Monday, August 30, 2010

Ska celebrates 15 years

Some 15 years ago, a couple of high school friends from Colorado's Front Range cobbled together a little bit of money and some equipment scrounged from rural dairy farms. With a comic book for a business plan, they founded Ska Brewing Co. in a warehouse on Durango's outskirts.

By now, Ska is easily the largest brewery in the Four Corners, with a spanking new state-of-the-art facility churning out bottles and cans for customers in much of the western and midwestern United States. Founders Dave Thibodeau and Bill Graham and later partner Matt Vincent now have more than 70 employees, strong sales and growing prominence in the craft-beer industry.

On Saturday, Ska celebrated its 15th birthday with a party worthy of its history. Seattle rockers the Supersuckers headlined a slate of bands and 15 breweries brought their best creations.

I was impressed by both the overall quality of the beers and the event in general. Everything seemed well-planned, from the shuttles departing from Steamworks to the commemorative tasting glass with a four-ounce pour line etched on the glass.

On to the beers. I got to taste most of the beers that piqued my interest. But I found that the four-ounce pour line was treated generously, and I left with some drink tickets still in my pocket. I tended to avoid beers readily available in Durango, so I found myself returning to some of the smaller producers.

Without further ado, in approximately the order in which I tasted them:

1. Ska Dementia. I had to give my regards to the birthday boy, so to speak. Brewed specifically for this event, Dementia is a barrel-aged version of Ska's Euphoria Pale Ale, typically a winter seasonal. Ska head brewer Thomas Larsen aged it for about five months in oak barrels, and dry hopped it with Simcoes.

I kept my expectations for this beer in check. Euphoria is not one of my favorite Ska beers - I have made the error of comparing Euphoria to other pale ales rather than taking it on its own merits. Euphoria is nothing like a standard American-style pale ale, Sierra Nevada's pioneering pale being the widely acknowledged exemplar. Euphoria is darker, hoppier and boozier.

Larsen poured a ceremonial opening keg of Dementia (pictured). The aged ale shows a deep mahogany color, with a substantial head of white foam.

On first taste, you get a deep sense of something old and wonderful, like a musty barn. A suggestion of oak comes across, with perhaps a hint of vanilla. The rough edges in Euphoria have been lovingly sanded off, and Dementia is well-rounded, complex and balanced, with a slightly sweet and vinous aftertaste.

In short, it's outstanding. Dare I say Dementia is one of the best beers Ska has ever brewed.

An extremely small quantity of Dementia is available in 22-ounce bomber bottles, double-dipped in wax to ensure proper aging. Your best bet is to purchase them at Ska headquarters in Bodo Industrial Park. I suggest you do so.

2. Steamworks Cherry Diablo. A cherry-infused version of Ale Diablo from Durango's own Steamworks Brewing Co., this one was served from a firkin. The cherries (I heard they were pie cherries) nicely complemented the already excellent base beer, a Belgian-style golden ale that comes in at 8.5 percent ABV and 33 IBUs.

3. Marble IPA. A very hop-forward and well-brewed IPA from the two-year-old Albuquerque outfit. This one is brewed with Columbus, centennial and Amarillo hops and packs 6.2 percent ABV.

4. Left Hand Polestar Pils. A summer favorite of mine from the boys in Longmont, this pilsner lager (5.5 percent ABV, 33 IBUs) is brewed with Weyermann pilsner and pale malt, and hopped with magnum, Mt. Hood and sterling hops. It was as good as I remember.

5. Three Rivers Double Amber. A big amber ale from the Farmington brewpub, this one flaunts its alcohol content like Flavor Flav rocks a timepiece. The thick malt body gave it a sweetness that could have used greater hop character for balance.

6. Marble From the Wood. I went back to these up-and-comers for their strong Scottish ale aged in oak barrels. From the Wood (9.2 percent ABV!) carried assertive notes of vanilla and oak. It was luxurious and smooth, not unlike a barley wine. My second-favorite beer of the fest.

7. Three Rivers SHIPA. A single-hop IPA brewed with Cascades, the classic American craft beer hop. A very enjoyable IPA.

8. Pagosa Rodeo Rider Red. This German-style red ale plays to my weakness for interesting and well-done red ales. Many are the weak, boring red ales. This is not one of those. Rodeo Rider Red carries a huge and endlessly complex malt profile. Caramel, wood, molasses flavors impress.

