Thursday, September 27, 2018

Best of the GABF 2018

The Great American Beer Festival took on a new look this year - a new layout for the booths, a new group of special sections on the floor, an extra 100,000 feet in the Colorado Convention Center for wandering. But what didn't change was the quality of the beer being poured and the excitement that could be found in new discoveries.

And in evaluating what stood out this year, it wasn't one style or brewery so much as the multitude of flavors on display from so many parts of the country. And to that end — the diversity of excellence that makes it hard to cite a definitive must-have experience at the 37th annual event but acknowledges that there were multiple paths beer lovers could take to finding the many, many "it" beers out there — is what this column is dedicated.

Beer of the Festival: Parish Brewing Jameson-Barrel-Aged Irish Coffee Stout
If there was one offering that continually came to mind as both unique and delicious, it was this combination — which, in retrospect, represents a bit of a no-duh moment — of a beer mimicking a classic Irish drink aged in the barrel that produces the alcoholic part of that drink. A melange of cream, booziness and coffee —wrapped in a dark body that stands on its own yet lets all the tastes shine though — represented the best of what experimentation could produce this year. And it came from a Louisiana brewery, to boot.

Brewery of the Festival: Speciation Artisan Ales
This not-yet-two-year-old Michigan spontaneous-yeast specialist is breaking new ground with its use of tequila and mezcal barrels, and bringing new flavors to the sour genre. And it was hard not to return to its booth continually to run the entire menu of its offerings.  Its Proglacial tequila sour with passion fruit burst to life with complex and full flavors; similarly, its Saltation tequila-barrel-aged ale with blood orange and salt created its own universe of taste that was both tart and refreshing.

Beer-Drinking Experience of the Festival: The Referend Bier Blendery
In the hub-bub of tens of thousands of people rushing to get the best pours, the actual experience of beer presentation is usually lost. But the folks from this New Jersey brewery took visitors to their booth through a step-by-step explanation of the process of fermenting and aging their beer to create its terroir — doing so while pouring out of carefully crafted baskets to hold their bottles — and left a new appreciation for what you could learn about new and yet old-world brewing methods in just a short time. And the beer was sharp, dry and delicious.

Best (Non-Speciation) Sour: Two Roads Brewing Philsamic
This Flanders Red from Connecticut managed to find the perfect balance of cutting tartness and enveloping fruit flavors, managing both to stun with its complexity and to please with its drinkability. A close second goes to Epic Brewing's Oak & Orchard Pink Guava, which used the fruit to conjure a bright and brilliant taste that reminded one of tart lemonade.

Best Hop Bomb: River North Quadruple Dry-Hopped Mountain Haze
The only place you could find this Denver brewery pouring at the festival was briefly in the Buffalo Wild Wings booth. But what it broke out for the week was an amazingly smooth hazy IPA that was alive with tropical fruit flavors as its normally Citra-dominated beer added Mosaic, Simcoe and Idaho 7 hops and created a symphony of flavors that no out-of-state comer could match.

Best Addition to the Festival: Jameson Caskmates section
Highlighting the work of 17 breweries that aged a wide range of beers in Irish whiskey barrels, including the aforementioned Parish Brewing, was like a national tour of experimental flavors. Not every combination worked. But from Fat Head's decision to age its Mexican Hot Chocolate Stout in the vessels and pick up a new twist of flavor to Heavy Seas Beer's IPA being dry-hopped and then aged, there was a startling variety of new tastes created.

Worst Addition to the Festival: Exterior line management
I'm not sure exactly what changed in the way that people were let into the festival. But horror stories abounded — from the Beer Geekette arriving right as doors opened Thursday and having to wait 35 minutes to get in, to a friend relating the tale of the Saturday-afternoon line wrapping twice around the convention center. Something went very wrong, and ticket holders spent too much time waiting to get beer in their glasses.

Best Reminders that Great Beers Don't Have to Change: Serendipity and Hop  Zombie
It was worth waiting, once again, in a 30-person line at New Glarus Brewing, for Serendipity — an ale brewed with cherries, apples and cranberries and found annually in Denver only at the GABF — to remember just how rich fruit beer can be without being soured. And in an era of hazy-everything IPAs, Lone Tree Brewing's imperial red IPA, Hop Zombie, was almost shocking in its ability to imbue deep hop flavors in a complex, dark body.

