Friday, November 26, 2010

Empty fermenters beckon experiments

Label art for Ska Brewing's 2011 Snowdown's beer.

People don't drink as much beer in the winter as they do in summer. This is because they're ignorant and misguided.

The sorts of knowledgeable folks who read Durango's first, best and only beer blog (I'm liking that line lately) know brewers break out great beers in winter, while summer releases tend to be thinner and slightly less wonderful.

The fact that fair-weather beer drinkers take a break in the winter means there's more space in the fermenters for brewers to geek around. Our local brewers are currently indulging themselves with some huge beers that we'll see over the next couple of months.

Above is Ska Brewing Co.'s label art for their 2011 Snowdown beer, brazenly stolen by me from Facebook (I doubt they mind the publicity). It tells us that Ska is planning to brew a so-called "black IPA" for Durango's annual winter embarassment in February.

Black IPAs are big in the Northwest. They're essentially IPAs brewed with dark malt. They can be quite good.

There has been much discussion about what to call these beers. "Black IPA" is contradictory because you're saying Black India Pale Ale, and a beer can't be both black and pale. The voguish term in the Northwest is "Cascadian Dark Ale," which I find a bit stuffy and provincial.

I'm just bummed Ska missed a chance to call their release "Call of Duty: Black Hops." (Maybe it's not too late!)

The brew geeks at Steamworks, meanwhile, are brewing a ridiculous IPA that aims for 125 IBUs. (I think at that point, you graduate from IPA to Imperial IPA to Ridiculous IPA).

Of course, I will taste this beer, because I'm a glutton for punishment, but I'm not looking forward to it. At some point, this attempt to brew the hoppiest beer possible just becomes painful. If you've ever tried to drink Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, you know what I'm talking about. It's not pleasant.

Steamworks is having a naming competition for the beer. I initially suggested "Second Avenue Hop Flood," after their location on Durango's most in-between of streets. However, I've decided I prefer "Shooting an Elephant Imperial IPA" in homage to George Orwell's writing on India.

At Carver's, the brewers are working on a Baltic porter, a burly style that is cold-fermented and brewed with lager yeast, according to the 2010 Brewers Association Style Guidelines.

I ran into brewer Erik Maxson at the Main Avenue joint. He said the inspiration came from his newest assistant brewer. Pulling out a slide rule (and reminding me of my great uncle, a retired Boeing engineer), Maxson announced the big boy should land at just over 7 percent ABV, right on target for the style.

I had a little taste of the Baltic porter. It shaping up quite well: big, dark and malty.

Carver's has its annual imperial stout and Big Grizz Barleywine on tap, as well as a new Belgian-style dubbel. Flavor: bananas. A trippel and perhaps even a quadrupel may be coming.

Update: I should have mentioned that Insider Apple Ale is on tap at all four Durango breweries. It's a project of the breweries' combined consortium, the Durango Bootlegger's Society. The ale uses locally harvested apples.

It's definitely a beer and quite different from cider. I haven't tried this year's version yet, but last year's had a strong apple taste. I liked the flavor but found the texture a little mealy. We'll see if this year's version is any different.

In any case, Insider Apple Ale is interesting as both a brewing project and a local effort using local ingredients. Give it a try, and let me know what you think. It's also available in 22-ounce bottles.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thanksgiving beer pairings

Thanksgiving is, or ought to be, a holiday of great decadence. If you're not overeating, and imbibing to match, you're missing the point.

Wine is a more traditional beverage than beer to pair with Thanksgiving dinner, but beer is more than up to the task. It's no knock on wine to notice that beer comes in a far greater range of styles and flavors.

I'm actually tasked with bringing beer to a small Thanksgiving dinner, so I've been thinking about this. I'd like to bring a variety of beers to cater to individual preferences and different foods.

A nice go-to Thanksgiving beer is New Belgium Hoptober. The fall seasonal (7 percent ABV, 40 IBUs) from the Ft. Collins craft giant is a well-wrought, hop-forward golden ale.

It's somewhat unusual to find a hoppy golden ale — usually they're pansy beers meant to avoid offense. Not this one. It has a wonderfully complex hop flavor from Centennial, Cascade, Sterling, Willamette and Glacier hops.

Hoptober should pair well with a typical Thanksgiving dinner. It also doesn't hurt that Star Liquors in Durango has Hoptober 12-packs on sale for $9.99.

Another favorite is Durango Dark Lager (5.8 percent ABV, 20 IBUs). This is a local beer that I periodically re-discover to my delight. Durango Dark would pair well with desserts such as pumpkin pie, and its malt-forward taste provides something different from Hoptober. If you live outside Durango and can't find Durango Dark, Session Black Lager (in the stubby bottles) is very similar.

Porters are also great in this vein, and Ska's Ten Pin Porter, Santa Fe's State Pen Porter and Deschutes' Black Butte Porter all come with the Soggy Coaster stamp of approval.

