Friday, January 28, 2011

Ska releases DIFF tonight

Tonight (Fri., Jan. 28) at 5 p.m., Ska Brewing Co. will release its annual DIFF, a beer timed to coincide with the Durango Independent Film Festival. (Ska is the festival's "official beer sponsor.")

DIFF is a Belgian-style witbier. I like it quite a bit. Unfortunately, last year it had an overpowering lemongrass taste. Hopefully, Ska has dialed that flavor back a bit to let the delicious yeast and Pilsen and wheat malts come out.

The local band Telekave will play.

Here's what Ska says:

Durango Film goers will once again savor the DIFF as Ska Brewing releases the 6th annual DIFF Belgian Wit Beer in support of the 2011 Durango Independent Film Festival. Ska, a long-time supporter of independent film in Durango, will host a release party in the tasting room from 5:00-7:00pm on Friday, January 28. Along with releasing the beer you can enjoy live music from local band Telekave. Hope to see you there!

The DIFF is an unfiltered Belgian Wit Beer with a touch of the Orient for good measure. Most of the flavor comes from an authentic Belgian yeast strain, but there is also added Pilsen malts and raw wheat and oats that help to give it a cloudy, hazy effect. It is also spiced with orange peel, coriander seed and oriental lemongrass. DIFF is a limited, single-batch release and will be available only in Durango area liquor stores and the Ska Brewing tasting room.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A well-stocked (beer) fridge

Variety, as the saying goes, is the spice of life. Those of us who are fans of craft beer appreciate having choices.

This extends to the home. Once upon a time, I didn't even buy packaged beer, reasoning correctly that it could get expensive. Then, later, I might have a single six-pack in the fridge. But as I tried different styles of beer and came to realize the myriad of flavors craft beer has come to offer, one style in the fridge no longer offers enough choice.

Certain styles of beer go well with certain foods (say, a Kolsch with seafood) while some don't (a malty English ESB and Mexican food — beer pairing FAIL). And it gets boring drinking the same style.

The ultimate is to have a beer cellar/garage where you can age and store a wide selection of beers (the same principle as a wine cellar), but many of us don't have the space.

So, prompted by a discussion on The Hopry, a Midwest beer blog, I offer my thoughts on the necessary ingredients for a well-stocked beer fridge. Individual taste may differ, but I think these guidelines are pretty solid:

Something hoppy. When the mood strikes, nothing replaces the delicious juice of Humulus lupus. Accept no substitute. We're blessed in the Western U.S. with many wonderful American-style India Pale Ales. My favorites for this category are Ska's Modus Hoperandi IPA, Avery IPA and Oskar Blues Gordon (a very hoppy red ale soon to be renamed G'Knight for silly legal reasons). Find something with an IBU rating in the 50-70 range. This sort of beer pairs well with spicy foods like Mexican and Thai.

(An aside on Modus. Excellent IPA. Midwesterners, however, are slobbering over it like it's a Chicago dog and deep-dish pizza combined).

Something dark and malty. Particularly in winter, this sort of beer feels appropriate. The humble porter is excellent to satisfy this craving, and Ska Ten Pin Porter and Santa Fe State Pen Porter are as good as any and easy to find here. Also worth mentioning: Dolores River Brewery just began canning several of its beers (a four-pack of 16-ounce cans runs $8 at the brewery), and the tasty dry stout is currently holding down a corner of my fridge.

Something Belgian. Once you go Belgian, you appreciate the astonishing things yeast can do. Belgian beers are as varied and interesting as any in the world. Fortunately, Avery Brewing, based in Boulder, does Belgians as well as anyone in the U.S. I'm a huge fan of The Reverend (a big, dark Quadrupel) and Salvation (a tasty Belgian-style golden ale). Not every liquor store in Durango carries Avery's bombers, but Wagon Wheel tends to have them.

Ska also has its True Blonde Dubbel, and DIFF, a Belgian-style witbier, will be coming out soon.

Or, go authentic. Star Liquors has some really, really good Belgians like Duchess de Bourgogne and Orval.

Something versatile. Sometimes, you just want a mellow beer that doesn't dominate your palate or overpower the  food you're eating (Note to self: "Dominate," "overpower." Sheesh, this is beer, not the NFL playoffs). Something like Ska Pinstripe Red Ale or Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale.

