A good Muslim should visit Mecca at least once in his life. In the same way should a beer enthusiast visit The Great American Beer Festival at least once in his life.
The following text is a direct translation of an article that I did for The Danish Beer Enthusiasts’ Magazine, which is a bimonthly magazine distributed to the 12.000 members.
By now, most Danish beer enthusiasts should, have discovered that something is stirring on the other side of The Pond, thanks to the interesting quality beers imported from breweries such as Brooklyn Brewery, North Coast, Anchor, Samuel Adams and last, but not least Great Divide.
I am a brewer and I am responsible for formulating the recipes for use at my microbrewery Ølfabrikken (The Beer Factory) located just north of Copenhagen. At Ølfabrikken we make American inspired ales following Belgian brewing traditions. For a while now I have been playing with the idea of visiting the mother of all beer festivals: The Great American Beer Festival, an annual event which for the last few years has been held in Denver, Colorado.
There were three reasons for my trip. Firstly, with Christmas coming up, I needed to gather inspiration for our Christmas brew. Secondly, it would be interesting to see what was happening in the American micro-brewing milieu. The things happening in Denmark right now happened in the US during the eighties and nineties, so it may serve as an indicator for what we can look forward to in the coming years. Oh yes, of course, I also went there to drink a lot of spectacular, innovative and extreme beers as only the Americans dare to make.
The first thing I did was to go to the beer portal www.ratebeer.com, an international Internet portal for beer geeks. The Ratebeer event calendar revealed that there would be a range of beer-tastings taking place before, during and after the festival. I signed up for the most interesting of them.
Besides Denver, I wanted to see some other parts of Colorado. I wrote a message on the Ratebeer message board saying I was a lonely little Scandinavian who would be arriving the following week. I wanted to know if there was anyone who had planned a tour of the area surrounding Denver and had room for an extra passenger. After a few hours, a reply arrived in my mailbox from a couple of Texans. They had planned to use the day before the festival visiting microbreweries in Fort Collins, and that they wouldn’t mind dragging me along.
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Chris in the whiskey cellar
I arrived in Denver in the afternoon – only moderately jetlagged. After being hit by a wave of nostalgia at the sight of the Denver skyline, where the groundbreaking eighties series ‘Dynasty’ took place, I went down to the city’s leading watering hole Falling Rock Tap House. I handled my temptation to point to a tap and shout out "Goddammit Alexis, I want that beer". The bartender would probably have kicked me out!
The first thing you notice at Falling Rock is the approximately 70 tap handles behind the bar. If you believe they are just for show, you are terribly wrong. Beer, both European and American, is flowing from every one.
The selection of American strong ales and double IPAs is incredible. This put a certain strain on my taste buds, that were quickly burnt by the insane quantities of dry hops in these beers. When I finally succumbed and strolled home, I comforted myself with the thought that some of the events I had signed up for would be taking place at Falling Rock.
The next morning I woke up with a grassy taste in my mouth and a sore throat – a phenomenon that I later learned is called The Hop Burn. As I needed some exercise, I decided to visit some of the legendary breweries in Denver, which were within walking distance of my hotel.
I signed up, as the only one, for the tour of Flying Dog Brewery and was welcomed by Chris Rippie who is the marketing dude at Flying Dog. However, you wouldn’t have guessed it, because he was a very nice person! He poured a range of their beers, which included both classic European styles and creative experiments. A special version of their Gonzo Imperial Porter really made a lasting impression on me.
They had matured some of the regular Gonzo in whisky casks with a strain of bacteria that you normally find in red wine. The bacteria had fermented the beer further down, so it now seemed drier and with a subtle "earthy" flavor, which combined with the perfumed bourbon aromas from the cask was a match made in heaven. A real experience! Gonzo is named after the legendary journalist and drug addict Hunter S. Thompson, who was a close friend of the founder of the brewery until his death earlier this year.
Uniquely, Flying Dog also has a whisky distillery, where they make small batches of whisky. I tasted a four year old whisky that was amazingly smooth considering its young age.
After Flying Dog, I went to Breckenridge and then to Rock Bottom, both brewpubs. Rock Bottom is a chain, which the beers also taste like. The main focus is on easy drinkable beer, without too much character. Besides that, the beer is served so cold that it is almost painful to drink – even the cask ale is served ice cold. On the day I went they where serving a single innovative brew: a whisky/raspberry porter, which, after all, was more interesting, than pleasant.
Breckenridge is a lot different and should be visited, as much for the atmosphere, as for the beer. A bunch of locals were hanging out in the rustic setting there. Breckenridge has a lot of visitors considering its location on the outskirts of a Denver industrial area. The Brown ale there is rich and malty and very good. It went down terribly well with the mountain of fried chicken wings that I had ordered as a beer snack.
