Wednesday, September 27, 2017

SomePlace Else at 1: Earning Its Moniker

As it celebrated its first birthday Saturday, guitars strumming and special brews pouring, SomePlace Else Brewery in Arvada lived every bit up to its name. For as a Colorado beer maker that has mastered the art of the dark and malty but still has work to do on its hoppy and sour ales, it's a place that transports you outside of the typical state beer scene.

The brewery, for those who haven't made it yet, is tucked into an industrial strip mall just north of Interstate 70, giving it a gritty feel. The atmosphere inside is one of laid-back fun, as Star Wars and Star Trek character cutouts look over the taproom, staring down on friendly staff dishing out brews one room over from the impressive cave of pinball machines that greets the visitor upon first entering the place.

SomePlace Else's tap list runs the gamut from a pilsner to several IPAs to a black saison, with a few things more experimental cropping up occasionally. But one run through a set of tasters makes it clear what the Darth Vader cardboard figure alludes to: This is a brewery that has embraced the dark side.

Chief among its black virtues is its Darth Saison (you're catching the theme here, right?), a Belgian-style ale sculpted with roasted barley and offering a complex blend of heavy body and gleaming esters that makes it feel even more substantial than its 6.3 percent alcohol-by-volume clout. It's a unique beer that few other area breweries attempt, and it's the kind of offering that SomePlace should boast of as its signature concoction.

But its Irish Stout packs a surprisingly roasted and full-bodied punch too and leaves an out-sized impression for a normally subdued style. Its Oatmeal Stout, meanwhile, is smooth and balanced and spectacularly easy - everything you want in a winter warmer low enough in alcohol (5.8 percent) that you can drink several in a sitting.

And arguably the star of the entire lineup is its Alpine Loop Amber, all full of chewy and subtly sweet malt, presenting itself as drinkable as a beer can get and yet full of pleasing malt quality.

For all of that malt magic, though, SomePlace Else is the rare Colorado beer maker that hasn't managed to put its best foot forward with its line of hoppy beers. The 1-3/4 IPA has a very subdued hop presence and the OIC IPA is a light-bodied beer that uses its orange peel and coriander a little too minimally, creating just a slightly spicy bitter back taste.

And its Squirmy Sour, a special one-year anniversary tapping, has the furthest to go to catch up with its Centennial State brethren, presenting a slightly acrid grapefruit flavor with strange plastic overtones in the body.

Most breweries continue to have kinks to work out still at its first year, and SomePlace Else is no exception to that truism. But the somewhat-hidden Arvada beer maker also deserves kudos for injecting life into its darker and malty beers at a time when some breweries seem to ignore those genres altogether, and for that alone it deserves your attention and a visit.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Special Denver Brewery is Helping Some Special Folks

There are a lot of things that stand out about the nearly one-year-old Brewability Lab in Denver, from its color-coded ordering system to its beaker glasses to the fact that it serves its coffee porter with a rim of Nutella.

But most unique of all about the brewery owned by Tiffany Fixter is who works there — special-needs Coloradans, from those with developmental disabilities to those with autism to those who can't hear or see. Every employee except for the head brewer has a special need of some sort, making Brewability Lab the only beer maker in America with this kind of focus.

Working with these adults who have a hard time finding meaningful employment elsewhere isn't new to Fixter. She spent 10 years teaching special education and a year as the director of a day program for adults with special needs, before she was fired for what her boss called a lack of creativity.

As her "screw-you project" for that odious professional assessment, she launched one of the more creative ventures attempted in a craft-brewing industry that is defined by its adventurous spirit. Despite having no brewing experience, she moved into the turnkey operation left behind when Caution Brewing left its original East Denver space for Lakewood, brought in a seasoned brewer in Tanner Schneller and went to work setting a space of inclusivity where those with and without special needs can sit and enjoy a beer together.

Some weekends, the industrial space just south of Interstate 70 is jumping; on weekdays in particular, it can be empty. But Fixter is succeeding enough where she is thinking about franchising the concept after receiving inquiries from people in some 30 other states wanting to launch a similar brewery.

Her beer selection is limited and it is color-coded, so that people can simply point to the beer they want on the menu or say the color associated with the beer, and beertenders who may not speak or be able to read can get it. If you get the right staffer, you're likely to be talked up or given a tour too. (See this video I made with the Denver Business Journal videographer to meet one of those folks.)