9. Bristol Compass IPA. At this point my palate was dead to hops and my interest in note-taking declined precipitously. About all I can relate here is this Colorado Springs IPA tasted acceptable (6.7 percent ABV, 55 IBUs).

10. Breckenridge Double Pils. A strong pilsner lager from the Denver-based giant. "Sweet," say my notes. I think I liked this one.

Ska threw a hell of a party, a ton of people helped out and brewers brought some serious, interesting beers.

"Have I mentioned how tasty this beer is?" said Supersuckers leadman Eddie Spaghetti from the stage. "It's good shit."

I'll leave it at that.

Avery Brewing goes canning

Avery Brewing Co. of Boulder is the latest craft brewery to get in on cans.

At 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 2, Avery will release four of its beers in cans: Avery India Pale Ale, White Rascal, Ellie's Brown and Joe's American Pilsner.

Avery has no doubt watched with interest as their Colorado brethren Ska Brewing Co. and Oskar Blues have seen surprisingly strong sales from their own canned craft beers.

I have long been a vocal Avery supporter; I think it's probably one of the best breweries in the country. If the move to cans means wider availability of some of their beers, I'm all for it.

At first, Avery's cans will be distributed only in Colorado.

"We've been fielding a lot of calls lately about our plan for the distribution of cans," Avery spokeswoman C.V. Howe said in a recent newsletter. "To start, all cans will be sold exclusively in the state of Colorado. Only a tiny percentage of our overall production is devoted to cans, so there just isn't much to go around. We hope to amp up production and slowly increase distribution at some point in the future."

With the exception of the pilsner, these beers are already available in bottles in Durango. The IPA is exceptional - one of my favorite beers, period - and those who appreciate Belgian-style witbiers will love White Rascal.

I had a Joe's American Pilsner at Avery earlier this summer, and was much impressed. It's a very clean, flavorful summer beer. (Incidentally, it was also the choice of Avery founder Adam Avery on the day I was there. He rolled up on an expensive-looking road bicycle and ordered a pilsner).

The can craze continues unabated. Some of it is no doubt about sales. Cans are also cheaper to ship. And there are some environmental benefits, as well. (Although can supporters seldom note that bauxite for cans is mined in an environmentally atrocious manner, nor do they volunteer that can linings typically include BPA, a chemical with unknown but possibly pernicious effects).

For the consumer, cans are easier to transport, especially outdoors, and I like that they take up significantly less room in the refrigerator and recycling bin. Perhaps some cost savings are being passed on to consumers, although they are typically priced as high as bottles.

But the bottom line is we all have more choice as craft-beer drinkers. I look forward to welcoming Avery cans, and especially the new pilsner.

Photo courtesy of Avery Brewing

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Update on Ska anniversary party

Ska Brewing Co. has released a few updates via Facebook for its 15th anniversary party this Saturday, Aug. 28. These might be helpful things to know if you plan to attend:

1. The $30 ticket to the Anniversary Party includes a commemorative tasting glass, beer from 15 regional breweries, and live music performances from the Supersuckers, Farmington Hill and the Beautiful Losers.

2. Zia Taqueria and Life's a Beach BBQ will be on hand serving food.

3. A shuttle will run from Steamworks Brewing on East Second Ave. out to Ska in Bodo Industrial Park. Ska says: "Parking is limited, please ride bikes or take the free shuttle (graciously sponsored by 4 Corners Whitewater!), from Steamworks every 30 minutes from 3:30 to 6:30. Don't wait until 6:30 if you don't have tickets, however, it will be sold out by then!"

I'll be there, eager to try the new Dementia and see what the other breweries brought. The Supersuckers should be sweet, too.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review: Clancy's Black Beer (Ska Brewing)

The latest release from Ska Brewing Co. will not likely inspire jealous envy in beer geeks across the nation. Clancy's Black Beer was not brewed with a truckload of hops. It was not aged in oak barrels. It does not boast a double-digit percentage of alcohol.

No, Clancy's Black Beer is simply a very well-executed Schwarzbier.

This release is the result of the 2nd annual Snowdown Homebrewing Competition, won back in February by an Aztec, N.M., oil worker named Clancy Calhoun. His winning entry was a Schwarzbier, a German-style dark lager.

