Thursday, July 25, 2019

Beer at a Fair? That's More Than Fair.

County fairs are wonderful places. Kids can get in touch with animals, you can share carnival rides with them (the kids, not the animals) and there is more wonderful deep-fried food than the inventor of the deep fryer ever dreamt could be fattened up.

For too long, though, these light-hearted, lazy-day events that take place under the summer sun have been without the element that clearly they were made to hold hands with - good beer. Luckily, though, the organizers of several front-range fairs have seen fit to change that in recent years.

The Denver County Fair, which went down this last weekend, held a festival with 27 beers, from big names like Oskar Blues to quality little guys like Brewery Rickoli. And if you missed that, the Arapahoe County Fair will put on two of its own suds shows - a craft-brew festival at 5 p.m. Friday and a festival featuring the homebrews entered into the judging competition at noon Saturday.

Lindsay Bagby, Arapahoe County Fair Coordinator, admitted recently that she didn't know how the public would react the first time that drinking beer became a sanctioned part of the traditionally agricultural showcase a few years back. About 150  folks paid the first year to try beer from about 30 breweries, though, and the response was good.

This year, there will be just 16 craft breweries pouring, but 80 percent of them hail from within the county, according to fair assistant Lindsey Friend. Those range from Colorado mainstays like Dry Dock Brewing and Copper Kettle to relative newcomers like Pilothouse and Welcome Home Brewing. And some 450 people are expected to attend, testifying to the appropriateness of a beer festival at a Colorado fair.

And then there's Saturday's event - 12 homebrewers who worked closely with the Colorado State University Extension Office to make beers for a judging competition will pour their beer for a ticketed event that is the equivalent of the pie-judging contest - except that visitors get to enjoy the creations. This is a fantastic idea that allows folks to discover someone who, if they aren't ready to open their own place, will at least get the thrill of serving the beer like they would in a taproom, but without a six-figure investment.

No, this isn't the Great American Beer Festival in terms of variety or originality (though festival goers on Friday night will get to select a People's Choice winner of the event, which hasn't happened at the GABF since Ronald Reagan was president). But it is a great example of how beer drinking has become so imbued in the Colorado culture that it truly is something to be celebrated and enjoyed by a community rather than just at a bar.

"I think a lot of people are trying to get creative with what's upcoming, what's fresh, what's new. We're always looking for something new to add to fairs," Bagby said. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It all just depends on the crowd."

Count this guy as one who thinks this really does work. And it's time to raise a glass to the people willing to try such ideas.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

5 Things I Learned from the Historic Styles Brewfest

Saturday's Historic Styles Brewfest at History Colorado Center was an eye-opener into both what it is that local breweries consider a historic interpretation of beer and how they re-interpret it through their own craftsmanship.

There were true beers of antiquity, from a recipe molded from residue found in a 2,300-year Hebrew vessel to interpretations of several-hundred-year-old Belgian and French styles. There were a number of pre-Prohibition pilsners, as well as several interpretations on the California Common style that played a major role in early American West imbibing. And then there were a couple of breweries whose "historic" offerings either were beers they made a quarter-century ago or beers they've discontinued (and, no, you get no style points for that).

But beyond the wild variance in how "historic" was defined, there were a couple of stand-out impressions from this unique event.

1) Avery Brewing is far more than a bunch of hop fiends and barrel hoarders.
Overlooked among its aggressively hopped and tart beers is the Dogfish Head-like antiquity beer program that brewer/archaeologist Travis Rupp has established at the Boulder County brewery. And because of that, Avery flat-out won the night with its offerings.

One was the brewery's Beersheba, a (likely improved) re-creation of a beer the 3rd Century B.C. Hebrews would have made by using the bacteria on grape skins to ferment it, giving it a funky, oenobeer-like quality that went beyond standard sour to something bold and unique. Subtler but just as impressive was George Washington's Porter, made from one of the recipes our first president used as an Army general and transporting you back to a time when simple ingredients satisfied enough.

2) If pre-Prohibition pilsners were this much fuller, Carrie Nation should be ashamed.
Sure, maybe alcohol had reached the same scourge levels in America 100 years ago that opioids have reached now, but the re-interpretation of 1900s pilsners universally features a bolder malt base, hopping that adds bite without bitterness and, most importantly, no flavor-stealing adjuncts. Chalk that up in the category of "Another reason activists pushing Prohibition set back our country."

Walter's Beer of Pueblo had the gold standard of the night, an offering it serves as a regular part of its lineup and that comes across as smooth and yet full, reflecting a beer the brewery actually made when it operated in its first incarnation from 1889 to 1975. Renegade Brewing, Tivoli Brewing and AC Golden offered slightly lighter versions - but still things you would not mistake for a Bud Light.

