Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Napa Valley of Beer

People call the Front Range in Colorado the “Napa Valley of Beer” - and for good reason. Arguably there are a few places in the United States that approach the brewery density and beer culture here, but none exceed it. I do not have an accurate count since the number changes almost weekly, but Colorado now has in the neighborhood of 150 breweries, almost all of them west of I-25 and concentrated in or near the foothills. So with all of these breweries, there must be a tourism business opportunity, right? Yes. Napa Valley has the Wine Train, and Colorado now has a number of traveling brewery tours.
Last Saturday friends Matt, Skye, Beggi and I signed up for one of these tours with Front Range Brew Tours ( (I do not want to promote any specific tour organization, but since I am now familiar with these guys, I will give some background on how they operate. I believe others are similar.) The scheduling is somewhat flexible, but for us the meeting point was Union Station in Lower Downtown Denver at 10:30 am. No better way to start the morning! A Ford Excursion limousine was waiting for us and a crew of ten other beer enthusiasts that we were going to spend the day with. The tour comes with a hired designated driver as well as a guide from Front Range Brewery Tours. In the week leading up to the tour, the guide proposes a rough itinerary to everyone over email, but he is willing to be flexible to accommodate the wishes of the customers. Since there is usually more than one group, it may take some cooperation between the tour-goers if there is a desire to visit different breweries or locations, etc., but changing things up is not a problem. On this particular day our goal was to visit taprooms in seven breweries starting in Ft. Collins, then Longmont and finally Boulder. A beer and lunch break was scheduled in the middle, and the guide tries to squeeze in at least one full tour of a brewery at some point during the day.

I’ve never been on the Wine Train, but I have toured numerous Napa and Sonoma wineries. The beer tour crowd, in contrast to wine lovers (in my experience anyway), is every bit as passionate about their beverage, but much more laid back and less formal. On our tour we were paired with ten others – all a decade or so younger than we were. They definitely fit the passionate, yet casual mold. A very fun group! The atmosphere on the road was electric with tunes cranking in the limo, which was equipped with everything except for Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua. We had coolers, ice, and plenty of beers to keep us hydrated between stops.

In the end we only made it to six breweries. New Belgium, Fort Collins Brewing Company, and Odell Brewing in Ft. Collins, Oskar Blues in Longmont, and Twisted Pine and Avery Brewing in Boulder. As we arrived at our second stop, Odell’s, a tour was just starting, so we all grabbed a complimentary St. Lupulin and joined in the group. In my opinion, no matter how many tours one has been on, you can always learn something from visiting a new brewery. And this tour was no different. I am glad that we were able to see Odell’s behind-the-scenes operation, because my favorite US beer right now is their Woodcut. ( Woodcut is not a specific beer, rather a series. Each year they select one style, jack it up (imperial/double) and brew it in a small batch to later be aged in virgin American oak barrels. The result is amazing. I’ve had all three over the years (No. 3 is the latest) and they all have a strong, yet amazingly pleasant and smooth oak character from the first use of the wood. There is no brett tang, just a strong, clean beer letting the wood shine through. On the tour we saw the stacks of new barrels used to age the beer in this series as well as their new 750ml bottling line, which Odell uses to cork finish their premium offerings. Woodcut is brewed on their smaller pilot system, but we also were educated on their primary 50-barrel setup. One unique thing I learned about Odell Brewing is that they have traditionally used diatomaceous earth (DE) filtration to polish their beers.
This is not uncommon, though DE is more widely used in the wine industry and as a swimming pool filter. It appears that they are trying to phase their current system out, and we got a first hand look of their new/future centrifuge filtration system. This is the first time I have seen such a system in use at a brewery. It sounds like they have high expectations for extending the shelf life of their beers by and additional three months with this new technique. Like I said, each brewery tour brings a little something new.

After being chauffeured to Ft. Collins, Longmont, Boulder and back, we were dropped of at Union Station where we started. All of us wanted to continue, so we walked across the street to the Wynkoop to wind down with a few more pints. All in all I have to say it was a very fun and educational day. I strongly recommend one of these tours for any local, or beer-loving tourist planning to visit the Front Range. It is a great way to meet other enthusiasts, sample a number of great beers, and tour a new brewery or two. The guides are willing to be flexible to accommodate the wishes of each individual group. Finally, I would not describe myself as a glamour-seeker, but it was nice for once to be escorted around in a limo while drinking beer, listening to music, and sharing experiences - especially with such a fun group of people.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Snowcave Camping 2011

It is that time of the year again. Last Saturday a number of friends and I made our annual (19 years now I think) pilgrimage up to 10,200 feet in the Rocky Mountains west of Ward Colorado for a weekend of snowcave camping. Building the caves amounts to a lot of work - digging for hours with clothes soaked inside and out. But in the end it is well worth the effort. After the cave is dug, firewood cut, and clothes changed; it is time to pull a half litre out of the snowpack “fridge” and crack it open.

