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.


  1. Hmm- Euphoria is my favorite Ska beer, and I do think it fits the APA style (hoppy nose, not too much bitering) (ok it's a bit dark in color for an APA but I don't care much about the color of a beer). Don't love the barrel aging- I thought it overpowered the beer.

    Hey- how about a feature on local "session" beers? See

  2. That Cherry Diablo was pretty good, and I'm not a fan of fruiting the beer.