New Belgium – Please note the walls made with wood from sustainable forests.
The trip to Fort Collins
The next day I met up with the two friendly Texans, Kevin and Lumpy, whom I had contacted through Ratebeer.com. They had planned to go north of Denver to Fort Collins for the afternoon before The Great American Beer Festival. While there we planned to visit a range of breweries and a huge beer shop.
We started at the New Belgium Brewing Company that was one of the places I had been looking forward to visiting most. Not only because of the corporate profile they have achieved over time, but also because of the unique and innovative beers they are brewing.
Even from the outside the place seems special: The brewery is massive and clad in wood from sustainable forests. A large portion of the energy used comes from wind power and every employee gets a bicycle when hired. Inside the large and tastefully decorated tasting room we where served a range of Belgian inspired ales that were quite disappointing. They where fine and quaffable, but lacked the yeast character and fruitiness we all love in Belgian beer. The exception was the sour-fermented La Folie, which surprised me with its sharp sourness, on par with what you find in the most uncompromising Belgian geuzes.
Afterwards we went to the Odell Brewing Company, where they make easy drinkable and very balanced beers. Odell Brewing Co is one of the few US breweries that does not have an IPA amongst their assortment.
A very positive surprise on the trip was the tiny Ft. Collins Brewery, where the brewer Sandy Jones makes German inspired beers. Most of the beers there were typical German lagers and a few American ales. But the big surprise was his Rauchator – a smoked bock beer with a hefty 10% ABV, which any day would give the classic Schlenkerla Urbock a run for its money.
After a quick visit in the Liqour Max beer store we went back to Denver and the first day of The Great American Beer Festival. On the way back, Kevin’s car was filled to the rim with nice bottles and a single, not so nice, can (see the picture).
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My first (and hopefully last) Bud Light.
When you enter the hall that houses The Great American Beer Festival, you are overwhelmed by how absolutely vast, enormous and awe-inspiring this beer festival is. Fortunately I had done my homework and carefully chosen some breweries whose booths I would not have missed for anything. Besides that, I ran into many interesting experiments and projects.
When you ask American beer geeks about the most respected American breweries it is always the same five or six names that pop up. One of them is Russian River – a brewpub in California, owned by Vinnie Cilurzo and his wife, Natalie. The unique thing about Russian River is that they brew a range of outstanding ales in many traditional styles, and even some self-invented styles.
Vinnie & Natalie Cilurzo, the people behind the highly respected brewpub Russian River
I started out with their double IPA Pliny the Elder, which I had heard was among the most extreme of the American Microbrews. I was not disappointed. It was pure blitzkrieg on the taste buds: spruce needles, bitter orange peel, grapefruit and fruity esters balanced by a rich, but restrained malt profile. It ended with a long bitter aftertaste. I was impressed and had to admit that it lived up to its reputation.
However, that did not prevent Vinnie from pouring me a glass of Pliny the Younger, which is a stronger version of the elder – a triple IPA, that is. Even as the beer was poured into the glass, it was as if, a fresh bag of vacuum sealed whole flower hops were being opened. The 11% ABV was easily hidden beneath the intense hop flavor and it left my throat slightly sore, like when you have eaten a nice bowl of hot chili. Delicious!
After that it was time to taste some of Russian River’s Belgian inspired ales. "No way!" I thought to myself. No Belgian ale will be able to make an impression after the beers I just had. I was wrong. Russian River Supplication is a strong Belgian inspired brown ale, matured for a year on redwine barrels together with sour Belgian cherries and no less than three bacteria strains – a bit like a Belgian oud bruin on steroids.
The experimental and extreme brews
After this tour around unusual brewing-art with the focus on intense flavor experiences, Vinnie suggested that we now had to try something really heavy. He showed me to his friend Sam Calagione’s booth. Sam Calagione is the founder of the brewery Dog Fish Head Craft Brewery. As I had recently read his book "Brewing up a Business", it was interesting meeting him in person.
Like Russian River, Dog Fish Head Craft Brewery brews extreme ales, but from a different angle. They brew to extreme alcohol levels and use unusual ingredients.
We started with a 90 minute IPA, which on this occasion was randalized. This means that it is served through a filter of freshly picked hops. 90 minute IPA is a double IPA at 9% ABV, and it is hopped continuously through the entire 90 minute boil – and yes, that is easy to taste. Serving through the fresh hops gave it a grassy aftertaste, which, in my opinion, did not suit this otherwise relatively balanced India Pale Ale.
