November 16, 2015

More Drinking in Colorado for 2015 Part 1

This is another block of posts outlining my journey drinking beer in Colorado. My wife and I have a good grasp on our routine when we visit the Centennial State. This trip we decided we wanted to blend some of our must-stops with some new locations. There is still a large portion of breweries in Colorado--even just Denver--that we have not visited and new breweries are constantly adding to that list. No matter how much people talk about the saturation of craft breweries there always seems to be more opening even in crowded markets like Denver and San Diego. Even Fort Collins, a relatively small town that basks in New Belgium and Odell's shadows, has a growing list of breweries. People talk about the craft beer bubble and how it is ever closer to popping but as long as breweries unload get profit margins there will be money and credit to go into opening new breweries and expanding old breweries. The bubble won't pop until the profits dry up to cause the flow of capital and credit to dry up. Then it will become a battle to survive--but we seem far from that point. Today's post isn't about the economics of craft beer. It's about drinking so let's get to talking about that.

Great Divide Barrel Room

My first trip to Great Divide was not a pleasant experience. The service was truly awful and it swore me off Great Divide for a long time. That's too bad because I enjoy several of their beers. I was assured the new Barrel Room on Brighton Street--practically across the street from Crooked Stave's location in The Source--would be a better experience. Thankfully, this was the case. Both the service and beers were great. The Barrel Room offers many of the Great Divide staples, like Hoss rye lager, while offering a broader selection of harder to find Great Divide beers. This location has a more inviting feel to it than the main location elsewhere in downtown Denver and I didn't feel like I needed to strap on a plaid shirt just to get served a beer. Let me talk about a few beers I had:
  • Colorado Fresh Hop: This beer is a fresh hopped schwarzbier (not to be confused with Great Divide's fresh hop pale ale) and a limited release. Schwarzbier isn't a style known for its hop character but the big hop character worked really well in this beer. It reminds me more of a hoppy porter than a schwarzbier but the smooth lager character was definitely present.
  • Kriek: Great Divide isn't well known for sour beer although I get the impression this is a direction the brewery wants to go. This sour beer wasn't bad and the cherry flavor was nice but there was a rough ethyl acetate edge to it that detracted from what would otherwise be a good but not necessarily outstanding kriek.
  • Barrel aged Yeti: Yeti is probably Great Divide's best known product, complete with its several variants. I think it is best in its variants where some of the bitter and roast is smoothed out. I've long wondered why Great Divide has slept on the rise of barrel aged imperial stouts but that slumber has come to an end. Barrel aged Yeti spent a year in whiskey barrels and it is just fantastic. The oak and whiskey is smooth and tempered. The alcohol is present but without feeling boozy, like a well-aged BCBS. The chocolate and coffee notes come forward in Yeti and mingle with the vanilla and spice from the barrels. Absolutely blows out oak aged Yeti.

Crooked Stave at The Source

If you're practically across the street from Crooked Stave then you pretty much have to stop in. I've written about my love for Crooked Stave enough in the past so I'll save space and get to the beers. We sampled quite a few beers and interestingly enough there were a few cherry beers on tap which was unusual. It's rare to see more than one cherry beer produced at a time. Maybe Crooked Stave came into a larger supply of cherries than expected. Anyway, I'll just point out the top three beers and move along.

  • Nightmare on Brett with cherries: Nightmare on Brett might be my favorite Crooked Stave beer. It's a baltic porter (or closely based on that style) with Yakobson's skilled hand producing the right balance of brett funk and lactic acid production. The base beer has that brett cherry pie character and adding cherries brings it to the forefront. It's dark chocolate and cherry. Who couldn't love that.
  • Mama Bear's Sour Cherry Pie: This is billed as a burgundy sour ale with cherries--it's actually Origins with cherries renamed as a standalone product. Like Nightmare on Brett, Origins is replete with brett cherry pie but it is a more acid-forward beer with a greater depth than Nightmare. Origins is one of the beers I think of that perfectly captures the description of vinous but adding cherries to it draws out more of the bready and caramel notes and lets the vinousness take a back seat.
  • Dialectic materialism: This beer is an imperial sour wit brewed in collaboration with Comrade Brewing in Denver. It's everything you would expect in an imperialized wit but soured with an addition of Riesling grape must. There's a lot going on here and much of the original wit character has faded out in favor of the white wine character and acidity. The name brought flashbacks of terrible high school English writing assignments while the beer reminded me how much I enjoy white wine grapes/barrels with beer.

