The Best Bar in America

Recently, the Craft Brewers Association of America held a contest to try and find the “Best Beer Bar in America.” Members of the beer-drinking public were invited to vote through a website, and, not surprisingly, the winning institution is located in a place where the population within a 20-mile radius of the bar easily exceeds the total resident headcount of several Western states. More people equals more votes, and the numbers behind the math make perfect sense. But perhaps the calculus behind the concept is more intriguing — what makes a bar “the best?” It is a fascinating question: What makes a certain bar great, and another average? A question elusive enough that it has been ruminated upon in many MG Bar Issues. The subject is even lofty enough as to warrant treatment in a film of the same name as this column, currently in post-production/pre-release (see MG #154).

The theme is similar to the lifelong pursuit of the American dream that the good doctor, Hunter S. Thompson, undertook and used as a recurring motif throughout his writings — his mad search for any sign of the Aquarian-tinted, utopian hippie dream of the ’60s that captivated his imagination so, as reflected through the twisted lens of Las Vegas, or the alternate reality of a presidential campaign.

After reading most of what was published, it is unclear to this writer whether Thompson ever found what he was after, but what is clear is that much of the research was conducted in a wide variety of drinking establishments. And why not? For certainly, it is in the best bars in America where the elusive truth about our reality often appears, and wherein some of the finest that this country has to offer can be found …

For instance, take the Millsite Inn, located on the Peak-to-Peak Highway up above Ward, Colorado. Time was when an aspiring beer writer might take to the hills on a Saturday evening with his best girl, in search of some of that high-lonesome sound they kept talkin’ ’bout on the volunteer radio station each and every Saturday morning down in Boulder, and find himself and twenty other revelers in the company of local legends like Buck Buckner, Pete Wernick, the boys from Leftover Salmon and international prodigies like Radim Zenkel, the Czech virtuoso of all things mandolin. Long-haired, long-bearded, long-in-the-tooth mountain men sat in the shadows of the bar taking long tokes from cheap cigars and long pulls of rail whiskey while shooting dark looks from deepening brows at us long-haired, long-bearded, ne’er-do-wells as we asked the barmaid what was on tap other than Currs, a shame worth enduring to score a tall pitcher of Lefthand Brewing Co.’s Sawtooth or Odell’s 90 Schilling Ale (we still had to share our smaller but not-so-cheap cigars furtively outside between the vans, however).

Or take, perhaps, Alma’s Only Bar (aptly named, as the other drinking establishment in North America’s highest-elevationed incorporated town is a saloon), which was at this same time, as we found out, a great place to meet long-haired, long-bearded, long-in-the-tooth mountain men that were wacked out of their minds on LSD on a Saturday evening. A chance run-in with space cowboys is always disconcerting when oneself is not also trippin’, and, after a day spent learning to drop a knee at the hands of two “friends,” who also happened to be working ski patrol at Loveland that season, and subsequently in uber-physical shape from patrolling on tele for the two previous months, my beat-to-shit muscular and cardiovascular systems weighed with such force on my mental capabilities that the beguiling dudes in the corner talking excitedly about a string of completely unrelated abstractions just about threw me over the edge. ’Twas on this night that Alma’s Only Bar happened to have a new beer on tap, the now-august Hazed and Infused pale ale from Boulder Brewing Co. At the time, this was one of the most hopped-up beers on the market, and let’s just say that this experience did for hops and I what Burt Reynold’s mustache did in “Smokey and the Bandit” for D-bag dudes and the Pontiac Trans-Am. Yes, it was love at first sip, and the rest is history.

But to get back to my point … all the while he searched for his notion of the American dream, it seems to me that the good doctor was constantly looking for a twinkling reflection of his own vibrant “madness” in the twisted misshapen mirrors of the people he encountered. I don’t know if he ever saw it (perhaps in the strange moment that he relates where he is sitting for a few minutes alone with Nixon in the back of a limo talking football), but, if it happened elsewhere, it was not
mentioned, or I am remiss in my recollections. What I do know is this: While good beer on tap helps, the best bar in America is determined by the patrons. It’s you, and me, and the other freaks that sit and converse and share our wild dreams in these spaces and places about the matters and times that concern us that can make any bar the best bar in America, even if just for an evening.

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, where he spends his leisure time brewing his own beer. Got your own thoughts about the best bar in America? Drop him a line at beer@mountaingazette.com. 

Taos Hum

MG 192 Brew Notes

Sometime late in the last century, rumors of a mysterious low-level hum audible in and around Taos, NM, grew loud enough to draw national attention. Congress ordered an inquiry, and some of the brightest minds from institutions across New Mexico descended on the hapless village to get to the bottom of this “nonsense.” The scientists eventually focused on a group of roughly 1,500 people, and determined that, at most, two percent of the population perceived a low-level rumbling noise with no discernible source. The “hearers,” as they became known, were consistent in their descriptions of the phenomena and tests ruled out physiological reasons as a possible cause.

