Thursday, December 31, 2009

Beer of the Year 2009

The time has come for the inaugural edition of Beer at 6512's Beer of the Year awards.

Beers eligible for Beer of the Year must have been new or substantially changed beers brewed in Durango for commercial release during 2009. (A hat tip here to the Beervana blog in Portland, whose Satori awards helped inspire this effort).

Old favorites are not eligible - there is no point in debating Pinstripe Red Ale vs. Steam Engine Lager, for example. Nor are beers from outside Durango. I don't get to Silverton or Pagosa Brewing often enough to judge them well, and this is Beer at 6512 - not 7,000 or 9,000 feet.

The criteria: taste first and foremost, with uniqueness, complexity, availability, price, packaging and market impact all considered. One caveat: I didn't get to try or review every beer brewed in Durango in 2009.

Durango's four breweries put out plenty for us to ponder, and I think all four are getting better with each passing year. So without further ado, the winner is:

Beer of the Year 2009
Ska/Avery Wheelsucker Wheat Ale

Ska Brewing Co
.'s superb collaboration with Avery Brewing Co. of Boulder was born of a bike ride from Boulder to Durango with stops at numerous breweries along the way.

It resulted in a full-bodied imperial wheat ale (Ska refers to it as a "mountainous hefe") with more than a hint of orange taste and around 6.5-7 percent ABV. It was a heavy, flavorful wheat that could be mixed to concoct a Radler or enjoyed on its own.

Wheelsucker Wheat Ale was released July 24 in 22-ounce bomber bottles and on tap. Coming in the mid-summer heat, it made for a wonderful seasonal ale.

Wheelsucker was brewed with 50-50 two-row malt and wheat malt, Hallertau Hersbrucker and Hallertau Mittlefruh hops and yeast from the Hopf Weissbier Brewery in Meisbock, Germany, according to Ska Head Brewer Thomas Larsen. He also added sweet and bitter orange peel at the end of the boil.

Ska and Avery brewed only 25 barrels of Wheelsucker. Although it was a collaboration with the accomplished Avery brewers, it was brewed in Durango on Ska's equipment with significant involvement from Larsen, meeting my criteria.

It has been months since I've had a Wheelsucker, and I miss it. At $4 per bottle for such a strong and accomplished beer, it was a steal. I now think I low-balled it in my initial review, awarding an A-. It deserved an A.

Larsen, a veteran of Wynkoop Brewing in Denver, has made something of a specialty of wheat beers. His upcoming Snowdown beer, Hyper Fierce Gnar Gnar Hefe, uses a wheat body. His wheats so far have been thick-bodied and flavorful.

Congratulations to Ska and Avery for their win.

2nd place
Durango Pale Ale

Durango Brewing turned my head with the spring debut of its Pale Ale seasonal. Released in 22-ounce bottles and on tap in March, it simply tasted great. (Initial review here).

Managing Brewer Scott Bickert released a winner of a standard pale.

I've complained before about Durango's relative lack of pale ales. Steamworks brews its Third Eye Pale Ale (7.2 percent ABV, 56 IBUs), Ska has its Euphoria winter seasonal and Carver's makes its Jack Rabbit, but none of these particularly tickle my fancy. All are fine in their own way, but none are brewed quite to style.

Pale ales, despite their relative commonness, are deceptively hard to brew well. Durango Brewing hit the mark with its Pale Ale (6.1 percent ABV, 35 IBUs). Its return will be welcomed.

3rd place
Ska Modus Hoperandi IPA

Ska dropped an atom bomb on the local beer market in February with the release of Modus Hoperandi IPA. It constituted nothing less than a revitalization of Ska, which had offered the same basic lineup for years.

And what did they choose to revitalize their offerings?: an aggressively bitter IPA, something to make the most jaded beer geeks take notice, a slap in the face from Mother Hops. It was a street-cred beer as punk as Ska itself.

Sold in cans, Modus Hoperandi's surging popularity helped Ska push deeper into new markets and probably introduced casual craft-beer drinkers to other canned Ska beers, now including True Blonde Ale.

The name, the packaging, the can all added up to a triumphant roll-out. Ska President Dave Thibodeau, who named and marketed the beer, should be teaching FLC marketing classes on the side.

Beer geeks loved it. One example: Barley Vine, a beer blog out of Houston (an important new market for Ska), pronounced it a "wonderful beer that seems more bitter and more citrusy than its listed IBUs."

Modus Hoperandi comes in at 6.8 percent ABV and 65 IBUs. But as Barley Vine noticed, those numbers do no justice to how aggressive Modus is. It screams hops.

That's why I gave it a respectful but ambivalent B+ in my initial review. It is so bitter that it's hard to drink without food, an opinion I share with Fermentedly Challenged. (My favorite way to drink Modus is with a slice of spicy pizza at Homeslice in Durango).

Remarkably, although the numbers call me a liar, I think Ska's Decadent Imperial IPA (10 percent ABV, 99 IBUs), is actually more drinkable than Modus.

Modus uses a generous amount of two-row malt, a little bit of wheat malt and caramel 120 for some depth in flavor and color, Larsen said via e-mail. Ska adds Cascade, Centennial, and
Columbus hops in copious amounts to the boil, whirlpool and fermenter along with an English dry ale yeast.

On taste alone, one of the honorable mention beers listed below is more deserving of 3rd place. But there's no discounting the excitement than Modus caused, probably more than all other new Durango beers this year combined. She's a mother of an IPA.

Near misses
Two great beers missed out on consideration for Beer of the Year because they were recurring seasonals and not significantly changed enough to qualify. Still, they deserve mention: Steamworks' Spruce Goose Ale 2009 and Ska's Hoperation Ivy.

Steamworks brewer Ken Martin is responsible for Spruce Goose, an ale that coyly revealed flavors from San Juan National Forest spruce tips and a subtle sweetness lent by a "somewhat complex malt bill which is heavy on the crystal malt, munich malt and some dextrin malt for that added residual sweetness," Martin said via e-mail.

This winter seasonal, brewed since 2005, exhibits extraordinary balance and complexity at 7.1 percent ABV.

Steamworks meant, I think, to make a statement with Spruce Goose, packaging it in expensive ($9.99) wine bottles in a bid for consumers' attention. It certainly caught mine (my initial review is here. Spruce Goose was the only local beer to earn an A+ from Beer at 6512 this year).

Spruce Goose constitutes a highlight for Steamworks during a year when the brewery decided to shutter its Bayfield plant and cease distributing outside of Southwest Colorado.

This release reminds us what Steamworks can do, and inspires hope that the brewery will emerge from its recent business-side turbulence better than ever.

Ska's Hoperation Ivy uses copious quantities of Cascade hops from San Juan Hop Farms near Montrose. It results in one of the best fresh-hop beers I've had, an oily triumph of hop taste. Fresh-hop, or wet-hop, beers simply taste different - better - than other beers, and Hoperation Ivy is an excellent example of what can be done with fresh hops.

Hoperation Ivy was released in September - harvest time - as #13 in the brewery's Local Series. It was last released as #11 last year. Here's hoping they do it again.

Honorable mention
Steamworks Imperial Mole Stout, Carver's Century Hall Tribute and Imperial La Plata Pilsener.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Steamworks to limit distribution

I missed some sad news while I was gone: Steamworks Brewing Co. will cease distributing outside of Southwest Colorado, reports my Durango Herald colleague Dale Rodebaugh.

This follows on the heels of news in November that Steamworks would shutter its Bayfield production facility.

In tandem, the two moves make sense. Without the production capacity of the Bayfield plant, Steamworks no longer has the ability to fulfill its accounts in Texas and other states.

Still, it's unfortunate for beer drinkers outside of Colorado who like Steamworks. It's one less opportunity for people to try Durango beers.

Steamworks will now revert to being a Durango brewpub with a 1,400-barrel capacity, a fairly small operation. Here's hoping the brewery will continue brewing good beer there.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Another trip to Beervana

It's a wonderful thing to be from Oregon, that state that has served as a cradle for the craft-beer revolution. A visit to the ol' family for Christmas reintroduced me to some of the Beaver State's beers.

I tried a number of beers during my week there, but perhaps the most notable trend was one I first alluded to in September: Oregon brewers' continuing experimentation with IPAs.

Oregon breweries were on the forefront of releasing face-puckering, hoppy IPAs. Because of this, they are beginning to experiment with getting other flavors out of hop-forward IPAs besides bitter. It's a natural evolution of the IPA, and one that I find entirely welcome.