For his victory, Ska brewed his recipe for release as the 16th beer in the brewery's hallowed Local Series. The beer will also be entered in the Great American Beer Festival's Pro-Am Competition.

So what is a Schwarzbier like? I'll defer to the Brewers Association's style guidelines, written by homebrewing god Charlie Papazian:

"These very dark brown to black beers have a mild roasted malt character without the associated bitterness. This is not a full-bodied beer, but rather a moderate body gently enhances malt flavor and aroma with low to moderate levels of sweetness. Hop bitterness is low to medium in character. Noble-type hop flavor and aroma should be low but perceptible. There should be no fruity esters. Diacetyl should not be perceived."

And this closely describes Clancy's Black Beer (5.4 percent ABV, 19 IBUs). Ska Head Brewer Thomas Larsen says it was brewed with 100 percent Tettnang hops, a noble variety. The malt bill is heavy on two-row and dark Munich malts, enhanced with Caramel 120, chocolate and DehuskCarafa III malts, finished with a pinch of Carapils malt.

It pours black, with a substantial light tan head of foam that lingers long. Malt dominates the smell and taste, with a bit of chocolate and perhaps some nuttiness. It is medium-bodied, with little discernible hop taste. The effect is rich, heavy, dark and a little sweet.

This is a welcome entry in Ska's Local Series, available for less than $5 per 22-ounce bottle at Durango-area stores. While it's not the rarest style, it's uncommon enough that you can't simply pick up a sixer of Schwarzbier at the ol' beer store. It expanded my beer horizons.

Clancy, and Ska, have done well. A-

Friday, August 20, 2010

Clancy's Black Beer now available

The 16th entry in Ska Brewing Co.'s Local Series, Clancy's Black Beer, is now available in Durango-area liquor stores.

It's a fairly unusual style: Schwarzbier, a dark German lager. A 22-ounce bottle will set you back $4 and change.

I'll post a full review next week. I was impressed, but try it for yourselves and let me know what you think.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A visit to Ouray Brewery

Ouray Brewery has swings instead of bar stools. The swings appear to be sturdy, attached to the ceiling by strong cables. We'll see if the staff has any issues with over-exuberant swinging by customers.

The new brewpub is now fully open so I figured I owed a visit. Three house beers were on tap: a Kolsch, a rye pale ale and an IPA (the rye is at left in the accompanying photo, along with the Kolsch).

A taste of the Kolsch revealed a well-balanced, crisp and clean version of the German-style beer. It was less than 5 percent ABV, making it an ideal beer for summer refreshment.

The IPA is strong and well-rounded. It appears fairly dark for an IPA, a rich mahogany color. The hops give off a piney taste.

My favorite was the rye pale ale, a full-bodied, tasty and idiosyncratic craft beer. I could easily see this becoming a local favorite.

All three of Ouray's beers were above-average craft beers (a fourth, Box Canyon Brown Ale, is coming soon). All of them would rate at least a B.

My friends and I didn't eat there, but Ouray Brewery has a Louisiana-inspired menu. Visitors can either enjoy the tasting room or an inviting rooftop patio that was not yet open when we stopped by. (The tasting room opens at 4 p.m., but the kitchen and patio open later).

Also noteworthy were the pair of guest beers offered on tap: Pinstripe Red Ale from Ska Brewing Co. and Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide Brewing in Denver. These are exceptionally well-chosen: Pinstripe is a Southwest Colorado classic, and Yeti is perhaps the most sought-after craft beer in the state.

Ouray Brewery came out of the gate swinging with three good beers. This is an auspicious beginning.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A look at Ska's Dementia

Via Ska Brewing Co.'s Facebook page, we have a photo of the Durango brewery's upcoming release, Dementia.

Dementia is a barrel-aged version of Euphoria Pale Ale, typically a winter seasonal. It's interesting Ska decided to age a pale ale. Usually, stronger beers such as imperial stouts are chosen for aging.

I'm looking forward to trying this one. Dementia will be released at Ska's 15th anniversary party on Aug. 28. Details of that are below.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ouray Brewery, established 2010

Ouray, the tiny town of 937 hearty mountain souls in Southwest Colorado, now has two breweries. Following on the heels of Ourayle House, brewmaster Jeff Lockhart and others opened Ouray Brewery on Saturday.