The scientists left baffled, concluding that the evidence could not disprove the existence of the hum. Later, sources not interviewed by the Congressional team emerged, and firsthand accounts agree the root cause of the hum in Taos was likely a series of Grateful Dead shows that went down seventy miles to the Southwest in Santa Fe, NM, September 10-13, 1983. A quick listen to “West LA Fadeaway” from the night of the Sept. 11 confirms it: weirdness was rampant, magick unleashed. While science cannot explain the exact meta-geophysical mechanism by which the energy and glow of thousands of hallucinating individuals writhing together to the cacophony of their manic screams mingled with music blasting from deafening amplifiers actually caused certain layers of the Earth’s crust to resonate around the city of Taos, agreement is unanimous that, “well, the shit must have been real good”.

It is well known by locals that sitting down for a pint of the fresh after riding the fresh is an excellent way to relax and tune in to the cosmic vibes emanating from the hills around. To that end, a new venture, Taos Mesa Brewing opened its doors recently. With a menu created by local rockstar chef Scott Barady and a state-of-the-art venue for live music, they plan to have the valley rocking and the beer flowing in time for the season opener this year. In addition to brewing beer, private-label wine sourced from regional producers is also available. It is uncommon to find this in combination with a production brewery, and the wine offering adds a degree intrigue to their operation. Clearly, these people have heard the siren call of the hum, itself perhaps a beacon for the wisdom of the Age of Aquarius, the bringer of water and sign of the times (see MG #191).

A short distance from the historic old-town plaza, Eske’s Brewpub offers excellent fare and fine brews in a century-old building. Of note is the chile beer that is offered. For those unaware, the famous green chile grown near the towns of Hatch, Socorro and Lemitar, NM, while bearing some physical resemblance to what marketing teams from the Golden State have hoodwinked your average grocery store conglomerate into believing are “Anaheim Chilis” (note the misspelling as well), in fact bear no flavor resemblance at all to the pusillanimous Anaheim. First off, they are fucking piquant. Not in the melt-your-face-off manner of the habañero or tabasco, but in a solid full-tongue-engulfed-in-nuclear-hellfire kind of way. Yes, milder varieties are grown, but this seems to be dependent on rainfall rather than genetics. Eske’s has taken these chiles and infused the subtle smokiness from their roasted flesh along with the right amount of heat into a simple base beer that reflects these qualities cleanly. Many have attempted this feat, but few have achieved harmony like Eske’s has between these flavor aspects.

It is possible that finding the proper balance of flavor and heat in a chile beer is, in fact, impossible outside of the state of New Mexico. In his treatise on anatomy, the prominent Western philosopher Rene Descartes (the “I-think-therefore-I-am” dude), wrote that the heart was a pump for heat, pushing this life-giving blessing throughout the body and thus sustaining life in all creatures. While modern medical science has proven his theories to be slightly off, it is possible that, in the Land of Enchantment, the heat from the chile, like the mysterious hum of Taos, courses through the hearts and minds of the people and mountains and sustains the spell that makes this place so fascinating.

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, and is always on the lookout for excellent green chile. Drop him a line: beer@mountaingazette.com 

I Want A New Drug

I Want a New Drug

A bottle of Pear Brandy made by Peach Street Distilling, Paonia, CO. “To get the pear into the bottle, the distiller drops in a lit match, sets the fruit on top, and watches while the vacuum created pulls the fruit down through the neck.” — Dave Thibodeau, Peach Street Distillers

Politics has been called the world’s second-oldest profession. If this is the case, then, in this country, the third is making moonshine. Long relegated to illegal backwoods operations by draconian federal and state tax laws that favored large producers, the art of distilling spirits was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth and the activity was kept in the shadows. There was good reason not to get caught breaking the law. Adherence to federal code governing alcohol production is policed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Trades, formerly the ATF, the same people who brought you the Waco and Ruby Ridge tragedies. Some law-enforcement agencies arrest and prosecute those who violate the law; these guys are licensed to kill. A decade ago, changes in tax codes allowed small producers to begin producing liquor and turn a profit. In 2003, the American Distilling Institute was founded to help promote the nascent industry. At that time, the association recognized 69 operating craft distilleries nationwide. Today there are more than 240, with projections of this number doubling by 2015. With craft distillers currently operating in every Western state, the movement resembles the craft-brewing industry of the early 1990s, which was a period of rapidly rising consumer interest and explosive growth.

Founded in 2004, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey can lay claim to being the oldest legally operating distillery in Colorado. A partnership between Woody Creek locals Jess Graber and George Stranahan, (also component to the reawakening of this journal), the whiskey was once distilled from mashes made at another of Stranahan’s former business concerns, the Flying Dog Brewery, when it also operated in Denver. Both have since changed hands, but unlike Flying Dog, Stranahan’s Whiskey continues to be produced on Kalamath Street in the Mile High City and distributed around the state. Having recently taken delivery of new copper pot stills and fermentation tanks, they aim to triple their production over the next year, with hopes that some of their product might actually make it out of Colorado to points far and wide.