River North Brewery

I've written about River North on several past trips so I'll trim down chatting about them. River North is getting ejected from its current location on Blake Street and we happened to be in town for the final weekend. From what I understand the river north district (or RiNo) is quickly converting into a sea of housing buildings that means tearing out buildings like River North's home. They will reopen in a more industrialized area, likely in an effort to avoid repeating their fate in river north. I hear rumors that the new taproom will have more taps and more space so that will certainly be a plus.

As part of their send off they created three beers under the name Funk the Man that are brett saisons released one at a time until the final weekend. I obviously had to give each one a whirl so here goes.

  • Funk the Man #1: Brett saison aged in cabernet barrels. What's not to like about saison aged in red wine barrels? Nothing. It's great. I'm not over the moon about River North's base saison (it's too sweet and too heavy) but brett works wonders on it. Add in the red wine barrel character and you have the recipe for a great beer.
  • Funk the Man #2: Brett saison with hibiscus. I wouldn't say hibiscus is a go-to ingredient for me but it works well here adding a floral balance to the funky brett character. It's not two things I immediately think of melding but it made a lot of sense in this beer.
  • Funk the Man #3: Brett saison with black currants. Currants are one of those fruits that always seems to pair well with brett and sour beers so no surprise it connects in this beer. The slight acidity from the currants helps punch up the beer and makes it similar to #1 but with a fruity and less vinuous flavor.

Beryl's Beer Co.

Beryl (pronounced like barrel) is a small brewery down the street from River North, Epic and several other breweries. Beryl has been open for a little over a year and brews a small set of beers that are primarily, but not exclusively, English in origins. They also put on a fair number of barrel aged beers, many of which are based upon their core beers. It's a smart way of getting lots of different beers out of a small number of recipes.

The star attraction is probably Riga, a baltic porter, that gets split out among several excellent variants such as coffee and different barrels. There's also a bitter (Antero Ale) that is good on its own and excellent in rye barrels. They also make a solid dampfbier that again gets the split treatment, such as a peach version and a blend of the dampfbier aged in red and white wine barrels.

If I wanted to toss a few grenades at the brewery I'd point out that the lighter beers have a minerally finish that one person describes as being seafood-like. That's not entirely inaccurate but it is a very brine-like salt-mineral finish. I'm not sure if it's something they are using for ph adjustment that is leaving behind an unnecessary flavor or something they actually desire in the beer. They also make 1876, an all-Colorado ingredient pale ale that not only had this mineral off flavor but had a very unusual and unpleasant malt character. Overall, however, I would definitely make this a return trip if only to hit Riga (and its variants) and Antero Ale.

Former Future Brewing Co.

I've seen Former Future's location several times on prior trips to Denver but hadn't made time to visit on the schedule. This time I made sure to allocate time for a visit. I had heard mixed reviews of their beers but after seeing one of the owners making his presence known on the Milk the Funk group I figured I needed to check it out. Former Future makes a dedicated effort to keep a sour beer on the taplist at all times so I felt confident I would have something to measure the assertive positions staked out by co-owner James Howat on MTF. Howat is staking himself out as something of an expert on sour brewing (you may have caught his NHC presentation) with heavy criticism of kettle souring. Former Future sells "Death to Kettle Sours" shirts and has ruffled quite a few feathers over their position on the technique. I am not opposed to kettle souring although I have to agree in part with their position. I have seen a growing number of poorly done kettle sours that suffer from off flavors at unjustifiable prices. Where I disagree is the idea that the baby has to be thrown out with the bathwater. There are ways to make those beers in less flawed ways. At any rate, if you're going to build your brand around the superiority of your beers over your competitors then you have set a high bar against which your beers must be judged.