Best Find of the Festival: Devil Wind Brewing Watermelon Wingman Gose
Tucked into a side booth with just three beers being poured, this line-less brewery got more out of an often-too-subtle fruit than any bigger-name brewer has. But for the story of how I found out, you'll have to check back in my next blog ...

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Great American Beer Festival Alphabetical Challenge

The routine for many at the Great American Beer Festival is simple: Scout out the breweries you absolutely have to hit, get a few more recommendations on the floor, leave satisfied that you've sampled from the hippest and best breweries in the country. I've done it for many years, and it's produced a wealth of valuable tasting experiences.

What I've never done in the 17 years I've attended the festival, however, is to acknowledge that every brewery at the Colorado Convention Center has some story, some effort that has drawn them to compete in this wonderful science fair of beer-making - and to give myself over to truly letting chance determine which beers I sample and discover. That, however, changes this year.

On Friday, I'm opening myself to what I call the GABF Alphabetical Challenge - a self-made opportunity to discover the beer that I've never discovered before and the breweries that I never thought to glance at a second time while I was running to get in line at New Glarus or Bell's. And in some ways, I feel like I'll get to experience America's best beer festival for the first time.

The rules are thus: I plan to start at one end of the floor plan that lays out 4,000 beers from 800 breweries and try the first beer that I find that begins with the letter A. Then I'll wander until I find a beer that begins with the letter B - and so on, down the alphabet. Realizing that even the seemingly boundless creativity in brewers' naming games has limits, I'll allow myself to drink beers that have any of the Scrabble 8- or 10-point letters (J, Q, X, Z) anywhere in their names. And I'll do this, stopping only for food, throughout the night until the Brewers Association rings last call.

Why would I handcuff myself in this way, you might say, potentially passing over star breweries and star beers that no one should walk by? In short, it's an acknowledgment that too much about the GABF and the week before it has become a pull to the known beer makers and the hot styles without opening myself up to the chance of finding that brewery I love by searching beyond a short list. I can still remember randomly discovering Six Rivers Brewery of California - maker of the best chili beer in America and a host of other brilliant offerings - some 12 or 13 years ago when I just happened to stop by its booth out of curiosity. I've gone back every year since, but the number of "secret treasure" breweries in my stash hasn't expanded much.

I also tend to spend the vast majority of my time seeking sours and barrel-aged beers, big hop bombs and concoctions with strange ingredients - to the point where I try to list my favorite lager at the end of the festival and find that there's only two or three that I even tried. The array of American beer styles continues to grow and widen, and GABF is one of the few festivals in the world where you can dive thoroughly into all of them in one place - an opportunity that shouldn't be squandered.

Finally, I realize that people who have just one 4-1/2-hour session to see the show won't want to leave up to chance what they will find there. But as a member of the media, I get entry to three separate sessions (and access to photos like the one I have at the top of this blog). Thursday night is always spent chasing the hottest beers and trends out there, and Saturday afternoon is typically awash with my chasing award winners and trying to interview them. But I have the true privilege of getting the chance to cover the festival and to learn from it, and I want to make sure I'm doing so without blinders as to what may be out there.

So, how will this turn out? I don't know. I could find the next hidden gem in America. I also could find a rack of imbalanced IPAs or uninspired amber ales (assuming someone still makes those). But the most important thing is that I will discover, and that discovery will include flavors and breweries I haven't known before.

If this all bores you, I'm not offended. But if you're curious how it turns out, check back to this blog after the festival, or follow my Twitter account at @MtnBrewBook, as I'll try to post updates throughout the night.

As for me, I may be more excited about Friday night's session than I've been about attending a GABF session since my very first one back in 2001. There are no expectations and no checklist that I have to knock off for the first time in a long, long time. And in there lies freedom to find out in a new way what makes the American beer scene so special. Cheers.

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Monday, September 17, 2018

Welcome to Denver, Beer World. Please Enjoy Our Recycled Urine.

We Coloradans are conservationists. Sometimes that involves conserving our environment. Sometimes that involves conserving our beer and making sure we make the most out of it. And lately, that involves a little of both of those ideas.