On the other side of the state, Peach Street Distillers in Palisade first put fire under its still in 2005. Taking advantage of being located in the heart of Colorado’s fruit- and wine-producing regions, they have put together an award-winning lineup of products that include Colorado Straight Bourbon, Goat Vodka, Jackalope Gin, Jack and Jenny Peach and Pear Brandies (including the Pear Brandy pictured above with the fruit grown in bottles carefully suspended from the tree branches), several styles of Grappa and other unique products. Peach Street proudly points out that theirs was the first bourbon produced in the state. According to press release, a common misunderstanding is that bourbon must be made in Kentucky, and although there are strict laws governing what a bourbon is, the spirit can technically be made anywhere in the United States. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, aged for not less than two years in new charred American oak barrels, and nothing can be added at bottling to enhance the flavor or color. As with all of Peach Street’s spirits, they use local Colorado ingredients, including the famed sweet corn of Olathe. This “commitment to excellence in creativity and quality” was cited as determining factor in Peach Street being awarded the “Distillery of the Year” award at the 9th annual Craft Distillers Conference held in Louisville, KY, in April of this year. Plans are underway to expand the tasting room, as well as to acquire several of the buildings that they currently occupy, as well as to put up over 100 barrels of bourbon in 2012.

Claiming title as “the world’s highest distillery,” Breckenridge Distillery operates their production facility and downtown tasting rooms up in Breck at an elevation of 9,600 feet above sea level. Breckenridge produces award-winning bourbon, vodka and rum. The bourbon is curious in that it contains a high amount of rye in the grain mixture that forms its base. This differentiates it from many American-style bourbons that might finish sweeter. They also produce an original line of bitters infused with alpine herbs intended to create remarkable aperitifs with flavors evoking the rare beauty found in the mountains around them.

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, and would love to hear about hooch made near you. Drop him a line: beer@mountaingazette.com  

Blaze of Glory

Rectory Tower

Author’s note: Climber/Photographer Dave Montgomery of Morrison, CO, had this to say about his photo, to which there is nothing to add. “I took [the photo] with a piece-of-crap 4 megapixel point and shoot after raping off of Castleton Tower. I looked over at the Rectory and the lighting was just stunning! I guess it doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have, just gotta be in the right place at the right time. To top it off, my buddy had a lukewarm PBR in his pack!”

At least half of the following is God’s honest truth. I have been diligently pursuing the details of this adventure for two years and was finally rewarded after filling one of the participants with my home-brewed lager a few weeks ago. The names of those involved have not been changed to obscure their identities, as they fear no one.

Located just to the north of Moab, the crumbling rock towers of Utah’s Castle Valley stand broken and forlorn, ancient guardians of time itself. The routes up the fantastic sun-blasted sheer ruby shards of sandstone make this a destination for climbers from around the globe. Traveling through the valley is like having a vivid daydream of exploring some forgotten canyon system on the face of Mars.

Located within the dream is a structure known as “The Rectory” (far left in the photo above). It was on top of this floating sky-island in 1990 (am I the only one who looks at this terrain and thinks of the psychedelic mindscapes created by Roger Dean for the albums released by the band “Yes” in the ’70s?), that a production team chose to desecrate, err, utilize for the filming of the music video to the soundtrack for the movie, “Young Guns II”, and Jon Bon Jovi hit single, “Blaze of Glory”. Even non-climbers may recall the scene, a forgotten ’50s-era drive-in movie theater set upon on a patch of floating desert, crooked stands for the PA system scattered amongst the boulders and wrecks of old cars hoisted by helicopter to the top.

Amidst this faded scene of epic Americana stands Jon Bon Jovi with flowing locks, bone necklace over bare chest and leather pants so tight he had no trouble hitting the high notes, bravely belting out his tune to the setting sun. (Can I get a little “hell yeah!” right here?) It was this location that an associate of mine chose for an epic party of his own. Invitations were sent, and along with time and place, instructions were given to each party for supplies that must be brought along, and up, the 400-foot ascent to the top. For the overnight stay, bags of ice, bundles of firewood, a grill, water, fresh food, dogs, a stereo, several kegs of beer and someone’s non-climbing girlfriend had to be accounted for. No means for the delivery of these items was suggested, with their presence simply dictated as ticket to the party. The details of the “hoist”, as it has become known, could fill this volume, so suffice it to say that the mission was accomplished and a large party began, one fit for the heroic nature of the place, and the time.

