Brews in the Mile High

With legalized marijuana in Colorado giving new meaning to the Mile-High City, Denver is seeing a massive influx of tourists and new residents. But it was a plant of a different kind that I was after on my recent trip there to attend a good friend’s wedding.

While Humulus lupulus (hops) and Cannabis sativa (marijuana) look alike and seem alike, they’re not necessarily related. For a full investigation into the relationship between these two buds, I refer you to Popular Science’s BeerSci column.

After landing in Denver around noon, we headed straight to the Vine Street Pub & Brewery, which was within walking distance to our Airbnb. Part of the Mountain Sun restaurant group, which has locations in Boulder and Longmont, it’s located in the Uptown neighborhood of Denver and is where most of the brewing takes place. It’s a friendly place. We were immediately warned that they only accept cash, but an on-premises ATM only charges a small fee. Alternatively, one could take advantage of the Karma system, in which your server provides you with a self-addressed stamped envelope, and you mail your payment and tip later. We opted for cash.

Because we live at sea level and the air felt thin, we took it slow; well most of us did. One friend ordered a flight, which included generous pours of six brews—he needed a bit of help with that. I was in the mood for some IPAs, so I started with the piney FYIPA (A bit out of it, I kept calling it DYIPA—a bit more interactive, I suppose.) I also had a taste of the Illusion Dweller IPA, which was a little less intense. Then I had a tasty junk burger (bacon, cheese, sautéed mushrooms and onions, roasted garlic mayo) followed by the Tank Top IPA, which is a delicious new brew that will be featured at the upcoming Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Were it not for my altitude concerns, I might have had a second.

The wedding, which took place at City Park Pavilion, was a beautiful evening, starting with a beautiful and heartfelt ceremony, followed by food and dancing, and paired with some tasty local beer in cans from Upslope.

Saturday and Sunday night were devoted to Phish, who were in town playing at Dick’s Sporting Goods Arena; Cannabis, hops, and glow sticks were in high supply.

On our last day there, we stopped in at Denver Beer Company (pictured) to get one final taste of the mile high. The dog-friendly spot has a big patio with misters for the hot days. We sidled up to the bar as is our fashion. There, I kicked myself for not trying the Princess Yum Yum (a raspberry Kolsch) at Avenue Grill, where we had dinner our first night in town. It’s a summer seasonal, and they were out of it at the brewery. Oh well, next year. Instead, I tasted the Anniversary V (they’re celebrating their 5th anniversary this year), which is a dark chocolate coconut take on their Graham Cracker Porter, of which I had a pint. The name may sound like it would be sweet and syrupy, but it really wasn’t; it had a touch of bitterness. I didn’t quite get graham cracker out of it, though husband Phil tasted it. The Incredible Pedal IPA was tasty as an IPA should be, as was the King Ink black IPA and the Simcoe Smash that Phil imbibed.

Sadly, we didn’t have time to make it to Wynkoop, a brewery I first visited with my oldest brother (who lives in Vail) in the mid-nineties or some of the newer players like Our Mutual Friend and Ratio Beerworks.

A Taste of Brooklyn in Philadelphia

So, my friend Heather won a trip to the Brooklyn Brewery Mash 2016 tour in Philadelphia and brought me along as her plus-one. (Thanks, Heather and Brooklyn Based!) The annual event drops in on several U.S. and European cities and features a dinner with beer pairings, a concert, a beer festival, and what they call a “neighborhood immersion.” The prize included round-trip Amtrak tickets, a hotel for three nights, a free dinner, and admission to all of the events.

We stayed at the Hotel Monaco, just steps away from the Liberty Bell. After a fiasco with the Philly subway involving a complicated mission to get exact change, a stolen swipe, and a hot car, we checked in. Our room greeted us with a bucket of Yards Pale Ales (local brew) and some snacks. Yum!