While enjoying our first beer, we usually take a short hike away from our campsite over to the frozen Red Rock Lake. There is nothing better than drinking a well-deserved beer with the spectacular Indian Peaks and the continental divide in the background! In addition to the beauty, it is a quite tranquil atmosphere with little else around besides an occasional fox and “camp robbers” swooping in to steal food when the opportunity arises.

As far a beer drinking goes, this trip is often a good time for my “Doppelbock” challenge. But this year I changed up the selection a bit. I did bring one Doppelbock (Weltenburger Kloster Asam-Bock), but I included a couple of other styles too. I started with a nice crisp and refreshing Stiegl Pils, transitioned to the Asam-Bock, and for a nightcap I brought a 750 ml Cuvee Van Der Keizer Rood.

Stiegl Pils (Stieglbrauerei – Salzburg)

I’ve always been a huge fan of this beer - possibly because it reminds me of Salzburg, which is one of my favorite cities in Europe. Stiegl Pils is a clean, crisp and refreshing Pilsner style of beer. It is not a Czech Pils, rather more closely related to the Bavarian style Pils beers bedewed across the border. Austria sometimes gets forgotten about in the beer world that, in central Europe anyway, tends to focus on Bavaria. But some of my favorite breweries are in the Salzkammergut region. Augustiner Bräu Kloster Mülln in Salzburg brews a wonderful Märzen (their sole offering), and is home to one of the best beer halls and beer gardens in the world. Edelweiß Weißbier (Hofbräu Kaltenhausen) is also brewed in the towering mountains just outside of Salzburg. The Salzkammergut region borders Bavaria, and in this area Austrians and Bavarians have a lot in common – much more so than the Bavarians and the rest of Germany. So it should be no surprise that the Austrians know a thing are two about brewing.

Weltenburger Kloster Asam-Bock (Weltenburger Klosterbrauerei – Weltenburg Bavaria)

Remember when Doppelbock used to be a strong beer? Now in the days of extreme beers, 7.2% abv is not that big of a deal. But Doppelbocks are still strong, and Asam-Bock lends itself quite nicely to being a “warmer” while sitting around a campfire surrounded by snowdrifts and mountains. Weltenburger Klosterbrauerei’s Asam-Bock is a perfect example of a dark (Dunkler) Doppelbock with an intense malt aroma, rich flavor of decoction mashed Munich malt, and a very clean lager finish. There are beers now that are much stronger, but not many that are better when you want a clean and malty winter warmer.

Cuvee Van Der Keizer Rood (Brouwerij Het Anker – Mechelen Belgium)

This was the first time I have ever sampled the Rood. (Red) The Cuvee Van Der Keizer Blauw (Blue) is without a doubt one of the best beers in the world. I’ve written about Blauw in this blog before, and Zymurgy published my “You’ve Gotta Try This” write up on this Belgian beer two years ago. I love it. I very much enjoyed the Rood, but it is quite different than the Blauw. The former is 10% abv while the latter is 11% abv. One percent less, but still plenty strong enough to take the edge off. The pale Rood has a much different flavor profile than the dark cousin. It pours a cloudy honey color and has a subdued nose – especially compared to the blue which explodes with malt and dark fruit. Its flavor is spicy and well balanced, and it finishes with a mild “Belgian” character. I expected an extremely malty lighter version of the blue, but it was really a different beer all together. Probably in the Belgian Strong Pale Ale style. I would not rate it as high as its dark companion, but still very nice.

Don’t forget the Whisky

Of course the campers, myself included, also had to bring up our favorite campfire Whisky to sip on along with our beers - Laphroaig 10. “It doesn’t taste as smoky around a fire…” Laphroaig is definitely a wonderful blend of sweet, salt, road tar, and iodine. Probably not suited for the first time Whisky drinker, but once you get a taste for it is addicting. I’m not sure the if the term “nip and a half” exactly fits here, since we were not drinking Scotch Ale, but nonetheless it is nice to chase world class beers with a touch of Whisky.

I suppose that is enough about the snowcave camping trip. Next weekend some friends and I will be taking a guided, all-day brewery tour to Ft. Collins and back. I’m looking forward to that experience, and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.