Terminal Gravity IPA
(6.9 percent ABV) has a wonderful fruity taste bordering on sweet, from an up-and-coming brewery in Oregon's rural northeast corner.

A pub-only special at Deschutes Brewing Co.'s Portland pub, Fresh-squeezed IPA, had a sublime floral taste to go along with a gentle hop bite. Here's how Deschutes describes the IPA, which comes in at 6.5 percent ABV and 60 IBUs: "This experimental hop IPA is a 'citrus bomb' in every way. The aroma and flavor scream citrus. Three types of malt, one type of bittering hop and a whole lot of experimental aroma hops were all it took to create this delicious offering."

Other very impressive beers were Upright Brewing's Flora Rustica, an earthy, rustic saison brewed with Calendula flowers from the new Portland brewery; and a Marion Berry Wheat from the Block 15 brewpub in Corvallis. Marion berries are a blackberry hybrid, developed locally at Oregon State University, that imparted a pleasant, mild sweetness to this subtle fruit beer.

Durango breweries make a lot of fine beers, but sometimes it's rewarding to get out of the bubble and see what other brewers are doing. Cool stuff, it turns out.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday break

I'm taking a short break from blogging for Christmas. I'll be back in a few days.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Beer for cancer prevention?

I'm finally getting around to the news that xanthohumol, a chemical compound found in hops, may prevent the development of prostate cancer in men, animal studies suggest.

As USA Today reported: The compound in question, xanthohumol, is found in hops — the bitter flavoring agent in beer — and is known to block the male hormone testosterone, which plays a role in the development of prostate cancer.

"We hope that one day we can demonstrate that xanthohumol prevents prostate cancer development, first in animal models and then in humans, but we are just at the beginning," said lead researcher Clarissa Gerhauser, group leader of cancer chemoprevention in the division of epigenomics and cancer risk factors at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.

Prostate cancer will kill an estimated 27,000 men in 2009, according to federal authorities, so any prevention is surely welcome.

Since xanthohumol is found in hops, it would make sense that hoppier beers would have more xanthohumol. So that's yet another argument, as if you needed one, for picking a good craft beer instead of industrial lagers.

Locally, Dr. Soggy Coaster recommends Ska's ESB, Modus Hoperandi IPA and Decadent Imperial IPA; Steamworks' Conductor Imperial IPA or Carver's Cascade Canyon IPA for your xanthohumol dose.

Of course, drinking too much beer has its detriments to health, but a xanthohumol-rich IPA every now and again won't hurt.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Snowdown Homebrew Competition returns

Several of you have asked whether the Snowdown Homebrew Competition will be returning later this winter. It is. Here's the release from Ska:

Ska Brewing is proud to announce the return of the Snowdown Homebrew Competition for 2009. The event will take place on January 30th at the Ska Brewing World Headquarters in Durango, during Snowdown —Durango’s annual winter festival.

The event is also a preliminary for the 2010 Great American Beer Festival Pro-Am category, and will be an AHA/BJCP certified competition. Entry opens December 15th, and closes on January 15th. Beer entries must be in Ska’s possession no later than January 18th. The Snowdown Homebrew Competition’s website is here.

The winning recipe will be brewed in a Ska Local Series batch, to be sold at the brewery and in liquor stores around Southwest Colorado. The homebrewer who submits the winning beer will also help oversee large-scale production of the brew at Ska’s state-of-the-art brewing facility in Durango. In addition, the professionally-brewed version of the recipe will be entered into the Pro-Am category at the 2010 GABF in Denver. GABF is the nation’s largest beer festival and competition.

2008 marked the inaugural Snowdown Homebrew Competition, and according to Ska co-founder and President Dave Thibodeau, its success ensured that it would become an annual event. “Last year Chris Vest of the Mesa Verde Mashers won this competition with Merlo Stout, which went on to become a very popular release in our Local Series (#12).” Thibodeau also notes that this is not Ska’a only collaboration with homebrewers. “We started out as homebrewers, and we strive to keep that spirit alive, even in a professional craft-brewing operation. Between this event and our recently announced beer-blogger collaboration, we hope to support the homebrewing community and stay close to our roots.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

Unlocking Pinstripe's secrets

As part of my collaboration with Ska Brewing Co., the brewery is letting me in on some of Pinstripe's secrets.

I met Friday with Ska President Dave Thibodeau, Head Brewer Thomas Larsen and Beer N Bikes blogger Jeff Hammett to discuss ideas for our upcoming collaboration beers.

To give a little background, Thibodeau reached out to Jeff and I and offered us the opportunity to brew whatever we want on Ska's equipment. A five-gallon keg of each beer will go on tap later this winter.

As I've said, I plan to brew an imperial red ale based on Ska's Pinstripe Red Ale. To get a better idea of the beer's components, Thibodeau, Larsen and I delved a little into Pinstripe's DNA.

Ska's flagship beer, Pinstripe (5.2 percent ABV, 42 IBUs) uses a semi-proprietary variation of an English ale yeast strain, Ringwood Ale Yeast 1187. It's also the backbone of Ska's True Blonde Ale, Buster Nut Brown Ale and Ten Pin Porter.

The yeast strain is so important to Ska that it keeps a sample frozen in a Colorado Springs lab in case all hell breaks out at the Durango brewery. CSI, Durango.

It tolerates up to 10 percent ABV, more than enough for my purposes. I'm aiming for roughly 7 percent ABV with my double-Pinstripe (to be named cleverly at a later date).

Pinstripe is primarily spiced with Liberty hops, an American descendant of Hallertauer Mittlefrüh hops. Tettnang and Cascade hops add to the aroma.

I'm considering upping the Cascade quotient in my beer, because I've found that many beers I admire - Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and Ska's fresh-hop Hoperation Ivy - use Cascades. Of course, I have to exercise some restraint so I don't end up with an imperial IPA (which Ska already brews).

My beer will likely be brewed in late January or early February. Jeff's beer, tentatively a Belgian-style IPA, will go first because it can ferment at a higher temperature and there's some issue with temperature control on Ska's pilot system.

This is a very innovative project. The only other blogger-brewer collaboration I can find is a project by Dogfish Head of Milton, Delaware, and BeerAdvocate to brew an extreme beer. And with all due respect, BeerAdvocate is kind of the Borg of beer blogs: a collective hive mind absorbing everything beer-related that comes within its ubiquitous reach. This is a much more local effort.

If you ever get a chance to talk with Thibodeau or Larsen, pick their brains. They're old-school Colorado guys who can speak fluently about the history of craft beer in Colorado.

Thibodeau and Ska co-founder Bill Graham attended Wheat Ridge High School in suburban Denver with Larsen's older brother. Larsen came to Ska a year ago from Wynkoop Brewing Co. in Denver and helped out as Ska moved into its 24,000-square-foot headquarters in Bodo Industrial Park. He basically stuck around until Ska gave him a job.

If I don't get in Larsen's way too much, we should brew a hell of a beer.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Winter seasonal tasting tonight

I just heard that El Rancho Tavern in Durango will be hosting a winter beer tasting at 5 p.m. tonight (Dec. 12). It costs $10 for a cup, or bring two cans of food for donation. Rumor has it that Ska's Euphoria Pale Ale will be the lowest-alcohol beer featured, so expect some boozy winter warmers.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Day in the Life

A Belgian-style pale ale looking out the window at Pagosa Brewing Co. on Dec. 7. Pagosa Brewing is always worth a stop on your way through town. In addition to this beer, the brewery also had a stout on cask and Hop 'N Fresh, a fresh-hop ale, available, along with their usual lineup. Tasty little brewpub, this one.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: Spruce Goose 2009 (Steamworks Brewing Co.)

A few years ago, I ordered a Spruce Goose Ale at Steamworks Brewing in Durango, attracted mostly by the name. Howard Hughes’ flying crate had always seemed a bit romantic to me.

Unfortunately, the beer was some sort of fizzy yellow concoction. The taste shrieked of spruce. It was completely unapproachable and out of balance, and it took me years to brave another glass.

My, how things change.

Steamworks brewer Ken Martin has thoroughly revamped Spruce Goose, making it into a whole new beer. The brewery seems to recognize this, packaging it in an attractive wine-type bottle, topped by a cork and a cage. At $9.99 a bottle, it’s clearly an upmarket gambit.

I brought a bottle home hoping not to hate it.

Spruce Goose pours a deep copper color, with a white head that melts away quickly. It’s quite similar in appearance to a Belgian amber or abbey ale.