And while the gluten-reduced beer won't be mistaken for some of Colorado's most complex offerings, the truth is, it's drinkable and it's well-made. A Strawberry Blonde made with 100 pounds of frozen strawberries has just enough of a bitter kick to give it an edge. The Pale Ale has a lemony citrus feel to its body. And the Coffee Porter is sweet and chocolaty and filling, even if the Nutella rim that Fixter includes on the glasses feels a bit gimmicky.

Brewability Lab is a bit out of the way from other breweries. But to see the friendly atmosphere and unique business model that Fixter has created, it is worth a drive.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

The Fruited IPA: Can We Just Kill This Trend?

Debate continues to rage after some two years on whether the New England IPA, a hazier take on the style with more citrus and tropical fruit overtones and less bitter bite, is inspired flavor or just laziness. But whether you like this slight variation on America's favorite craft-beer style or not, this discussion serves only to distract from a far more virulent strain of experimentation infecting the IPA.

For two summers, craft beerdom has been inundated with India pale ales inexplicably brewed with additives of fruit that sometimes are subtle and sometimes are really not. And it's time for the drinking public to stand up and say they want their hoppy beers to taste like pine and flowers and occasionally grapefruit but certainly not like a watered-down tangerine or pie-baking experiment gone awry.

These fruited IPAs may be considered gateways to the more acerbic, classically American version of the bitter beer, but in almost every instance they bastardize the heart of the beers that they are riffing on, and not to positive effect. And what you get, in many instances, is a strange knock-off of far better beers that should be left alone to define a brewery.

Example A of this is Weldwerks' Fruity Bits Strawberry Shortcake (right), a New England-style IPA made with strawberry. The brewery's Juicy Bits is Colorado's standard bearer for the hazy IPA, bursting to life with both the sweet and bitter sides of citrus fruit; when it's double-dry-hopped, it becomes simply one of the best beers in the state. But when ingredients as clashing with bitterness as strawberry and vanilla beans are introduced to the beer, it becomes an out-of-place, training-wheels IPA in which the hops become such an afterthought that is seems stylistically misplaced.

Avery's Real Peel IPA, made with tangerine peel, strikes a similar discordant note. Here is one of the chief hop purveyors in the state mixing in one of the most subtle citrus fruits on the planet to the effect that both the hops and the fruit get lost in the blend. Coming from the same brewery that will blow your taste buds out and make you smile with its Maharaja Imperial IPA, there is a disconnect.

New Belgium's range of fruit-accented beers tell a similar story. Its Citradelic tangerine IPA is aloof in both its fruit and hop tastes, and the medium-bodied beer seems unsure of what it wants to be. It sets the stage for its Juicy Mandarina IPA - a wheat IPA that isn't actually infused with fruit additives but leans so much toward fruit tastes in is hop profile that it too loses the flavor of said hops.

I mention these three breweries in particular because they literally are three of the best in Colorado that are taking these strange side roads when they have hit so many times over with full-flavored hop bombs and barrel-aged sours, and even with subtle delights like an Avery Joe's Pils or the sadly discontinued New Belgium Mothership Wit. They clearly know what they're doing.

Not all fruited IPAs miss the mark. Numerous breweries, for example, have used grapefruit to increase the bitterness of the style, appropriate as some hops can taste naturally like the fruit. Sam Adams livened up its Rebel IPA by adding in mango juice, giving it heightened tropical feel even as it did not tone down the natural grassiness of the hops. And Denver Beer scored a surprising victory this summer with its Maui Express Coconut IPA, using the coconut not to add a  particular island taste but to calm the hops just enough that you can feel a different element in what may be the closest thing to a summer IPA that the industry has developed.

But the fruited IPAs in general seem so hell-bent on yelling "Look at my creativity!" and trying to lure non-hop heads to the style that they become needless diversions in a genre of bitter beers that still has lots of room to grow without tossing in everything in a grocer's produce aisle. Let's recommit to the idea that IPAs are bitter, piny, earthy, flowery and sometimes naturally citrus-y without the need to introduce flavors that veer these offerings away from what has made the style great.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Are You the Beer Drinker of the Year?

It may seem like mid-summer still, but the Great American Beer Festival is just slightly more than three weeks away. And while you can hold off most decisions about which events you want to attend until the last minute, Wednesday is the final day to decide whether you have what it takes to be the Wynkoop Brewing Co. Beer Drinker of the Year.