Recollections vary, but by some accounts, the kegs chosen for the evening may have been filled with several of the following brews. An obvious choice would have been Durango Brewing Co.’s D-Wheat (Durango Wheat). This locals’ favorite is light and refreshing, enjoyable both by the pint and the gallon. Another strong contender, though perhaps not available at the time of the climb several years ago, is Ska Brewing Co.’s Mexican Logger. If you have not tried this, better grab a sixer and kiss the clear-bottled piss from south of the border farewell. All of what you love about a fresh Mexican lager beer is contained in these cans, with none of the foul skunk flavors, nor pretence of being mysterious and “the most interesting beer in the world”. If not this beer, then smart money would rest on the Colorado Kolsch from Steamworks Brewing Co. With the finest labeling of any beer in a can anywhere (the Colorado flag *prominently* adorns the front), Steamworks Kolsch is the perfect substitute for the flavorless cans of macro-filth that one might otherwise choose to waste their money on. But for the coup-de-grace, for a beverage so rare and extraordinary as to match the nature of the revelry described above, one must assume that a barrel of the Celebrated Raspberry Wheat from Carver Brewing Co. would have been called for by name. Pink as the satin panties that your high school girlfriend wore, this nectar of the gods has been known to cause strong men from Texas to burst into spontaneous song, and bring tears of joy to the bravest of women. Yes, my money is on the “pink” for keg #2.

As for the party? Apparently, the “amount of firewood needed” calculation had been low, so in a fit of recycling hubris, vast quantities of the timbers (aka, garbage) that had been left behind from the filming of the video in 1990 were added to the flames, in whose blaze of glory the climbers howled and danced under the bright desert light of the full moon.

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, and would love to hear from you: beer@mountaingazette.com 

We’re not in (Ar) Kansas Anymore

Beer and River

Dusty Lanci rides the Owyhee River (OR) in style. Photo by Sarah Lanci.

The newest member of the mountain-brewing fraternity is Elevation Beer Co., a start-up taking root in Poncha Springs. If you find yourself wondering, where in the hell is Poncha Springs, don’t feel bad. Half the Chaffee County locals interviewed couldn’t place it. Head north, and you’re in Buena Vista. Head east to nearby Salida. Head west and you’ll be on Monarch Pass. Head south for the Poncha Pass and the metropolis of Saguache.

If this sounds like a remote location for a brewery, it is. But for their business plan, Poncha is centrally located. Elevation intends to brew for a different market than many microbreweries. Rather than going after taps and brewing for volume, Elevation plans three product lines for production. Based on the rating scheme for ski trails, their Blue Square brews will be easier-drinking beers, and distributed locally on tap.

The other two lines, dubbed Black Diamond and Double Black, will feature bigger, bolder expressions of beer style with the first releases to be a Belgian Quadruple made with caramelized honey and a Farmhouse Ale aged in chardonnay barrels. These will be distributed “corked & caged” in 750ml champagne bottles throughout Colorado and are aimed at the beer aficionado market. Look for Elevation where you buy beer by press time, and stop in for their grand opening to be held at the brewery on May 19th.

Since we last checked in with the Eddyline Brewery, located in the South Main area of Buena Vista (MG #179), things seem to have been going well. A new facility and canning line is complete and operational, and distribution in 16-ounce cans has taken off with a newly inked deal that should put their beer on shelves across the High Country of Colorado this summer. To celebrate, Eddyline is co-sponsoring the Colorado Kayak Supply (CKS) Paddlefest on May 25-27th and will have a special release, Paddlefest Pilsner a.k.a Boater Beer, on hand for the event. This beer is a craft-brewed American Lager, perfect for hot summer days on the river. With back-to-back “Best of the Fest” awards from the Telluride Blues n’ Brews festival to their name, Eddyline is on a roll heading into summer 2012.

According to head brewer Mike LaCroix, Amicas Microbrewery in Salida will be featuring several seasonal releases, as well as a few new brews this spring. In addition to the Ute Trail Pale Ale, look for the next in their series of single-hop IPAs to be released, with this version featuring the Australian grown “Galaxy” hop. Single-hop IPAs take a simple base beer and then bitter it with one variety of hop, rather than mixing several to generate a more complex hop profile. The idea is to provide a clean base on which to showcase the flavors of the hop variety without distraction. Mike has also been exploring the craft of barrel-aging beer, and will be releasing an Imperial Brown Honey Ale, aged in a bourbon barrel for several months. It should come in around 12% abv, and will only be available on tap starting in mid-April.

Also in Salida, Moonlight Pizza has begun brewing beer. Billed as “beer for the worker bees,” the brewing operation was started to complement the existing pizza business. All indications are that this is a groovy place worthy of a stop, as they say, after running a marathon, leading your first 5.10b or swimming a rapid.

Erich Hennig is an avid homebrewer and lives in Durango, CO. 

¿Tienes Experiencia?

A good brew on the beach!’Bout the time that the blazing mountain sun pulls her annual spring prank, searing  “Last Call for Turns” across the slopes and forcing Ullr and winter back to the frigid lands of the north for another season, down south of the border, she’s calling a different tune, one replete with a rough reggae backbeat, bikinis sand, rum and the sea.

With the selection of beer produced in Mexico, one would think that a journey beyond to the countries comprising the isthmus of Central America would relinquish a cornucopia of fine cerveza for the intrepid traveler to enjoy. While it is true that beer abounds, craft brewing is all but non-existent, and what brew is available is produced and distributed by giant beverage monopolies, not unlike the bad-old-days around these parts.

