Sunday, August 29, 2021
The Shocking and Fascinating Beers of This Year
Anyone who expected a return to normalcy by Colorado brewers in 2021 should be surprised and, frankly, a little pleased by what this year has produced so far.
From Czech breweries making Baltic porters to lagers that sing more than the style seems it should to an international brewery intentionally making a "bad" beer, there's been a lot to remember. And as we head into the final third of the year, with (maybe) more beer festivals offering a chance for even more exposure to creative offerings, these trends offer hope that this long last 17 months is giving way to even more creativity.
That said, here then is a few beers that are worth remembering, for a host of reasons:
Seedstock Baltic Porter
Seedstock is a Czech-style brewery that makes old-world beers, and it does that very well - so well, in fact, that it draws you to drink styles that normally might not interest you. But when it put out a baltic porter this spring that was big and bold and yet sublimely drinkable, it showed a versatility of European styles that the Denver brewery hadn't displayed before. And now, quite frankly, it's become a can't-miss brewery, one where you want to head for any new release just to see exactly what it can do with it.
New Terrain North Star Doubly Hazy
Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise to fans of New Terrain's award-winning Suntrip Belgian Wit, but most people who've walked into a local liquor store and asked for a hop-bomb recommendation have rarely heard an answer that began with the name of the Golden brewery. That's why this edition in its North Star series — a hazy double IPA with Barbe Rouge and Azacca hops — was a mind-blower, deeply tropical and yet bursting with vibrant hops that brought this to life as well as any IPA made this year.
Dead Styles Come Back to Life
Locavore Beer Works of Littleton set time back 10 years with a black IPA that made you wonder why the style was so short-lived. Blending true malt roast with a cutting but not overwhelming Northwest IPA bitterness, it felt like a breath of fresh air in the IPA genre, even it was more of a blast from the past.
Cannonball Creek incorporated an ingredient that's lost favor among many brewers — rye — into a hop-heavy 5.7% ABV ale in such an expertly blended way that Ryed in Your Arms made you ask why more people can't do that. The answer, of course, is that the Golden brewery is one of Colorado's masters at taking subtle styles and jolting them to life, and in this case the rye sweetened the beer only slightly, letting the pale hops work the palate to be softened just briefly by this excellent addition.
"Dull" Styles Produce the Most Interesting Beers of the Year
Yes, brewers themselves have been drinking pilsners and lagers for years, but they've had a hard time convincing the craft-beer drinking public to put down their hazies and their stouts to pay attention to the old-world style. If any beers will do that, however, they are two limited releases from Upslope Brewing that may well be the best beers made this year.
The Boulder brewery's Mexican Style Dark Lager is delicious and lasting from the first sip, offering a deeply roasted malt with no burn to it and an underlying sweet-biscuit taste that is tempered with enough hops to give it a slight bite and a lucid finish. Then, last month Upslope may have outdone itself with a German-style pilsner that combines Old World crispness with New World crushability, ending with a bold bitterness on its backbite that seems to put a truly Colorado stamp on a European style.
New Belgium's "Bad" Beer
This spring, New Belgium released Fat Tire Torched Earth, using smoked malt, non-barley grains like millet and dandelions in place of hop extract to approximate what it believes beer will taste like in the event of continued global warming. While it seemed like a gimmick affordable only to a brewery now owned by the ninth-largest brewing company in the world (and delivered in a package with end-of-the-world gear)— and one that it said was meant to send a message to big businesses — the truth was that it actually wasn't awful for a smoked beer and was more enjoyable than some of its efforts in recent years such as the cloying, hideous Juicy Mandarina IPA it rolled out a few years back.
But as tempting as it might be after that to just write off the brewery, a simple visit to its Denver outpost reminds you how much talent it still has. Of particular note this summer was its Strawberry Guava Sour, a beer that blends two strong fruit flavors in a way that allows both to bring distinguishable characteristics and presents them in a tart but surprisingly pleasing and eye-opening fashion.
Sanitas' New Path
For much of the past eight years, Sanitas Brewing has been a bit of a nondescript brewery — one of a significant number of Boulder beer makers that produces a range of good offerings but nothing that slapped you across the face and defined the brewery for you. This year, however, it may have hit on a new path forward, defined by fresh and drinkable sour beers that you want on a hot summer day.
