Thursday, April 29, 2010

A visit to Three Rivers Brewery

I don't make it down to Farmington much, but I recently had the chance to visit Three Rivers Brewery.

It's right in downtown Farmington. We walked in for lunch at about 11:50 a.m. I asked what was on tap, and the server said, "Nothing until noon." No doubt, the Land of Enchantment has some arcane law about serving before noon.

After waiting the requisite 10 minues, I ordered an ESB. It didn't have much of anything going for it. Not a lot of hop bite on this one.

One of Three Rivers' saving graces is its guest taps. It had beers on tap from Carver's, Pagosa Brewing and Marble Brewing in Albuqeurque.

I'd never had a Marble beer, so I got a draw of its Old Ale. It was boozy and thick like a barley wine. It would make a great winter warmer, but it was a little more than I was looking for to accompany lunch.

Honestly, the highlight of my visit to Three Rivers was the black bean burrito and posole. Both were fresh and well-made. The beer - although I'd hesitate to judge a brewery based on only one beer - wasn't anything special.

Pictured: Three River's ESB

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review: Ska Saison Du'Rango

Ska Brewing Co.'s Local Series has to be counted as one of the best things going in the Durango beer scene.

Several times a year, the boys in Bodo release a tasty, limited-run beer in 22-ounce bomber bottles for our enjoyment.

In the last few years, these Local Series beers have included a fresh-hop IPA, a pilsener and an oak-aged orange cream stout. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of rhyme or reason for the releases. Ska's brewers just brew what suits them, and release them when they can.

It's important for brewers to have chances to experiment. It would get boring if they were just brewing Pinstripe every day.

Which brings us to no. 15 in the Local Series, Saison Du'Rango. Ska Head Brewer Thomas Larsen made it for a saison festival put on by Jason Yester of Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs.

It's plentiful in Durango, and according to Ska, limited quantities are available on the Front Range.

A traditional rustic Belgian style, saisons are distinguished by their yeast character, big, fluffy pours, light color and dry, crisp finishes. They're great for hot weather.

Saison Du'Rango is the second or third saison brewed in Durango, depending on whether you consider Durango Brewing's 20th Anniversary Ale to be a saison. Carver Brewing's Saison de Tour last summer was the first.

It comes in at 6.2 percent ABV and 19 IBUs, Larsen says. That's typical of the style. Saisons tend to be a little boozy but lightly hopped. The yeasts must be allowed to shine through without too much hop bitterness.

Notably, Larsen used two yeast strains: that of Saison Dupont - the classic of the style - and a French farmhouse yeast strain. A bit of lemon peel and some green peppercorns were added to the brew.

Saison Du'Rango pours a light amber color, perhaps a shade or two darker than is typical of the saisons I've had. A slight head tops the glass.

Ska's saison, like most, is refreshing. It's a great beer for washing down all sorts of food. The carbonation and fresh, grassy taste cleanse the palate.

It's slightly tart from the yeast. Green peppercorns and lemon peel contribute mellow flavoring to this saison.

Saison Du'Rango is quite good, but it stops short of being transcendent. The yeast character is more subdued than in other saisons I've tried.

As with all beers brewed with farmhouse yeasts, Saison Du'Rango can be expected to change over time. Within a few months, it may be significantly tarter than it is today. I look forward to seeing those yeasts do their thing. A-

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Durango Dark wins silver at World Beer Cup

Durango Dark Lager won the silver medal in the American-style dark lager category at the World Beer Cup last weekend in Chicago.

Durango Dark (5.8 percent ABV, 20 IBUs) was the only locally brewed beer to win a medal. The Durango Brewing beer has long been one of my favorite locally brewed session beers.

The World Beer Cup is a highly prestigious competition, probably second only to the Great American Beer Festival, and even that's arguable.

Full Sail Session Black took the gold in Durango Dark's category.

The winner's list shows a few trends. California has really stepped up over the last few years.