3) Re-creating old American recipes is fun and worthwhile.
Strange Craft Beer unearthed a 1909 Burton Ale recipe that was less aggressive than a standard Old Ale but intriguing in its malt-forward and alcohol-forward body. Kudos also go to Joyride Brewing for putting forward an 1897 English IPA that had the semi-medicinal quality of classical English hops but really offered you a glimpse into the past that was palpable as you sipped it.

4) Modernizing the hell out of old American recipes can be really fun as well. 
Woods Boss Brewing created a very nice California Common in the style that western pioneers made the beer, and New Belgium put forward one that seemed a little light and cautious, even if historically accurate. But the best interpretation of the style, frankly, was the Imperial Kentucky Common offered up by Factotum Brewhouse - anti-historical to the point of being almost an oxymoron, yes, but hugely tasty in its penetrating sweetness and maybe the best time-machine link of the festival between historic styles and what their descendants have become.

5) Green chili beers had to be drinkable, no matter the era.
When the extreme heat of Oasis Brewing's offering made my eyes bulge with pain, a brewery with a nearby table at the festival quickly offered me a dump bucket, saying they had seen that reaction all night long. Chili beers may have both historical and very modern qualities, but there must be moderation to the heat (like Walter's Beer offered in its Pueblo Chile Beer) or else it's just a bad dare, no matter whether you're asking a cowboy or an Instagram junkie to take that dare.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A Historically Different Beer Festival

Yes, beer festivals come and go. And while some distinguish themselves, many do not. But on Saturday night, History Colorado Center will offer a beer event that may be unlike any event that has occurred in this state.

As part of its ongoing exhibit "Beer Here," the state's history museum will put on a Historic Styles Brewfest containing a host of beers that will take you back to a different age. There will be pre-Prohibition lagers galore, pre-Columbian offerings and even beers dating back to the early days of the Jewish people.

The event, which runs from 7 to 10 p.m. at the downtown Denver museum and still has a few tickets for sale, is something that Jason Hanson, History Colorado's chief creative officer, has been mulling almost as long as he was planning "Beer Here," the look at the history of beer in this state. One of the questions he constantly receives from people when he tells them of his shared love of suds and the past is: What do you think beer tasted like back in the early days of this state?

In lieu of time travel, this festival will offer the next best thing: Some 25 of today's expert brewers offering their interpretations of the styles that our grandfathers, forefathers and much more distant relatives quaffed. It is the first time History Colorado Center has run a beer festival - and, Hanson believes, the first time a beer festival devoted exclusively to historic styles has been done in this country.

"I'm super excited. It's been my dream since I started that research on the exhibit," Hanson said over a couple of IPAs Tuesday afternoon at Henry's Tavern downtown. "I'm like everyone else. I think 'What did these beers taste like?' And this is as close as we are ever going to get to knowing."

Hanson (pictured above, with me) and other History Colorado leaders allowed each participating brewery to craft their own definition of historic, and the beers of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century that dotted Colorado taverns were a very popular choice. Beer makers from High Hops Brewery of Windsor to the hidden gem that is Walter's Beer of Pueblo will roll out pre-Prohibition pilsners and other forms of lagers, and Hanson thinks the drinking public could be surprised by the variety of lagers that existed.

Dos Luces Brewery will go a little older still, bringing the centuries-old Pulque beer drinks of Mexico and Chicha offerings from Peru that make the South Broadway brewery one of the more interesting places to try a taster flight in town. And Avery Brewing beer archaeologist Travis Rupp will bust out two rarer offerings from the Boulder icon - George Washington's Porter, which the general and future president made while in the field during the Revolutionary War, and Beersheba, a spontaneously fermented re-creation of a brew made in Israel around the 3rd Century B.C.

I sat on the advisory committee for "Beer Here" and remember the conversations around not only how the exhibit (including the mountains of glasses pictured below) was meant to make people think differently about historical presentations but about how events like this could show people a side of the state's history in a very hands-on way. I'm not sure exactly what Saturday night will produce for the palate or how I may think differently about our imbibing history after it's done, but I for one am eager to see a beer festival take me not only to another place but to another time entirely when our notions of beer were different than they are now.

"One thing we as a history museum want to do is provide these immersive experiences is help you connect with the past in a way you won't do just by looking at a chart upon a wall," Hanson mused. "You're going to taste lagers that were like a revelation to the people who settled Denver."

