Sunday, December 31, 2017

10 Best Colorado Beers of 2017

Truth be told, the more breweries that open in Colorado each year, the less beer you get to taste from any of them in particular. As such, these year-end lists become less about the beers that you drank over and over throughout the year and more about the one-offs and unique finds that left impressions long after you first enjoyed them.

Still, the variety of offerings in the Centennial State has never been greater, and the experimentation levels with classical styles have never been more rampant, giving breweries an opportunity to create something so stand-out that they can say it truly was one of a kind. And while imperial stout or IPA may be the base beer to many of these 2017 selections, it is the way those styles were interpreted that made them the ones that emblazoned 2017 with its personality.

As always, these aren't just beers that were produced for the first time this year but brews that jumped up in one way or another in the past 12 months and made their greatest marks.

10) River North/Funkwerks Saison Conspiracy Noir
A dark saison combining elements of Belgian tradition and a delicious malt-forward body, this really jumped to life because of its Syrah grape must and its Cabernet-barrel aging that teased at a slightly tart body but still let the base beer speak for itself.

9) Rockyard Plum Creek Sour
Quite a few people reacted with surprise when this unassuming Castle Rock brewery nabbed the Great American Beer Festival gold medal for wood- and barrel-aged sour beer. But this plum-forward beer (pictured at left) was both sweet and sour and truly was the best tart beer made in Colorado this year.

8) Jagged Mountain This Beer Really Ties The Room Together
Maybe the most improved Colorado brewery of 2017, Jagged Mountain hit its absolute stride with this blonde milk stout that featured the additions of lactose, coffee beans and cacao nibs. It created a full-bodied beer that tasted like it was dry-hopped with coffee rather than overwhelmed by the additive, offering a plethora of flavors that worked perfectly together.

7) Great Divide Barrel-Aged Hibernation Ale
The increasing efforts of Denver's largest brewery toward its barrel-aging program pay off again and again, this year letting a whiskey barrel soak into an already sweet and malt-forward old ale for a year and producing a delightfully unsubtle beer that hits you with a variety of flavors, each one seeming to become part of a bigger tasty picture.

6) Intrepid Sojourner Beer Project Turkish Coffee Stout
Denver's best new brewery adds unusual ingredients to its portfolio of beers like they were offered up in a "Chopped" basket. But nothing was both so unique and so style-redefining as this shockingly smooth dark ale that offered a lot of coffee grit and also a lingering sweetness that just made it taste, well, foreign.

5) New Image East Coast Transplant
A hazy double IPA that presents both a guava/mango nose and just enough hint of bittering hops on the backtaste that it both exemplifies the best qualities of the New England IPA style and defies easy definition with hints of both coasts in its complex profile.

4) Mountain Sun Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Chocolate Thunder Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout
The Boulder/Denver operators of the Mountain Sun concept go all out for their February stout month, both in terms of the number and variety of offerings they produce. Nothing, however, has ever been as magical as this, pulling together a huge body with the combined sweetness of chocolate, lactose and hints of bourbon to make a beer that is giant - but is far more flavorful than it is big, somehow.

3) Comrade/Uberbrew Triple IPA
The star of March's Collaboration Fest might just come to be the most-sought-after beer in Comrade's extensive hop portfolio if it were to offer it regularly. Highly floral and refreshingly grassy, the beer is made remarkable by its lack of alcohol burn. It's a master study in how to go big without scorching any taste buds.

2) City Star Wood Belly
Arguably, no single beer from 2017 did more to redefine the perception of a brewery than this barrel-aged imperial IPA double-dry-hopped with Amarillo, Mosaic and Citra hops. It manages to be so many things at once - wonderfully boozy (at 10.6% ABV), tropical in its hopping and imbued with such a deep oak taste that it's the rare hop bomb that becomes more flavorful as it warms. This Berthoud brewery has made solid beers for years; this, however, is a new level of successful experimentation that should garner a lot more attention for City Star.

1) Station 26 German Chocolate Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Dark Star Imperial Stout
This infinitely complex and drinkable beer debuted before 2017, but if there was a coming-out party for it, it was at January's Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival, where the increasingly confident Denver brewery held its own against every brewer in that room. The beer is, first and foremost, exactly what it promises - a slice of rich, dark, sweet cake in alcoholic liquid form. But the barrel aging gives it just enough of a pervading influence that it kicks the flavor to the next level, and the high alcohol content here is used to accent the richness rather than overshadow it. In a year when transcending the long-held definition of dark beers became almost a competitive sport for Colorado craft breweries, none of them jumped so far over the bar as Station 26 did with this masterpiece.