The taste is extraordinarily impressive. At first, it’s a tad sweet, as with many Belgian beers. Then comes the spruce. Unlike in previous iterations of Spruce Goose, the flavor from spruce tips in the 2009 version is nicely restrained. Spruce has a flavor all its own, but raspberries may be the closest analogue. It’s fruity in the best way, as with other beers made from truly natural fruit flavorings. It avoids the trap of excessive sweetness that other fruit-spiced beers sometimes fall into. The finish is pleasantly dry.

Martin harvested 80 pounds of spruce tips from near Little Molas Lake north of Durango, for which the brewery had to obtain a permit from the San Juan National Forest. Much like the locally produced Insider Ale that uses fresh apples or Ska’s Hoperation Ivy fresh-hop IPA, Spruce Goose continues and reinforces the trend of using local ingredients in brewing.

2009 Spruce Goose is a whole different beer than previous versions, and I’m a little surprised Steamworks kept the name – there’s no shame in retiring a beer that didn’t work. For some reason, Durango’s breweries seem to never have the heart to kill a beer.

Whatever its name, Spruce Goose is a smashing success, one of the best beers I’ve had this year. The flavor is wonderfully subtle and complex. And it’s encouraging, given Steamworks’ ongoing pullback from Bayfield. Get this winter seasonal while it’s available.

Martin, who also revamped Ale Diablo, seems to be on a bit of a roll. Let’s hope he keeps it going. A+

Monday, December 7, 2009

On tap at Carver's

At Carver Brewing Co., as with most brewpubs, the offerings vary widely depending on the season. There are times when nothing special seems to be on tap, and others when one could try a passel of interesting beers.

This is one of those better times. Century Hall Tribute, a smoky version of Carver's Colorado Uncommon, is superb. Uncommon is very smooth, and Century Hall Tribute is even better on nitro. The smoke is pleasantly subtle, unlike some other beers that use peated malt.

I'm also a big fan of the imperial pilsener on tap right now. Heavy-bodied but light-seeming, full of flavor without any one element dominating and deceptively boozy, it's an impressive lager.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ska Brewing Co. to release ... my beer

Ska Brewing Co. President Dave Thibodeau has invited Beer at 6512's own Soggy Coaster and Beer N Bikes' blogger Jeff Hammett to each brew a beer in collaboration with Ska.

We will work with Ska Head Brewer Thomas Larsen to choose a beer style and devise a recipe. When the beers are done, they will be put on tap at Ska Brewing's headquarters in Durango.

Meanwhile, we will blog, write, photograph, drink and be merry. You get to follow the project from start to finish and drink the resulting beers.

First, this is an extraordinarily innovative project. To my knowledge, Jeff and I will be the first beer bloggers in the nation to brew a beer with a commercial craft brewer. It's a logical extension of the collaborations many breweries, including Ska, have done with homebrewers.

This raises some obvious questions. Let's start with the fun one: What to brew?

I want to choose a style that is not brewed by any of Durango's breweries. That instantly cuts the options down dramatically. Among the four of them, Durango's breweries cover an impressive variety of styles.

I considered a Belgian abbey-style ale, but Ska is soon coming out with a Belgian-style pale ale of its own. So I'm leaning toward an imperial red ale. No brewery in Durango brews an imperial red now, and I don't recall any of them doing so in the past.

Essentially, it would be a double-Pinstripe. My inspiration for this is Ninkasi Believer, an Oregon beer that comes in at 6.9 percent ABV and 60 IBUs. Using as a base Pinstripe, Ska's best-selling beer, might give us a head start.

I don't know what style of beer Jeff has in mind.

I look forward to learning more about brewing. I think I've learned quite a bit about beer, but for a beer blogger, my knowledge of the actual brewing process is pathetically limited.

I can't speak for Jeff, but for me, "working with" Larsen will mostly involve watching him brew and learning. Unless I'm distracted by whatever hairstyle he's into lately. Last I saw, he was sporting a pink mohawk.

To be clear, Ska is paying for the beer ingredients, use of their equipment and Larsen's time. I'm not making a dime from this. And although I'm grateful for this opportunity, I don't plan to begin pulling any punches on Ska or ignoring the brewery's competitors, nor would Thibodeau expect me to.

A five-gallon keg of my beer and Jeff's beer will be on tap at Ska at some undetermined date. Many of the details remain to be nailed down, including the timing, and my idea for the style could change.

But, most importantly, this should be fun. I'll let you know when I know more.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The grocery-store sales debate, redux

A Colorado political candidate is attempting to place an initiative on the ballot to allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer, reports my Durango Herald colleague Joe Hanel.

As most of you know, grocery stores in the state may sell only beer containing up to 3.2 percent ABV. Real beer is sold in liquor stores.

This is just the latest chapter in a long debate over whether grocery stores should be allowed to sell full-strength beer. The Legislature has taken up this issue and gotten nowhere, in part because convenience stores - a surprisingly powerful lobby - do not want to lose more business to grocery stores.

Leaving aside the politics, let's take a look at the merits and drawbacks of grocery store sales. I start from the standpoint that people and institutions should generally be allowed to do what they want unless there is a good reason to prohibit them from doing so.

That leaves us with the objections to grocery store sales. As I see it, there are two primary objections to allowing grocery stores to sell full-strength beers:

1. It would hurt other businesses, primarily small liquor stores located next to grocery stores and also convenience stores.

2. It would reduce consumer access to craft beer, as most large grocery chains would carry only beer from big producers such as Sam Adams and New Belgium.

The best articulation I've heard of objection #1 was put forth by Ska President Dave Thibodeau in a May interview with Beer at 6512:

"Most of the little independently and locally owned liquor stores that are sitting right next to these large, chain grocery stores, a lot of those guys would go out of business. ... This is what’s unfair about it: they strategically located their stores in the parking lots of grocery stores. It was their business plan. To go and change the rules now that negates the entire reason they thought they had a good idea, it isn’t fair."

The interests of business owners clearly carry some weight. But changes in laws that affect businesses are nothing new. Cigarette manufacturers are required to label their products with strong warnings. Car manufacturers are required to install seat belts. Obviously, the government can and does impose regulations when the public good outweighs private interests.

Besides which, this unusual state law is responsible for the market being as it is. Durango has a ridiculous number of liquor stores. The phone book lists 15. When I moved here, it seemed to me that one could almost jump from liquor store to liquor store without ever touching the pavement.

The current rules distort the market by creating far more liquor stores than consumers would otherwise support. Imagine if milk could only be sold at specialized milk stores. There would be a milk store every few blocks, just as is now the case with liquor stores.

My guess is a bunch of small, unattractive liquor stores would go out of business, while the biggest and best (like Star Liqours and Liquor World in Durango) would survive. That, to me, is an acceptable outcome. Obviously, liquor store owners feel differently.

Which brings us to objection #2, that grocery stores would carry only the big brands and smallish brewers like Ska, Steamworks and Durango Brewing would not be able to get their beer in front of consumers.

I can only point to Oregon's experience with grocery-store sales, which has been overwhelmingly positive. The state has a thriving craft beer industry while also allowing grocery stores to sell full-strength beer.

Certainly, not every grocery store in Oregon carries beer from small producers. But a surprising number do. And bottle shops fill in the gaps.

To give an example: In my old hometown of Corvallis, Oregon, (pop. 50,000) you can walk into a grocery store and buy beer from the big guys like Deschutes, Widmer and Rogue. If you want something more unusual, you simply go to the bottle shop downtown, Whiteside's Beer and Wine, which has a selection that puts anyplace in Durango to shame.

Oregon's breweries have not suffered as a result of grocery store sales. Just look at success stories like Ninkasi Brewing. It was founded in 2006, brewed good beer and broke into grocery stores. It's now the seventh-largest brewery in Oregon, with an output comparable to Ska's.

Grocery-store sales in Colorado seem to me inevitable, whether it takes a year or 10 or 50. And guess what: when it happens, the sky will not fall.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Review: Durango Winter Ale

Durango Brewing Co. reminds me of a baseball team that has some great new players, but also some aging veterans of limited utility. By this I mean that some of DBC's beers are world-class, while others are completely forgettable.

DBC is on the rise. Its consecutive gold medals at the 2008 and 2009 Great American Beer Festival attest to that. The medal-winning Derail Ale and Colorfest fall seasonal are superb. So is the Pale Ale spring seasonal.