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Sunday, July 07, 2019

An Overview of the Steamboat Beer Scene

One of the things Colorado can be proudest of is the breadth and depth of its beer scene outside of metro areas. Summit County features some of the best experimental (Broken Compass) and hazy (Outer Range) beer makers in the state. Durango (Ska, Steamworks) and its 18,000 residents rates on a per-capita basis with anywhere. And Greeley (Weldwerks, Wiley Roots), well, wow.

So it was interesting to note on a recent trip to Steamboat Springs that the 13,000-person skiing and hiking paradise now boasts four breweries of its own, ranging from a production brewery with statewide distribution to a 25-year-old restaurant brewery that offers its beer just there in its bar. But while the production brewery, Butcherknife Brewing, has a wide range of excellent offerings, the rest of the scene seems to be a work in progress, hitting at times with bold flavors and missing at other times with basic staples, particularly in the area of IPAs.

First, Butcherknife. You may know its Amputator IPA, which can be found up and down the Front Range, a boozy (7.2% ABV) and vaguely old-fashioned (it's crammed with Centennial hops) piny but balanced hop bomb that's won "Best of the Boat" five years running. It's a quality and reasonably unique offering, with its malt-heavy quality — but it's hardly the best thing on this excellent menu.

That distinction goes to Sunshine Express Pale Ale, the reigning GABF gold-medal-winner in the Australian pale ale category, which features an expertly blended mix of Citra, Mosaic and Amarillo hops in a medium-light body where the hops get to do all the speaking without preaching bitterness. Throw in a crisp Pilsner, a subtle but vibrant Champagne du Nord Berliner Weisse released not long ago and a banana-ful Hefeweizen (and pleasingly fruity Mango Hefeweizen offshoot) and the offerings show both great craftsmanship and impressive range.

Storm Peak Brewing, meanwhile, is the beer maker everyone seems to be talking about, and with roughly 15 beers on tap, it certainly makes an impression from the moment you see its menu board. But while its Hoochie Mama — a sour blonde ale with guava that pleases by having a high fruit-to-tart ratio that makes it both intriguing and accessible — is one of the best things you'll find in town, the quality of beers varies significantly from there.

The Arborist, a spruce tip saison, is sweet with just enough pine bite to make this a fun experiment, and the Chowder hazy IPA flashes pineapple and tangerine tastes in a subtle body. But the rest of the IPA and hopped offerings tend toward the lighter side — not bad, but leaving you wanting more bite — and the darker offerings include a Zomb brown ale that couldn't stand up to the wings from the barbecue joint next door and a milk stout, Coffee Moos, that was almost all java and little sweetness.

Mountain Tap Brewery is the downtown spot, with a wood-burning oven that makes its full food menu, and its location just feet away from the path winding beside the Yampa River (see photo at bottom) makes this a must-hit for juggling both beers and beauty in a short period of time.  But the beer here is even more inconsistent than Storm Peak.

The highlights of the menu were the Mountain Macaroon — a brown ale aged on lightly toasted coconut that has a nice roast and just enough sweetness to make it unique — and the Passionate Pedal, a passionfruit wheat that refreshes completely and has a bonus tinge of tart. But the several IPAs on the menu were beers that let their malts talk more than their hops and even the more experimental tastings like the offshoot of Mountain Macaroon aged for several weeks with rum-soaked oak seem to diminish the original beer (with a shockingly boozy taste for a 6% ABV offering) rather than boosting creativity.

Maybe the biggest surprise in town was Mahogany Ridge Brewery & Grill, a 25-year-old restaurant brewery whose beer menu has changed only a little over the past 15 years despite the enormous changes in the craft-brewing scene. The offerings feel as dated as that description makes them sound, from an Alpenglow amber ale that is reminiscent of an early copper ale to an Elk River ESB that lacks hop bite and feels amateurish.

But if you go in knowing what to expect, the effect is a pleasant surprise. The Lil' Lyddie's IPA is a throwback to English-hopped IPAs and almost feels sentimental, and Uncle Daryl's Dunkelweizen, while lacking crispness, is full of banana and dark-malt overtones. And the Powdercat Porter is a shocker of a good beer that hits you with a crisp, roasted malt finish that combines with a medium body to produce a lovely winter-warmer effect without a high amount of alcohol.

When asked about the local scene, one beertender told me it was "up and coming." Truth be told, Steamboat Springs' breweries are a little more coming than consistently up at the moment, but there are quality offerings at each — and a wide range of special beers at Butcherknife — that give indications that an up-and-down selection may be on the upward curve in the local sector's taste evolution.

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