I happened upon it recently while walking downtown. Lockhart was busy preparing to open, but he took a minute to chat with me.

Ouray Brewery has an IPA and a Kolsch on tap now. Lockhart plans to tap a rye pale ale by this weekend, and a brown ale soon after. (Lockhart said he is interested in Belgian-style brewing, adding that the brewery is capable of handling wild yeasts).

The IPA (6 percent ABV, 65 IBUs) uses Magnum, Centennial, Simcoe and Cascade hops. Lockhart plans to substitute Citra hops for the Cascades once the Cascades are used up.

A relatively new hop, Citras are quickly gaining favor for their citrus taste. Lockhart pronounced it his "new favorite hop," and applauded its "mango character."

Lockhart said the IPA is "definitely American, but its got kind of that English balance."

The Kolsch is brewed closely to style. Lockhart said it is "very clean" with a "malty nose." It was hopped with Perles.

The brewery will be open year-round, producing up to 14 barrels per week, Lockhart said. Half-pints cost $2, pints $4 and 20-ounce glasses $5. Ouray Brewery will offer growlers to go; an order of 300 of the vessels is on its way.

"I brew what I like, how I like it," Lockhart said in a follow-up interview. "I try to come in close to style, but I like playing around with things."

Lockhart started as a homebrewer then worked at Sweetwater Brewing in Atlanta for five years in various capacities while also working as a Delta Airlines mechanic. He later opened McLellan's Grill and Brewing Co. in Canon City, Colo., and brewed there for three years.

The new brewery, owned by Ouray transplant Dennis McKee, has a full kitchen, and the Louisiana-influenced food menu is already visible in a window. Erin Eddy is assistant manager.

Ouray Brewery is located at 607 Main Street. I look forward to a return trip to try Lockhart's beers.

The same day, I finally stopped in Ourayle House Brewery, a long-overdue visit for me. Ourayle House is the creation of brewer, bartender and one-man show James Paul Hutchison.

The atmosphere is idiosyncratic: Hutchison's pub has an overhead bell that you ring like on a bus for service. Board and card games abound. The walls are decorated with local memorabilia.

During my visit, he had four beers on tap. I opted for a pale ale amusingly dubbed "See Dot Pave," a reference to the Colorado Department of Transportation's summer construction.

Many times, very small brewpubs will pour substandard beer. Not this one. See Dot Pave (pictured) was an accomplished pale ale, biting with Simcoe hops. It's worth seeking out.

I should mention that Hutchison pours 19- and 23-ounce drafts, so you are assured of an Honest Pint. Honesty has its price, though. If I recall correctly, the drafts cost $4.75 and $5.75.

Ourayle House, 215 Seventh Ave., is open when Hutchison feels like it, so it might make sense to call ahead at (970) 903-1824.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Suitcase" beers

The September issue of All About Beer magazine has an interesting feature on "suitcase" beers; i.e., the rare beers you love so much that you'll pack them home with you when returning from travels.

A suitcase beer has to be not only delicious but rare enough that it's not available around your home. The magazine's list of 99 such beers was (not surprisingly) heavy on imperial stouts, IPAs and obscure Belgian beers. It got me thinking about my suitcase beers. Here's my top five, shaped by my narrow travels in the Western U.S.:

1. Terminal Gravity IPA. This IPA is widely distributed and well-loved in its native Oregon, but it does not get enough respect outside the state, unlike California favorites such as Racer 5 IPA and Russian River's Pliney series. Terminal Gravity's offering is redolent with citrus, and extremely tasty. Perhaps the nation's best six-pack IPA.

2. Avery Brewing Co.'s barrel-aged beers. The Boulder brewery has an extensive barrel-aging program, and the best of these are a wonder to behold - not to mention difficult to find outside of the Front Range. If you can get them, Brabant and Depuceleuse deserve your attention (and something like $8 per 12-ounce bottle).

3. Deschutes The Abyss. This legendary imperial stout is the only beer I currently have aging in my fridge. I can't wait to do a vertical tasting. Happily, its 2009 vintage was more widely available than previous versions.

