Colorado has long been a craft beer haven, but over the past couple of years people have really gone craft crazy. And not just in the Centennial State. All over the country there are tons of interesting new brews from the traditional pillars of the craft scene along with plenty of upstarts with something to prove.
One thing I noticed traveling around the States that I really hope catches on here in Japan is that most bars had pretty diverse taps. I went to several places that had between six and ten taps, with a mix of mass market Budweiser type beers, “crafty” type beers like Shock Top and Blue Moon and a few micro brews. It was really great to have options, and while I won’t hold my breath a similar trend here would be wonderful. I honestly liked the six to ten tap range much more than the 120 taps that we found at a bar in Baltimore. The beer they had at that particular Mecca was amazing, but at 120 options its rather stressful selecting what you want to drink! Though somehow I managed to parse the menu without too many tears.
The India Pale Ale is still the king of the craft beer scene in America. There are tons on the shelves and every brewery seems to have at least one. Out of all those options one that caught my taste-buds was DirtWolf from Victory Brewing. DirtWolf was delicious. It had a glorious amount of citrus hops on the nose, and was very well balanced with a nice malt structure to build all those hop flavors on. The only real problem with it was the rather hefty 8.7% abv. That really limits you to one or two. In fact, despite my article from a few weeks ago about the increasing popularity of session beers there are still plenty of high alcohol ass kickers out there.
Speaking of high alcohol, Firestone Walker‘s Sucaba Barleywine was new to me, and was excellent. Like Tokyo*, Sucaba is in an abv range that is more liqueur than beer and the heavy malt presence and alcohol warmth makes for a unique beverage that is very enjoyable. It was a perfect after dinner drink to sip while relaxing on the patio. Sucaba used to be called Abacus, but that name had already been taken and one lawsuit later Firestone Walker had to change the name. If you read the back of the bottle you can tell that the brewers are still a little bit bitter about that.
I also got to try the absolutely fantastic Saison Brett from Boulevard Brewing. I was a little worried about trying the beer, as Brett is short for Brettanomyces which is a wild wood yeast that lives on fruit skins. Brett is a hard to eradicate contaminant in winerys, but in beer brett can add interesting earthy and tart flavors. Though sometimes those earthy flavors are described as “barnyard” or “horse sweat.” Those descriptors do not really inspire confidence. Despite that, brett beers have become more popular over the past few years, as brewers try and find new things to do with the same four primary ingredients. Dodgy adjectives aside, I really enjoyed the Saison Brett. The brett finishing pairs well with the Belgian Saison style, a farmhouse summer ale that was popular in the French speaking areas of Belgium. Saisons were brewed in the winter months to be drunk in the summer by the farm hands working in the fields. They are usually light and spicy and traditionally had a lower abv than the modern version. Saison as a style was in danger of dying out, but has seen a recent resurgence of popularity, especially in the United States. A newer Denver area brewery, Crooked Stave has been making waves with barrel aged wild yeast beers. Ironically I was at their brewery in North Denver, but we were in the area for breakfast and they did not open until noon.
Craft beer in America is growing fast. A lot of the first wave of craft beer brewers like Stone, Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, Great Divide and New Belgium are expanding their operations into new breweries nationally and even globally. In all of that large scale success there are also a lot of tiny new niche-driven start ups stepping into the ring. I visited Trve Brewing, a heavy metal themed nano-brewery that produces just enough beer to stock their South Denver brewpub. The beers we had at Trve were pretty solid, and I like the idea that you can only experience them in one location. It adds a bit of exclusivity to the occasion. The ability to start very small also lowers the barrier of entry to brewing, which is a good thing. Even though many of these smaller places may not have the experience and the quality of a larger craft brewery, adding more interesting ideas to the marketplace continues the diversity and sense of innovation that has revolutionized the beer industry over the past twenty years.
Speaking of exclusivity, I had the chance to tip back a pint of Lagunitas Fusion 22, an IPA brewed to celebrate Colorado’s contribution to craft beer. I like the idea of a tip of the hat from California to Colorado and Lagunitas on tap is always worth it. Fusion 22 emphasized the dank character of the hops, rather than citrus or pine. With the new marijuana laws, I suppose a nice dank IPA fits Colorado to a T. I really enjoyed it, and it just goes to show that the boys at Lagunitas are masters at manipulating hops.
Not all the beer cultural exchange went one way. I also brought a bottle of Baird Brewing’s Citrus Life Fruitful IPA to give to my dad. The Fruitful IPA is one of my favorite Baird seasonals, brewed with Japanese daidai (a bitter orange) to add a fruity sweetness to the citrusy hops. Baird does some pretty interesting things with fruit in their beers, and my father really enjoyed the alternate take on the IPA style. It was nice to see a Japanese brewer being relevant in the beer cacophony that is the United States right now. If only we could get Baird here in Gunma.
I ended my time in Colorado with a stroke of luck, the local liquor store had restocked a limited amount of the famous Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing in California. We managed to snag the very last bottle, and I finally got the chance to sample one of the gold standards of the beer world. I found the Pliny to be a bit more subdued than a lot of the more recent IPAs. Overall it was an amazingly well balanced beer. More than simply being a good expression of the IPA style, the Pliny was a good BEER, which is a quality that can be missed in the rush to innovate and create something new for the market. Pliny the Elder was a perfect way to cap off my Colorado beer week. Pliny was named for the famous Roman naturalist who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. As a botanist Pliny the Elder wrote about hops in their Latin name Lupus Salictarius. The modern scientific name, Humulus Lupulus obviously came from that, and also inspired the name of Victory’s DirtWolf!
Have you had any of these beers? What did you think? If you could bring any one thing to beer culture in Japan, what would it be?