Former Future plays deeply into an aviation theme in the taproom embracing aviation's mid-twentieth century heyday. The focal point is the bar, which is designed to look like the wings of an airplane. It is V shaped with the bartop constructed out of an actual airplane wing and riveted together (or designed to look that way). I'm not sure it's the most functional bar but it is one of the more interesting. Like many small breweries the taproom is open to the brewery in the back. It's mostly everything you have seen in any other brewery. One interesting difference is the long row of square fermentation vessels. These appear to be the type of fermentation vessels used by distilleries but I may be wrong on that point. I am fairly confident that there is no temperature control so they are left at the mercy of ambient conditions.

So let's talk a little about the beers.

  • Twin Ruby: The sour beer available was Twin Ruby, a sour red ale blended out of two red wine barrels. (I am fairly certain this is not one of the Black Project spontaneous beers.) It was good with balanced acidity and the red wine character comes through without overwhelming the beer. Tart berry and cherry flavors push against an earthy funk. The brett character is restrained and overall less complex than I expected. 
  • Putin on le Pitz: This pilot series beer is Former Future's imperial stout fermented with a Belgian yeast with cherries added. There was a nice balance of the underlying beer, yeast character and cherries. Probably my favorite of the two beers. 
We sampled a few other beers but found the other beers were underwhelming. Not bad and not flawed just not memorable beers. As a whole Former Future has a high ceiling for the quality of their beer but they haven't hit it yet. The Black Project beers may be at that upper limit but I felt like the beers I tried out of the Former Future label have room to improve. I would return but I would likely look for the sour and pilot offerings and pass on the others, at least for now.

Avery Brewing

Avery's massive new location opened the weekend I was last in Denver but we already had plans and with it snowing that day we just weren't up for standing in the snow to get in. So this was a new adventure for me. The old location was the generic brewery-in-an-industrial-park although Avery had grown so much it had taken over several adjacent suites. The new location is about as far from that as it gets. It's still in Boulder but it's an enormous freestanding building. There is a bar downstairs with a nice beer garden. Upstairs there is a restaurant with another bar (with good food), a shop selling merchandise and bottles, and an entrance to a walkway that walks you through the entire brewery until you get to more seating and a third bar. That doesn't even begin to capture the enormity of the brewing system.

The new brewery, aside from being an awesome place, has almost doubled production volume. The best part about the expansion is that Avery has expanded brewing volume and variety of its barrel program, making beers like Rumpkin a little easier to find beyond Colorado. The stream of sour beers coming out of Avery are top notch although still difficult to find. The Eremita series is taproom only and number eight was just as good as the earlier versions I've had in the past. It also allows Avery the opportunity to expand production of all of its beers which means the taprooms have long lists of fun beers to try like Semplice, a saison with lemon drop hops. The 22 anniversary ale is available in bottles and getting some distribution. It's a 100% Brett Drie fermented dry hopped ale. It's worth getting for drinking but also probably the easiest way to pick up the drie strain short of sending a bucket of cash to BSI for a pitch.

If you're anywhere near Boulder and not going to Avery you are severely missing out.

Upslope Brewing

I was underwhelmed by the first couple Upslope beers I tried but after going to a tap takeover they hosted last year during GABF my eyes were opened and I changed my mind about their beers. A few of their standard can offerings are still not my favorite choices but they do some really interesting stuff that I wish made it into the canning line. The brewery shares a building with White Labs and a coffee roaster. There is even direct access to coffee roaster from the taproom which is pretty cool. It's worth pointing out that there are two taprooms in Boulder but we visited the Flatirons location which I believe is the only one with brewing operations.