Still, some of DBC's beers are utterly mediocre, and I point to the Wheat and Golden. Jeff Alworth once used the term "under-engineered" in referring to New Belgium's beers, and I think the same applies to DBC's basic lineup. The Wheat and Golden seem too thin-bodied, a small step up from Budweiser or MolsonCoors products, almost as if the brewers were afraid to put some hops and malt in the damn brew kettle. (Durango Dark Lager is an exception, a malty black treat. The Amber is decent if unexceptional).

DBC's less interesting beers share one trait: they're all old. DBC was founded in 1990, back when the craft-brewing explosion was still in its infancy. At the time, beer drinkers were happy if the beer was wet. The competition, and beer drinkers' expectations, have increased dramatically.

This is a good thing, and DBC has responded by improving greatly in the last few years. Which brings us to Durango WinterAle, the brewery's cold-weather seasonal.

Winter Ale is on tap at the brewery, 3000 Main Ave., and in 22-ounce bomber bottles for about $4.

Winter Ale pours black with minimal head, showing a ruby tint when suffused with light. Whether on tap or bottled, my reaction to Durango Winter Ale has been the same: It's simply too sweet. Winter Ale has a massive bill of sweet malts that is not balanced out by the insubstantial hops bill.

Most winter warmers carry a fairly strong hop presence. Deschutes Jubelale is 60 IBUs. Full Sail Wassail is 56 IBUs. By contrast, Durango Winter Ale is only 37 IBUs.

This leads to a sweet taste that lacks the sort of complexity present in most winter seasonals. As Winter Ale warms, the sweet malts simply become more assertive. The hops seem to be hibernating.

Winter Ale does not stand well on its own, nor does it pair well with most foods. It does, however, make a heck of a dessert beer. I had a pumpkin pie with Winter Ale, and it made for a wonderful combination.

Still, that's faint praise for a beer that lacks versatility. Winter Ale is not one of Durango Brewing Co.'s better offerings. C

Monday, November 30, 2009

The new look

I'm fooling with a new template in hopes of eliminating some white space, giving the text more horizontal room and reducing the need to scroll so much. It's not quite where I want it to be yet, but I think I'm on the right track.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

On cask

The Washington Post has an article on cask ales, those delicious beers typically served above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and carbonated only by natural conditioning. It's a good primer on what makes a cask beer different from beer served on standard taps.

I find cask beers much more flavorful that their carbonated counterparts.

In Durango, we're fortunate enough to have a few hand-pulled cask engines around town. Carver's always has its cask dedicated to Cascade Canyon IPA, a consistently solid bet. Durango Brewing Co. and Steamworks Brewing Co. also have casks, but in my experience, they aren't always in operation. Sadly, Ska is cask-less.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Abyss lands in Durango

I arrived at my friend's house for Thanksgiving, and call me the Grinch if he didn't have a bottle of The Abyss sitting on his counter.

The Abyss, an imperial stout made by Deschutes Brewing in Oregon, is one of the best beers you or I will ever have. It's currently rated the fourth-best beer in the world by BeerAdvocate users. It won a gold medal at the 2007 Great American Beer Festival.

Naturally, I proceeded without further ado to Star Liquors, where my friend and I bought several more bottles. I'm squirreling some away to see how this legendary ale ages.

I won't belabor the point (Last winter, I wrote about my difficulty obtaining a bottle, and a subsequent review), but if you don't mind spending $11 for a great imperial stout, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ska unveils Snowdown beer and more

Ska Brewing Co has a bunch of beers coming around the corner. Let's get to it:

1. For the brewery's traditional Snowdown beer, Ska will release Hyper Fierce Gnar Gnar Hefe. This unfiltered hefeweizen will be brewed with pineapples and toasted coconut. The good folks at Carver's are letting Ska use their kitchen to toast the coconut, President Thibodeau reports.

"I've never even imagined such a thing," Thibodeau says. "This came out of Head Brewer Thomas Larsen's head. Obviously we have to keep a short lease on that guy, but he got away with one here."

The toasted coconut and pineapples fit in with Snowdown's "Life's a Beach" theme. After Larsen's success along with Avery Brewing Co. in brewing Wheelsucker Wheat, this might be tasty. I can also imagine the pineapple sweetness dominating with a cloying, syrupy taste. We'll have to see how this comes out. Regardless, it's a pretty daring experiment, even for a local release.

Hyper Fierce Gnar Gnar Hefe will be released only in Durango in 22-ounce bottles beginning Dec. 29, Thibodeau says.

2. Right after that, the brewery will release Ska Sour, which the brewery has been working on for most of the last year, Thibodeau says. I'll let the man tell you about it himself:

"If you could give it a style, I might call it a Belgo-American Sour Pale. It was brewed specifically
for the 10th anniversary of Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywines. Brewed with multiple yeast strains, including Brettanomyces, Ska Sour was aged and generally funked-up in oak casks inoculated with all manner of groovy little bugs. The aroma is decidedly sour with musty Brett hints and hearty notes of dark fruits (black currant, plum). The addition of Centennial dry hops in the casks give this beer a unique Ska hop twist."

Ska Sour will be released at the Vail Festival on Jan. 9, and statewide the following week. It will be bottled in 750ml bottles topped by a cork and cage.

Brettanomyces is the yeast behind some of my favorite beers, including Deschutes' The Dissident. It's an extremely delicate yeast that takes talented, patient brewers to handle.

In a larger sense, this is exactly the kind of beer I've been waiting for Ska to brew. The rush to "imperialize" every style has reached its limit, and it's time for a new trend in brewing. Going back to the roots of continental European traditions, like sour beers from those crafty Belgians, is a promising frontier.

3. Finally, one more limited-release Local Series beer will be out soon. This beer - which apparently still lacks a name - is a cream stout aged in oak casks with orange peels.

"The last time I tasted it, it reminded me of a liquid creamsicle," Thibodeau says. "This is very limited (4 casks) and will only be available in Durango. Look for the familiar Local Series labels on 22-ounce bottles."

Update: Beer #3 is apparently named Oak-aged Orange Cream Stout, per Ska's Facebook feed.

Steamworks releases Spruce Goose

Steamworks Brewing Co. has released Spruce Goose, a winter seasonal brewed with 80 pounds of spruce tips from Molas Pass trees.

Spruce Goose is on tap at Steamworks and available in 22-ounce bomber bottles.

“To some extent, this is a homegrown beer,” Brian McEachron, director of marketing and sales, said in a news release. “It’s a beer that’s certainly not ‘mainstream,’ but definitely worth discovering.”

McEachron credited Steamworks brewer Ken Martin with perfecting the recipe, which purportedly dates to the Vikings.

Spruce Goose is 8.1 percent ABV, and it earned a bronze medal in the 2009 Australian International Beer Competition.

It has been years since I've tried Spruce Goose. When I first drank it, it really threw me off and I couldn't even finish a pint. However, tastes evolve, and I'll give Spruce Goose another shot this winter. Look for a review here in the next week or two.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Steamworks to leave Bayfield

My Durango Herald colleague Dale Rodebaugh breaks some big news on Steamworks Brewing Co. in today's paper. Steamworks plans to abandon its Bayfield brewing facility and retrench in Durango. The article reports:

Steamworks Brewing Co. is phasing out its Bayfield plant, where about two-thirds of its production takes place.

"Our intent is to retrench in Durango, which will be done in phases," co-founder and CEO Kris Oyler said Thursday. "We'll bring most of our operations here."

Sales are not the problem, Oyler said. Month-in, month-out sales this year are up 30 to 40 percent, Oyler said. Myriad cost pressures, including transportation and the price of hops, which has tripled in the preceding 18 months, are the culprit, Oyler said.

This is big and bewildering news. The story of craft beer in this nation since the mid-'80s has been one of continuous growth. It's remarkable to see this dramatic a sign of pulling back.

Certainly, cost pressures for hops and transportation are real, but it's unclear why Steamworks is pulling back. Oyler says in the article:

"We tried to run a restaurant in Bayfield, but our business model didn't work as we had planned."

Please allow me to indulge in some informed speculation: Bayfield is a tiny, working-class town, population 2,024. It's entirely possible that there just aren't enough customers in Bayfield to support a restaurant-brewpub. But that doesn't explain why three brewery employees were laid off, while restaurant staff was unaffected.

This news leaves more questions than answers.

Hopefully, this retrenchment allows Steamworks to survive the tough economy and emerge in a sustainable manner. The brewery plans to focus on its Colorado markets. It doesn't sound as if Steamworks' Durango location will be substantially affected.