Raspberry Sour, which came out early this summer, was subtly delicious but unchallenging in a way that made you want to down a six-pack on a camping trip or on a porch, offering hints of tart that didn't burn the palate and could extend the genre to a wider audience. Then, this month it reintroduced Deluge, a more traditionally sour ale that had both a bold underlying palate and a feel of pixie-dust sugar that was fascinating without being overly aggressive — a niche that could be welcomed.
Rediscovering a Forgotten Classic
Lastly, I admit that I'm years late to the bandwagon — if one even exists — for Steve's Snappin' Ale, but I just never thought that a chili ale made by a hot-dog restaurant screamed of being a must-try beer. Then a friend bought one on a lark this summer, and what I discovered was a golden ale, bottled by Bull & Bush Brewery, that provides just enough base to temper the hot, hot red and green chili peppers and allow them to shine in the flavor in a way that proved quite tasty.
Don't assume this is an every-day beer; it isn't. But, even if it's a few years older than most everything else mentioned in this column, it's yet another reminder that some of the most notable beer on the market right now may look like it doesn't belong to a certain brewery or even a certain decade but lights up your taste buds when given a chance.
Tuesday, June 29, 2021
Anatomy of a Beer Festival, Post-Covid
About 45 minutes into the Vail Craft Beer Classic on Saturday, a feeling wafted over the event that was, well, strangely normal. Beer geeks discussed the early finds of the day. A local brewery circulated word of a special tapping. Taster glasses jutted out from hands, subsequently filled with suds.
What no one talked about was coronavirus, except in terms of "hasn't it sucked that the pandemic has knocked out events like these for 17 months?" Glasses were cleaned well, but not excessively so. Hugs and pats on the back marked the day. Masks were nonexistent.
If there was an impact of the pandemic seen on the first specialty festival to come back - for a second straight year - since the world shut down, maybe it was the crowd limit self-imposed by Team Player Productions, which made the event all the more free-flowing and celebratory. Lines never exceeded about eight people for the 40 tents of booze purveyors, and that lent to an atmosphere where you stopped and chatted and even planted yourself in front of the band for a few minutes rather than rushed to the hot brewers to beat everyone else there. (Note the below picture of the lineless Weldwerks tent, which happened several times during the event.)
There was just a hell of a lot of smiles. Heck, this open-air festival even took on rain, but people ducked under tents or under their own umbrellas (see bottom of article), too eager to take part in the communal enjoyment of beer again to bother seeking more permanent shelter when the skies opened. And the Vail Craft Beer Classic offered a lot more reasons to stay than to overthink what might be purely the safest course, which frankly seemed an appropriate theme for a day when no one felt they were taking an undue risk.
Lagers ruled the roost at this summer gathering. Both the 4 Noses Jasmine Rice Lager - incredibly smooth with just a wanted hint of non-Rheinheitsgebot addition - and the perfectly crisp and clean FlyteCo Chinese Rice Lager just felt right to be consumed in an open green field. Wibby Brewing's Volksbier Vienna reminded you why the Longmont German beer specialist is one of the most underrated brewers in Colorado. And if Wild Blue Yonder Brewing's Oak-Barrel-Aged Lager added only a hint of vanilla to the backtaste of the creation, it was enough to let you know it still was something special.
But the creativity was big too. The aforementioned Weldwerks brought its Rockets Red Glare Berliner that was nothing short of the alcoholic version of a Bomb Pop. Bakers' Brewery's higher-alcohol In Bloom Saison served as a reminder of the creativity of brewers whose products don't make it to the Front Range - as did Ramblebine Brewing's incredibly drinkable Demberries, a slightly tart and fruity ale that doesn't forget that it's a beer first and foremost. And if you didn't get a sip of Launch Pad Brewery's Peacemaker Porter, the term "smoked session porter" may not light up a smile for you the way it does for me.
All in all, the event was a reminder why beer festivals remain both relevant and extremely doable. Conversations with folks you know and folks you don't make the beer-tasting experience a more elevated one because of thoughts shared in a collegial way. Good gatherings are ones where the brewers pour and then discuss their offerings. You leave wanting to seek out more adventures for your palate, both from the creators who just lit it up and others you hope to find.