To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Denver Water earlier this year released a beer made with Declaration Brewing that came from its PureWater Colorado Demonstration Project, a water purification system that cleans the water coming from our homes so that it's safe to drink. In this case, it not only was looking to prove that H20 could be consumed again, but that it could be added to hops and yeast in order to achieve something drinkable in the vain of the liquid all residents like to consume - namely, beer.

Centurion is a pilsner that is a product of that unusual collaboration - a 4.9% ABV , slightly cloudy project that features a significant German hop bite, as well as a slightly medicinal malt body. What it does not have, it's fair to say, is any hint of urine in its nose or body, so far as this non-urine-drinking  beer guy can tell.

The collaboration won't rewrite the beer recipe book, but it also won't make the tens of thousands of people who are streaming into Denver for Great American Beer Festival think it is highly inappropriate. And while there are a number of other pilsners I would recommend first - Rockyard Brewing's Primadonna Pilsner is earning its raves as something smooth and tasty - it also won't make you regret trying it.

To be sure, this is not the first time a brewer has made conservation of water a central part of its appeal to Denver residents, though Declaration is the first brewer that has done it in this way.

Cerveza Imperial last summer sent to Denver what it called the world's first water-positive beer - a brew that puts more water back into the environment than it took out. The Costa Rican brewer partnered with the Colorado Water Trust to restore the Yampa River for every beer sold in this city. Unfortunately, those who wanted to make this kind of environmental gift still had to drink a beer that, at its best in Silver form, was crisp but largely tasteless, but at its worst in standard form offered a wet corn taste that was both stale and off-putting.

Declaration, however, made 80 barrels of a beer you could say inspired you to drink recycle urine - maybe with the caveat that you didn't know exactly what you were drinking. And it at least makes you think that science is getting to the point where that scene from "Water World" where Kevin Costner recycles and drinks his own urine isn't that far in the future - and is a lot less bleak in taste than that scene may have led us to believe.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

GABF Week: Your High-Level Activities Guide

Colorado Brewers Guild Operations Manager Steve Kurowski put it best when he said Friday at the Denver Beer Fest kickoff that no city welcomes the beer world like Denver will do in the next week - and that virtually every brewery and bar in the area is stepping up their game for the occasion.

"What's happening here this week will make our beer scene even better," Kurowski said before raising a pint with Mayor Michael Hancock and other industry supporters. "We have breweries all over the city putting events with the best beers they ever brew … From a beer lover's standpoint, this is nirvana."

As such, this blog once again presents a high-level guide to the highlights of the week, for people who are looking to plan their schedule carefully with the knowledge that there are only 24 hours in a day to drink beer and that, at some point, you might have to sleep. For a more thorough calendar, I recommend Westword's edition; a warning comes, however, that you may cry when you see just how many events on it you won't be able to hit.

Saturday, Sept. 15
* 11 a.m.-5 p.m.: GABF Bike Loop & Kickoff Party, BarFly at Alamo Drafthouse Sloans Lake. Hop on your trusted steed for an 11-mile guided loop between the westside beer-centric movie theater and WestFax, Joyride, Hogshead, Oasis, Strange and Seedstock. For $30, you get an 8-ounce taster at each brewery and a post-party at BarFly.
* 11 a.m. New Image Brewing and Outer Range Brewing tap Something Dumb with a Wolf - a double IPA hopped with Citra, Simcoe and Columbus - at the New Image taproom in Arvada. There's no possibly way this won't be great.
 * 2-6 p.m. Diebolt Brewing hosts a barrel-aged bier garden for its fifth anniversary, featuring BA efforts from the past half-decade, including vertical tastings of Commodore/Vladislav and Biere de Triomphe.

Sunday, Sept. 16
* The Westin Denver International Airport hosts Beer Flights throughout the day from Sept. 14-22, offering 20 beers from 10 different breweries to anyone flying in or out of DIA - or who just feels like driving out and enjoying suds with a grand view.
* Strange Craft Beer taps its Barrel-Aged Dr. Strangelove Barleywine, a beer that's taken home some GABF bling in the past. It's just the start of a week of great tappings at this Denver standout.