In Belize, the national brand is Belikin, and comes in three varieties, Lager, Premium Lager and Stout. The crafty company also produces another brand, Lighthouse, which seems to be the same liquid packaged under the premium label, only marked-up and sold in green bottles. To help keep the beverage inside chilled for an extended period in the Caribbean heat, Belikin Lager and Stout are packaged in brown glass bottles with much thicker sides and bottom than average. The theory goes that the greater mass of glass takes longer to warm in the sun. After conducting a thorough test, my wife and I concluded that, despite only having a 10-ounce serving inside, the thicker-glass-prevents-the-brew-from-turning-to-warm-piss was a bunch of shit, and on the morning of day two, purchased a fine pair of bottle coozies, (proudly sporting a stencil of the Belikin label), a cherished prize that we own and operate to this day. A beautiful country filled with wonderful people, coastal Belize spoons with the second-largest reef system on the planet. If you’re a fan of Cancun, staying on the island/peninsula of Ambergris Caye would be a fine choice, or if, like us, you’re style tends more toward Tulum or Mahawal, staying a slight distance south on the tiny spit of sand known as Caye Caulker would be a wiser move. It was on the third day, while enjoying a bottle of Belikin at the café Herbal Tribe, that tragedy struck. The details are not for print, but suffice it to say that either the sun, water, gallons of scotch bonnet sauce, mountains of conch ceviche, multiple lobster breakfast burritos and dinners of fresh-caught and grilled bonefish had caught up with me, or the brew was funky. All I know is that, from that moment forward, I chose to spend the extra fifty cents on each bottle of Belikin Premium, and the ship, as they say, was righted.

Flores, an island/town located on the stunning Lago Peten Itza in the Peten region of northern Guatemala, is absolutely not to be missed. A primary jumping off point for visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Flores is the perfect place to sit and enjoy the sunset over the lake from the deck of your five-dollar-per-night hotel and to chat with fellow travelers about the splendor of the city and the mystery of the ruins over a cold beer. Gallo, (the rooster), is the national brand, and a litro of the flavorless lager can be had for under a dollar from any of the shops around town. Limes can help the taste, but not much. Half hidden on shelves in the darkest corners of the shops, one may notice many small pints of a nameless clear liquid adorned with labels featuring icons of saints and other religious figures. BEWARE! The poison contained within is distilled juice of the hangover vine cut with low-grade gasoline. One shot may cause dizziness, nausea and vomiting, with a full pint inducing unconsciousness or death. This same filth is sold as Guarro in Costa Rica and should be avoided, that is unless your taste tends towards such pleasantries as snake venom, scorpion poison or extra-strength Rophenol.

The surf on the beach at Santa Theresa, located on the pacific coast of Costa Rica near the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, features a right/left break on an endless sequence of kilometer-long rollers. Spider monkeys nurse their young and feed on breadfruit above your hammock at the treeline, while Ticas in tiny hot-pink Brazil-cut bikinis and hombres with eight-packs and sun-bleached dreadlocks absolutely shred the surf in front of you. Lying there, half dazed by the sun, and exhausted from hours spent on the board learning to surf, ice-cold bottles of Imperial and Pilsen, jammed to the brim with the tiny orange-fleshed limes that grow locally, tasted like ambrosia, the nectar of the gods. Later, the German woman who owned the hostel across the dusty road that ran along the strip of jungle separating the beach from the town shared a bottle of Centranario Rum with us (the 12-year-old variety), and it was then that I truly found out what ambrosia was.

 

Erich lives in Durango, CO, at the alternate reality ranch, just outside of town. 

 

Dude, Where’s My Dog?

Porter the malamute wonders, “Dude, where’s my beer?”
Porter the malamute wonders, “Dude, where’s my beer?”

I have seen the future, and it’s dark. Not in a cataclysmic, greed-driven economic meltdown kinda way (been there, done that), nor in an apocalyptic end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it kinda way (the peculiarity of an 1,100-year-old Mayan astronomical cycle ending in 2012 of the Common Era IS NOT a harbinger of the end), but in the sense that trends old and long forgotten often become new again.

According to some estimates, as much as 75% of beer produced in London in the mid-19th century was Porter-style ale. First produced late in the 18th century, the brew had caught on among the workers of London, and through trade had become a rampant success across Europe, on order of the beaver-pelt hat. While the latter faded from fashion around 1850, Porter continued to be produced by British brewers until grain rationing during the First World War forced the beer to be brewed with lower alcohol content, on the order of Stout. This, along with the increasing popularity of Stout, nearly led to the demise of the style until a number of breweries began producing Porters again in the 1980s.