I guess it was inevitable that the nation's most populous state would eventually produce as many or more good beers than any other state. And it's worth remembering that the craft brewing revolution started in California with Anchor Brewing and later Sierra Nevada.

Congrats to Durango Brewing on its medal.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review: Durango Brewing Co. 20th Anniversary Ale

Rarely have I been as conflicted about a beer as I am about Durango Brewing Co.’s 20th Anniversary Ale, recently released to celebrate the brewery’s founding in 1990.

On one hand, it’s a risk-taking beer, and I always cheer experimentation by our local breweries. Durango Brewing has not brewed a Belgian-style ale in recent years, to my knowledge, so this is a bit of a jump.

Belgian-style brewing is rapidly catching on in the American craft brewing scene, and we’ve seen Durango’s breweries put out several Belgian-inspired ales in the last 12 months. It’s a trend I like and hope to see continue.

On the other, DBC’s 20th Anniversary Ale is schizophrenic. Let me explain: It uses a farmhouse yeast that should dry and sour the beer, but it is not a saison. Likewise, it uses wheat malt, coriander, orange peel and honey – ingredients common to Belgian-style wits – but it is not a wit.

DBC’s 20th Anniversary Ale hews to no known style. Instead, it is a kitchen-sink “Belgian-style ale” that combines wit, saison and golden ale characteristics. The result leaves me with questions.

It’s a great idea to brew with funky farmhouse yeasts. I’m not sure if it’s such a great idea to then add honey and wheat, which flattens and obscures the qualities of those yeasts.

What makes saisons and some other Belgian beers like Orval so amazing is the yeast. Farmhouse yeasts can make a beer slightly tart to puckeringly sour, with a dry, crisp finish to boot. They will funk your beer up.

Perhaps they ought to be allowed to do their thing without adjuncts.

DBC’s newest beer is not tart or sour or even dry. It’s a tad sweet, with an aroma of wheat and hay. Czech Saaz hops contribute to the mix, but hops are not the star of this show.

DBC’s 20th Anniversary Ale seems like a beer trying to do too much, as if given the opportunity to brew a Belgian beer, the brewers couldn’t resist trying to brew three styles in one.

A huge caveat: Beers brewed with these types of yeast will change over time. How 20th Anniversary Ale tastes today is not how it will taste in six months. These sorts of yeasts like to assert themselves, and time may result in a dryness and tartness that is not present today.

It’s possible that there’s a great beer in those bottles waiting to get out. I could see the yeast beating the wheat and honey into submission until they are no more than pleasant complexities to a tart ale that’s more similar to a saison.

Happily, DBC bottled 20th Anniversary Ale in brown glass bottles of 1 pint, 9.4 fluid ounce volume (750 ml), topped by a cork and a silver-colored cage. The packaging should keep the beer unspoiled as it ages.

My recommendation: try it fresh, try it again in three months, then six months, then a year. I plan on drinking it over time to see how it changes.

It may get better as time goes on. But for now this one gets a B.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Brewing to return to Bayfield

Steamworks Brewing Co. has reached an agreement with SEAR Capitol of Texas to take over operations at Steamworks' shuttered Bayfield facility.

The Bayfield Beer Factory, as it's being called, will contract brew for Steamworks, Silverton Brewery and presumably others.

The details have been extensively reported in The Durango Herald and Beer N Bikes, so I won't repeat them here. (Breaking news for my paying gig sometimes means I can't break news here as quickly as I would like).

I'll just add that contract brewing is a growing trend that makes a lot of sense for breweries seeking to expand cheaply. It should bring jobs to Bayfield, and the Beer Factory (what's wrong with the word "brewery?") will have a tap room.

It also means Steamworks has a plan. After they shuttered the Bayfield brewery, it wasn't clear what their next move would be. This arrangement should allow Steamworks to get their beer out in the region again and provide a viable base for possible future growth.

Silverton Brewery, founded in its current iteration in 2005, appears to be making an aggressive move to expand. Their canned beers just showed up in Durango a couple of months ago. (Try the IPA; the brown ale I can't recommend).