Something special. It's good to have a few beers you're kind of afraid of — big beers that you can share with others. I'm thinking of strong ales like imperial stouts and barley wines, which are plentiful in these winter months. I've had a bottle of Deschutes The Abyss 2009 in my fridge for more than a year now. When you crack open a beer like that, it's kind of an event.

Following the above suggestions should give you a pretty well-stocked and versatile beer selection at home. What do you think? What beers are staples in your fridge?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The rare session beer

An interesting discussion over at the Beervana blog laments the lack of session beers when compared to the ever-increasing roster of hop bombs and boozy beers with alcohol contents like wine.

There's no definitive ruling on what constitutes a "session" beer, but they're generally agreed to be below 5 percent ABV or so. They're meant to be beers you can drink a few of and not be worse for the wear.

In Durango, almost every year-round release exceeds 5 percent ABV. The one exception: Steamworks Colorado Kolsch, an award-winning light ale that follows the refreshing German Kolsch style.

The Kolsch comes in at 4.85 percent ABV. Fortunately, Steamworks recently began canning it, and it's widely available in Southwest Colorado.

There's also a summer seasonal session worth mentioning that's brewed here and distributed throughout Colorado: Ska Brewing Co.'s Mexican Logger.

Mexican Logger brings a lot of flavor for its 4.2 percent ABV. It's brewed with a lager yeast strain from Mexico, and tastes like a much more flavorful version of Corona. Ska is working on canning Mexican Logger and distributing it more widely.

Most of the other year-round beers from Ska, Steamworks and Durango Brewing Co. come in at 5-6 percent ABV. Several of Ska's old-school standbys (Pinstripe Red Ale, True Blonde, Bustern Nut Brown) come in at the low 5s, making them close enough.

So while session beers aren't numerous here, at least two good ones are becoming more available.

Update: Carver Brewing Co.'s Erik Maxson says the brewpub's Lightner Creek Lager comes in at just over 4 percent ABV, putting it in contention with Mexican Logger as Durango's lowest-booze beer.

Maxson adds that Old Oak Amber, Jack Rabbit Pale Ale and Colorado Trail Nut Brown come in right around 5 percent ABV.

"I think that the lower ABV 'session' beers are often ignored, or should I say eclipsed by the biggest, baddest, most nextest thing beery," he said in an e-mail.

"It is at its roots a social beverage.  I'd rather have the opportunity to enjoy more than one well-crafted beverage than to drink myself into the corner of 'extreme.'

"All that being said in praise of the ever-so-humble session beer, I also believe that there is a time and place for the other end of the spectrum. What's that saying, 'all things in moderation ... including moderation.'"

Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: Three Rivers Bell Ringer

Much like Carver Brewing Co. in Durango, Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington releases only one bottled beer per year. In both cases for these brewpubs, it's a barley wine.

Three Rivers' Bell Ringer is available now at the brewpub in downtown Farmington in 22-ounce bomber bottles dipped in wax. (Bottles of Carver's Big Grizz Barley Wine are also available now at the Durango brewpub).

Bell Ringer is what the brewery calls an "IPA barley wine," but it's really not so much a new style as a hop-forward take on barley wine.

Bell Ringer, a recurring holiday seasonal, is obviously meant to be a double entendre with its 10.9 percent ABV. Without care, it could indeed lay you out on the canvas.

It pours a deep amber with a modest off-white head that quickly recedes in the face of the strong alcohol content. The hops come in strong, stronger than most barley wines. It doesn't quite have that very well-rounded caramel malt character and deep complexity seen in the best barley wines.

Bell Ringer might be a little bit one-dimensional, but it's still a very good beer. It's definitely one you want to split with others. It might also be a good idea, as the brewery advises, to lay one down for a while to see how it ages. B+

Friday, January 14, 2011

Silverton Brewing to expand distribution

Silverton Brewing Co. has worked out a deal with Fort Collins Brewery to bottle and distribute its beers on the Front Range, Westword reports.

Two Silverton beers, Ice Pick Ale and Bear Ass Brown, should be available statewide by February, according to the Denver weekly.

Contract brewing has really caught on lately as an inexpensive way for small breweries to expand. (In Durango, Ska is now brewing and canning Steamworks beers).