For a fancy wine-like presentation, Steamworks' Spruce Goose Ale is a personal favorite, and the spruce taste should pair well with fall harvest flavors on Thanksgiving.

Finally, if there were ever a day to drink really strong beers, Thanksgiving is it. Imperial stouts and barley wines can offer complexities not found in lesser beers.

Experiment. The internets are full of posts like this, so feel free to Google "Thanksgiving beer pairings" for other suggestions. Try what you like, and let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Durango approves new beer store

Last night, the Durango liquor board approved a liquor license for a new alcohol retailer at College Plaza, near the intersection of Eighth Street and Eighth Avenue.

Chris, Molly and Eric Hamilton plan to open a high-end liquor, wine and beer store, W.J. Doyle Wine & Spirits, according to The Durango Herald.

I'm glad. Despite the amusing comments from potential competitors, I would appreciate another liquor store in the South Side neighborhood, where I happen to live.

Sixth Street Liquors is a bit far to walk from my place and return with beer. As for Likker House, it has a limited selection focused on cheap beer and the owners still refuse to accept credit and debit cards, an increasingly untenable position.

The neighborhood could use a high-end store selling the kinds of quality beer offered by Star Liquors in north Durango. I see no reason why the Hamiltons should not be allowed to compete for customers.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: Big Grizz Barleywine Ale (Carver's)

As mentioned on Durango's first, best and only beer blog last week, Carver Brewing Co. has tapped its Big Grizz Barleywine Ale, a potent English-style beer meant to keep your spirits high and chests warm in below-freezing weather.

I managed to stop in for a Big Grizz on Sunday night as temperatures dipped into the teens. A lovely server brought a little goblet to my table in exchange for a mere $3.50.

Apparently, it was from the 2009 batch, a keg that brewer Erik Maxson must have squirreled away to see how the old bear ages.

Well, it turns out. It has a hint of sweetness and a little fruitiness that is well balanced by hops. It sports  fairly assertive carbonation that cedes to the amber-colored 11 percent ABV body. A full texture gives the ursine beverage a substantial heft appropriate for the style.

I like it. Call it an A-, almost an A. Big Grizz is the only barley wine in town, and many thanks for that. Durango is far too cold to be left without a barley wine.

One nitpick about the name: Big Grizz? Carver's names most of its beers after local phenomena. The Durango area has bears, but not grizzlies.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Barley wine, the ultimate winter warmer

For the first time this season, snow has dusted the streets of Durango. It's not much, but enough to justify Carver Brewing Co.'s tapping of its Big Grizz Barleywine Ale.

Barley wine is, of course, a type of beer. (It is often called "barley wine-style ale" to avoid confusion, but I'm not sure that's any less confusing). It's a broad term for a very strong style of beer of English origin, typically at least 11 percent alcohol by volume.

Because of their strength, barley wines are usually served in goblets instead of pint glasses. Their burly malt profile typically makes them quite sweet, a tendency that must be balanced with generous hopping.

Carver's is the only one of Durango's four breweries to produce barley wine. Barley wine fits well with how Carver's presents itself: a cozy brewpub that feels a little Old World, what with the hand-pulled cask engine and the shelf of single-malt Scotches.

It's has been too long for me to render a judgment on Big Grizz (11 percent ABV), so I'll have to try it again and see if I can review it. Typically, Carver's bottles a few for customers to take home.

Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington also offers a barley wine every winter. Perhaps a side-by-side comparison is in order.

My favorite barley wine so far is Deschutes' Mirror Mirror (11 percent ABV, 30 IBUs), which can sometimes be found in our neck of the woods. It has a wonderful balance of caramel malt flavor and hops that I haven't seen equaled by others.

At the 2010 Great American Beer Festival, 57 entries competed for medals in the barley wine-style ale category. The gold medalist was from Troegs Brewery in Harrisburg, Penn. Given the miserable winters there, they can probably use all the cold-weather joy that a barley wine can impart.

Barley wines are often regarded as the pinnacle of the brewer's art (although brewing something like a lambic is more difficult). Often, I find them too sweet, but a great barley wine is indeed something to behold on a cold night when your belly wants nothing more than a warming swell.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Winter beers come in from the cold

The first taste of Spruce Goose Ale is akin to a first taste of a fresh-hop beer. It carries a remarkable flavor, unique among local beers, lent by recently harvested high-altitude spruce tips.

Like fresh hops, the spruce taste is subtle but most present as soon as the beer is available. It recedes, and within a few months Spruce Goose will taste rather muted.

Last weekend, I made it down to Steamworks Brewing Co. for my first pint of this year's Spruce Goose release. It pours a dark amber color with a sizable head of foam. At 8.1 percent ABV, it's on the strong side. Spruce Goose is lightly hopped to 21 IBUs.

I love this beer. The spruce flavor, as I've said, reminds me of raspberries, but that's not quite right. Spruce really has a taste all its own.

Spruce Goose seems to fly under the radar. A good friend of mine who has lived in Durango for 12 years and drinks his fair share of craft beer had never tried it before I brought a bottle over to his house. It's seasonal (November through January), which limits its visibility.