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

9 Christmas Beers to Get You Through the Rest of 2017

One of the cultural misconceptions of the 12 Days of Christmas is that it represents the 12 days leading into Christmas. Actually, the 12 days of Christmas in classical tradition actually begins on Dec. 25. And that seems unusually appropriate this year in the beer-drinking world.

After a season in which a number of retailers reported getting some of the gem Christmas beers late in the cycle and some breweries held off their winter-seasonal releases until December (what a concept), it only feels right to extend your drinking of these beers past the actual holiday. And while I don't want to do the full 12 beers of Christmas thing, there are enough notable offerings this year to leave you trying something new every night until the clock actually strikes 2018.

9) Strange Craft Beer Gingerbread Man
This annual offering is just as inviting as it sounds - both sweet and a little bit spicy, with a bready, almost cookie-like quality. Its only drawback is that it finishes a little too clean for a beer whose attributes you are hoping will linger.

8) Ratio Beerworks Reservoir
This old ale almost flies under the radar in the RiNo brewery's increasingly impressive portfolio. But with both roasty and nutty characteristics, it is both smooth and full - and as solid a winter seasonal as you'll find for the cold weather.

7) La Grivoise de Noel
"The Naughty Noel," a Belgian strong dark ale brewed by Canadian beer maker Le Trou Du Diable,
lives up to its billing with a slightly boozy Belgian candi sugar feel to its body, allowing it to warm you and loosen up family gatherings.

6) Diebolt Joyeux Noel
Another in the line of French- and Belgian-style treats for the season, this dark biere de garde ramps up the winter genre with its fuller-bodied undercurrents, but not so much that it takes away from the straight-up dark and roasted feel that makes it approachable even with its 8.2 percent ABV.

5) Odell Isolation Ale
There are classics out there that, for whatever reason, fall off your radar as so many more options come onto the market. But drinking Isolation again this year was a true rediscovery of a beer this is smooth, roasty and simultaneously aggressive and mellow in the approach to the alcohol in its body. This isn't a "wow" beer; it's just a damn good beer that's great for the season.

4) Bristol Winter Warlock
Similarly, this annual tradition is neither high-octane nor steeped in complexity. But one of Colorado's year-in-year-out Christmastime classics is so spot-on in its all-malt, non-bitter body that you are drawn to it like it's a throwback that delivers everything you want in a beer but more simply. The medium-bodied offering is the very definition of the fireside sipper.

3) The Bruery 10 Lords-A-Leaping
This dark imperial wit ale brewed with 10 spices is a hell of a lot of things at once, producing an extremely complex portrait that is best enjoyed with people willing to discuss it. The cinnamon, clove and allspice are the headliners in this mix, though the coriander may be the piece de resistance, allowing the beer to exit with a spicy kick. Put aside a whole evening for this one.

2) Great Divide Barrel-Aged Hibernation Ale
The Denver brewery's 22-year-old old ale recipe is a winner by itself. But put it into whiskey barrels for a year, and it finds a delicate, unsubtle balance between the huge, malty sweetness of the original beer and a sweet-tinged, fairly boozy touch of the barrel. This may not scream "Christmas beer" like some others on this list, yet the sweet but not overwhelming nature of this malt bomb leaves it far too fascinating to ignore.

1)  Port Brewing Santa's Little Helper
It's almost hard to describe what is so enjoyable about this 9.9 percent ABV Imperial Stout, perfect for sharing with friends even in its new 12-ounce packaging. But the heart of its pull lies in the fact that you can taste coffee, cocoa and roasted malts in this body and somehow not taste the alcohol that should be burning up your taste buds. Made with a masterful hand, this is big enjoyment presented in a way that nearly everyone will like. And it's exactly why you wait throughout the year for beers meant specifically to warm up the winter.

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

It's Time to Get Ready for Big Beers

Staring at the calendar, you realize that the big day is now only two weeks away.

That's right: Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival begins on Jan. 4.

While some of you may have visions of sugar plums dancing through your heads, Laura Lodge has visions of rum-barrel-aged sugar plum saisons being poured in neat lines over two floors of Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge on Jan. 6 at a tasting that caps three days of festivities. And, unlike last year, when she was heading into a new town for the festival for the first time in 17 years, she knows this year what to expect from that town - and is really excited about the opportunities it presents to enhance what is already one of America's greatest beer festivals.

"Last year I spent a good portion of my summer and fall in Breckenridge trying to figure out what businesses wanted to be a part of Big Beers and learning how we would fit in," said Lodge, who runs the festival with her brother, Bill, in addition to running her company that works with hotels and resorts to establish craft-beer programs. "This year I already know who some of the key players are, so I am starting to meet some of the people behind the scenes."