4. Upright Brewing Co.'s seasonal releases. This small Portland brewery is an increasingly poorly kept secret. Brewer/owner Alex Ganum completely eschews English-style brewing: you will not find an IPA, a pale ale or a porter on premises. His basic line of beers (named Four, Five, Six and Seven) could loosely be described as French and Belgian-inspired farmhouse ales, but that falls short of justly describing his innovative use of yeast and local ingredients. I avidly want to try his recent seasonals, including a Gose, an obscure German style brewed with salt; and an oyster stout, brewed with oyster juice and whole oysters in the kettle. Ganum is a brewer who is truly pushing the art of brewing forward.

5. Pelican Brewery's seasonals. This Oregon Coast brewpub has been justly celebrated with multiple GABF medals. It sits on the beach, amid the salty Pacific Ocean air and swarming sea gulls. Seasonals such as the biere de garde Bridal Ale are worth the high price.

Those are my suitcase beers. What are yours?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ska anniversary party details

Here are some details from Ska Brewing Co. about the brewery's 15th anniversary party, set for Sat., Aug. 28 at the brew plant in Durango:

“This anniversary is a great chance to look back on how far we’ve come”, co-founder Bill Graham said in a news release. “In the beginning, all we really wanted to do was brew great beer, but we’ve been lucky to have awesome employees, loyal customers who know good beer when they taste it, and we’ve made a few good decisions along the way, too.”

Certainly one of those was the decision to become the second craft brewer in the nation to can its beers, after Oskar Blues Brewing Co. in Lyons. “Canning has been huge, and the whole industry is really looking at it now because it’s an excellent way to package craft beer, it’s better for the environment, and it allows people to take good beer with them on all kinds of trips,” said Graham.

So what does a Colorado craft brewer like Ska do to celebrate a major milestone? Throw the biggest party they can, of course. The “Ska 15th Anniversary Bash and Brewer’s Invitational” will feature special beers from 15 breweries, and three bands including local Durango favorites Farmington Hill, as well as The Supersuckers—a band that calls themselves “The Greatest Rock And Roll Band In The World” (and Ska concurs). The party will be held at Ska Brewing’s World Headquarters in Durango on Saturday, August 28 from 4-9 p.m. Advance tickets are required and can be purchased locally or online at The event is produced for adults. For more details call Ska Brewing at (970) 247-5792.

“We’re really throwing a party to say ‘thank you,'" said Ska President and co-founder Dave Thibodeau. “Not a day goes by that we don’t stop and think about how lucky we are to live in Durango and brew beer for a living. We’re grateful, and we want to say thanks. Our 15th anniversary gives us a great excuse to do that.”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Flash flood warning (beer news)

In the spirit of the summer thunderstorms, I hereby unleash long pent-up beer news:

The Brewers Association reported craft beer dollar sales rose 12 percent during the first half of 2010, while brewing volume rose 9 percent compared to the same period last year.

Total beer volume sales were down 2.7 percent, indicating the macro-lagers continue to stagnate while craft beer sales grow.

Ska Brewing Co. announced via Twitter that its sales rose 36 percent, an astonishing number. The brewery's spectacular growth has been driven by increased capacity at its two-year-old plant and the market success of Modus Hoperandi IPA and other canned beers.

In other Durango craft-beer news:

Durango Brewing Co. has released its seasonal Blueberry Wheat ale. I'm usually not a fan of fruit beers, but this one is worth checking out.

Steamworks Brewing Co. currently has a barrel-aged brown ale on cask at its Durango brewpub.

Carver Brewing Co. has a new limited-release beer, Cornerpocket Pale Ale, on tap. I'll let Carver's head brewer, Erik Maxson, tell you about it:

"Cornerpocket is yet another in our summer long river themed pale ales. It was designed and brewed by my assistant Jeff Albarella. It is a single-hopped pale using all German Northern Brewer hops (from bittering all the way through to dry hopping). The malt profile comes from English Maris Otter and some German Pale Ale and just a hint of caramel malt. ABV is 5.7%, 40 IBUs."

New Ska beers for August

Ska Brewing Co. will host a big bash Aug. 28. The brewery will debut a Bourbon-barrel aged version of Euphoria Pale Ale, typically a winter seasonal. Tickets cost $30, getting you tastes from 15 breweries from Colorado and the Four Corners, and a commemorative glass. The party marking Ska's 15th anniversary starts at 4 p.m.

Also, Ska's Local Series #16, a Schwarzbier, should be out soon. The classic German-style dark lager was designed by Clancy Calhoun of Aztec, N.M., who won Ska's homebrew competition in February. (More on that here).