Sunday, November 26, 2017

An End to Wit’s First Chapter

It was, at best, a place you never thought you’d find yourself drinking beer, located in an out-of-the-way strip of industrial warehouse space in a part of south Denver not known for its business atmosphere. I once invited four couples there for a happy hour, and three got lost.

But the now-former home of Wit’s End Brewing had a subtle charm as well, a we-brew-unpretentious-beer-and-hang-out-wherever-we-can aura. And it infected the offerings that sprang from Scott Witsoe’s taps – beer that almost never met a Brewers Association style guideline but made you stop and ponder every new creation all the same, admiring the complexities and unusual flavors that sprang from them.

The final day for that quirky location came Saturday, six days before Wit’s End will become the first brewery in the state to cohabitate with another and move into the space that Strange Craft Beer has occupied south of Mile High Stadium since 2010. And it came with a packed house, made up mainly of hard-core regulars and industry professionals.

“It should have been like this more often,” said Tim Myers, co-owner of Strange (shown at right with Wits), which will share operations and taproom space with Wit’s End going forward, even as the two craft breweries will remain independently owned.

Wit’s End is a brewery that could throw anything into a recipe — a trait honored in the name of its Kitchen Sink Porter, as in “we threw everything in the kitchen sink into the mash.” It added Indian jaggery sugar to an ESB to create its Mick Jaggery, quite possibly its most unique recipe. And every time you thought it was going classically Belgian or classically hoppy, Witsoe would add ingredients to make the beer a hybrid that was unique and tastier.

Witsoe, the immaculately bearded former home brewer who will step back from the day-to-day running of the brewery under the new partnership, said amidst the large crowd Saturday that it was a bittersweet day – the end to a six-year road that saw him capture Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup medals and end up once on the cover of the New York Times.

Yet, even as he said that he’ll miss the old place at 2nd and Bryant, he acknowledged that the partnership with Strange is likely to expand his opportunities, both from the distribution standpoint and the ability to get his beers in front of the wider audience that they deserve. Burns Family Artisan Ales, a new brewery helmed by former Jagged Mountain founding brewer Wayne Burns, will move in Dec. 1 and focus on high-alcohol beers.

Here’s hoping the folks who never made it into the original Wit’s End location discover it at its new home and savor it for what it is — a one-of-its-kind brewery that continues to stand out in a Denver beer scene where doing so is becoming a harder task.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Not-So-Subtle Joy of Drinking Imperial Stouts

Wandering through the third floor of the McNichols Civic Center Building last month during Denver Rare Beer Tasting was the equivalent of being trapped in a black hole. Everything being poured was heavy and dense, and no light could shine through any glass.

The biggest difference was, however, that this was an experience you enjoyed so much that you could even begin to pick up subtleties in the booth after booth of the 16- to 19-percent-ABV beers in which you were imbibing. And through that, you could see how far the craft beer industry has come in the past 10 years.

It's not that imperial stouts weren't tasty circa 2007. But those that pushed 10 or 11 percent ABV at the time tended to be beers whose alcohol content was readily apparent. A big beer often brought with it a big, boozy taste. And there was a limit to how many of those you could drink.

Today, however, you can find a beer like Avery Brewing's Black Eye, a 3-year-old rum-barrel-aged imperial stout that grew to 18.8 percent ABV by the time it hit drinkers' glasses last month. Its body was bursting with depth and darkness, but it also was shockingly smooth, using its enormous malt base to cover any residual alcohol burn. It not only was a great beer; it was damn near dangerous.

At just that one event, however, you could also find River North Brewery's 18 percent Vicennial Shadowman, which presented a huge mouthful of almost sooty dark malt that was shockingly drinkable. There was WeldWerks' Medianoche Reserve, which weighed in at 13.5 percent but added an astounding smoothness to its underlying cocoa punch. And even a beer like New Holland Brewing's "Dragon's Milk: Michigan's Winter" added a little burn to its 16 percent body, but not enough to overshadow a bittersweet coffee palate that made you want more.

