Written by Danner Kline for www.bhamweekly.com
(Photo by Robert S. Donovan. For further editions of the regional series, please check Birmingham Weekly)
Last week I did an overview of dark beers, but that was a break from a series I’ve been working on, covering key regions for American craft beer. First in the series was the Southeast, second was California and next up is Colorado. Colorado is second only to California in the quantity, quality and fame of its breweries.
Perhaps you’ve heard of some of Colorado’s greats: Great Divide, Avery, Oskar Blues, New Belgium, Left Hand, Odell, Breckenridge, Boulder Beer or Ska.
The single most recognizable name among Colorado craft beers is unquestionably Fat Tire, the flagship beer from New Belgium in Fort Collins, Colorado. And let me be clear: Fat Tire is a great beer. It’s a better beer than beer geeks give it credit for. The beer geeks can get obsessed with “barrel-aged this” and “imperial that” and sours and whatnot, while forgetting about well-made session beers. Fat Tire is a well-made session beer that is a great crossover from mainstream lagers.
But it’s not the be-all, end-all of craft beer, or even Colorado beer, or even New Belgium beer. Among other solid brews, New Belgium has a fantastic Lips of Faith series that includes such masterpieces as La Folie (yes, a sour), and Colorado has so many great beers to offer.
While Vinne Cilurzo of Russian River in California may be the godfather of the American wild-ale revolution (as I mentioned a couple weeks ago), it was New Belgium’s La Folie that was the original impetus of that revolution. But it wasn’t just American sour beers that originated in Colorado; canned craft beer did, too. Oskar Blues was the first craft brewery to package beer in cans, way back in 2002. Previously, craft brewers had considered cans to be the sole province of mass-produced pale lagers. Oskar Blues changed all that, and now over 100 craft breweries are canning. Of course, it never would have caught on if the beer inside the cans hadn’t earned the respect of beer aficionados. Oskar Blues makes excellent beer, led by their flagship, Dale’s Pale Ale.
Apart from the pioneering work done by some Colorado brewers, another thing that strikes me about the state is the exceedingly high quality across so many beers from so many brewers. Some breweries become synonymous with one flagship, or occasionally two beers if they’re lucky. For many Colorado breweries, their flagship is their entire portfolio. Great Divide has Titan, Hercules, Yeti, DPA and more. Avery has their IPA, Maharaja, Hog Heaven, Reverend, Salvation and more. Left Hand has Fade to Black, Saw Tooth, Milk Stout and more. None of these breweries is defined by any one of these beers.
And I can’t talk about the Colorado beer scene without talking about the Wynkoop Brewing Company. It’s a brewpub with no distribution outside of Colorado, but Wynkoop has gained notoriety for their annual “Beerdrinker of the Year” contest. The winner of the contest wins free beer for life at Wynkoop plus $250 worth of beer at their local brewpub or beer bar. They actually take resumes from all over the country. Applicants must have a beer “philosophy” and demonstrate their passion for and understanding of beer, including its history and importance to civilization. One does not bestow the gift of “free beer for life” lightly.
Colorado also happens to be the setting for a new documentary on craft beer scheduled to be released during the summer of 2011, called Beer Culture. With craft beer maintaining strong growth nationwide for nearly ten years now, awareness is growing in popular culture, and that is driving interest in the media (illustrated by Discovery channel’s new Brewmasters television series). I’m looking forward to the Beer Culture and future releases that provide insight into my favorite breweries.