Porter is dark ale, brewed with heavily roasted malts to create a rich body balanced with dry flavors of coffee and nuts or sometimes a sweet character of caramel or toffee. Porter is commonly brewed to finish at 5-6% abv, with its heavier cousin, Baltic Porter, finishing between 7-10% abv. Hopping rates vary, with many Porters using modest amounts of hops to compliment the astringency already present from the darker malts. Some domestically produced porters, such as Deschutes Brewing Co.’s Black Butte Porter and Avery Brewing Co.’s New World Porter, hop to much higher levels, on order of a Pale Ale or India Pale Ale. (Avery has even been so bold as to lay claim to their New World Porter being the first Black IPA, thus entering an ongoing dispute among Pacific Northwest brewers and the Stone Brewing Co. of Escondido, CA, over the origination of the style). Occasionally, breweries choose to add a small amount of smoked malt to the grain bill. This is roasted malt that has been placed in a smoker or dried over a wood fire. Generally found in bigger Baltic Porters, a modest touch of smoke can be an excellent addition to the overall flavor, and hearkens back to a time prior to kiln-drying of malt, when all beer would have contained some level of smoke flavor from the use of fire-dried barley.

Today, Porter is readily available at the package store, and is offered by many craft breweries. For a baseline example of the style, one can’t miss with a bottle of Fuller’s, or Samuel Smith’s Old Taddy Porter. The latter was a crowd favorite in parking lots outside of music venues in the ’90s, and while drinking a bottle in preparation for this article, a friend reminisced fondly that it and a piece of paper had been dinner on more than one occasion before seeing a band.

For a smoked variety, pick up a bottle of Smoked Baltic Porter from Great Divide Brewing Co. or the excellent Smoked Porter from Alaskan Brewing Co. Alaskan has chosen to add their alder-wood smoked malt to a base brew of modest (5.5% abv) strength, allowing the smoke to play a more prominent role in the flavor profile than it does in the offering from Great Divide. The brew is released annually and labeled with the year of release. I was lucky enough to find a bottle from 2009, and was happy to find that it had mellowed nicely in the bottle with little loss of body.

And so, will darker beer, like Porter, become the norm again? I don’t know, but for every beer, there is a person who drinks it. The two major international beer producing conglomerates, (AB/InBev and MillerCoors together controlling 265+ brands between them), are making quite a bit of money selling the likes of Michelob Amber Bock and other filthy poisons of a non-yellow color to someone. This was unheard of 15 years ago, and as the craft industry continues its impressive year-over-year growth, I can’t help but hope for a mass change in consciousness away from lite “beer.” Perhaps this time, it can be done without the beaver-pelt hat craze and the near extinction of the hapless beaver from North America.

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO and is a contributor to the blog beerat6512.com. He can be reached at beer@mountaingazette.com

In Pursuit of the Gnar

 Five generations of Pagosa Brewing Co.’s Nipple Mountain Nip barleywine style ale are served up at a “vertical tasting” for their 5th anniversary celebration on 11.11.11
Five generations of Pagosa Brewing Co.’s Nipple Mountain Nip barleywine style ale are served up at a “vertical tasting” for their 5th anniversary celebration on 11.11.11

Style. It’s how we define ourselves. It is also a fine method of establishing a common ground on which to meaningfully discuss beer. Tucked under the category of Strong Ales* lie three of the most beguiling and gnarly of all the creations in brewdom — the elusive Strong Ale (discussed in MG #184) and the fraternal twins of British- and American-style barleywine. As the name implies, these concoctions are created using an enormous amount of malted barley, which allows the final product to finish with an alcohol level akin to beverages produced from the fruit of the vine. British-style varieties feature an intense malt body and bready sweetness, with extended aging leaving a characteristic dried fruit signature on the palate. American varieties add piles of high-test domestic hops to the equation, aiming for a full-throttle mix of heat from the booze, sweet from the malt and a citrus hop rip to finish. Born brash and bold, subtlety of flavor comes with age for barleywine. The high level of alcohol and heavy hopping rates allow the potion to weather the ravages of time. Where a lesser brew will lose body and flavor complexity, the slow magick that yeast and malt begat in barleywine evolves over time, changing the flavor in a strange and persistent manner. Sharp hop notes and cloying sweetness may dominate a young brew, but the same bottle a few years later may exhibit sherry or port-like notes, with a moderate sweetness balanced by a subdued dryness from the hops. Barleywine is meant to be savored, and is best served on a cold winter evening where the stars shine hard and bright like diamond nails hammered into the midnight of heaven, and the icy light of the full moon echoes from the stellar blue blanket of snow covering the peaks around you.

A celebration of all things barleywine occurs in Vail on the 5th of January when the 12th Annual Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywine Festival takes place at the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa. Featuring the “A” list of commercially produced beer over 7% ABV, paired with dinners, seminars, tastings and a home-brewing competition, this event is the festival to attend to experience all that is happening with high-gravity brewing today.

If you are lucky enough to ride at Wolf Creek this winter, do not miss the chance to stop at Pagosa Brewing Co. in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Doing this prior to or après soaking in the hot springs is your choice, but either way, a glass of the gold-medal-winning Nipple Mountain Nip barleywine ale is required. Brewed each year, the 2011 release is in the American-style and comes in at 10.5% ABV. To celebrate its 5th anniversary, brewer and owner Tony Simmons tapped kegs of the “Nip” from each of the five years he has produced it as a commercial brewer, and offered this side-by-side in a vertical tasting event that was a privilege to attend. Some of these prior-year releases may survive through ski season and should be asked for at the bar. Tawny, dry flavors of raisins and fig came through in some, with toffee and sweetness lingering in others. The 2008 was particularly well rounded, with each year exhibiting remarkable vitality in body and flavor complexity despite their age.