One thing it does make clear: Ska is now clearly the dominant Durango-based brewer, with about double Steamworks' production.

P.S.: Check out Beer 'N Bikes take here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dear Readers: What do you want?

Beer at 6512 is closing in on its first anniversary. The 'ol Durango beer blog is nearing 8,000 all-time hits and has logged 160 posts.

I enjoy doing it. It's fun learning more about craft beer and sharing it with you.

But the damn thing has yet to bring in a dime. (Google Adsense doesn't pay until you reach a certain threshold, which at this rate, is years away). And sometimes, writing on the Internet feels like mumbling into an abyss.

So I think the time has come for a little check-in with you guys, my readers. What do you like? What do you want to see more of? What's a waste of time and space?

At the bottom of the blog, if you'll scroll down, there's a reader poll. Click on whatever you want to see more of. Also feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me.

I want Beer at 6512 to be relevant to you and worth my time, too. Please let me know how I'm doing and what you want to see.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Review: Steamworks Ale Diablo

A while back, I complained about the relative lack of Colorado-brewed Belgian styles. Ale Diablo is a notable exception to this prevailing condition.

Clearly, Steamworks put a lot of thought, effort and money into this Belgian-style golden ale. The fall seasonal was bottled in 24-ounce wine bottles, topped by a cork and cage. I purchased mine for $9.99 at a local liquor store.

Brewers Ken Martin and Spencer Roper devised a recipe that incorporates juice from Riesling grapes, which create the white wine of the same name.

“Typically, Belgian double blonde ale is the style we brew for the Diablo,” Martin said in an August news release. “But we’ve used juice of Riesling grapes during fermentation, plus a Belgian strong golden yeast strain for the first time this year. The aroma of the beer is more spicy and peppery with hints of clove and fruit. On the palate the beer will have a light, soft malt character with slight green apple tartness and a hint of citrus.”

Ale Diablo (8.5 percent ABV, 33 IBUs) pours very pale, even compared to most golden ales. Some fizzy, white carbonation lingers.

The taste is largely to style: a bit sweet, a bit funky, a bit delicious. The Riesling grapes do lend a fruity taste reminiscent of white wine. Ale Diablo is very dry.

It is a strong beer, and the alcohol provides a pleasant warming sensation throughout. It might not be a bad idea to share your bottle with another, as I did.

Ale Diablo compares well with other Belgian goldens available in Colorado, including Ska's True Blonde Dubbel and Avery's Salvation. They're all very good, and I'd love to see which would come out ahead in a blind tasting.

Belgian goldens seem celebratory, like something one could drink at a wedding. They also go damn well with all kinds of food. Ale Diablo is an angelic Belgian beer. A-

Friday, November 13, 2009

Thanksgiving beers

Thanksgiving is a fantastic beer-drinking holiday. I know I'm looking forward to having the day off for the first time in years.

It also represents a chance to stretch your beer-pairing skills. This Seattle beer blog has some good suggestions, focusing on Belgian styles. But personally, I want to go another route. It's just too damn cold to mess with saisons.

I'm thinking two dark beers: one big, assertive beer, and another I can drink a few of.

For the big beer, the obvious choice has been aging in my fridge for months: Deschutes Black Butte XXI, a massive 11 percent ABV super-porter that was brewed with coffee and chocolate nibs and aged in whisky barrels. I'm eager to try it.

For the smaller brew, I'm considering a few choices. Durango Dark Lager (5.8 percent ABV, 20 IBUs), Full Sail's Session Black and Deschutes Obsidian Stout (6.4 percent ABV, 50 IBUs) would all work well.

There is a so much selection out there that it's difficult to narrow the choices. Nevertheless, it's a good problem to have.

What do you think? Surely I've overlooked some good turkey-pairing beers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Halfway to Helles

Durango Brewing Co. has a new German-style pale lager on tap.

Halfway to Helles (you just knew there had to be a pun in the name somehow) is a project by Damon Scott, who works under Managing Brewer Scott Bickert.

It comes in at 6.1 percent ABV and 30 IBUs. The lager was brewed with pilsener malt as a base with dark and light Munich malts, bittered with Mt. Hood hops.

I had one last night at the brewery and really enjoyed it. Sometimes it's just nice to have a classic beer brewed to style.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A little boosterism

Two quick odes to Durango beers:

1. Steamworks Brewing Co. has a superb Imperial Mole Stout on cask (at least as of Nov. 6, at the Durango brewpub). The spice adds a unique flavor that I found reminiscent of vanilla. There's also some chocolate and a mellow spice kick to it. Serving it at cask temperature allows the flavors to come out right away. It's really a very complex, interesting stout. Some imperial stouts have a "me too" quality to them. Not this one. It ought not be missed.

As an aside, props to Steamworks for offering 10- and 20-ounce beers. Sometimes, as with a heavy, strong imperial stout, 10 ounces is perfect.

2. The more fresh-hop beers I try, the more I think Ska's Hoperation Ivy is an excellent example of the style. I tried a Left Hand Warrior IPA (6.6 percent ABV, 60 IBUs) on Sunday and came away disappointed. It wasn't bad, but it seemed less flavorful than Hoperation Ivy. So add the Longmont brewery's entry into the fresh-hop category as another beer that Hoperation Ivy exceeds, along with Deschutes' Hop Trip and Sierra Nevada's Harvest Ale.

There are so many fresh-hop beers brewed on the West Coast that it's hard to know how Hoperation Ivy stacks up. But it blows away most others I've tried.

This post has been edited from an earlier version.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Review: Durango Brewing Ghost Train

Perhaps if Charlie Brown (correction: Linus) ever turns 21, he will just sip a Ghost Train instead of waiting all night for the Great Pumpkin to show up.

A new seasonal release from Durango Brewing Co., Ghost Train was brewed with pumpkin spices. A 22-ounce bomber bottle cost me $3.99 at a local liquor store. It’s also on tap at Durango Brewing.

This is the third year Durango Brewing has made Ghost Train, but the first time the brewery has bottled it.

The label is terrifying. A flaming jack o’ lantern forms the head of a train conductor. It’s like something out of a childhood nightmare.

Ghost Train (5.8 percent ABV, 21 IBUs) pours a fair-sized grayish head with a dark body. The carbonation sticks around for a while.

At first taste, Ghost Train has a strong, slightly sweet malt profile. The pumpkin spice kicks in second. Ghost Train is not a hoppy beer. Malt flavors and spice carry this lager.

Ghost Train is based on Durango Dark Lager – in my opinion, the best of DBC’s longtime lineup and among the best year-round beers brewed in Durango. So it’s no surprise that Ghost Train is tasty.

After fermentation, the lager is spiced. “We’re able to dry-pumpkinize it,” said Managing Brewer Scott Bickert, who had some experience brewing pumpkin-spiced beers at Four Peaks Brewing in Arizona.

“No one else I knew was doing one in town,” Bickert said.

Durango Brewing Co. keeps improving, as consecutive years taking home GABF gold medals attests. The brewery’s still-fairly new tap room has given it a visibility and a culture it previously lacked.

Ghost Train is a fine seasonal release, a taste of pumpkin pie in a bottle. It’s too sweet to drink regularly, but that wasn’t the brewery’s intention. Bickert brewed seven barrels of Ghost Train, and only about two barrels remain. Ghost Train ought to go nicely with Thanksgiving dinner - if you can save some. B

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween, dear readers. Enjoy yourselves tonight but stay safe. Drive sober, or better yet, don't drive at all because not everybody will make good choices.

I'll be enjoying Halloween with some friends and a mini-keg of Ska ESB (5.7 percent ABV, 58 IBUs).

Kegs ain't cheap. It was $57 for the five-gallon keg. That's a total of 40 pints, so it comes out to $1.43 per pint.

The other issue is the deposit, which was north of $100 for the keg and tap. Brewers in general have been charging fat deposits for kegs to make sure they come back. A couple of years ago, breweries were having big problems with people selling kegs for scrap metal.

Deposits help make sure people return the kegs, but it may be a barrier for some people to drop more than $100, even if they get the money back.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Elsewhere on the Internets

The Oregonian has excellent news for our local brewers: the hop crisis is over. In fact, there is a glut of hops on the market right now.

In 2007, hops became so expensive that brewers were fretting about their supply. Without hops, craft beer wouldn't be what it is today. We'd all be drinking Gruit instead of IPAs and all the rest.