Those of us in Durango can already find Ice Pick Ale and Bear Ass Brown on liquor-store shelves. I like the IPA quite a bit, while the brown ale doesn't do much for me.

It'll be interesting to see how Silverton fares in the very competitive Front Range market. With breweries such as Breckenridge, New Belgium, Oskar Blues, Odell, Left Hand, Wynkoop, Great Divide, Upslope, Avery, Ska and Steamworks .... you get the picture. It's no longer an immature market begging for new entrants.

It's a big jump for a small-town brewpub to start elbowing its way onto liquor-store shelves in Denver and environs.

Welcome to the big leagues, Silverton, and good luck.

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

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Ska Brewing The One Eyed Monster

"Tell me if we nailed it," Ska Brewing Co. co-founder Bill Graham said, handing me his glass. "Raspberries and dark chocolate."

Ska decided to bring a new beer style to Durango for its annual beer to coincide with the city's Snowdown festival.

The One Eyed Monster, released last week, is what the brewery calls a Black IPA: essentially, an IPA brewed with dark malts.

When I walked into the release party at Ska last week to take a couple of bottles home, Graham was there. So, naturally, I interrogated him about the new beer while he was trying to play trivia with his friends.

The black IPA is a relatively young beer style that took hold in the Northwest about two years ago. Deschutes, Hopworks and other Oregon breweries have been at the forefront.

Ska's take on the style is very different from others I've seen.

While Deschutes and other NW breweries tend to favor typical, aggressive IPA hops like Cascade, Citra and Centenntial, Ska chose to hop The One Eyed Monster with Fuggles, a relatively mild hop of English origin, and Brewers Gold, a relatively mild hop of German origin.

The One Eyed Monster comes in at approximately 6.5 percent ABV and 65 IBUs, similar to a standard American IPA.

Ska brewed only 30 barrels of The One Eyed Monster and is distributing it only in Southwest Colorado. The 22-ounce bombers cost about $4.50 each.

It pours very dark, with a decent head of foam. The taste, at first, is a wash of chocolate malt, followed by a palate-cleansing hop flavor that tastes refreshing, not a word I often use in craft-beer reviews.

The aftertaste is indeed reminiscent of raspberries, perhaps also toothpaste (not a bad thing).

The style has provoked disagreement among beer taxonomists over what it should be called. Ska went with "Black IPA," a name that some have criticized as contradictory because it's saying black India pale ale, and a beer can't be both black and pale.

Folks in the Northwest prefer the term "Cascadian Dark Ale," after the regional Cascade Mountain range, which seems a little silly. You can't expect brewers in Colorado and elsewhere to follow that lead.

Neither does "India Black Ale" seem entirely satisfactory, because this new style is entirely American. The Brewers Association splits the difference, calling it an "American-style India Black Ale," which is probably about as good as we're going to get.

Putting aside the name game, Ska's version of the style is unlike any other you may encounter. While some brewers have reached for aggressive citrus hops that batter the malt into submission, the simple, humble Fuggles and Brewers Gold might be the way to go.

The One Eyed Monster is dark, malty and hefty. The hops are certainly here, but they don't dominate. It's an entirely pleasant departure.

The One Eyed Monster is an innovative approach to a still-developing beer style.  Not incidentally, it tastes quite good.

Bill, you nailed it. A

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Beer of the Year 2010

The time has come for Beer at 6512's second annual Beer of the Year award. It's the only laurel we award around here, so it's kind of a big deal (ahem).

Durango's four breweries stretched themselves in 2010, brewing Belgian and German styles, fresh takes on long-established styles, beers without any style, beers aged in barrels and other innovations.

Beers eligible for Beer of the Year must have been new or substantially changed beers brewed in Durango for commercial release during 2010.

Old favorites are not eligible - there is no point in debating Pinstripe Red Ale vs. Steam Engine Lager, for example. Nor are beers from outside Durango.

The criteria: taste first and foremost, with uniqueness, complexity, availability, price, packaging and market impact all considered. The usual caveats: This is a subjective decision that you are free to argue with in the comments below. And while I believe I tried every bottled release, a few tap-only beers surely slipped by me.