Monday, Sept. 17
* 5 p.m.: The Falling Rock Tap House kick-off party every year is a little like the Iowa presidential caucuses every four years. It's traditional. It sounds the trumpet for a crazy week to follow. And, frankly, you just never know what you'll find here - though you know it will be damn good.
* 5-7 p.m.: (Rad) Craft Night at Strange Beer features my very favorite author - me! - talking about "How to Write a Beer Book Without Destroying Your Liver" from 6-6:15 p.m. SpookyBat Designs then will talk about craft-beer woodworking, and there just may be some free samples getting passed around. Seriously, it will be fun.
* 6-11:30 p.m.: TRVE launches High Plains Distribution, its expanded company focused on bringing craft beer into cities for limited runs like the GABF, at Freshcraft and celebrates with its clients, such as Great Notion, J. Wakefield and Scratch Brewing.

Tuesday, Sept. 18
* Strange Craft Beer re-releases maybe the finest beer it's ever made, its Zora Pale Ale, which is made with rosemary and tastes like nothing else that has hit the market in Denver. It used to be a regular tap but now makes just an annual appearance.
* 4-11 p.m. Ursula Brewing's Imperial Crustless is the best high-alcohol peanut butter and jelly beer you'll ever taste. Crafty Fox Taphouse & Pizzeria agrees, and it will host a rare tapping of this beauty.
* 6-9 p.m.: Jameson Caskmates is a partnership between the Irish whiskey maker and Great Divide Brewing in which the whiskey is aged inside an IPA barrel - and a stout barrel - to take on whole new characteristics. Try it at Freshcraft tonight, as well as great beers from the likes of Great Divide, Green Flash and Captain Lawrence.

Wednesday, Sept. 19
* 11 a.m.-9 p.m.: Cedar Creek Pub in Aurora will host a Best of Ohio party featuring beers from renowned brewers like MadTree, Jackie O's and Rhinegeist that don't typically sell in this state. It's a great chance to imbibe in a way that only GABF week will allow you to do.
* 3 p.m. River North Brewery taps a quadruple-dry-hopped version of its Mountain Haze hazy IPA, which is already one of the best beers of its style made in Colorado. Quadruple. Dry. Hopped.
* 4 p.m. Tap Fourteen hosts a Fort Collins tap takeover at its rooftop bar. You might think "Can't I get that stuff anyway around here?" The answer is: Stop by and you'll realize how much more there is to the beer mecca to our north other than just New Belgium and Odell.
* 4-7 p.m.: If you love experimental beers, few events should interest you as much as the tap takeover at Crafty Fox by Paradox Beer of Woodland Park and Rowley Farmhouse Ales of Santa Fe.
* 9:30 p.m.: Last year's IPA Throwdown at Falling Rock simultaneously rewarded and destroyed all its visitors' taste buds at once. This year's, hosted by Melvin Brewing, should be the sequel of the week.

Thursday, Sept. 20
* 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Bruz Beers is doing an educational and just plain tasty "Old World Vs. New World" experiment with Merchant du Vin in which it pairs five classic Belgian beers, some rare, beside five of its own Belgian-style creations. At $30, this may be one of the best pre-lunch investments of the week.
* Noon to 10 a.m. Call to Arms Brewing's quirkily named Catalina Wine Mixer is a celebration of its wide range of wine-barrel-aged beers, shown off once a year to keep you sailing through the day.
* 5 p.m.-Midnight: RiNo Beer Garden hosts "Chicago Meets Denver," offering a chance to try beers from Windy City artists like Half Acre, Revolution and Three Floyds. There will be both award-winning and rare offerings here.
* 7 p.m.-Midnight: Epic Brewing once again brings out the big and often unusual guns at its 50 Firkin Fiasco, which features beers aged gently with everything from spices to fruit to children's cereal. This is always a chance to ensure your taste buds come back to life after the Thursday night GABF session.
* 10 p.m.: Telluride Brewing quietly has become one of the best breweries in Colorado. Ska Brewing continues to get more experimental. Put them together at Freshcraft and you'll get not only some of their tastiest individual beers but a collaboration with Freshcraft that's being described as a "gin and juice inspired ale."