There's no danger of that now. The newspaper reports:

"It's a complete reversal from a couple of years ago," says Ralph Olson of Hopunion LLC in Yakima, a major hop broker and supplier.

As an agricultural product, beer will always suffer from the vagaries of nature, supply and demand. But it's good to know that at least for now, the hops will keep coming.

Also, The New York Times reviews a range of stouts today. Frankly, I found the Times article a little stodgy. The writer, Eric Asimov, reminisces about hunting around NYC for Guinness. That's pretty far removed from the experiences of beer drinkers today.

The Times article focuses on classically styled stouts that are light in body. Fair enough, I suppose, but if I'm at a liquor store looking for a dark beer, I'm probably going to reach for an imperial stout such as Great Divide's Yeti.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Seasonal beers on tap at Ska

One of the most fortuitous outcomes of Ska Brewing Co.'s move to a 24,000-square-foot building a year ago has been occasional tappings of some fantastic limited-run beers.

Ska purchased a small pilot system to allow its talented brewers to test their skills on small batches. One of the first of these, a Belgian amber, portended great things to come.

A visit to Ska on Monday showed the brewers have stepped up their small-batch efforts. Three very limited seasonal beers were on tap. I chose a sour, barrel-aged version of Ska's Nefarious Ten Pin Imperial Porter. The sour note was strong, a dominant taste rather than a suggestive flavor. I liked it, but a little bit went a long way, especially considering the beer's assertive alcohol content.

Also on tap were two Halloween-themed beers. I had a taster glass of a pumpkin-spiced brown ale that was delicious. It was a tad sweet with a nicely balanced pumpkin flavor. Again, one wouldn't want to drink more than a pint of it at a time, but it tasted of an experiment gone right. I didn't get to try the third beer.

These beers won't be bottled, so it behooves you to try them while they last. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The seasons, they change

Craft beer, like leaves, changes with the seasons.

A Budweiser is always a Budweiser. There is no such thing as a fresh-hop Budweiser, nor does Anheuser-Busch InBev brew a Budweiser stout.

This is one of the great advantages and distinctions of craft brewing. Most craft breweries offer anywhere from a half-dozen to 20 distinct beers at any given time, and at least one or two will be seasonal creations.

In the earthy world of craft beer, seasons dictate brewing certain beers.

We can celebrate autumn with fresh-hop beers like Ska's Hoperation Ivy or Steamworks' Wet-Hop Brown. Or we can enjoy bottled out-of-state treats, like Deschutes' Hop Trip. Or we can taste other seasonal creations like Durango Brewing's Colorfest or Steamworks' Ale Diablo.

Just as soon as we tire of wheat beers, light lagers and other summer seasonals, the weather turns cold, encouraging us to move on to stouts, porters and dark lagers.

I've done that myself, drinking within the last week a Session Dark Lager from Full Sail Brewing in Oregon, (a near clone of Durango Brewing's Durango Dark Lager); a Black Butte Porter and a Ska Steel Toe Stout.

Steel Toe (5.4 percent ABV, 29 IBUs) has been around for quite some time, but it came to my attention again by winning a bronze medal in the sweet stout category at last month's Great American Beer Festival. It makes a fantastic dessert beer - I can vouch that it pairs wonderfully with Cherry Garcia.

It won't be long before I'll be enjoying a Backside Stout on tap at Purgatory. Summer is gone, and fall is slipping away. The current temperature in Durango is 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily, we have an impressive variety of beers to keep us warm through the cold, bleak winter.

Like the sky, it's time for beer drinkers to go dark.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review: Avery duganA IPA

Avery Brewing Co. has a new India Pale Ale on the shelves. Named duganA, this hefty double IPA is meant to give hopheads something between the Boulder brewery's standard IPA (which is exceptional) and its huge Maharaja Imperial IPA.

It reminds me of Porsche, which decided sports car buyers needed something between the Boxster and 911. Thus the Cayman, a bastard child that doesn't even look cool.

But I digress. For the sake of context on Avery's IPA lineup, here are the stats:

Avery IPA: 6.3 percent ABV, 69 IBUs
duganA double IPA: 8.5 percent ABV, 93 IBUs
Maharaja Imperial IPA: 10.2 percent ABV, 102 IBUs

duganA looks and smells like one would expect from a double IPA. It pours a dark, yellow-tinted amber, with a bubbly two-finger white head that recedes quickly, revealing a pronounced hop aroma.

As one would expect from Avery, duganA is well-brewed. The hop bitterness is aggressive but nevertheless drinkable. It's stronger than a standard IPA but more approachable than, say, Steamworks' Conductor Imperial IPA.

duganA is nothing new. It's simply an above-average strong IPA, a style that is becoming achingly familiar. Yet a well-brewed IPA will always find a market. B+

Check out the Boulder Daily Camera's review here.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Changes coming to Durango Mug Club

An alert Beer at 6512 reader left a comment a while back asking if Durango's four breweries and Farmington's Three Rivers Brewery were putting the kibosh on the Mug Club.

Not exactly. Mug club is "going through a transformation," said Bill Graham, co-founder of Ska Brewing Co., via e-mail.

Essentially, a plastic card will replace the actual mug. Your bartender will swipe the card when you purchase the beer, giving you a buck off. It costs $40 to join, so you'll have to drink at least 40 locally brewed beers in a year to make it worthwhile

Here's the relevant portion of Graham's e-mail:

We are hoping to have it all set for re-upping in November. This will be the gig: A Mug Clubber will be issued a card, like our gift card ... you know, credit card-looking thing. Upon ordering a beer at any one of the five places, you give your card to the beertender and then she swipes it at the register. The deal is you get a buck off every beer all the time. So no mug, no hauling crap around, just the card in your wallet. On Wednesdays (Mug Club night), you get $2 off every beer. It’s never been done before but the Aloha person says it can be done.

Anyway, on Wednesday there will be a lottery. Take all five places electronically, the thing is tracking all of the beers sold, and the 100th beer or 50th or whatever is the winner of the lottery, you get a shirt or hat or something from the place you happen to be sitting at. We hope it will be random enough that lottery winners are evenly split between the five places. Additionally, the thing will print out whatever on the chit; we’ll offer 10 percent off food at your next visit, discounted ski tickets, a half-price board tune from Bubba’s - whatever we can come up with in the future. But for the start up phase, it will just be the buck off thing. The other cool thing is instead of a re-up period, your card is good for a year from the time of purchase. The thing is smart enough that your card will not work one minute past a year from the time you bought it, and it tells the person at the register. So now, if you buy your card in May or June, the thing is good until the following May or June, which is cool. You activate your card by using it, but for those that choose, they can register on-line and also get bonuses sent to their e-mail.

With the caveat that the details are not yet finalized, this seems to me like a good idea in the making. The chief barrier to joining the Mug Club always has been the mug itself. Who wants to lug around a mug every time they want a draft beer?

It'll be interesting to see if the club keeps its name. "Point-of-Sale Club" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

More details will be forthcoming. It took a few days, but the Beer at 6512 investigative team always gets results. :)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A welcome to newcomer Upslope Brewing

Upslope Brewing opened in Boulder only a year ago, swaggering like a talented rookie into the Front Range's already impressive lineup of breweries.

With stalwarts like New Belgium, O'Dell, Avery and Great Divide already nearby, why did Northern Colorado beer drinkers need more?

Well, because they can.

I have no idea when the microbrew market will reach saturation, but it doesn't seem anywhere close - as again proved by Upslope.

The newcomer proved it can swing with the big boys, winning two bronze medals at last month's Great American Beer Festival. To extend the metaphor, it was a Rookie of the Year-caliber performance from brewer Dany Pages.

So how's the beer? Based on a very limited sample, I pronounce it damn good. I found a six-pack of cans (yes, cans. BeerAdvocate photo here.) at a Denver store. I picked the pale ale; their IPA was also available.

Pale ale is a sure barometer of a brewery's quality. Breweries with indifferent pales are not worth one's attention, but a brewer of a well-done or unique pale ale deserves recognition.

Upslope's, I can happily report, falls into the latter category. The pale ale (5.8 percent ABV) pours a much lighter color than most pales, which despite the name, often show an amber color. Upslope's could at a glance be mistaken for a wheat.

Yet the hop taste is there. This is no weak pale ale, despite appearances. It's grassy, a touch of citrus, some nicely balanced malt flavor. An impressive session ale and a promising sign of things to come from Boulder's rookie.

