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.


  1. Great list, not exactly how I'd rank them, but it's hard to argue because all the beers you mentioned are good.

    If I were to make a list I'd include Ska's Merlot Stout and Carver's Monkeywrenched IPA somewhere on it, but with so many delicious beers I find it hard to pick just a few.

  2. Modus hoperandi changed my life.

  3. Jeff: I believe Monkey Wrenched was brewed in previous years. Merlo Stout was good, but it didn't seem especially distinctive to me.

  4. Never had any of this. Will have to give it a go!