Friday, Sept. 21
* 11 a.m.: Woods Boss may just have celebrated its first anniversary, but it's legitimately killing it with its wide selection of beers. Come see just how much it can do with Form & Function, a rum-barrel-aged Belgian quad aged on cacao nibs and dried cherries.
* 11:30 a.m. Hops and Pie never fails to offer up some great beers during GABF. Today it is pouring rarities from California breweries, including Cellarmaker, Rare Barrel and Sante Adairius Rustic Ales.
* 1-4 p.m. Those who've never attended the Denver Rare Beer Tasting hosted by Pints for Prostates at the McNichols Center may not understand how you can pay $125 for a ticket and still feel like you are stealing from the hosts because the range and quality of beers is so wonderful. And it goes to a great cause.
* 3-9 p.m. Cerveceria Colorado will change your mind about what you think Mexican beer is. And now the Denver Beer Co.-operated brewery also is offering collaborations between American and Mexican breweries at its Great Mexican Beer Fiesta - along with a lucha libre match.
* 6-11 p.m. Black Shirt Brewing is trying its hand at a new event this year - CITRAfest, in which 10 breweries make everything from IPAs to kolsches to table sours with the fruit-forward hop. No ticket is required.

Saturday, Sept. 22
* 10 a.m.-2 p.m.: Crooked Stave Artisans Distributing is rolling out some of its rarer beers at a brunch at Crafty Fox, from breweries such as Beachwood, Jack's Abby and Jester King. Oh yeah.
* 4 p.m. Head back to Freshcraft one more time? Why? Because 4 Noses, Green Flash and Alpine will all be featured in this last-day celebration.
* 5-8 p.m. Maybe the idea of Stone Brewing tapping a rare Berliner Weiss or Double IPA doesn't turn you on, though it should. But how about being at Star Bar while the Stone Dodgeball Tournament is going on at the same time?
* 9 p.m. Ratio Beerworks is tapping some great beers during GABF, from its Elderflower Carrot Saison to its Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Genius Wizard Imperial Stout. But you can head to its post-GABF karaoke party tonight to both enjoy them and sing the remaining bit of your voice out.
 * 9:30 p.m. After a week of drinking, about the only thing that revives my taste buds is a sour beer. Tonight, Falling Rock breaks out a whole host of them. You're welcome.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Colorado's Magical Mountain Malt (and Hops) Tour

As the beer world gets set to converge on Denver for the Great American Beer Festival next week, it's fair to say that the Mile High City has earned all of the plaudits it's received as one of the finest hop havens in America.

Yet, I can't shake the belief that the single best beer experiences I've had in Colorado this year have all involved visiting mountain breweries. And, frankly, that's not a statement on Denver so much as it is a booming assertion about how far the beer scene has come in small towns across this state.

Exhibit number one is Broken Compass Brewing, the Breckenridge beer maker tucked into an industrial strip mall outside the city center. It's well known for its GABF-medal-winning Coconut Porter - a beer that is both boozy and sweet and deserves the attention it gets - but a visit to the taproom shows just how much more the place is than one beer.

Its work imbuing huge flavors into its pale ales - both its crackling and eminently drinkable Ginger Pale Ale and its light-your-taste-buds-up-just-enough Chili Popper Pale Ale - shows a special skill in bringing out the flavor of experimental ingredients. Its Double IPA represents one of the most grassed-up dives into the style in the state. And it Imperial Bourbon Brown, a complex melange of bold tastes, was everything you could want in a glass.

But Summit County - now home to eight breweries - doesn't stop there, with the known or with the surprises. It's widely disseminated that Pug Ryan's can offer some of the most refreshing flavors in the state while served on its Tiki Bar overlooking Dillon Reservoir, and Outer Range Brewing has grown into one of the leaders in the burgeoning hazy IPA movement in Colorado. But Silverthorne holds a hidden gem as well in Angry James Brewing, and its Two Tone Footer Stout (pictured at right), mixed perfectly with chocolate malt and dry-hopped with coffee beans from nearby Jazzy Java, may be one of the easiest and tastiest coffee offerings around, as the dry-hopping gives a roasty mocha feel without any of the bitterness that can come with the bean.

