Tuesday, January 30, 2018

"Happy Accidents" Producing Great Beers

As someone who has young children and hangs out with other parents of little kids, I've heard the term "happy accident" a lot in recent years. But never have I heard it used twice in the same week to describe beers, as I have since Friday.

And if the beers in question are examples of what these happy accidents are, let's hope a lot more brewers can start conceiving their offerings in this way.

The beers in question are Caution Brewing's Mazu Belgian Sour, which the Lakewood brewery happened upon late last year, and Call to Arms Brewing's Majestic Wolf Lamp, which the Denver brewery officially releases on Thursday. And both are worth seeking out in a purposeful way.

Majestic Wolf Lamp, as artfully described by Call to Arms brewer Chris Bell (pictured at top), is a blend of two aged beers that didn't make a particularly good impression on their own. One was a Belgian quad that had one barrel that just didn't sing and the other was a petite saison that wasn't bad but just wasn't resonating with anyone.

So, brewers took the two, put them together in a 60/40 quad/saison blend and let them sit for months on oak, throwing in black currants to ramp up the cutting taste. And they've created one of the more complex beers yet to come from the brewery that is known more for its spot-on renditions of a wide range of styles, leading to a mouthfeel that Bell described perfectly as "sour raspberry jam."

Bottling the creation from just two barrels, Call to Arms hopes to produce at least 125 375-ml bottles that go on sale for $12 a pop at the brewery beginning at 3 p.m. Thursday. And if you think, "Oh, I'll just wait until they brew this out another time," think again about a beer that is 13 winding months in the making.

"Now that we've done this, we'll never be able to recreate it," Bell admitted, who acknowledged that before the blending, brewers were considering dumping these two barrels that only came to life when being conjoined.

Mazu doesn't have as dramatic a back story or as short a life span, as it's been on tap since the fall and will continue to be available in the taproom in the near future. But the brewery staff likes to call the beer their little surprise, and owner Danny Wang explained at this month's Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival just what makes the beer so different.

Stuffed with the sorts of unusual ingredients that are the hallmark of Caution - in this case, orange peel, coriander and cardamom - Mazu is a Belgian-style golden ale aged in California red-wine barrels for 10 months. But while Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces have worked their magic on this beer, the souring aspect to it comes not from classic Lacto but from citric acid, giving this a smooth and sweet mouthfeel that presents a certain bite but not one that is harshly acidic.

"This is one of the most unusual beers you'll taste here," Wang said at the Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge while surrounded by 140 other breweries trying to pitch that same story line. But in this case,  he was right, and he's created another signature taste among a bevy of one-of-a-kind creations on his menu.

There are more such stories out there, but the two of these give perfect example to what is so great about the growing and diversifying craft-beer scene. When you make something that's not exactly what you originally planned, don't dump it down the drain. Give it time, and that happy little accident may end up standing taller than the recipes that you and others slaved for months to perfect.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

What does Oskar Blues' new location bring to Denver?

When Oskar Blues announced plans to open a beer bar/restaurant/music venue in downtown Denver, it was met by resistance by some in the craft beer community, most notably folks at Falling Rock Tap House, who said it would compete against entities that had nurtured the brewery's development. Leaders of the Longmont brewery replied that they were growing, not cannibalizing patrons.

That venue, Oskar Blues Grill & Brew, officially debuted last weekend after a month-long soft opening. And as such, it's worth looking at what the facility is, as well as what it isn't.

Those who have come to know Oskar Blues only since its ascension into the 10 largest craft breweries in America may not realize it began humbly as a Lyons Cajun-style restaurant that brought in musical acts from the get-go but took two years to get the idea to make its own beer. Anyone who's visited that original location, still tucked into an outdoor shopping center, will recognize the resemblance right away in this new venue, which in many senses is food and music first and beer as a complement to those purposes.

That isn't to say that the beer is an afterthought by any stretch. Last Saturday there were 48 beers on tap - roughly half from the Oskar Blues family that includes Cigar City and Perrin Brewing, and the other half from craft or European-invested breweries, including smaller local purveyors like Odyssey, Rails End and Odd 13. The only mega-brew on the menu was the original Coors.

So, when it comes to the beer offerings, it would be hard to say that OB Grill & Brew is cutting off the oxygen from other craft-beer purveyors. Its menu, while extensive, isn't as varied as what you'll find at Falling Rock or Freschcraft or even Lucky Pie. This is clearly the place to go in downtown if you want to find Oskar Blues family rarer or seasonal offerings, from the sensational OB Death By Coconut to Perrin's 15 percent ABV No Rules, a porter rife with cinnamon, vanilla and booziness. But no other bar was striving to be the go-to Oskar Blues destination in Denver - other than its already existing RiNo Chuburger location. And having some 25 other offerings on tap hardly makes it unique in the downtown beer scene anymore.