It isn't just at specialty beer festivals that you find these big-bodied gems, either. Taprooms across the state are featuring experimental and seasonal creations of substantial girth right now, much in the way that virtually every taproom is trying its hand at a New England-style IPA.

So, you can actively seek out a hammer of a beer like Verboten Brewing's Little Nonsense, which packs heavy flavors of both bourbon and vanilla from its barrel aging and manages to be every bit as tasty as it is aggressive.

Or you can find a hidden treasure like Goldspot Brewing's Black Whiskey River Imperial Stout. At 10.5 percent, it's almost a light beer compared to some in this group, and its body isn't as pelting with heaviness as others. But after sitting 5-1/2 months in a Laws Whiskey House barrel, it takes on a lot of warming whiskey flavor but still allows the rough-hewn, slightly mocha edge of the body to take center stage.

And let's not forget, the incomparable Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival - scheduled for Jan. 4-6 in Breckenridge - will be another showcase for the creativity in the imperial stout world.

The joy in drinking these beers is both complex and simple. The flavor profiles they raise bring up tastes ranging from sweetness to heat to bitterness, and picking them out of the big, meaty body is both challenging and satisfying. Yet there is a simplicity in enjoying the idea of a brewer tossing everything they have into one recipe, rolling the dice and letting the experiment end in a boozy, warming toast to their gutsy resolve.

While co-hosting American Craft Beer Radio a couple of weeks ago, I asked Wynkoop head brewer John Sims if I was crazy to think these beers were getting smoother and easier to drink even as they are getting bigger - while we were enjoying his Captain K's Final Daze, an imperial honey brown that offered both depth and a sweetness that was anything but cloying.

He told me that I was not nuts and that brewing techniques have evolved so much in the 24 years he's been in the industry that the methods for making and aging beers have taken off some of their alcoholic roughness while accenting the malts and the occasional additives even more.

To that, I say cheers. And as the nights turn colder, I plan to raise more pints (or smaller servings) of imperial stouts that will intoxicate me as much with their taste as they will with their alcohol content.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Surly Leaves Us Temporarily Sated ... And Definitely Wanting More

Each time a new brewery enters the Colorado market, one must ask: "What are it bringing to the local beer party, and how does it change the beer scene here?"

But with Zymurgy Magazine's 24th-ranked brewery in America making its full-time distribution debut in the state just this week, the more appropriate question seems to be: "What more is there to come?"

Surly Brewing of Minnesota has earned its national reputation for pushing taste boundaries and disregarding traditional style definitions. It's the most well-regarded brewery to emerge from the Gopher State, and it draws crowds at events like the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival, where its experimental beers are on offering here for at least one day a year.

What's intriguing about Surly's entrance into Colorado, then, is that it's coming in with one of its best-known beers (Furious, an IPA) and two drinkable others (Xtra-Citra pale ale and Hell pilsner) that may surprise people who are looking for its Pentagram sour dark ale or its Darkness, a Russian imperial stout. And it seems at first like the strategy may be to whet Coloradans' appetites enough to get us asking for more.

Just to be clear, the trio of Surly offerings now available at bars and liquor stores are quality beers. Furious greets you with a piny bite but leaves without residual bitterness. Hell is classic German lager, with just enough sweetness from its Carahell malts to make it stand out. And Xtra-Citra is arguably the jewel of the bunch, a melon-forward, full-mouthed pale that bounces between citrus and tropical flavors and leaves you wanting another — which is appropriate, since it's only 4.5% ABV.

But anyone who has tasted a creation like Surly's Five — its fifth-anniversary Brett dark ale that was aged in red wine barrels and was bursting with the flavor of tart cherries — knows the brewery is more than crushable post-hike beers and top-notch IPAs. This is a brewery, named for owner Omar Ansari's angst at not finding good beer options in his state before he decided to open his own place in 2004, that can present flavors that only a minimal number of Colorado beer makers are creating. And you just want the chance to pick those up locally.

So, welcome to the state, Surly and your tasty creations. And please don't leave us surly about what Minnesotans have that your new friends in Colorado can't yet get.

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