But if Broken Compass is exhibit 1, than Telluride Brewing is exhibit 1A about how much can be done by a brewery miles from anything but mountains and beauty. Both, quite frankly, can make a legitimate case for being in the 15 best breweries out of the 370 that Colorado has to offer now.

A trip to Telluride's taproom - also outside downtown in an industrial area - is an experience in going into the belly of the brewery, standing around in a place with no bar stools and enjoying your beverage literally while leaning on a fermenter. But if there are five more complex and satisfying barrel-aged beers in this state that its Fishwater Project Double IPA, you would be hard-pressed to name them. And the variety that the brewery now offers, from Chardonnay-barrel-aged tripels to sours to the single best brown ale in the state (Face Down Brown) makes this a can't-miss stop.

I won't go on about nearby Durango, as its wares - from the gusto of Ska Brewing to the subtle brilliance of Steamworks Brewing - are well documented. And it's worth checking out the surrounding areas, from the state's single-most family-friendly beer garden (Pagosa Brewing) to the very-small-town Mancos Brewing (owner DeWayne Jackson is pictured at top), which crafts a Desert Drifter Rye Ale in which the rye truly is the star, making a unique taste that lasts.

But arguably the single-biggest surprise in the state may be WildEdge Brewing Collective in Cortez, a sleepy town on the edge of Mesa Verde National Park whose beer scene has been subdued previously. WildEdge offers up pure experimentation in the form of kettle sours, saisons and beers that break the mold of traditional styles. Its Birthday Barrel, a barrel-aged tart saison fermented with Palisade peaches to celebrate its one-year anniversary earlier this year, could have been mistaken for something coming off the taps at Avery Brewing.

No one should ever cut their time short drinking in Denver or Fort Collins or Boulder. But at this point, a trip into the mountains in Colorado no longer requires the choice of sacrificing world-class beer for world-class views. You can get both and never want to leave Colorado.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Michigan Beer Arrives Full Force in Colorado

Driving through Michigan with the Beer Geekette while attending a friend's wedding four years ago, I found over multiple stops at breweries and beer bars that two things stood out about the Wolverine State's brewing scene. First, there appeared to be a law that cherry had to be an ingredient in at least 25 percent of each brewery's offerings. And second, once you got past that, it was easy to see why the culture was producing so many good beers.

But while Michigan beer quality has remained one of the country's worst-kept secrets for half a decade, Coloradans have gotten only a small sampling of that goodness at local establishments through the likes of Jolly Pumpkin, Perrin and, to a more limited extent, New Holland Brewing. But that drought is ending this fall, as arguably the two finest breweries in the state finally will put products into local bars and liquor stores.

Bell's made its Colorado debut last week with parties and samplings and, thankfully, a lot of Two-Hearted Ale, the IPA that Zymurgy Magazine readers have named the best beer in the country for two years running now. And, according to, Founders Brewing and its revered Kentucky Breakfast Stout will enter Colorado as soon as next month.

While it may seem like a "no-duh" statement that the finest breweries in America want to have their products on shelves in one of the top beer states in the country, that hasn't always been the case. Colorado is a notoriously tough market that has sent other well-known national names packing because of its drinkers' penchant for wanting to support local. As a result, the Centennial State is the 40th one that Bell's has gone into, while Founders has only three states in the country that it's not in yet besides Colorado.

For those unfamiliar with Bell's, you can expect a lot of darkness, mixed with some superb hopping quality and interesting experiments. Two Hearted earns its reputation by being both a bomb of Centennial hops and a well-balanced offering whose malt accents the grassy tones running through it. Its five-deep collection of regular stout offerings runs the flavor gamut from classic to imperial to a cherry stout that may be the best example of how to imbue unique flavor from the unofficial state fruit. And friends swear that Oberon, a slightly hoppy American wheat ale, is the perfect summer seasonal, available from April through August.

Founders, meanwhile, is associated with its KBS, which is one of the finest examples of how to brew a beer swimming with coffee aroma and flavors without leaving the bitter sting that can come with using too much of the signature bean. Its Dirty Bastard scotch ale is as big a malt monster as we currently have on the market, though, and its beers too span the spectrum of styles.

Even after those two breweries debut in Colorado, there is much more to the Michigan scene.

