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