On a larger craft-brewed scale, the wizards at Full Sail Brewing Co. in Hood River, OR, have released the 2011 batch of Old Boardhead Barleywine Ale. Prominently featuring a bold palate of Pacific Northwest hops, the Old Boardhead is a heady hop treat to pour in the glass now, and should develop nicely if stashed in the cellar. In particular, the bright, faintly metallic notes from centennial hops accent the caramel flavor of the malts, and while tasting it, the thought of examining the changes that occur in the bottle to be opened next year is intriguing.

Head brewer Alan Simmons (no relation to Tony) at the Backcountry Brewery in Frisco also brews an American-style barleywine, which he named after the “beater” van that has proudly served as the Backcountry Brewery distribution workhorse since its inception. The Olde Beerwagon Barleywine is modeled after a West-Coast-style brew and features big-hop notes to balance the 10% ABV. Alan also has 50 gallons of the ’wine aging in an oak bourbon barrel and set for release during the ski season this winter. Aging in bourbon barrels imparts a lot of character to a beer, rendering vanilla and smoke components from the toasted oak itself, along with a solid dose of bourbon esters from the liquor remaining in the wood.

*All style references in this column are based on the Beer Judges Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines found here:  http://www.bjcp.org/stylecenter.php

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO. He is an avid home brewer, a hobby for which he was recently awarded  “Area Man” status by the local newspaper. Further musings about all things beer in and around the San Juan’s can be found at beerat6512.blogspot.com 

Oh Christmas Brew, Oh Christmas Brew!

Old Saint Nick enjoys a pint of the proper.
Old Saint Nick enjoys a pint of the proper.

Understanding beer style is important to understanding the craft brewing industry. Amongst other things, defining the style of beer that a bottle contains helps consumers to choose products that meet their fancy, and allows breweries track sales and trends. In mid-2008, a report published by the Brewers Association found that, for the first time in the craft brewing industry, sales of pale ale were eclipsed by sales of seasonal releases. This was seen as evidence that, as consumers have become more beer-savvy and adventurous in their tastes, they increasingly look for a wider variety of beer to enjoy.

Recognizing this, brewers have jumped at the opportunity to broaden their style portfolio and to bolster their sales with small-batch brews of limited release ales and lagers designed to fit the season. While many smaller breweries will release a uniquely named seasonal, increasingly, the larger production brew houses have gone to a more generic format named for the season. Many varieties of “summer ale” abound, with increasing examples of “spring” and “fall” suds slowly making their appearance on the shelf each year. But by far the most ubiquitous and varied seasonal in the brewing calendar is the enigmatic Christmas Brew.

With roots stretching back to the time of legend and days of yore, these brews routinely defy classification, blending styles, bending rules and pushing boundaries (going higher?). The most laced-down of the group describe themselves as porters or brown ales, with most calling the murky realms of olde ale and strong ale home, or simply defying traditional classification altogether by claiming the bastard title of winter warmer. In general, Christmas brews start life with a high gravity (sugar content) and are then fermented with an ale yeast, finishing out heavier in body, darker in color, sweeter on the tongue and containing more alcohol than the average beer. They are the kind of thing you might want to savor on a cold evening after a day on the slopes, and tend to display their full flavor profile when consumed slightly warm. Some contain spices, herbs or fruit, with spruce-tips, juniper berries, holiday spices, chocolate and raspberry being fairly common additions. With all this variety, the only means of better understanding this phenomenon is to try them out. For reference, a few personal favorites that should be widely available across the West are listed here.

In the olde ale style, Avery Old Jubilation, produced by Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder has been a seasonal favorite of mine for over ten years. It presents a bold toffee flavor, blended with a note of currant from the hops. Mahogany in the glass, this one comes in at 8.3% abv. Though brewed since 1995, Hibernation Ale, from Great Divide Brewing Co. in Denver only crossed my radar last year. Perhaps a better example of the Olde Ale style than Avery’s offering, one gulp of this elixir presents a complex series of flavors in the mouth, with a good degree of warmth from the alcohol (8.7% abv) and a solid hop finish. Adding a completely different twist, Alaskan Brewing Co. tapped into tradition dating back to the 1700s and brews their Winter Ale with the addition of Sitka Spruce tips. The result is an invigorating boost to the piney flavors from the hops, balanced by the dark and sweet character of the underlying beer.