Beer festivals are back, and they can be done safely and in a less crowded way than maybe we knew before. And events like Vail Craft Beer Classic show that it's time that more come back too.
Saturday, June 12, 2021
Beer Festivals Are Back. Here is How One is Pulling That Off.
The Vail Craft Beer Classic is coming back for its second straight year of socially distanced drinking with limited crowds in just two weeks. But the moves it's making to stay safe and relevant this year may impact the way that it and a whole lot of other beer festivals change permanently.
Unless you were one of the 700 people spread across four sessions who attended the event in 2020, you may not realize there was actually one beer festival last summer. Organizers cut capacity crowds by 82%, eliminated lines at booths for the sake of keeping groups of attendees apart and reported zero transmissions of coronavirus at a time when most people still were hunkering down in their homes.
They expected to put the same safety measures in place this year but have been pleased to see a loosening on everything from mask requirements to crowd constraints. Still, Team Player Productions is limiting each of the four sessions on June 25 and 26 to 250 people, even in a park that holds about 1,000, and it believes it may have hit on the sweet spot of attendee comfort and crowd optimization.
Kristen Slater, event director for the Denver-based organization, noted that while many festivals run on a ratio of one brewery for every 50 people, the Vail Craft Beer Classic will offer one beverage provider for every eight to 12 attendees. While guests this year will be able to sample the beers at the booths where they're poured — something they couldn't do last year, when they had to remain masked and take them back to designated areas for each cadre of attendees — she expects lines won't grow more than two to three people long, and the vibe will be very relaxed.
"That's really a decision we made early on that we didn't want that environment," Slater said of the typical throngs converging on the most sought-after booths. "And people loved it and they loved not having the pressure of having to get your beer and move to the next line."
This year, to meet all guests where they are on their public-mingling comfort levels, the festival will offer reusable taster cups if they want to take them from booth to booth or will offer compostable single-use cups and frisbee trays that attendees can use to gather the cups and bring them back to their stations. The festival will take place in Ford Park and Sculpture Garden, and there will be the usual trappings of a beer festival as well, including music.
And, yes, there will be 40 breweries, with a mix of Colorado star players (WeldWerks, Odell, Great Divide, 4 Noses) and local finds that would make you want to travel into the mountains for the weekend (Vail Brewing Co., Ramblebine, Cabin Creek, Baker's Brewery). And the pour list is not, well, poor, offering treats from WeldWerks' Pop-Rocks-inspired Rockets Red Glare Sour to Cheluna Brewing's Rojo Tamarindo Gose to a Chardonnay-barrel-aged saison from Cabin Creek.
By keeping ticket prices relatively close to 2019 levels — $64, with tickets available still to the 2 and 5 p.m. Friday sessions and a small wait list building for the noon and 3 p.m. Saturday sessions — and crowds small, Slater believes the whole festival will feel like the uncrowded but higher-priced VIP sessions of other events. Plus it will have a special touch — West Vail Liquor Mart will have QR codes at the booths of each of the breweries whose products it has in stock (about two-thirds of them), and attendees can order those beers for post-festival pickup or delivery if they would like.
Organizers certainly look forward to welcoming in more guests in future years. But Slater, for one, doesn't think that the elbow-to-elbow festivals of pre-pandemic times will return fully at any point. And these less crowded, more experiential gatherings that are taking place this summer may just offer a peek into how beer events will be redefined in future years.
"I think we're kind of going to see a hybrid. I think there is a knee-jerk reaction to big crowds for some people," Slater said. "But we're also seeing that people are willing to pay more for an elevated experience."
Thursday, April 22, 2021
What's Happening? Denver Beer Is Earning Attention
Denver Beer Co. has never been a boring brewery. From its inception, it turned its beers over frequently and came up with new flavors, from its lovingly received Graham Cracker Porter to its divisively delicious William Wallace Scottish Ale. And it won a lot of Great American Beer Festival medals on the way, including a Colorado-high three in 2020.
Still, the brewery never seemed to become a trend-setter — even though it was one of the pioneers of the city's taproom scene when it opened a decade ago — or one of the must-visit beer-geek stops, even as the patio of its original Platte Street location always teemed with people. Because of several things that have happened in recent months, however, that may be changing.
