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

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