Friday, April 27, 2018

Something Old and Yet New from a Colorado Craft Brewing Veteran

Over its 24-year history, Left Hand Brewing has never been one to follow trends. It took until 2016 for the Longmont brewery to roll out its first year-round American-style IPA, for example. And while everyone else was testing the limits of hops or bacteria in their beer in the early 2010s, Eric Wallace and crew were pushing the limits on smoothness by getting nitrogenated milk stout into a bottle.

So, it should shock few people that Left Hand's two newest year-round offerings are throwback styles - a porter and a golden ale - but with the brewery's classic twists. What is a bit more surprising is that while one of the new offerings really nails its unique place in the Colorado beer world, the other seems a bit lost and looking for a defined personality.

Death Before Disco Porter and Juicy Goodness Dry-Hopped Golden Ale are appropriately drinkable beers as we get ready to enter the summer months. The porter carries with it just a 6 percent ABV hit, while Juicy Goodness registers at 5.5 percent ABV and only 29 IBUs. Both are appropriate for an afternoon backyard barbecue.

Brandishing five different malts, Death Before Disco blends them perfectly and creates a rich, slightly roasty body with a hint of chocolate. But what jumps out is its strong background hits of dark berry - really, it has an air of cherry - that give it complexity without making it feel like a fruit beer. That all combines into an excessively easy body, in a good way.

It is, to put it simply, a more interesting porter than most of what is out on the market. It's accessible and slightly sweeter, but not in an kind of unnatural way. And the hints of dark fruit that permeate it make you want to swirl it around on your tongue to get the full range of kilned and bright flavors, permeated with a slight hint of coffee and hop bitterness. It's a fascinating beer for something that can fairly be described as hum-drumly as a classic porter.

Juicy Goodness also seems to be reaching to be something more than just a golden ale or a lighter-bodied offering with a significant hop influence. And while it doesn't taste like anything that Left Hand has produced before, it also doesn't feel like it ultimately knows what it wants to be.

The Mosaic hops used in the dry-hopping don't lend their usual tropical flavoring here so much as a Pixie-Stick-like burst of sweetness that is offset by a slightly acidic overtone. While there is a somewhat subdued hop presence upfront, there is a lasting bitterness that goes along with it. And you're left with a surprisingly aggressive bite for a light-bodied beer, and a strange combination that doesn't fit easily into any flavor profile.

Brewing outside the box certainly is not a bad thing, and Left Hand has done it well over and over again, taking a classic style and putting a twist onto it to make it more interesting - like, say, adding lactose to a nitro stout. But while that unique dark-fruit overtone that takes Death Before Disco and turns it into a beer for people who want originality in porters works exceedingly well, the dry-hopping of a lighter style feels slightly odd in Juicy Goodness, making you want something more classical and less daring there.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Cheers to 3 Beers That Take It Easy and Create Something Unique

At the media breakfast the morning after the first session of the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, no one wanted something heavy or complex. But when Samuel Adams poured its lager/ale hybrid, Sam '76, no one seemed prepared to enjoy the beer as much as they did.

After some 60 unsatisfying test batches, Jim Koch and crew had come up with a beer that was both light on the palate and flowing with citrus and melon fruit, thanks to its combination of Cascade, Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe hops. And it pulled off the rare track of being fully imbued with flavor and yet airy - a combination that Koch aptly described as "crushable craft beer."

But while Sam '76 (the lighter beer in the glass next to Rebel IPA above), which went nationwide in early 2018, felt revelatory at that moment, it's now one in a rising number of beers that manage to bet big on taste and aroma while going remarkably easy on the palate. While some are new, others seem to be grabbing new notice as something of a mid-point between the truly lighter craft lagers that are making a comeback and the more intricate offerings that still tempt our taste buds even at times we want something a bit more relatable.

And, like Sam '76, some of the other notable creations that fit this description are hybrids of other styles that work better as a combination than they likely would on their own.

Take, for example, Denver Beer's Japance Off Saison, its newest canned beer offering that was released early this year. It puts together two fermentation characteristics that a lot of craft beer doesn't use on its own - sake yeast and French ale yeast - and adds to the uniqueness with the European-grown Mistral hop that is simultaneously aromatic and light.

The result is a saison without the challenging earthy spice that others of the style offer but with an exceedingly clean and smooth finish that highlights both mildly fruity esters and a late-breaking hint of bitterness. There are few saisons on the market built for both this level of all-day drinking - it comes in at a reasonable 5.7 percent alcohol by volume - and this level of satisfaction.

New Image Brewing's Olde Town Regular has been around for about two years now, but it too is worth a notice in the world of crushable hybrids. Brewed like a helles and fermented like a kolsch, it pours a very cloudy golden with a thick head, leaving you to wonder what the Arvada brewers might have been seeking when they designed it.

The answer is in the flavor - a touch of clove on the nose, combined with a malty, semisweet mouthfeel and just a bite of hop presence on the end, leaving you with the impression you were drinking a meaty hefeweizen or a highly approachable Belgian table beer. It's unique, it's easy and yet it keeps calling you to pick out which flavor of the bunch is rising to the surface, giving you complexity without weight.