The brewery made a splash on St. Patrick's Day when it opened its third location, this one in a former garage (like its first two taprooms) in south Denver's Rosedale neighborhood. Just having another location isn't gutsy in itself, but the brewery restaurant includes a one-barrel pilot system for making offerings exclusive to that spot, and an opening-day selection that included a balanced black currant kettle sour and a bold-but-not-too-big campfire coffee stout showed that its creative juices already were flowing well.
But what happened about a month-and-a-half before that could be even more impactful to Denver Beer's place in the sprawling, spectacular Front Range scene. In an announcement that seemed to fly too far under the radar, the brewery announced that it had hired Andy Parker (shown below with his lab, Pete) to be its director of innovation — the same Andy Parker that played a major role in gaining national experimental-darling status for Avery Brewing in an 18-1/2-year career there where he launched its barrel program and grew it to a collection of some 4,000 barrels.
Beer geeks might see the move as an odd one, going from a brewery that attracted throngs of devotees each year at GABF to one whose reputation is one that is more for its tasty accessible beers and is concentrated on its Front Range fans. But as Parker said in an interview earlier this year, the jump isn't so strange upon further examination.
While Avery was a smaller and more free-flowing brewery when Parker started there, it blew up in recent years, particularly with the 2015 opening of its $28 million brewery/restaurant in Boulder County featuring not one but two 30-tap tasting rooms. It sold part of the independent brewery two years later to Spanish brewer Mahou San Miguel, which now owns the majority of Avery, and moved a lot of its effort in recent years to more universally drinkable, nationally sold beers.
Denver Beer, meanwhile, has put its efforts into side projects that keep the beer local and ramp up its flavor profiles, such as the mid-2018 opening of Cerveceria Colorado, which offered an entirely new take on Mexican beers, based on the travels of then-head-brewer Jason Buehler, who passed away late last year. Denver Beer has captured five GABF medals in the past two years, including three for its often-overlooked barrel offerings, and its improvements haven't been lost on Parker.
"Just being a beer geek who's interested in beer, I've been watching Denver Beer get better and better for a decade," he said. "I love to focus on a local market, on Colorado's creativity and lifestyle."
And yes, Parker does plan to ramp up Denver Beer's barrel program, though he said he won't do it to Avery-like magnitude. But he also wants to make beers that can be fermented and sold fairly quickly, so he gets to enjoy the feedback of drinkers who are finding new tastes.
That may just include lighter efforts. The Love This City pilsner, which Denver Beer released early last month in collaboration with artist Pat Milbery, is a subtly delicious take on the classic style, hopped a little bit more liberally for late-breaking bite but still tremendously easy and an all-night sipper. When I half-jokingly asked Parker what he will bring to Denver Beer's seltzer program, he said that he's looking a potential tequila-barrel-aged seltzer, which might be the first entry into the genre that could generate a double-take.
Denver Beer founders Charlie Berger and Patrick Crawford (shown below) said they brought Parker in because of his experience but also because of his seamless fit with the laid-back culture of the brewery. They expect passion, they said, and know that what flows from that will make their beer better.
Drinkers, meanwhile, should frankly recalibrate their expectations of Denver Beer, which may produce another raspberry kolsch or may go off on a route it hasn't traversed previously. But at this point, the brewery deserves recognition for being bold in ways that sometimes are hidden, and here's guessing it's going to get more of that in the coming years.
Thursday, February 18, 2021
A Georgia Beer Pioneer Comes to Colorado
Living in South Carolina in the late 1990s, SweetWater Brewing was an ideal that you hoped other brewers could achieve. Its 420 Extra Pale Ale was as edgy a taste as you could find in the hops arena, and the rest of its portfolio was a dive into different styles.
I didn't think it would be 20 more years (save for Great American Beer Festival tastings and occasional trips to Atlanta or Savannah) before I could sip SweetWater again in the comfort of my own home. And, like much in the craft-brewing scene, the Atlanta pioneer, which began distribution to Colorado on Feb. 1, has changed over the past two decades. But it remains a very relevant national brewery.
It entered Colorado this month with its hoppiest foot forward, coming in with four different IPA variants and a quartet of seltzers that will give the best light-bodied fruited malt beverages in Colorado a run for their money (for whatever that may be worth to beer drinkers). And while SweetWater is definitely a worthwhile addition to the Colorado-sold portfolio, it's going to have to rely on some of the unique niches it plays in to really stand out in this crowded field.