Alright, let's talk some beer. I really enjoyed everything I tried but there were some standouts and I'll just run through those:

  • Belgian pale ale: This one actually hits cans and it's a fairly straightforward BPA with trappist yeast and a little coriander but it's nice and crisp and the yeast character shines through nicely.
  • Thai White IPA: I'm not a white IPA fan but I actually liked this one which carries seven Asian spices along with a witbier yeast and a load of hops. It's interesting for sure. There is sort of a Thai curry element to it that adds a pleasant refreshing quality. It reminds me a lot of a green curry but without the spice.
  • Lychee IPA: This collaboration beer features lychee and azacca hops. I don't know if azacca is the new "it" hop but it's sure showing up everywhere. While this beer could have been a punch in the face of tropical flavors it's more nuanced with some gentle tropical and citrus flavors. I say gentle for an IPA. It's still punchy by any other standard but it isn't bowling you over with tropical thunder like most citra-ladden IPAs.
  • Fresh hop porter: This beer was on the short list for best beers of the trip. The underlying porter is nice and chocolate-y while the hops overlay a pleasant fresh quality and a gentle hop character reminiscent of a pale ale rather than an IPA. It's not a combination I would immediately think about but it works perfectly.  

Wild Woods Brewery

Wild Woods makes some truly interesting beers. Their command of unique ingredients puts to shame many breweries fumbling to shove these types of ingredients into casks where they don't make sense with the beer. While farmhouse ales have become the dumping ground for atypical ingredients (perhaps with good reason), Wild Woods takes to classic American craft styles like pale ale, IPA, stout, American wheat, porter and red ale, as opportunities to meld the local environment and the owners' passion for the local outdoors. It's the kind of thing that so easily drifts into the realm of gimmicky beers but here it seems authentic and well thought out. The IPA, for example, is hit with juniper berries. It's well balanced and the juniper berries add a nice herbal and spice quality that integrates into the beer rather than pumped in like an afterthought to create a little marketing buzz. I know you know that you have had those kinds of beers.

I've talked about Wild Woods previously so I'll avoid going back through other beers I've discussed and just talk about some new beers. There are some interesting seasonals going on right now like the Bourbon Bark Imperial Porter but the most interesting beer by far is Very Wild. Very Wild is a pale ale with pineapple weed and rose hips brewing in collaboration with Very Nice Brewing for this year's Beers Made By Walking that takes place GABF week. It's herbal, fruity, slightly floral and everything you expect in a pale ale. I had never heard of pineapple weed; it's a wild chamomile that tastes like a cross between pineapple and chamomile. You do get just a little pineapple in the mix but it's subtle and mixed with the fruit character from the rose hips. Definitely an interesting beer

Fort Collins Brewery

As I say every time I talk about this brewery, I must be one of the biggest proponents of this brewery that isn't on their payroll. They are probably best known for their standard beers--which are nothing to complain about--but the beers with less distribution are interesting and wonderful beers. Their barrel aging program is expanding and not just in the direction of barrel aged stouts. I've already talked about Fort Collins Brewery at length in the past so let's just get into the beers.

Plenty of good beers to be had with interesting beers like a barrel aged vienna lager and bock but two beers really stood out. One is Oldwyn's Wild Sister, an old ale with brett with a great balance of rich malt flavor dried out with brett funk. When I think of old ales as something distinct from barleywines, this is it. Second is Tart in Cheek, a sour pale with blood oranges and dry hops. It's an incredibly unusual mix of sourness, citrus, berry and grassy hops. There's so much going on in the beer at once.

And a couple other points...

I left a couple breweries we visited out of specific reviews because I've talked about them at length on previous trips. One is Left Hand which puts on great cask beers at the brewery and their new release Bittersweet is worth finding if you can. Funkwerks is the second brewery and it's a mandatory stop on our trips. So many good beers in the taproom but the standout is their Oud Bruin which is currently available and easily on the short list for best in this style. Also worth tracking down if you can.

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