All three are worth keeping in mind especially as the weather warms. But all are good any time of year, creating their own new "crushable" category in a sector that can benefit from it.

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Monday, April 09, 2018

Renegade's Pleasing Polite Side

Renegade Brewing's best beers traditionally have been the ones that go way, way off-style or outside the mainstream. Think beet saison. Think triple IPA. Think imperial peanut butter cup stout.

That's why it's both pleasing and surprising to see that its newest offering — its Free to Roam American Pale Ale, released officially on Saturday — is a gem specifically because it's subtle and yet imbued with big flavor. And while breweries can fluctuate from beer to beer in terms of what they nail and what they miss, Free to Roam feels like a very mature effort for a brewery that's about to undertake a significant expansion.

The beer replaces Consilium Pale Ale in the year-round lineup for the Denver brewery after a four-year run for that beer — and that's a good thing. Consilium was an early example of the fruited hop beer, and while that pale ale brewed with orange peel wasn't offensive like some other entries in the style, it had an almost chewy body and minimal hop flavor that never seemed to land it in a category that would please hop heads or more experimental drinkers.

Free to Roam tosses aside the actual fruit and replaces it with a mouthful of Citra hops, giving it the feel of a lighter-bodied IPA swimming in melons. But it doesn't go overboard on either the fruity characteristics or the bitterness, ending with just enough of a hop bite to prick your taste buds and then be gone. It's both ultra-drinkable and full of hop-reaching personality — a great beer especially for the coming summer season.

The presence of Free to Roam doesn't mean Renegade is giving up on its fruited hop beers, for those who like that trend. Summer Tan, its deceptively boozy double IPA made with tangerine essence, is coming back this year and getting a run in cans into all five states in which Renegade distributes. It's an easy beer that isn't quite sure whether it wants to be bitter or fruity, but it at least is punchy with both flavors.

Free to Roam, however, is the kind of beer you'll be drinking all summer. And after Renegade recently snagged the Colorado Brewery of the Year award at the New York International Beer Competition, it's a further sign that the beer maker is upping its game.

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Thursday, April 05, 2018

5 Things I Learned from Collaboration Beer Fest 2018

Zero. That is the number of beers anyone reported trying that should have been dumped or left at the drawing board. Considering that Collaboration Beer Fest is an experimental gathering where one could be forgiven were something to go wrong, that number is all that more amazing.

Beyond the general good news - from the quality of the beer to the lack of long lines to the improved venue at the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center - there were specific nuggets to take from Saturday's collaboration celebration hosted by Two Parts and the Colorado Brewers Guild. And here's a few that should be remembered, both while breweries still have some of their offerings available and in the long term.

1) Sometimes the best stories really do make the best beer.
Mockery and Baere have been collaborating for four years, telling a story with their beers that began with someone being stranded on a desert island with only an infected keg of beer (inspiring a kettle sour IPA) and advancing to the edition this year where he escaped and landed on a French colony. It was a good enough arc to make an imperial French Toast stout.

But no plot twist prepared you for exactly how adventurous "Mocking Baered Episode 4: Intercontinental" was. You tasted the rolling flavors of sparking cinnamon and sweet brown sugar highlighting a big, thick body that made you feel you could eat this with a fork. And you wanted to go back immediately for second breakfast.

2) And sometimes the craziest ideas make the best beer.
"Dry Hopped Malt Liquor" sounded the collaboration idea most likely to have been conceived after a full night of slamming barleywines. But Lone Tree and Cannonball Creek pulled this off masterfully, creating something akin to a light-bodied double IPA that seemed far more drinkable than its 7.6 percent ABV tag would indicate. It may have been the greatest find of the festival.

3) Then again, sometimes the best breweries make the best beer.
Maybe the least newsworthy statement emanating from the festival was the fact that Weldwerks and Casey Brewing could get together and make a very good beer. But that still would not have prepped you for how delightful their bitter-less, pineapple- and mango-forward Transmountain Diversion New England-style double IPA could drink.

Ditto for the Colorado Brewers Guild collaboration with Crooked Stave Artisan Project and 13 other states' brewers guilds on a Cherry Coast to Coast sour ale.Even with that much collective brewing power, the burgundy ale with sour cherries managed both to be challenging and surprisingly approachable.

4) Bring on the spices.
Horchata is getting more popular as a beer ingredient, but Fate Brewing and Ladyface Ale Companie took it in an entirely new and very complimentary direction by adding it to a biere de garde. Meanwhile, Danny Wang of Caution Brewing brought back his so-crazy-this-could-only-work-for-him bag of tricks, collaborating with Moonlight Pizza & Brewpub of Salida to add five-spice to a gose and somehow make it blend authentically while also making your taste buds jolt to life.

5) Subtle barrel-aging can go a long way.
Strange Craft Beer and Fiction Brewing hit it out the park with a strong saison aged in a rum barrel with plums and blackberries - largely because the rum took on more of a mellowing background note and let the fruit and yeast be the stars here. Meanwhile, the blend of foeder-aged sours New Belgium and Blackberry Farm conjoined with a late spring mild ale made their Biere de Mai a solid offering without any overbearing nature.

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