Friday, June 30, 2017
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.