The best way to do that is to show off its G13 IPA, a beer that smells so dank you might mistake it for a joint but surprises you with a pleasantly drinkable body that is reminiscent of biting into a dandelion and is reflective of an old-school West Coast IPA. In fact, what stands out most about it is that its aroma, which walks a tight line between being boldly assertive and being overbearing, actually seems to balance the medium-sized body and make it more intense. Made with a hemp flavor blend, this is a beer you don't soon forget, and you want more.
The same can't be said for the High Light Lo-Cal Easy IPA, which, like the rest of the 100-calorie, 4% ABV ilk, is a beer that seems to hope you can write off its lack of flavor as a small downside to its healthier makeup (and the fact it comes in 15-packs rather than 12-packs). There is an upfront, bitter bite from its hop blend that includes El Dorado and Simcoe, but it fades quickly into a light body that is a whole lot of nothing. It's not that this beer is any worse than 100-calorie IPAs in general, but it certainly doesn't elevate the style.
SweetWater's H.A.Z.Y. IPA, its newest addition to its year-round lineup, does a better job of capitalizing on a trendy style, though it lacks the bomb of tropical flavors that many of Colorado's best purveyors of this genre offer. Instead, it presents a softer flavor, with an exceptional grain base that doesn't diminish the hop presence so much as it makes the specific hops flavor harder to pinpoint. This is a worthwhile addition to the local scene specifically because it is so different from the pack, though dedicated haze bros might think it doesn't go far enough in pushing away from traditional IPAs.
And then there is 420, still enjoyable after all these years, though its hop profile — Centennial, Cascade, Simcoe and US Golding — feels like a throwback, particularly with the presence of a woody malt sweetness that emboldens the flavor even as it cuts down on the hop bite. Those with ties to the Southeast are likely to feel a pull to this, but those new to the brewery might find it hard to identify the characteristics that would make this beer memorable to those not taking notes on it. The palate is clean, the hops explosion is laid back, but its flavor falls short of standing out.
But then there is the Oasis hard seltzer line, which offers the biggest surprise kick of the bunch. No, really. Its Raspberry Lemon bursts with the nose of a fantastic popsicle and offers a spark from the combination of berry and citrus flavors, and its Strawberry Kiwi has one of the juiciest flavors of the genre and remains refreshing. Beer aficionados aren't going to turn their stripes over to the seltzer world because of these two offerings (two other Oasis brands are a bit more boring), but even they will have to admit that SweetWater at least manages to get a lot of flavor out of an often flavor-free sector.
SweetWater isn't stopping with just these initial offerings, as the brewery announced just last week that it's bringing a tropical wheat ale and a barrel-aged sour hazy IPA made for its 24th anniversary to town. Maybe some of the more experimental beers from its Woodlands Project will follow.
If you haven't tried SweetWater, it's worth getting your hands on some and thinking about how similarly aged Colorado breweries, like Oskar Blues or Left Hand, have aged and kept pace with the massive changes in the craft beer scene. This is, no question, a brewery for hopheads who like their beer less tropical and more steeped in woody, grassy, more traditional hops, mixed in with some terpene advancement. But there's something to like here.
Saturday, January 23, 2021
Is This Colorado's Most Improved Brewery?
While the release of any hazy gives you a window into a brewery's quality — Is it really making the hottest craft style well or does it seem like it is making the beer just to try to be in conversation? — that may never have been more true than with Holidaily Brewing's December release of Big Henry Hazy IPA.
Few gluten-free beer makers have tried to make a New England IPA, and some of those that have ended up producing lighter-bodied beers that didn't approximate the appeal of the style. But Holidaily's offering shows not only why it stands out from the group but why the Golden brewery may be Colorado's most improved brewery over the five years since it opened in February 2016.
What jumps out at you the most about this latest gluten-free release is the fact that you can't tell this is a gluten-free beer. Big Henry includes a great deal of pineapple flavor with a touch of passionfruit as well, and it has a touch of an alcohol burn on its nose. It doesn't have any flavors that would tell you there is no barley in here, or that it isn't classically made in any way.
