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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