Denver's oldest brewpub began bestowing the crown in 1999, dragging professional-level imbibers before a cadre of robed and wigged judges to test their knowledge of the brewing arts, as well as their ability to woo a panel while they were several beverages into the evening. What began as a stand-alone event morphed into an annual ritual during the week that the beer world comes to Denver, and today the contest stands out as one of the intellectual highlights of the week, forcing people to rationalize the habits their mothers-in-law criticize and show how important suds knowledge can be.

The 18th annual contest returns the night before GABF officially begins, Oct. 4, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Lower Downtown brewery. But Wynkoop is looking right now for contestants willing to take an entry quiz to see if they can make it into the three finalists, and the brewery co-founded by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper will pay for that trio's travel expenses to come to the Mile High City.

What does the contest mean? Bragging rights, first of all, as no one else is crowning a beer drinker of the year during the greatest beer week on the calendar. Also, being a part of tradition - and being a part of good fun that taxes your brain a little bit while it's busy roundhouse-kicking your liver. Oh, and did I mention that you get free beer for life at Wynkoop? Yes, seriously.

Sometimes the questions go to the history of brewing. Sometimes they tend toward the magical, such as past queries in which the contestants are asked to be beer whisperers. And sometimes they get to the very heart of contests, asking participants what they could use to bribe a judge the best.

Think this describes you? Sign up. And you still have seven other nights during Denver Beer Week to blow out your taste buds without having to remember whether you lager cold or hot.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Resolute Brewing Year One: "Exceeded All Expectations"

Five or six years ago, there might have been several obstacles that kept Resolute Brewing from succeeding fully. It planned to open in a strip mall in the suburbs. It was going to focus on German-style beers. It didn't make an IPA for its first nine months.

But this is a different beer world. And so when the Centennial brewery celebrated its one-year anniversary last month with 200 people lined up outside its door to get in for the party, it told a tale greater than just how well one brewery was doing. That event — along with, say, the fact that the brewery made 1,200 barrels in its first year after forecasting in its business plan that it would make 450 — spoke volumes about each brewery finding its own space in the growing Denver beer scene and contributing tastes that may have been unfathomable in the scene's younger days.

"For one year, we've exceeded all expectations," said Clifton Oertli, one of five partners at Resolute. "Honestly, the biggest concern we have right now is being able to keep up with growth."

If you haven't been to the brewery in the Denver Tech Center, you still might have found its
hefeweizen or its doppelbock at one of the 50 taps that pour Resolute from Summit County to Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. Or maybe you've stumbled on the greatest surprise the brewery has offered — an American-style light lager that is the house beer for 5280 Burger Bar in downtown Denver and allows you to enjoy its light body and legitimate malt backbone without tasting the rice, corn or other adjunct crap that have come to define the style.

But if you have made it down to the taproom, you'll find the heart of the idea that spawned plans for the brewery — dogs, families, people playing games out back. And WiFi that is accessible to everyone, especially folks who decide that it's easier to finish their work with a pint of American Blonde rather than going back to the office. These are the things the partners said they didn't see at many of the downtown breweries they'd frequented.

The story of Resolute goes back to Columbine High School, where four of the five founders went. When Oertli, an engineer by trade, wanted to launch the brewery, he dipped back into the community that had helped him become who he was. And when the original four partners decided that they needed a full-time brewer, they  found Zac Rissmiller, an Elk Mountain brewer who had gone to Columbine with one of their sisters.

The Columbine connection to the brewery for Rissmiller especially is more than just one of locality. He and partner Matt Davis were students there during the hideous attack in 1999 when 13 students died. Being a part of that has led to a close partnership between the brewery and Phoenix 999, an organization that helps people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Being there also influenced his decision to pick a career path allowing him to do something he truly wanted to do.

"It's the reason I do what I do for a living, because I'm never going to take life as a passive thing," Rissmiller (pictured at top with Oertli) said. "I have an engineering degree too. I don't need to make money. I need to be happy."

The crowds that now populate Resolute have been there since day one, and the brewery is getting used to them — and feeding off their energy to expand its line of beers. It busted out a session IPA this summer, and it celebrated its first birthday with a Belgian dark strong ale aged on peaches. More experimentation is coming.

Most of all, more beer is coming, and that's a good thing. Resolute is growing a well-deserved reputation as a brewery that won't blow you away with its complexity but will leave you satisfied. The fact that so many people have come to appreciate it is a testament to both the brewery and to Denver-area beer drinkers willing to reach outside of what once was their comfort zone.

"It doesn't matter what kind of accolades you get, it doesn't matter what kind of things are going on," Rissmiller said. "You've just got to make better beer."

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