Perhaps, with a little time, Upslope can grow enough to distribute around Durango. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Homebrewers to convene at Ska

Homebrewing clubs from Cortez, Pagosa Springs and Montrose will meet Oct. 24 at Ska Brewing Co. to taste, brag and chat about homebrewing.

It's free, and there should be a lot of good beer. The Autumn Homebrew Hoedown is intended to be a simple meet-up, with beer enthusiasts sampling brews and discussing homebrewing.

All are welcome. The hoedown begins at noon at Ska HQ, 225 Girard St., in Bodo Industrial Park.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A day in the life

A Belgian amber ale enjoyed at Pagosa Springs Brewing Co on Sept. 20. If you've never been to Pagosa Springs Brewing, you should go. They've got a fantastic lineup of beers.

A new one I had the same day, Mid Nite Pale Ale, was fantastic, although my photos of Mid Nite didn't turn out well. There's no information about Mid Nite on Pagosa's website, which makes me think it's new. In any case, it exhibited superb, well-balanced hop character. Sometimes hoppy beers run toward the bitter end. But in some cases, as with Mid Nite, they exhibit a fruity, floral character that makes you wonder if the hops were just picked off the vine. Delicious.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Review: Harvest Festbier (Carver Brewing)

Carver Brewing Co. has its Harvest Festbier on tap.

This German-style Oktoberfest lager pours a deep amber, with a substantial white, fluffy head.

It's got a lot of flavor led by a big malt profile. The hop presence isn't assertive.

Festbier is a returning seasonal release from the Durango brewpub. Carver's also poured it at Oktoberfest last weekend. According to Carver's head brewer Erik Maxson, this is the first time it's been brewed with completely organic ingredients.

"This year, we went all organic," Maxson said via e-mail. "Organic German malt, organic Hallertau hops, our special house lager strain, also from Germany; and good ol' Colorado water."

Festbier comes in at 6.8 percent ABV and 24 IBUs. The numbers tell me it's boozy, but Festbier does not have a strong alcohol taste. In fact, I'd call it refreshing. It would be easy to get yourself in deep with a few pints of this one.

I'm having a tough time describing Festbier. But I like it. B+

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bickert with his medal-winning beer

Check out this photo from The Durango Herald.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A day in the life

A Santa Fe Brewing Co. Yippee Imperial IPA, pictured at a hotel near Santa Fe's historic plaza. This bottle is hand-numbered and quite nicely packaged. Of course, it matters much more how it tastes, and I have yet to crack it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Durango Brewing wins GABF gold, Ska earns medals

Durango had a big showing at last weekend's Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

Durango Brewing Co. won gold in the American-style amber lager category for its Durango Colorfest fall seasonal. Colorfest (6.2 percent ABV, 21 IBUs), is on the shelves now in 22-ounce bomber bottles.

Ska Brewing Co. won three medals: silver, English-style brown ale, for Buster Nut Brown; bronze, English-style summer ale, for True Blonde Ale; and bronze, sweet stout, for Steel Toe Stout.

The GABF is the Super Bowl of beer competitions; none is more prestigious. It's a big accomplishment to win any medals, and Durango Brewing and Ska deserve hearty congratulations for their wins.

Some 495 breweries participated, entering 3,308 beers in the competition. Attendance totaled 49,000.

Colorado breweries won 45 medals, outperforming any other state.

A friend who attended sent me this: "Admittedly, as amazing as it was, I really need to go with a battle plan next time. There's so much to taste and you can get really, really lost if you don't plan out your visits. LOT of crappy beers. But then again, a lot of great ones."

Brewers tend to bust out some special beers for GABF, like barrel-aged treats. I wasn't able to go this year. Maybe next time ...

Oktoberfest wrap-up

A couple of new beers from Carver Brewing Co. and Steamworks Brewing Co. highlighted last weekend's Oktoberfest in Durango.

Held on East Second Avenue, Oktoberfest attracted all four Durango breweries. My favorite beer at the fest was Carver's new Harvest Festbier, a delicious Oktoberfest lager. It's got a lot of big, malty amber flavor. Try it while you can.

Steamworks was pouring its new fresh-hop beer, Wet Hop Brown Ale. Most breweries that are lucky enough to get fresh hops choose to showcase them in pale ales or IPAs. It's highly unusual to brew a fresh-hop brown. In fact, this is the first time I've heard of a fresh-hop brown.

It makes me wonder if Steamworks simply wanted to differentiate its offering from Ska's Hoperation Ivy, a wet-hop IPA. In any case, it made for an aggressively hopped brown ale, which was a bit strange. Browns usually showcase delicious, chocolately malts.

Give Steamworks props for trying something different, but I personally hope they try something else next time.

Beer, wine and pairing with cheese

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on the increasing popularity of pairing cheese with beer rather than wine, even in the wine regions of Italy.

Locally, Dave Thibodeau at Ska Brewing Co. was out in front of this trend with a beer, wine and cheese pairing in February that he hosted with wine rep Leah Deane of Republic National Distributing Company. The cheese came from Guido's Fine Foods in Durango.

It was intriguing to see how an extremely salty cheese like Locatelli Pecorino Romano stood up to a shiraz and an IPA, for example. I could experiment with different combinations of beer, wine and cheese every night. Alas, there is only so much liver, and so much paycheck.

Certainly, wine is a more than adequate companion to most cheeses. Yet beer, which has gotten such short shrift from the snobs, deserves more respect in fine dining rooms. Some special bottles contain beer both subtle and beautiful, and they pair wonderfully with fresh bread or cheese.

Hopefully, restaurants will catch on. Some already are: on a recent stroll through downtown Durango, I noticed that Season's Grill has a thoughtfully chosen beer list. All it takes is a little awareness. And Durango, with four breweries for 16,000 people, is a heck of a place to raise it.

Update: Steamworks spokeswoman Indiana Reed pointed out that I overlooked how long Steamworks has been pairing beer with cheese:

"Steamworks has been doing the Art of Beer and Cheese Pairings with Music in the Mountains for years now. Steamworks was ahead of the curve – way ahead. Four years ago Steamworks initiated pairing international cheese (and other foods) with its beers for the special tasting at Music in the Mountains. And remember too, that it’s Steamworks that was invited to pair beer and food at the James Beard House in NYC this past spring (no other Colorado breweries), and it was Steamworks that was the brewery showcased at the beer dinner at the governor’s residence in advance of this year’s GABF. Steamworks hosted its first Beer Dinner on February 7, 2002."

Reed makes some good points, and I apologize for the oversight.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Oktoberfest this weekend

Durango will celebrate Oktoberfest with beer and brats this weekend, Sept. 26-27.

The celebration takes place on East Second Ave., beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday. All four Durango breweries will be there.

Admission is free, but you have to purchase wooden nickels to redeem them for beer. There's a roster of evening events, including a Warsaw Poland Bros. concert at Steamworks. Ten bucks allows you to participate in a pub crawl.

The event is sponsored by San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Durango-based environmental organization. They have all the info you need here.

Steamworks and hangovers

Early this summer, I brought a growler of Steamworks beer to a barbecue at a friend's house. Another guest asked me, "You can drink that stuff?"

It wasn't that Steamworks' beer - in this case, Our Bock - tastes bad. It doesn't. What my acquaintance was concerned about was the widely held perception that Steamworks beer induces particularly awful hangovers.

Whether or not this perception is warranted, it presents a problem for Steamworks, a sizable regional brewery with operations in Durango and Bayfield and distribution deals in several states. Competition is fierce in the craft beer industry, and this sort of thing matters.

Repeatedly, and from different people, I've heard that Steamworks' beers produce hangovers that are especially bad. It's a widespread public perception that bears airing.

I've also heard people complain that Steamworks' beer causes, to put it delicately, digestive issues. As one man wrote on Beer Advocate: "For reasons beyond my beer knowledge, the delicious brews at Steamworks have an interesting tendency to loosen my bowels, and make me quite uncomfortable. I still enjoy visiting Steamworks regularly, however, be warned after your fourth or fifth beer."

What gives? I've heard a few theories, but I'm reluctant to tar Steamworks based on rumor.

Of course, drinking alcohol in excess is a bad thing, and hangovers are God's way of punishing you for it. This is as it should be.

I did contact Steamworks for their response. Steamworks co-founder Brian McEachron said in an e-mail:

"Give me a break. Do you really think we would do something special to our
beer to induce a hangover? Hangovers come from drinking too much.

Beer is made from four main ingredients and all four breweries utilize the
same ingredients and same techniques to create world class beer.