It'll be interesting to see if Silverton can expand their lineup and make a regional push.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mexican Logger flows at Ska

Ska Brewing Co. drew a big crowd Tuesday for the release of its summer seasonal, Mexican Logger.

As you might imagine, this is Ska's attempt at making a Mexican-style lager, using a lager yeast from Mexico City.

Mexican Logger (4.2 percent ABV, 18 IBUs) is crisp and refreshing, but more flavorful than comparable imports.

Corona is the best-selling imported beer in the United States, so it's surprising that more American craft brewers don't brew Mexican-style lagers. Carver Brewing has made one called Cerveza Real.

It also might be the lowest-alcohol beer brewed in Durango. When you want to drink a few beers, especially on a warm afternoon, Mexican Logger is a good pick.

Ska also has a new Local Series beer coming out next week. It's a saison dubbed Saison Du'Rango, as Beer N Bikes previously reported.

Soggy Coaster has a few more details for you: It's brewed using a Belgian and a French farmhouse yeast strain. Yeast is absolutely crucial to the character of saisons, and it's interesting Ska is using two. Some green peppercorns round out the taste.

Ska is brewing it for a saison festival this weekend at Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs. I wasn't aware there were enough saisons on the market to justify their own festival, but Ska President Dave Thibodeau assured me there are, and I'm happy to hear it. There is no better warm-weather beer style.

I haven't had any Saison Du'Rango yet, but Thibodeau said it's tasting great in the fermenter.

This makes two saisons for Durango in one season, with Durango Brewing Co.'s 20th Anniversary Ale already on the shelves. I'll have a review of that soon.

It's April, and things are getting delicious around here.

Top photo: President Thibodeau enjoys a Mexican Logger at Ska's release party. Bottom photo: Two Mexican Loggers ready for me and mine.

Note: This post has been corrected from an earlier version.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thoughts, they spill anew

These things have been sloshing around my brain:

- Ska Brewing Co. releases its Mexican Logger today (Tues., April 6), reports Beer N Bikes.

Mexican Logger is Ska's summer seasonal, a crisp lager that essentially attempts to be a better, more flavorful Corona (and succeeds). It's just the kind of beer for sucking down around the grill.

- Dogfish Head has finally won me over. The Delaware brewery is an object of love for many beer geeks, but I resisted for a long time, turned off by the weirdness of beers like 120 Minute IPA and high prices.

Dogfish Head is the poster child for brewing experimentation. Some of these experiments work, some don't. I've often wondered if DFH is excessively concerned with innovation at the expense of making beers that simply taste good - really, the fundamental condition of successful craft brewing.

I've also regarded the brewery's massive publicity with a pinch of suspicion. DFH founder Sam Calagione was the subject of a lengthy, glowing New Yorker profile in 2008, the kind of publicity a brewer would kill for. Then, as if that wasn't enough, Calagione had a starring role in the documentary Beer Wars.

DFH is a good brewery and by all accounts, Calagione is a skilled brewer and a nice guy. But he isn't doing anything much different from Avery Brewing, The Bruery or Russian River, to name a few. And I don't see Adam Avery's 9,700-word New Yorker profile.

But, the key to justifying the hype is brewing good beer. While I was in Phoenix recently, I picked up a couple of DFH beers I'd never seen before: Chicory Stout and Red and White.

Chicory Stout, as the webernet tells me, is DFH's winter seasonal. It's astonishingly flavorful for a session beer (5.2 percent ABV, 21 IBUs).

Many session stouts lack complexity. Everybody and their dog makes an oatmeal stout, and they're just not that exciting. DFH's Chicory Stout, in contrast, is brewed with roasted chicory, organic Mexican coffee, St. John's Wort and licorice root. It has almost as many flavors going on as The Abyss, and that's saying something. Give it an A.

Red and White is purportedly a Belgian-style wit, but I don't think I've ever seen a wit that benches 10 percent ABV. It's far darker, maltier and heavier than most wits. Robust, in a word, almost like a pinot noir. Give it an A-.