Spruce Goose also costs about $10 a bottle. Some craft beer drinkers will not pay $10 for a beer, even if they wouldn't hesitate to pay that much for wine.

This is one worth trying.

Snow is expected in the mountains tonight, and around town, other winter seasonals are beginning to emerge. Ska's burly Euphoria Pale Ale is their lead winter seasonal. The purple cans ought to fit in your ski jacket, not that I would ever condone sneaking beers on the mountain.

At Carver's, an imperial stout just went on tap, and the brewpub will presumably have its annual barley wine available before long. November is Locals' Appreciation Month at Carver's, and they're having some good deals: pints are $3.75 (if I remember correctly; they may have been $3.50), while growlers are only $6.50.

I got my 64-ounce growler filled with imperial stout. You would have to look long and hard to find a deal better than that.

As always, the Front Range breweries have unleashed a flurry of winter beers. There are too many to mention here, but I was impressed by a Great Divide Hibernation Ale (8.7 percent ABV) I had recently. The old ale has a big, malty body that is nicely offset by fresh hopping.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Silly blogger navel-gazing + actual beer news

I try to stay away from tedious discussions of blogging and what it all means. A quick exception today as this guy has started a tempest-in-a-sampler-glass with a broadside on the value of beer blogging (posted to his beer blog, of course).

Yawn. Blog if you enjoy it, quit if you don't. Don't blog and expect to be compensated monetarily. I'm a professional journalist, and I certainly understand and appreciate the concept of being paid for one's work. But that involves writing for a publication conceived, owned and edited by someone else.

For most beer bloggers, their site is a chance to write something that is entirely their own. That has enormous value, even if it doesn't help one's bank account.

Now on to actual beer news:

Steamworks Brewing Co. has released their Spruce Goose Ale, a wonderful beer using spruce tips from forest land north of Durango. It's best when fresh, as the spruce tips give a delicious raspberry-like taste that recedes with time. It's also an expensive beer, especially in bottles, but entirely worth it. Spruce Goose is one of the very best beers brewed in Durango.

Steamworks also reports via Facebook that it is tapping a new beer today. Wanna Git Rye? is a rye pale ale that comes in at 6.5 percent ABV and 40 IBUs.

It sounds promising. To my taste buds, 40 IBUs is about the sweet spot when it comes to hopping pale ales. I'm eager to try this new beer and my old favorite, Spruce Goose.

Steamworks also will have a cherry vanilla stout on cask tonight.

Finally, Ska Brewing Co. has just put into barrels a new sour beer, according to its Facebook page (I sense a trend). Ska says:

"Our 3rd sour project is underway! 20 degree plato wort fermenting entirely in the barrels, 3 brett strains, 2 ale strains, lacto and pedio. To be blended and hopefully available in 2012 in time to toast the End of Days."

It sounds like an interesting experiment, to say the least. I think the danger in these types of beers lies in trying to do too much. The handiest example is Durango Brewing Co.'s 20th Anniversary Ale, which tried to be a Belgian golden, or a Brettanomyces-soured saison, or something. It ended up being muddled and indistinct.

Ska went the other way with Dementia, simply aging its dark, piney Euphoria, a heavy winter "pale" ale that is not at all pale, in bourbon barrels for a few months. It was then dry-hopped with Simcoes, and voila, out came Dementia. That was it. In my view, it's the best beer Ska has made in at least five years and quite possibly ever.

A final thought: I did not like Ska's first sour beer (cleverly named Ska Sour) because it was hopped to hell and back, and I thought the hops clashed nastily with the souring yeasts. Perhaps that's just one man's opinion, but I hope they dialed the Lupulin back a bit on this one.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Brewer Hickenlooper elected governor

Colorado voters have elected a brewer to lead their state. John Hickenlooper, mayor of Denver, was elevated to the governor's office by a wide margin.

Hickenlooper in 1988 co-founded Wynkoop Brewing in downtown Denver. Wynkoop was the first brewpub in Denver and helped lead the renaissance of the LoDo neighborhood (the Rockies and Broncos helped a lot, too).

Wynkoop has a number of links to Durango's breweries. Ska's head brewer, Thomas Larsen, learned his craft there.

The LoDo neighborhood has become a bit of a craft beer mecca. Great Divide Brewing (best known for their Old Yeti imperial stout), a Breckenridge Brewery pub and the famed Falling Rock Taphouse anchor the area surrounding Coors Field.

Hickenlooper follows a long American pageant of brewers to hold high office. George Washington and Samuel Adams, among other Founding Fathers, were avid brewers.

Brewing and state politics have mixed several times in recent years over grocery-store sales, excise taxes and other issues. It'll be interesting to see how Hickenlooper weighs in when brewing issues inevitably come to the Capitol.

Update (Nov. 8): Wynkoop will brew a beer in Hickenlooper's honor, Denver weekly Westword reports.