So without further ado, the winner is:

Beer of the Year 2010
Ska Dementia

Barrel aging beers is a dangerous game, especially in whisky barrels. If the barrel imparts too much whisky flavor, it overwhelms the beer and you're left with a nearly undrinkable pint.

Improving on previous barrel-aging projects, Ska Brewing Co.'s head brewer Thomas Larsen put some Euphoria Pale Ale in bourbon barrels for about five months.

Euphoria, a winter seasonal, is stronger, darker and hoppier than a typical pale ale.

Larsen also dry-hopped his creation with Simcoes, a high alpha acid hop popular for use in IPAs.

Dementia was double-dipped in red and blue wax and sold in 22-ounce bottles. It debuted in August at Ska's 15th anniversary party, where Larsen tapped the ceremonial keg.

At the time, I wrote, "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."

What makes this beer so impressive was the subtle interplay between the Simcoes and whisky taste. The barrel flavors and hops, which could have clashed, worked extremely well. It tasted unlike anything else on the market.

For this impressive variation on an existing beer, Larsen and Ska win Beer at 6512's Beer of the Year award.

Honorable mentions

Many beers could have won this award. The best of the rest, in alphabetical order, are:

Carver's Smoked Baltic Porter. Smoked beers also carry risk. Too much smoke can dominate the taste, as with the much-praised Alaskan Smoked Porter, a beloved beer that reminds me of how a fireplace must taste.

Carver's exercised restraint in using smoked German malt at 15 percent of the grist in this Baltic porter, a style that was new to Durango. This was a deeply satisfying release whose heft (7 percent ABV, 45 IBUs) helped brace us against the cold.

For its restraint, and for bringing the style to Durango and executing it well, Carver's deserves an honorable mention. (Initial review here).

Durango Brewing 20th Anniversary Ale. Coming off consecutive gold-medal wins at the Great American Beer Festival, Durango Brewing decided to brew a Belgian-style ale for their 20th anniversary. It was a great idea to brew a complex Belgian-style ale, but it could have benefited from some hard decisions.

It uses a Belgian souring yeast, but adds wheat malt, coriander and orange peel that obscures the yeast's qualities. It combined the characteristics of a saison, a golden and a wit. As I wrote in my initial review, the 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."

Give DBC some credit for innovation, and having the guts to try these finicky yeasts. It was an interesting experiment that tasted fine, but could have used some restraint.

Ska Brewing Oak-Aged Orange Cream Stout. Long ago, in the depths of January 2010, Ska put out the 14th beer in its Local Series. It was creamy and dark, with more than a suggestion of orange.

A twist on Ska's Steel Toe Milk Stout, this ale was aged for three to four months in oak barrels with sweet orange peel.

The idea came to Larsen after he came down with a head cold and was looking for ice cream. He ended up with one that mixed orange flavor and chocolate chunks.

What resulted from this inspiration was a wonderful dessert beer, an inviting stout with layers of flavor that was fun to drink.

One of the measures of a beer's greatness is how much you miss it when its gone. I miss this one a lot. (Initial review here).

Steamworks Elephant Rider Imperial IPA. It isn't easy to make an imperial IPA of brutish strength (9.5 percent ABV, 123 IBUs!) that goes down easy. But this hop bomb was impressively drinkable.

Using Centennial and Simcoe hops and Cascades for dry hopping, brewer Ken Martin brought a ton of hop flavor while somehow keeping it in balance.

I helped name the beer through a contest on Facebook, but the flavor stands on its own.

In a year when Steamworks began to regain its footing after retrenching from Bayfield, this was an impressive effort that should please the most ardent hop-head. And, I believe, it's still on tap.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ska Brewing releases Snowdown beer

Ska Brewing Co. tonight releases this year's Snowdown beer, The One Eyed Monster Black IPA. The tapping party begins at 5 p.m. at Ska, with bottles for sale.

Ska is the first of Durango's breweries to make a black IPA, a style popular in the Northwest. Last year, Ska's Snowdown beer was Hyper Fierce Gnar Gnar Hefe, an unfiltered hefeweizen brewed with toasted coconut and pineapple.

The One Eyed Monster has no such adjuncts, just water, malt, yeast and hops. It should be interesting.  Black IPAs are an acquired taste — some drinkers like them and some just don't care for the style. I'll probably swing by Ska for a bottle tonight and write up a review when I can.