The first evening kicked off with dinner and beer at Bing Bing Dim Sum. On the menu was “Chinese classics with a Jewish twist” and several Brooklyn beer pairings. Seating was family style and we became fast friends with a local couple who sat next to us. It was a delicious evening of gluttony. Highlights included shrimp dumplings with fresh horseradish and poppy seeds, a cucumber salad with sesame chili oil, Sichuan pepper pork dumplings with black vinegar and shishito peppers, and dry-fried green beans.

On tap was one of my faves, the Black Chocolate Stout, which was served with dessert. It’s hard to find, so I savored every sip. We also got pitchers of two sours: Bel Air Sour and Lacto Futura. I’ve been tasting all the sours I can get, and Brooklyn’s didn’t disappoint—I love the sea-salty flavors.  They also served bottles of Sorachi Ace (named after a Japanese hop that’s now grown in Washington), K is for Kriek (Ale Brewed w/ Honey, Dark Candi Syrup & Orange Peel, Aged in Bourbon Barrels on Whole Cherries) and The Discreet Charm of the Framboisie. (That’s a Framboise with their proprietary Lactobacillus strain and fresh raspberries). I’ve had Sorachi Ace at the Brewery and enjoyed it—it’s lemony with a bit of wine and champagne. The fruity beers were new to me—I’m not a fan of cherry-flavored things, so while I liked the Kriek, I won’t go out of my way to find it. What I enjoyed about the Framboise is that it’s not as sweet as the style often is; it’s a lot more subtle.

On Friday, after the free concert at the Union Transfer, which featured time traveling crowd surfers from the 90s, we went over to The Abbaye for post-show brews and snacks with some local friends. This is definitely a place I’d hang out regularly if I were a local. I had a Yards ale, which was on cask, and a couple IPAs, of course. For food, I tried their vegan wings with a perfectly chewy texture (seitan) and a spicy and tasty Buffalo sauce.

Learn Stuff. Drink. Learn More Stuff. Drink More.

My first beer was a Blue. That’s what we call it in Canada, not a Labatt’s Blue, just Blue. Then I became a Molson Canadian girl. Eventually, a few independent breweries opened up in Toronto, but then I moved to the States and started drinking wine.

Although my beer palate was still pretty raw I knew, even then, that the American mass market beers were undrinkable. My mantra was, in fact, “American beer sucks.” In the late 90’s I discovered craft beer at The Big Hunt, in Washington DC—a bar with a row of taps pulling interesting beers with actual flavor. Some I liked, some I didn’t. The problem: I just didn’t know why.

Cut to many, many years later, where craft beer is the norm and I got educated. Thanks to my now-husband and his craft beer swilling friends I learned what different beers were and why some made my taste buds leap for joy and other made them weep for mercy.

If you are new to craft beer the first key is to learn beer styles. Sounds easy. It’s not. Mainly because the categories are constantly evolving and it’s no longer, lager, pilsner, stout, and ale. It’s lager, pilsner, stouts, porters, ales, IPAs, Imperials, Saisons, Goses, Belgians, Bocks and Double Bocks, Wheats and Sours and the list goes on.

The second key is to find out if you are a hop person or not. Hops are what make an IPA an IPA (India Pale Ale. It no longer has anything to do with India or being Pale). IPAs are now the thoroughly American beer (suck it Budweiser). Hops are plants that flavor the beer and act as a stabilizer. I don’t like hops. They taste like soap in my mouth. I ordered IPAs for years not knowing that hops were the main flavor. I did the math: IPA = Hops = Naomi Doesn’t Like.

Hops are in all beers—it’s just about how much and when in the brewing process they are added and where they are from. Hops are a book unto itself.

One book that helped clarify craft brewing for me, was Craft Beer World: A guide to over 350 of the finest beers known to man, by Mark Dredge. For me it wasn’t so much about the beers themselves, but how he breaks down each category and explains the history and process. He writes in an easy, accessible style and there are infographics (hooray) and lovely illustrations. He talks about the evolving state of beer, and that the “best” beers are truly subjective. It’s a good, solid, interesting read if you are trying to figure out this whole craft beer thing.

