity, dark, light and experimental all crowd the table, almost mandating you make at least two visits to try them all. Yeah, tough job.

The most intriguing, by far, was the Salty Caramel Stout, a medium-bodied stout that uses the caramel to give it both texture and an almost milky consistency, coming off as both bold and easy at the same time. But the piece de resistance is the salt moistened onto the glass, which brings out the roasted and slightly sooty character of the caramel and malts, almost changing the nature of the beer. It's a brilliant experiment, and a phenomenal beer either way you enjoy it.

Pagosa Brewing gets the most out of its fruit and vegetable beers too, getting significant natural flavor into its Peachy Peach, a late-breaking but not overwhelming heat on its Chili Verde Cerveza and a pleasing sweetness to its Cool Cucumber. Its Highlands Scotch Ale is clouded generously with peat and mesquite tastes. And its Powder Day IPA gives the feel of a more old-school northwest-style version of an IPA, with just-right bittering notes.

That said, a menu this big is bound to have holes too. The Soaker's Stout is dull and watery, rendering it especially disappointing on the heels of the Salty Caramel Stout. The gluten-free Pagosa Pale Ale has little hop taste. And the experimental ales, including sours, can still taste, well, experimental. But the portfolio is spectacular, and so is the setting.

Pour for pour, Riff Raff Brewing, located in the heart of downtown, may be even more impressive. Its offerings are more limited and its formula seems simple: Hop everything just a skosh more than style guidelines recommend. But the outcome is magic — especially in beers not known for hop qualities.

The best example of this is its Plebeian Porter, a 38-IBU offering made with six malts and Hallertau hops in which the hop character melds seamlessly with the roasted malts, leaving neither taste dominant but both tastes contributing to a surprisingly kicky finish to the beer. It brings notes of complexity to a style that too often feels one-dimensional.

Stepchild American Red has a late-breaking hop taste to its slightly sweet character and a substantial body that comes with it. The El Duende Green Chile has a slight burn that matches up with the hop bite and leaves it refreshing. And its Hopgoblin American IPA brings a piny bitterness that hop heads in particular will love.

Oh, and Riff Raff's fenced-in patio overlooking Pagosa Street is the perfect place to let little ones run around without bothering other drinkers. Or to allow your toddler to contemplate your taster (see photo at top).

Then there is Wolfe Brewing, a three-year-old establishment that recently underwent an ownership change, though not a change in beer menu. The staff is friendly. Both its porch and its kitsch-lined interior are spacious. But, boy, does it need to add some body to its lineup.

Its Yippie-Ki-Yay IPA comes the closest to what it seems to aspire to be — an English-style IPA with a lighter body and non-aggressive hopping. But the hops reveal themselves to be seemingly non-committal the more you taste it, and the beer leaves you longing for something more.

Sadly, that more isn't found in either its Taxi Dog Amber Ale, a light-bodied malt-only beer that leaves little impression, or the Pot Hill Porter, a smoked porter with both a body and a smoking that are too slight, leaving it as just a vaguely-sweet, smoke-hinting beer. There is potential here, to be sure, but it has not been reached yet.

Still, Pagosa Springs' scene is impressive enough that it's worth a stop, especially if your travels carry you an hour west to the more well-known beer mecca of Durango. Its local breweries are accommodating and experimenting.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Grand County's Sprouting Beer Scene

When I drove through Grand County seven years ago researching my book "Mountain Brew," there were two breweries in the county and one was making extract beers. That extract brewery remains, and the other - Grand Lake Brewing - has moved from the town of its namesake to the Front Range. All is not lost, however.

Over the past three years, three new breweries have moved into the quiet paradise of mountains, lakes and mud-season solitude. And they collectively are giving a new personality to the beer scene from Winter Park to Grand Lake to Kremmling, making the county a worthwhile place to seek out the local beers while you are bathing in its natural beauty.

The most hidden of the three - but also the greatest gem - is Never Summer Brewing, a slightly-more-than-a-year-old nanobrewery tucked into the back of the Everybody's Brewin' It homebrew shop on the main street through the sleepy town of Granby. There owner Kirk Main offers just six taps of beer at a four-stool bar, but he's got a great thing going in both his laid-back atmosphere and the quality of his brews.

As befitting a brewery in a town off the beaten path, Main doesn't get overly exotic with his styles, but he nails the ones he offers. The Up River Nut Brown Ale is a particularly pleasant offering combining a hint of nuttiness with a smooth, roasted backtaste. The Jacksaw Oatmeal Stout has a full, soupy body with an almost campfire-smoke mouthfeel. And while the Wiley Rye-Oatey Pale Ale was a bit light-bodied, you could still feel the craftsmanship that was deserving of a pint after a summer hike down the ski hill at nearby Granby Ranch.

Hideaway Park Brewery in Winter Park is also staking its claim, now able to tout itself as the grain-brewed granddaddy of the local scene at three years old. And while its best beers are its simplest, it packs a lot of flavors into styles that might get lost at other establishments.

The best thing on its menu is the Little Mac Pale Ale, a light-bodied offering with a sharp but subdued pine backtaste that rewards the drinker by being refreshing but also bringing a full mouthfeel. Its Humulus #6 black IPA also grabs attention with a body that is almost sooty and packs a roasted malt wallop that goes toe to toe (and stands out from) its substantial hop undertones. By the time you've scaled the tasting menu up to experiments like its Purple Drank port-barrel aged red ale, you'll be looking for some more definition and clarity as to what the brewery is trying to do with some of the beers. But you'll enjoy the ride on the way up there, and the small-bar-with-games-and-a-patio atmosphere captures the spirit of the town perfectly.

Winter Park also offers The Peak Bistro & Brewery, a sports bar with a full and tasty menu as well as the longest original beer list of the county's purveyors. But while this is a good place to hang out and enjoy a barbecue chicken pizza, the beers have a lowest-common-denominator feel to them, even when the brewery reaches and tries a unique style.

Take, for example, its American Lilly, a pomegranate and blueberry wheat that has the soft glow of summer sunset, though the color doesn't quite resemble anything that's found in the natural world. The infusion of two types of juices here is a sign that the brewers are reaching for something different, but it lands flat, with a body so light that the actual beer feels subservient to the juice.

To be sure, beers like the AC (Arapaho Creek IPA) and the Rifle Sight Rye Pale Ale are quaffable enough, but their  bodies, like those of the Timberline Stout and Winter Park Ale, are just missing complexity. It's a large place with a family-friendly atmosphere, however.

Grand County's brewing scene won't be mistaken for that of its eastern neighbor, Larimer County, anytime soon. But considering those who make the trip over Berthoud Pass are likely doing so to get away from the more bustling parts of Colorado anyway, they at least don't have to leave behind the beer scene altogether anymore.

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