Big Beers is an event worth getting ready for weeks early, even with two major holidays standing before it on the calendar, because it is such a unique gathering of brewers. Some 150 beer makers and international beer distributors will be pouring beers that are 7 percent ABV or above (plus a fewer lighter Belgian styles) and typically foisting onto you some of their rarest offerings aged in barrels right alongside their more common double IPAs and imperial stouts.It all will be done in an intimate setting where the person who came up with the crazy idea for the beer in your hand is the one explaining it to you as it cascades into your glass.

And this regal tasting happens only after a day of seminars that begin before 10 a.m., offering those wanting to dive into the art of brewing, blending and barrel-aging beer a chance to get unusually academic - while sipping on a barleywine around the same time that others are eating Cheerios.

From 2000 through 2016, the Big Beers festival made its home in Vail, an impressively scenic and special town but one without much of a grounding in the craft-beer movement that's swept over Colorado. Lodge moved the event because the former host hotel was in the midst of an extensive renovation, and what she found was a replacement home that added more local touches and more character to the festival.

Now, instead of attendees just having the option to get tickets to the three beer-pairing dinners that occur on the Thursday and Friday nights prior to the big tasting, they can hit up tappings, beer/food pairings and brewery-sponsored concerts around the village. It's become more like a miniature Great American Beer Festival, except for the mind-blowing fact that Big Beers often doesn't sell out of tickets (and still hasn't for this year).

There are changes coming to this year's festival because of things that Lodge learned at the 2017 event, and I will detail some of those as the event gets closer. But the biggest difference as the clock winds down on preparations for Big  Beers 2018 is that the sense of transience that surrounded the event at this time last year has morphed into a sense of permanence and a feeling that now, more than ever, it's really home.

"I think what we're seeing here is a shift based on the community the event is held in," Lodge said recently. "I think we're seeing Breckenridge shine because they have a more developed beer culture."

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

5 Things I Learned at Denver Beer Festivus 2017

Putting 55 Denver breweries together in one room is just as good an idea as it sounds, and not just because you feel no desire ever to leave. Denver Beer Festivus, held Saturday at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, allowed for great contrast and comparison of what is happening in the city beer scene, especially as most participants brought offerings that were among their most unusual.

That strategy led to some reaffirmations about the breweries that are making the beer that can't be missed, as well as some discoveries about others who should be on beer-trail lists going forward. Here are a few of the things that jumped out.

1) The beer community needs to pay more attention to Jagged Mountain. 
Known largely as a big beer maker when it opened, the brewery went through a subsequent shake-up among partners, and everyone seemed to stop talking about it. That appears to have been a big mistake, especially for anyone who found their way to enjoying beers like its spectacular blood-orange gose, Grouse Mountain, in the past year.

The most interesting beer of the entire festival was Jagged Mountain's This Beer Really Ties The Room Together, a blonde white Russian milk stout whose body was as subtle and smooth as a creation made with oats and lactose should be but whose striking taste impression was that of a rich coffee without any of the typical bitterness that accompanies that style. It felt like you were drinking something dry-hopped with coffee ("dry-beaned" was the term that was decided as correct), leaving an original taste clearly created by a masterful hand.

2) Ratio's Genius Wizard is as good as any imperial stout in Denver.
And that's saying something, given that this is the town that is home to both Epic's Big Bad Baptist
and Great Divide's Yeti. But the 2016 version of the beer being poured on Saturday was dangerously easy for a 12 percent ABV bomb, presenting overtones of both coffee and chocolate in what was a very drinkable body. This beer should start getting a lot more love.

3) Sweet and subtle dark ales also ruled the day.
Declaration's Cinnatoast Porter was just sweet enough where you wouldn't want to drink it all night but just enjoyable enough that you could slurp down a pint easily. Bruz Beer's Onyx Stout jumped out with its combination of Belgian hints and roasted edge. And Blind Faith Brewing - the new beer maker that bought DeSteeg Brewing in October, according to Westword - made a strong impression with a dark beer (whose name I failed to catch) combining chocolaty malts and orange notes.

4) The range of New England IPAs at the event shows a maturing of the style.
Woods Boss had both the most impressive and the most by-the-book version of the hazy IPA with its delicious, pineapple-scented The Oswald. Yet, Ficton's Madame Psychosis seemed to want to straddle a line between fruity and bitter. And Epic's New England-Style IPA seemed to range a bit away from tropical notes and more toward the classical, balanced tastes of the long-honored IPA genre. You could pick your favorite; more importantly, there's enough variety that you can really tell now.

5) Sour beer fans need to seek out Baere Brewing.
Its Reciprocity golden sour blend was arguably the best tart beer poured at Festivus. It brought its bite in a way that was both challenging and refreshing. And it was a reminder that these guys are shining in whatever style of beer they want to tackle.

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