In the marketing material for their Christmas Ale, Breckenridge Brewing Co. states that “The chill of a Colorado high-country winter calls for a beer with extra flavor and strength.” (Fuckin-A to that!) This perennially impressive release in the strong ale category heeds this call, weighing in at a hefty 7.4% abv with a luscious malt backbone to support all that delicious alcohol. Wassail Ale, brewed by Full Sail Brewing Co. in Hood River, OR, is a pleasantly hoppy experience, and would be a good choice if you prefer Pale Ales or IPA-style beer. They have also released a new offering this season, Session Fest, which will be packaged in the same 11-oz. stubby bottles the other Session styles come in. Also new for 2011 is Snow Day, from New Belgium Brewing Co. I initially assumed that this was a rebranding of the 2 Below seasonal from years past, and was happy to learn that it is, in fact, a new recipe based on a malt known as “Midnight Wheat.” 2 Below nearly saved my life while stranded at Denver International over the holidaze a few years ago, (the New Belgium bar sits at the end of the concourse that handles regional flights to the mountains of Colorado), and hopefully Snow Day is a worthy replacement.

Erich Hennig lives and works in Durango, CO, where he generally rocks it. Got a Christmas Brew that we should know about? Drop a note to beer@mountaingazette.com 

Breweries, Brewpubs and Beer Bars (Oh My!)

Steve Dressler, Head Brewer at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., puts a fine pour on a glass of Life & Limb
Steve Dressler, Head Brewer at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., puts a fine pour on a glass of Life & Limb.

We live in rad times. Proof of this can be found on the shelves of any decent liquor store, where the once homogeneous wall of light, and slightly less light beer, forced from the bowels of some cavernous monstrosity in St. Louis or Milwaukee, has been supplanted by a cornucopia of fresh, locally produced brews in an ever-widening selection of styles. Grab any two bottles of craft beer and you will find that, like snowflakes, each is unique. So too are the institutions that produce and sell these wonderful products.

Variety is the spice of life, and as with the beer they produce, craft brewers tend to create facilities that reflect personal style, creativity and marketing in equal parts. For the intrepid beer aficionado, intent on consuming new styles of beer in different places, the subtleties that differentiate one from the next can best be illustrated by breaking them into four categories, that of production brewery, the stalwart brewpub, the up-and-coming nanobrewery and the beer bar.

Production breweries, the workhorses of the craft industry, are primarily focused on producing volumes of beer for packaged distribution to the consumer. They hide themselves in light industrial areas across the West, in places where loading docks and forklifts are the norm. Despite this, the taprooms that operate in these facilities offer a chance to enjoy the freshest possible pints of product, while taking in the atmosphere of the place where it is made. Across Colorado, the number of these facilities that have evolved is staggering, with giants such as New Belgium, Lefthand, Avery and Odell’s in the Front Range being joined across the state by Ska, Oskar’s, Durango Brewing, Crazy Mountain and Telluride Brewing, to name just a few. I have many fond memories of visits to brewery taprooms, like riding to Lefthand for growlers on Saturday, the old roof-deck at Ska and not being able to find Avery on bike after sitting at Twisted Pine for a couple of hours (it’s just off of Arapaho).

While production breweries dominate annual production of craft brew by volume, by far the widest scope of small-batch beer comes from your favorite local brewpub, an American icon. These span the spectrum of style, but generally pair beer produced on premise (or elsewhere, in some cases) with a restaurant business. This is no easy task, as the two halves of the business, beer and food, operate on different frequencies. With the two in synch, the brewpub can function like the human brain, with each hemisphere specializing in the tasks that it is best suited to, and producing better results as a system than either half could alone. This delicate balance is rare, and finding really kick-ass beer paired with good food and service is not always a given. Style combinations vary widely, from great brew and steaks at Chama River Brewing in Albuquerque, NM, to fine pints and pizza at Amica’s in Salida, CO. Some brewpubs, like Tommyknocker in Idaho Springs, CO, have managed to pull off the triple crown of brewing feats, operating a brewpub and distributing beer on a wide scale. Increasing numbers of followers are coming to market every day, and finding offerings on the shelf from Wynkoop, Steamworks, Pug Ryan’s, Silverton and Eddyline are a real treat.

By far the newest entrant to craft brewing is the nanobrewery. While definitions vary, the “nano” generally produces modest amounts of beer in a few styles on a small-commercial or large home-built system. Run by brewers that may be operating part time, they distinguish themselves by having total freedom as to the styles of beer they produce, the volumes or changes they make from batch to batch. In essence, brewing at this scale represents the freest from of commercial brewing, meeting the requirements for legal sale, while flying under many of the constraints to variation that volume production introduces. A couple of my favorites are the Ourayle House in Ouray, CO, and Revolution Brewing out in Paonia, CO. The number of nanos out there is growing every day, and lacking large marketing budgets, sometimes these are hard for the intrepid beer writer to discover. Any tips as to where I can find these businesses flourishing and their beer flowing would be greatly appreciated.

And last, but certainly not least, for sheer quantity of beer styles on tap, one must give credit to the beer bar owner/operator. Wither an independent like Lady Falconburgh’s in Durango, CO, with 40 taps featuring selections both local and international, or a “captive” beer bar, like the (Breckenridge Brewery) Ale House in Grand Junction, serving both Breck beers and a strong selection of guest taps, nowhere else can whim and fancy for beer in varying style be met on such an uncompromising scale.

Enthusiastic homebrewer Erich Hennig lives and works in Durango, CO. Drop him a note at beer@mountaingazette.com