After that we worked our way through the rest of Dog Fish Heads imaginative repertoire, which includes beers brewed from raisins, coffee, licorice root, grapes, saffron, honey, pumpkin, apricots, vanilla, maple syrup, juniper berries, candied ginger, basmati rice, blue corn and peaches. Normally I’m not a big fan of spiced beer, but strangely enough everything I tried was tasty. I would not think twice about quaffing a pint of any one of these strange brews – maybe with the exception of Raison D’Extra with a 21% ABV, which was a tad too sweet for me.
In the GABF program, some interesting experimental beers, brewed specifically for the festival, were mentioned. One of them was the result of a union of breweries, who had taken a day out of their schedule to meet and to brew a genuine Finnish sahti. Sahti is a traditional Finnish farm ale brewed with rye malt, juniper twigs and bakers yeast – and it is brewed without boiling. I simply had to try that, even though it sounded foul. Actually, it was surprisingly tasty. It was a dark yellow, cloudy, sweet, thick and almost viscous, liquid with a powerful juniper aroma and a very Belgian ester profile. A charming experiment, which became even more interesting as it was served through a juniper log stuffed with fresh juniper twigs. If you ever get the chance to taste a sahti, don’t miss it.
After GABF was over it was time for me to head to Boulder. A friend of mine, Tim, works at Boulder university and lives there with his wife. He had kindly offered to show me around Boulder and suggested that I sleep at their place, which of course I had accepted immediately.
Before leaving Denver I managed to visit the Brewpub Wynkoop, which is owned by The Mayor of Denver. Uniquely for an American Brewpub the beer is served unfiltered. The beers there are relatively nondescript, with the exception of a really offensive chili beer and an outstanding, but really muddy (think milkshake), weizenbock.
Boulder is probably the one town in the world with the most breweries and brewpubs per inhabitant. It is in itself an attraction, but as I felt it was time to try something different, I decided to do some hiking in the Rocky Mountains. At the entrance to the Nature Park you are warned against mountain lions with advice to fight back in case you are attacked. Not very reassuring for me, coming from a country where the most dangerous animal is the tick!
Even though it was the beginning of November the temperature was close to 30ºC, which combined with the sun shining from a bright sky and the thin air meant that I really enjoyed the first beer of the day at the brewpub BJ’s. BJ’s is located on the main street in Boulder and they brew a range of classical European beer styles of high quality. And the day I was there, they even had my old friend Dog Fish Head 90 minute IPA on the guest tap.
In the evening I visited a brewpub called Redfish New Orleans Brewhouse, where there are amateur stand-up comedians performing on week days. The beer was of good quality. I wish I could say the same about the entertainers!
My last night in Colorado, I met with Tim and a couple of his friends, who are experienced home brewers, poets, and in many ways a colorful bunch of people. We ate at The Walnut, a brewpub where the beer is served cold and filtered. The beer was unpretentious, but the food was excellent and the service very friendly.
After that, we went on to one of the places that after several recommendations, I really had looked forward to visiting: The Mountain Sun Brewpub. It is a rectangular room, approximately eight by fifteen meters, and as such probably the smallest brewpub I have ever been to. However, that did not prevent them from having a whole 15 beers on tap. The ones we tasted were all of spectacular quality and with much more flavor than many of other beers I had tasted at other brewpubs during my stay. Do not leave Boulder without trying Mountain Sun Java Porter!
On departure day, I sadly had to leave a handful of Boulder breweries and brewpubs unvisited - among them, the spectacular Avery Brewing Company (which luckily recently started exporting to Denmark.) However, my thirst for beer had been well satisfied that week anyway.
American Beer Culture
I love traveling and tasting beers in countries such as The Czech Republic, Germany, United Kingdom and Belgium, but after a few days it starts to become a bit monotonous. People in these countries have a very traditional view of beer culture, which means that there are not exactly great variation in the beer styles that you meet.
I have never experienced a place like Colorado, perhaps with the exception of Denmark, where in most brewpubs and bars you can choose among so many different beers.
On the other hand, I have to say that the beer culture in the USA, compared to the Europeans, is not very sophisticated. Most beers are served filtered, ice-cold and with very powerful carbonation, no matter the beer type. One shape of glass is used for serving everything.
For instance, it was possible at Falling Rock Tap House in Denver, to get the world’s strongest India Pale Ale – the port-like Dog Fish Head 120 minute IPA – on tap. I had to immediately order one…. And had it served in a pint glass! Here we are, talking about powerful ale with a massive 21% ABV! I felt that somehow it would have been more appropriate with a more discrete serving vessel, like a cognac glass or similar, the complexities of the brew could have been better enjoyed. It was also aggrevating to have to leave most of this spectacular brew in the glass.
My final conclusion is that if you really want to experience distinctive beers and a blooming beer culture, then you should go to Colorado. The Great American Beer Festival is also worth visiting, but for me, the most interesting experiences were to be found outside the festival.