Do you really think that a team of award-winning brewers would allow the brew house
equipment to not be clean or present our beers to our patrons that is not
polished and delicious? I really hope that as a writer and supporter of the
craft beer you are able to see through the little mean myth and that you can
respond with tact and facts."

He noted Steamworks' many awards, like the multiple GABF gold medals for Steam Engine Lager. That's certainly laudable, although it's a separate issue.

To be clear, this post isn't intended to slag Steamworks. I like many of their beers. This is part and parcel of Beer at 6512's mission to start discussions about issues in the craft beer industry.

What do you think? Does Steamworks' beer cause particularly bad hangovers or not?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ska releases Euphoria Pale Ale

Ska Brewing Co. has released Euphoria Pale Ale, a winter seasonal, in cans.

Previously, this beer has been available only around Durango. Ska's new brewing facility and canning line have allowed the company to release this one more widely. Don't be surprised if it makes it to the Denver area's finer liquor stores.

I went straight to the source, buying a six-pack of 12-ounce cans for $8.49 at Ska HQ.

This is also the first time Euphoria has been available in cans. The can design is very cool, dominated by a deep, almost purplish blue. Ska's familiar skeleton is wearing winter garb, clad in a black-and-white checkered scarf. This will look familiar to Modus Hoperandi drinkers.

It's literally been years since I've drank Euphoria. I look forward to cracking one open.

Be. Jealous.

As a follow-up to my trip to Oregon, I received a wonderful gift today: a box full of beer, predominantly of Oregon origin.

I bought a bunch of beers while I was there, but ran out of time to figure out how to ship them. That's what moms are for.

The big ol' box o' beer will salve the pain of missing this weekend's Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

Without further ado, the bounty:

1. Cascade Brewing Co. Sang Royal. From a Portland brewpub, Sang Royal is dubbed a "Northwest-style sour red ale." It was aged in oak barrels with cherries added and comes in at 8.9 percent ABV. I love sours, so I'm incredibly excited about this one.

2. Upright Four from Upright Brewing, a new brewery in Portland that uses open fermentation. It's light at 4.5 percent ABV, a so-called "table beer" combining elements of American and European wheat ales. It's brewed with pale, wheat and Munich malts, rolled wheat, Hallertauer Mittelfruh hops and French saison yeast, promising a certain tartness.

3. Hair of the Dog Fred. A Portland classic, this golden ale is brewed with 10 hop varieties and aromatic and rye malts. Ten percent ABV and 65 IBUs. This is the only 12-ounce bottle in the group; the rest are bombers.

4. Ninkasi Total Domination IPA. An India Pale Ale from the up-and-coming Eugene brewery that is becoming known for its aggressively hopped ales. It's 6.7 percent ABV, 65 IBUs.

5. Pelican Heiferweizen Ale. A Belgian-style organic wit beer from the Pacific City brewery.
It's 5 percent ABV, 22 IBUs. If you've had Ska's DIFF, this is probably similar.

6. Pelican Doryman's Dark Ale. A brown ale (5.8 percent ABV, 42 IBUs), that was one of Pelican's earliest beers. A doryman, if you're curious, is a fisherman who uses a dory. A dory is a type of small boat used by anglers in some areas, including Pacific City.

7. Pelican Bridal Ale. A 2008 bottling, this French-style biere de garde was made for a brewer's wedding. It's 7.5 percent ABV and 25 IBUs. If you know of any reason I should not drink this, speak now or forever hold your peace.

8. Le Pelican Brun. A Belgian-style dubbel ale with a "rich yeast-driven aroma reminiscent of a saison," Pelican says. It's 7.8 percent ABV, 20 IBUs. A 2007 bottling, this apparently isn't available anymore. I got my from the fridge at the brewery.

And a few from elsewhere:

9. Midnight Sun Obliteration V Double IPA. A big, hoppy monster from Anchorage, Alaska. Obliteration V comes in at 8.2 percent ABV and 95 IBUs. It was brewed with Nugget, Warrior and Amarillo hops.

10. The Bruery Orchard White. A Belgian-style wit (5.7 percent ABV, 15 IBUs), bottle-conditioned and unfiltered, from the Placentia, California, brewery. I've heard great things about The Bruery, and this is my first chance to try one of their beers.

11. Allagash Black. A beer from another well-regarded brewery that I haven't tried. Allagash is based in Portland, Maine, and is reputed to be one of the East Coast's best. This is a "Belgian-style stout." I didn't even know there was such a thing. It's 7.5 percent ABV and bottle-conditioned.

Writing this out told me something about my own tastes. Seven of the 11 are Belgian-style beers. I love Belgians, and there just aren't enough available in Colorado.

It'll take me a while to drink all of these, and I'll probably need some help from my friends. Any takers?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hoperation Ivy released today

Ska Brewing Co.'s Hoperation Ivy was scheduled to be released today.

Hoperation Ivy is a fresh-hop IPA, brewed with the bounty of San Juan Hop Farms near Montrose. It is no. 13 in the Durango brewery's Local Series.

It should be in Durango liquor stores in 22-ounce bomber bottles.

I haven't tried it yet, but last year it was a very tasty, aggressively hopped ale. If you haven't tried any fresh-hop beers, you owe it to yourself to drink a bottle. Fresh-hop ales have a more floral and oily quality that less fresh beers just can't duplicate.

Fresh-hop (also called wet-hop) beers are exceedingly popular in regions lucky enough to have hop farms. These beers involve driving to nearby farms, choosing the hops, then driving back and getting the hops into a brew kettle in a hurry.

Deschutes Brewery in Oregon and Sierra Nevada in California brew fresh-hop beers that show up on our local shelves.

Steamworks Brewing, last I heard, was also brewing a fresh-hop beer using San Juan Hop Farms hops. I'll let you know when I have more information on their edition.

You can read more about Ska's hop trip to Montrose below.

Update: It's on the shelves for sure, at least at Ska HQ.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The IPA's remarkable ascendance

As we all know, India Pale Ales have become hugely popular in the modern craft beer world. Nearly every craft brewery makes one, and hopheads pant at the notion of a newer, bigger IPA.

Last year, the IPA was the most-entered category among brewers at the Great American Beer Festival.

IPAs are characterized by their strong alcohol content and aggressive hopping. Most IPAs fall in between 6 to 8 percent ABV and 60 to 80 IBUs. They taste bitter.

Locally, when Ska Brewing Co. decided to add a beer this year to its year-round lineup, it chose an IPA. Ever since, Ska has been selling the heck out of Modus Hoperandi. It seems Thibodeau and co. made a savvy business decision.

What to make of this popularity? Perhaps it's simply the search for something different. Nothing provides as great a departure from industrial lagers like Budweiser than a hoppy, craft-brewed IPA like Modus.

The strong alcohol content also probably plays a role. People like big beers.

Locally, the offerings are fairly diverse. A drinker can find Cascade Canyon Cask IPA and Monkeywrenched IPA at Carver Brewing Co. Ska has Modus Hoperandi on tap, and every liquor store in town carries it. Steamworks offers Conductor Imperial IPA, a huge hop bomb at 9.2 percent ABV and 82 IBUs.

In bottles, Durango shelves offer a wealth of variety, from Russian River's Pliny the Elder to Avery's IPA. Avery also has its massive 10 percent ABV, 102 IBUs, Maharaja Imperial IPA.

Lately, my favorite IPAs have been Avery's IPA and Russian River's Blind Pig. They carry a hop bite with pleasant balance.

I've warmed to IPAs, but I doubt it will ever be my favorite style. I would rather sip a Belgian-inspired brew like Brewery Ommegang's Hennepin or Avery's White Rascal. But some beer drinkers primarily drink IPAs, worship the biggest and crave that hop bite. I won't begrudge them that.

Sometimes, I wonder if beers like Conductor and Maharaja have more to do with ego - the brewer's and the drinker's - than taste. I find anything over 80 IBUs very hard to drink.

Those very "imperial" IPAs contrast with my favorites. While I was in Oregon a few weeks ago, I was impressed by the balance exhibited in many of the local IPAs, such as Terminal Gravity IPA. Sometimes, more bitter isn't better.

Where do we go from here? It seems impossible to stuff more hops into a bottle than Steamworks has done with Conductor or Avery has done with Maharaja. Even if it could be done, what would be the point?

Will we see a regression toward balance, toward IPAs like the aforementioned Cascade Canyon and Terminal Gravity?

I hope so. Once you've been to the moon, there's nothing left to do but settle back to Earth.