And when it comes to food, OB Grill & Brew also is treading a different path than other beer-focused bars in the area. Euclid Hall has poutine and upscale sausages, Freshcraft has a notch-above-normal wide-ranging menu and Lucky Pie has its pizza and cheese curds. But people who want to get the likes of crab cake, crawfish etouffee or Carolina spicy-mustard ribs aren't going to be considering existing beer bars. The food is quite impressive at Oskar Blues, and it will stand on its own, but it gives beer-focused bar hoppers a slightly more ethnic and full-plated option, if that's what they're looking for.

And a music venue that offers seating for 300
plus 48 taps - well, that just isn't happening in Denver right now. Breweries themselves, particularly Ratio Beerworks and Station 26 Brewing, have become great venues for seeing certain types of bands while sipping beer. But the major concert venues as a whole aren't beer-geek magnets for their selections, and Oskar Blues has a chance to be disruptive and new in that sense.

So, no, existing beer bars shouldn't be worried about what Oskar Blues brings to the table. The high-end Great American Beer Festival tappings are not going to happen there. And the weekend beer-bar-hopping crowds are just going to have one more option, though not one that's going to such the oxygen out of everyone else. I'll still be frequenting the other spots I mentioned, some far more than I'll be hitting OB Grill & Brew.

What the new place truly offers is extensive beer list for the crowds that are prioritizing food or music above their beer and now have a more legitimate option in which they don't have to choose between hearty, high-quality food and hearty, high-quality beers. And for some people just looking for a good rack or ribs or a good concert, it may well introduce them to the idea of pairing said activity with a locally made IPA rather than watered-down swill that's trying to pass itself off as American beer.

So, welcome the new Oskar Blues venue, Denver beer community. Maybe you won't be hanging out there all the time. But it lessens the chances that, in less beer-centric crowds, you'll be forced to hang out somewhere that can offer good chow or tunes but also offers a "craft" beer menu made up entirely of breweries scavenged by Anheuser-Busch.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

5 Things I Learned at Big Beers Fest 2018

Tiramisu, French toast, crickets: These were the flavors one can't forget from the 2018 Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival.

The collection of roundly amazing beers — I poured just one into a dump bucket during the four-hour tasting — was again a master study on barrel aging, hearty hopping and using bugs to bring the right level of tartness to beer. But this year, more so than in past years, it also felt like a grand experiment on the adjuncts that can push beers beyond their normal limit. And what a wonderful palate-wrecking experience it became.

There were desert beers, including a New England-style IPA made with Betty Crocker cake sprinkles (Thank you, Outer Range Brewing, for keeping the cake flavor light). There were sours that relied on the presence of multiple fruits to create new flavors. And by the time you got the gumption up to try Epic Brewing's Chapulin Gose, you literally found yourself saying: "I like the beer, but I'm not picking up the flavor of the crickets or the agave worm salt in here." And, yes, you were bummed.

So what were the biggest takeaways of the festival? Here's a few:

1) The bolder the range of flavors in big beers, the more they stood out.
Certainly, there were the big and dangerous classic bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stouts there. Loveland Aleworks had a 2015 version that was incredibly smooth. River North Brewery offered up a whiskey-barrel-aged English-style old ale that was so warming it set your insides ablaze.

But the real head-turners were gems like Cellar West Artisan Ales' Farmers Breakfast, a farmhouse-style imperial breakfast stout that was re-fermented in bourbon barrels with maple syrup and offered a fascinating melange of flavors that somehow became French toast in a glass. Or there was Epic's Triple Barrel Big Bad Baptist, which not only featured imperial stout aged in whiskey barrels but had barrel-aged coconut that made this spring to a new vibrancy and overshadow its high ABV.

2) Spices are on the rise as adjuncts, thankfully.
You saw this trend where the beer advertised it blatantly. Crazy Mountain's Rum Barrel Aged Spanish Coffee Stout, for example, was rendered unforgettable by the fact that the Denver brewery used Mexican chocolate to make what could have been a heavy beer burst with flavor.

But the trend appeared even where you were least expecting it, and it was pleasing. Verboten's Tiramisu Little Nonsense had a surprising shock of Saigon cinnamon that left you with hope that chefs can make deserts like this too. And Intrepid Sojourner Beer Project's Barrel-Aged Imperial Turkish Coffee Stout added even more Middle Eastern spicing than its regular-strength version - and took your palate to a far-off place.

3) It's time to elevate Paradox Beer Company to its place among Colorado's best.
If there was a single beer of the festival, it was this Teller County brewery's Divide Ethos, a spontaneously fermented wild ale that felt like a kicked-up saison, with the bugs pinching your tongue with just a bit of sour and a whole lot of wild. The fact that it was the brewery's first coolship beer speaks even more to its ability to create new flavors.

Paradox was a big winner last year as well. It doesn't get as much attention as some of Colorado's other great wild-yeast-ale makers, partly because of its out-of-the-way location west of Colorado Springs. But it sure should.

4) It's the fruit and unusual add-ins, as much as the bugs, that are propelling stand-out sours.
Maybe Modern Times pushed the sour envelope a little too much with its One Million Tomorrows, but by mixing a ton of blueberries and raspberries into its wine-barrel-aged saison, it created such a complex flavor that you were willing to forgive the brewery.