So, my point is this. If you are at a bar, and you try a beer, and you find out “hey, it’s Belgian style ale, I like that” find out what’s in that beer, and in doing so you will learn the language of beer, and then move on from there. And if you like hops? Well, this is your time, go forth and conquer. I myself will stick to a nice, tart, Gose.

-Naomi Major, Contributing Writer

Naomi Major has written for Popular Science Magazine, American Photo and The Forward. A sampling of her past employers include Gotham Chamber Opera, The World Science Festival, Grey Advertising and Jewish Living Magazine. She dreams of moving to a farmhouse in France where she would make cheese and her husband would cure meat.

So What is Craft Beer Anyway?

Craft beer is hard to define, and as the industry expands, it’s only getting more difficult. The top result of a Google search offers this vague definition: a beer made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by a small brewery. The Free Dictionary lists two definitions that don’t shed much more light, mentioning distinctive flavors, regional distribution, limited quantities and small and independent.

The Brewer’s Association, a trade group set up to “promote and protect American craft brewers, their beers, and the community of brewing enthusiasts,” defines craft beer by three attributes: size, ingredients, and ownership. To be a craft brewer one must produce 6 million or fewer barrels of beer annually and have a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Finally, the craft brewery cannot be owned or controlled by more than 25 percent by a non-craft brewer.

By this definition, Sam Adams (Boston Beer Company), which brews more than 2 million barrels per year, is a craft brewer. In fact, the Brewer’s Association changed its annual barrel limit from 2 million to 6 million in 2011 in order to accommodate Sam Adams. This means that Goose Island, which produced about 360,000 barrels (as of 2014) per year but is owned outright by Anheuser-Busch InBev is not a craft brewer. On the other hand, brewers such as Southern Tier and Sweetwater, which are owned in part by private equity companies, are still considered craft. Confused yet? I sure am.

It’s no surprise that the makers of Bud want to cash in on the craft experience, even if its commercials often poke fun at the trend. But the idea that once a “big-box” brewer owns a craft brewery it’s no longer craft is irony at its best.

Anheuser-Busch InBev has acquired eight craft brewers since 2011, including the aforementioned Goose Island, Blue Point Brewing, and Breckenridge Brewing. Not only that, but it’s also in the process of taking over SABMiller, a deal which will include divesting of SABMiller’s stake in MillerCoors, which would be transferred over to Molson Coors Brewing. Mergers and acquisitions!

But how can craft beer be defined only by numbers and percentages? What about quality? What about craft? Experimentation is one of my favorite things about the craft movement: I love a brewery that takes risks and brews with odd ingredients like grape must, such as Dogfish Head Noble Rot, one of my favorites.

Sam Adam’s Boston Lager is the best-selling craft beer in the US, and it’s a good beer, but it’s not a very exciting beer. That’s not to say that Sam Adams isn’t innovating, with limited releases and the nitro project. But are they brave enough to experiment with oddball styles like Gose and sours? (I’m loving Jammer, Sixpoint’s take on Gose.)

What the Brewer’s Association leaves out of its mission are the beer drinkers.  Shouldn’t a customer know what level of craft they’re buying?

Welcome to Inside Craft Beer

I’m excited to re-launch this blog (now on WordPress) devoted to my love and appreciation of craft beer.  After a long day writing about tech and business, nothing makes me happier than a cold IPA, stout, or porter. (Or any number of styles that don’t resemble the light yellow brews I drank in my youth, barely tasting them as I washed down greasy bar food.) My plan is to post interviews and first-person stories about my favorite breweries and suds. In the meantime, check out my articles about buying craft beer online, the best beer, wine, and alcohol apps, and a review of Untappd for Android.

You can also read my piece in Draft Magazine about craft beer on the East End of Long Island.