Several Durango liquor stores sell DFH beers, so it would please me greatly to see six-packs of Chicory Stout and bombers of Red and White land here. And until further notice, I'm done talking smack about DFH.

- Speaking of Adam Avery, it isn't quite the New Yorker, but Mr. Avery's hometown paper has a nice profile of the Avery Brewing founder. Check out this quote:

"You have to be super passionate about the beer side. The brewers that fail are the ones who make boring beers and try to appeal to everybody. If you do that, you're not offering people a choice between your beer and bland, mass-produced offerings. You have to stand out and make what YOU think is best."

I like the guy.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Beer in Phoenix

Wherever I go in this great beer-saturated country of ours, I try to sample the local malted beverages. So it is with Phoenix. I recently visited there with a couple of comrades for a long weekend of spring training baseball.

Baseball and beer go very well together. It's a rather leisurely game, which fits the American psyche well. And now with cup-holders in most stadiums, it's easier to balance a scorecard and a beer than ever before.

Arizona isn't quite the beer state that Colorado is, but it's not half-bad. I'd have to say the beer-related highlight of the trip was Papago Brewing in Scottsdale, a brewpub that doesn't bogart its own taplist.

Papago is in the middle of an unassuming strip mall, and if I hadn't been looking for it, I definitely would have missed it.

We went on Sunday after watching the A's and Rockies game end in a 6-6 tie (they do that in spring training, apparently). Papago was dark, with a tap-filled bar and a wall lined by refrigerators.

Patrons are welcome to take bottles from the fridges and drink them on-premise. No establishment in Durango does that, so I figured I owed it to myself to give it a shot. The 80-degree weather led me to Ommegang Hennepin, a crisp saison that is a personal favorite.

Of the 30 beers on tap, Papago supplies six of its own. In the spirit of trying the local flavors, I went with a mandarin hefeweizen. It was sweet and malty, with a strong vanilla note laid over a gentle mandarin taste. It was tasty, but the sweetness became challenging after awhile. I'd give it a B. The hefe was served in a tall, slender glass with a substantial false bottom, making its volume difficult to estimate.

One of my friends opted for Papago's Oude Zuipers, a Belgian strong ale (pictured). A little taste I had was quite promising.

The rest of the taplist is beer-geek-friendly, with choices like Bell's IPA (sold out, unfortunately), The Bruery's Two Turtle Doves and Chimay. Papago was also pouring Pinstripe Red Ale; perhaps you've heard of it.

As I often do when I visit an excellent bottle shop, I left with a box full of beer. I chose some Belgian classics, like Cantillon Kriek and Rodenbach, that are not readily available in Durango.

Another great beer bar is Taste of Tops near the A.S.U. campus in Tempe. It's smaller than Papago, but its beer list is easily as good, if not better. We had to wait for a table, and unlike Papago, there were no darts to toss.

Staying with the Belgian theme, I cracked open an Orval from the bottle fridge. Orval is a joy to drink. If you haven't had one, Star Liquors in Durango typically stocks it.

A patron sitting at the bar was sipping from a can of Ska E.S.B. I'm telling you, Ska is taking over.

More pedestrian but no less tasty were the Blue Moons pouring at Maryvale, the Milwaukee Brewers' spring training stadium. Some beer geeks knock Blue Moon because it's a Coors product, but on a hot day, it's a damn good beer, especially when the other options are Coors Lite and Miller Lite. Don't hate.

Blue Moon also gave me the courage and wit to heckle Dave Bush, a hapless Brewers pitcher who got knocked like some high school pitcher.

Finally, no Tempe stop is complete without a visit to Four Peaks Brewing, also near the A.S.U. campus. Four Peaks has a solid if unimaginative lineup of ales. I went with a hefeweizen and then an Eighth Street, a pale ale. Both were admirable examples of their styles.

As with any trip, there were surely good places I missed. But there's always next year, especially with the Rockies moving to a new spring training stadium in Phoenix.