And this is the story of Holidaily, a brewery launched by industry veteran Karen Hertz (pictured above) because she wanted to drink good beer again while dealing with health conditions that required here to go gluten-free. Substituting millet and buckwheat for barley and utilizing yeast raised in a gluten-free environment, it's spent the past few years blowing away the expectations of drinkers thinking that a lack of certain ingredients automatically means drinking beer with a plastic aftertaste.
The brewery launched with just three beers on tap but grew fairly quickly because it showed it could meet a specialty demand. And, as Hertz often has emphasized, it's sought to expand its reach to drinkers who don't need or seek out gluten-free beers but want Holidaily because of its flavor.
One way it's done that is by offering a greater variety of beers than most gluten-free breweries. Walk into the taproom, and you're likely to find something sour, something barrel-aged and unique offerings like a cherry Belgian ale in addition to standard styles.
But the bigger success has been in creating tastes that stand-out, regardless of the consideration of ingredients in them. Patchy Waters, its pumpkin ale that sells out quickly, manages to capture the many flavors of the season without any of the backtaste bitterness that accompanies spice-forward beers. The Favorite Blond is a smooth porch pounder with just enough hop backbone to give it real personality. The Riva Stout is roasty and sooty without being bitter or burnt.
But Big Henry is arguably its most impressive product yet. Yes, the body is a slight bit lighter than some of the style, but still allows the tropical flavors to shine and to give the impression that this is thick and stewy, even if it's actually a bit easier on your palate. The recipe was inspired by Boombastic Hazy IPA, Holidaily's GABF medal winner in 2019, but was given a bill of more classical (and less expensive) hops such as Cashmere, Mosaic and Simcoe, so that it could can Big Henry at a price substantially less than the $24/4-pack it otherwise would have cost.
Even if you don't find yourself in northwest Golden where you can stop by the taproom, it's getting easier to find Holidaily out and about. It is offered on tap in a number of breweries that don't have their own gluten-free options, and Hertz expands to expand retail distribution outside of Arizona and Colorado this year. And the brewery has become a key part of the Colorado beer community, as demonstrated by its announcement that it will donate 10% of all taproom sales on Jan. 28 to Falling Rock Tap House, to help the restriction-battered beer bar stay open.
Wednesday, December 30, 2020
10 Best Colorado Beers of 2020
In a year that seemed so dark, maybe, just maybe, it was appropriate that Colorado beer makers stepped up their game particularly in the area of dark ales. To be sure, there was much more that highlighted the year, from barrel-aged barleywines to vibrant hazies to sour experiments that included Japanese citrus-based sauces. But it sure seemed as if the most textured, daring and successful creations of the year that was 2020 were those those turned to the dark side - and made it as enjoyable as possible.
This annual list of Colorado's best beers - at least those determined by one local beer writer - is somewhat challenged this year, as the beer festivals and gatherings that often provide the best look at what the state's breweries are doing did not happen after mid-March. But I tried to drink as much as I could from as many locally sourced creators as I could, and these are the most unique, complex and quaffable beers I found:
10) 4 Noses Lotus Rising
The hazy IPA is, by now, an established beverage, and longer-running gems from Weldwerks' Juicy Bits to Westfax Brewing's Urban Lumberjack made lockdown a lot easier to bear. But the best new addition to the category was this gem from Broomfield's 4 Noses Brewing, simultaneously thick with tropical notes and leaving just enough bitterness on the backtaste to remind you that being hoppy is still an important part of being a delicious hazy IPA.
9) Elevation Beer Montanya
Here is how you make an imperial porter stand out: Add Horchata spices and age it in rum barrels from the distiller of its namesake. This beer never seemed as boozy as its 10% ABV suggested, and every taste produced a bite from a seemingly different spice. But it landed both hugely and pleasantly, particularly if you were camping at the foot of a nearby fourteener, and it reminded you how valuable mountain-town breweries like this Poncha Springs beer maker are to the Colorado ecosystem.
8) Cannonball Creek The Return of the Mackaroon
Here's the other approach to dark beer: Take a traditional stout, made by a brewery known far more for its lagers and pale ales, and infuse it with coconut and macaroon to give it a sweetness that neither overwhelms nor is subsumed by it dark body. Rolled out in the spring, this beer felt like the perfect accompaniment to a brisk spring hike (and paired well with pizza). And it served as a reminder at just how versatile Colorado's most consecutively awarded Great American Beer Festival medalist can be.