No forgiveness at all was needed for Three Barrel's Hermano X, a lambic made with coriander, orange peel and three types of pepper that was tart enough to wake up your taste buds and your mind. And if Caution Brewing's Mazu Sour Belgian Golden — made with orange peel, coriander and cardamom and aged in red-wine barrels — wasn't the best sour on the floor, it may have been the most unique.

5) More significantly aged beers are needed.
Two-and-three-year-old beers were everywhere. But the joy of sipping Stone Brewing's 2007 Old Guardian Barleywine and enjoying its sweetly aged body even as the hops diminished was a short-lived pleasure because it stood so alone among the largely newer beers on the floor (save for Sam Adams' 24-year-old Triple Bock).

There wasn't much one could have left wanting from the festival. But 10-year-or-older beers would have been fun to try more frequently.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2018

7 New Things Coming This Year to Big Beers Festival

No change that Laura and Bill Lodge will make to the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival will be bigger than last year's move of the event from Vail to Breckenridge after 17 years in its original home city. But that doesn't mean the resettled festival will stop trying to find new ways to entertain its crowds during its second year in its new home.

With one of Colorado's best celebrations of yeast and hops just two days away (the first events begin on Jan. 4, while the commercial tasting is set for Jan. 6), it's worth taking a look at what will be different about the festival this year. And it's worth reiterating that if this all sounds good, tickets for the main event remain available.

1) The Falling Rock Lounge
One of the biggest aspects that was missing from the event last year was the central gathering spot, a role that the Fireside Lounge in the old Vail Cascade Resort filled for years. Festival organizers, in conjunction with Denver's oldest beer bar, are changing that in 2018.

The "Pop-Up Falling Rock" will be a temporary bar with a Chris Black-curated beer list that will occupy the open space near the arcade and the hot tubs on the second floor of the host Beaver Run Resort & Conference Center. Hotel officials will pile soft furniture in that space and signs around the resort will direct people there, making it likely this will be the spot to relax when seminars and the main tasting are not in progress.

2) Bigger Seminars
Last year, afternoon seminars were held in adjoining spaces that held just 35 people each, leaving some people unable even to sniff topics like how to brew with exotic fruit and vegetables.

This year, the Lodges will combine those two rooms into one seminar area and double the space, while moving some of the other talks to the Base 9 Bar on the bottom floor. There will be four seminars at 12:05 p.m. and another four at 1:15 p.m. And one of the defining characteristics of the event - being able to learn more about beer throughout the day in talks that feature a fair amount of tasting as well - will be open to more attendees.

3) A Wider Range of Seminars
Saturday morning's schedule begins at 9:30 a.m. with a talk on the timely and controversial topic of New England IPAs from a panel that includes Colorado's best makers of the style, including Neil Fisher of Weldwerks and Lee Cleghorn of Outer Range Brewing. But while that's sure to attract beer geeks by the kettle-ful, Laura Lodge promises other choices that will welcome people of all interests.

If you want to learn to pair beer with spicy foods, there's a seminar for that. If you want to enjoy a beer while doing yoga on Saturday morning, there's an opportunity for that. And if you really want to work with random strangers to try to pair four beers and four foods, there's a different break-out session that features that too.

"I think sometimes people think Big Beers is for people who are just in the industry or super-savvy," she said. "I think the novice can learn as well."

4) An App for Festival Planning
Festival organizers are working with Digital Pout, which has created an app to help people find where breweries are on the floor plan, what they're pouring - and when a beer runs out. Thus, if you're one of those folks who wants to spend much of your 3-1/2-hour tasting looking for rare and aged beers, you can map out beforehand where they are and know when you should redirect your adventures in mid-festival.

5) A New Entry for Attendees
One of the bugs of the first year at Beaver Run was the bottleneck of VIP and regular-ticket attendees backed up at the same entrance point on the third floor, leading to a slowdown getting in and to complaints from brewers on the first floor that it took a long time for many attendees to find them. This year, the early crowd will go in at 2 on the first floor and the later crowd goes in at 2:30 on the third floor, leading to less congestion and more spreading of entrants across the tasting space.

6) New Breweries ...
Laura Lodge recalls getting a call from experimental brewer Cellarmaker Brewing of San Francisco last year asking if they could come and pour their beer at the 2018 festival. Within 15 minutes, she got a follow-up call The Rare Barrel, an equally sought-after Berkeley brewery, inquiring whether it too could come and pour.

"We're starting to see some really cool, innovative folks who may not have experienced Big Beers before but want to be here now," she said. Expect this trend to continue and grow.

7) ... And More Breweries
After opening the festival to 140 breweries last year, Big Beers will welcome around 150 this year. The increase isn't terribly impressive, but the way that number is growing is.

With a waiting list of dozens of participants, Lodge told brewers they were welcome to share their table if they wanted with some of those breweries waiting in the wings. She expects at least 10 to do so, creating both a growth in the number of breweries on the floor and the partnerships between those beer makers.

"I believe it's the true spirit of craft beer," she said.

And that's one more reason this festival can't be missed.

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