Short's Brewing, a favorite spot for many to hit at the Great American Beer Festival, creates beers with flavors ranging from spruce to carrot cake to key lime. Dragonmead Microbrewery - which I discovered in a beer bar in downtown Flint, of all places - makes a sooty red the likes of which was served at breweries in the 1990s, but far better. Petoskey, the 5,700-person bay city where I happened to be for said wedding had not one but two breweries (Beards Brewery and Petoskey Brewing, where the Beer Geekette is enjoying her samplers in the photo) that offered bold IPAs as well as smooth doppelbocks.

It's unrealistic to think the day will come when any brewery with a beer worth admiring will be able to put six-packs or tap handles in Colorado. But by bringing Bell's and Founders here, this state gets to see the excellent work that's taking place two time zones away. And everyone wins there.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Molly's Offers a Lesson on How to Stand Out in the Liquor-Store Sector

When it opened some 3-1/2 years ago, Molly's Spirits entered a Denver-area liquor-store market that wasn't lacking in stars. So, rather than getting by just on what it procured and sold, the Lakeside retailer moved toward a unique place in the industry - it differentiated itself on what it made.

Jumping headfirst into the world of collaboration beers that had been dominated by breweries and a few beer bars, Molly's officials teamed first with Odd13 Brewing, asking the Lafayette auteur to help it fill a George Dickel whiskey barrel that it obtained. Soon that vessel was awash in biere de garde, infused with both Brettanomyces and peaches, and the experiment showed just how little non-beer-maker Molly's was willing to hold back as it stepped into this new territory.

Since then, collaboration experiments have rolled out constantly. There was the bourbon-barrel-aged Oud Bruin with cocoa nibs and cherries that it made with Mockery Brewing. There was the cream ale with vanilla beans and cocoa nibs that was aged in Buffalo Trace barrels with aged coffee beans in conjunction with Fiction Brewing. And there were a lot more rarities like these.

But it hasn't just been gonzo recipes that Molly's has rolled out as part of its collaboration series. There also have been hazy IPAs and kettle sours and even an amber lager being sold in six-packs. Several of them have been excellent.

The reason for all of this effort has been to stand out from other big liquor stores that, like Molly's, can open the doors of the beer world to shoppers. But in addition to helping the store attract return customers, the program also has helped it to develop deeper relationships with local breweries, particularly smaller beer makers that really can benefit from such patronage.

"That all just stems from our culture and our mindset of trying to set ourselves apart from everybody else," said Tony Doria, the store's assistant beer manager (pictured at top) who is in charge of the collaboration program. "As the new player in the game, we felt we needed to set ourselves apart from the other big-box stores."

Though most of the collaborations are high-dollar offerings that appeal more to beer geeks than to the general public, the beers don't tend to stay on the shelves too long. Still, every team effort can be found in a cellar at the front of the store, released occasionally as they age to loyalty-club members.

A July offering demonstrates well the complexity that can be found in the Molly's beers. Teaming with Paradox Beer Co., the store produced Elijah Lux, a strong golden sour aged in Elijah Craig barrels with Luxardo cherries and tangerines. Tart without being biting and barrel-aged without being boozy, its taste is one that is reminiscent of a spirit, if significantly more approachable.

But in many ways, the non-barrel-aged offerings are even more impressive with their ability to satisfy fully.

Better Together, a hazy IPA put together with New Image Brewing, was the tropical fruit bomb that many of its style have been, but it has an easy bit and looks intriguingly like the offspring of chicken soup and pineapple juice.

Meanwhile, Molly's Sip of Colorado, an amber lager made with Aspen Brewing Co., has a telling but not overbearing hop bite on its back end that gives a little more oomph to a light-bodied beer that is a wonderful summer sipper. And at just $5.99 a six-pack, it may be the best bargain in Denver.

Maybe the most surprising thing about Molly's program is that is hasn't been copied yet by other stores, which stand rightly to draw in new customers by offering things that literally can't be found at any other retailer in the state.

Regardless, credit Molly's for breaking new ground and for offering up complex and also comfortable flavors and pushing the boundaries of what a craft-beer-centric liquor store is.

"If a beer nerd gets excited about this, this is where you can get it," Doria said. "This is one of those things that makes us unique, that are a one-of-a-kind thing that you can't get anywhere else."

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