7) Spangalang Brewery Ms. Behavin'
Anyone who believes that barleywine is a relic of an earlier time is challenged to drink this beautiful barrel-aged beer from one of Denver's most overlooked breweries and declare that it is anything but a full-mouthed joy. Its body is a like a lightly caramelized, raisins-soaked-in-booze blanket, covering over any sign of it s 12.5% ABV content and presenting a beer so smoothly presented that it forgoes astringency and passes straight to warmth. A masterful update of a classic style.
6) Strange Times Too
Strange Craft Beer has played with its traditional recipes in host of ways for 10 years, but few if any variants have landed as successfully as this Brettanomyces-laced version of its Cherry Kriek, which popped to life with a tartness that added to its fruit base and created enough of an edge to be daring without being at all difficult to swallow. Not all big-sellers should be messed with; this experiment, however, gave a whole new definition to a much-loved beer.
5) Purpose Brewing Itadakimasu #032
The boldest Colorado beer of 2020 was this Fort Collins provocateur's sour ale aged with a citrus soy sauce, creating a taste wholly unlike anything else at the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival where it was unleashed in January - which is a statement in itself. Both tart and unusually thick, this caused a minor flinch at first taste, followed by a stunned appreciation of how owner Peter Bouckaert (talking here, left, with Black Project co-owner James Howat) can blend such flavors together. A revelation into the possibilities of creativity.
4) Verboten German Chocolate Cake Not a Speck of Light
Just the second imperial stout produced by the quickly ascending Loveland brewery, this was a masterful effort with three variants, the German chocolate cake version being the one that packed the most flavor into a 13.6% ABV body that was dangerously easy to drink. Aged for more than a year in a blend of barrels, this took on the characteristics of everything that was in it, particularly Ugandan vanilla beans and Ghana cocoa husks, as well as the barrels that gave it more character.
3) Upslope Wild Christmas Ale
After years of producing some pretty sturdy wild-yeast holiday efforts, this Boulder brewery found a whole new dimension by adding Saigon cinnamon to the delicately tart orange flavor, creating a cacophony of tastes that were both funky and strangely sweet on the aftertaste. In many ways, this is the best original Colorado Christmas ale in the past half-decade, daring drinkers to rethink their definition of a holiday beer while still drawing forth a flavor that was spice-enhanced, even if in a radically different way. Let's hope Upslope does not decide to make this recipe a one-off.
2) Wiley Roots Du Hast Cake Imperial Stout
This gigantically flavored beer is everything that the idea of boundary-pushing pastry stouts purports to be - both unnaturally easy despite it big body and adding to the lexicon of flavors that beer, at its best, can bring forward in our taste buds. Here was coconut and chocolate and dessert sweetness layered upon the most solid traditionally dark-beer base that one could imagine. This Greeley auteur has been pushing boundaries for years - creating, for example, a cinnamon sour - but this is arguably its finest experimentation yet, a beer for beer lovers and sweets lovers and anyone who respects liquid adventure.
1) Casey Brewing & Blending No Title
It felt like a stroke of genius to blend three adjuncts that could make this beer un-drinkably sweet - Madagascar vanilla, coconut and almond - with a heavily roasted and slightly bitter chocolate body that turns this imperial stout from Glenwood Springs into a beer that imbues a bolder and seemingly easier flavor with every sip, despite its 10% ABV body. In a year in which tradition flew out the window at the same speed as our expectations of normalcy, this searing rebuke of Rheinheitsgebot laws was like a break from both the past and the present, daring drinkers to imagine a future in which beer styles are not defined so much as cemented by experimentation. From the first pour to the last swig, it was packed with intensely pleasing flavors without any alcohol burn. It was the beer that signaled both an escape from the surrounding landscape of 2020 and from any preconceptions about how much you could add to beer and still, importantly, make it taste like an excellent beer.
Labels: 4 Noses Brewing, Cannonball Creek Brewing, Casey Brewing, Elevation Beer, Purpose Brewing & Cellars, Strange Craft Beer, Top Beers of Year, Upslope Brewing, Verboten Brewing, Wiley Roots Brewing