Until a few weeks ago, the last time I’d visited Denver was 2013. And the last time I’d been to the city with exploring beer on the agenda was even longer, going back to my move across country in 2008. That’s a long time to be away from one of the country’s best beer states. So when I was invited by the organizers of the Collaboration Beer Fest to fly down as a guest and visit a few local breweries, I gladly took them up on the offer.
As the name implies, the concept of the festival is beers made collaboratively among two or more breweries. What’s really impressive is the scale at which they pull it off: The 2016 fest featured more than 85 beers from almost 150 breweries, with the only limitation being that at least one partner on each beer come from Colorado. Some paired with other in-state brewers, but the enthusiasm for this event is strong enough to bring in brewers from all over the country and even a few international entrants.
The scale and concept puts it in fairly unique territory among beer festivals. It’s theme-driven, but it brings in a massive number of beers and brewers, spread out within the halls of an NFL stadium. (This comprehensive list gives an idea of the breadth and diversity of beers available.) It also makes it a tricky fest to write about. By the nature of the event, most of the beers are one of a kind and may not ever be made again, so recommendations to seek them out aren’t helpful. Instead, this is more of a snapshot of Colorado brewers and what they find interesting at the moment. (Short answer: Lots of big IPAs, sour fermentation, and barrel ageing.)
Wrangling that many breweries to work together is an organizational feat, but the entire event smoothly. Even at peak times, the lines for the most popular beers only required a few minutes of waiting. Having all inclusive passes rather than having to constantly trade tickets or tokens helped as well. And one of the best touches were notebooks with information on each beer, a five star “enjoyment meter” to pencil in, and space for several lines of tasting notes. It can’t have been easy to get all this laid out and printed, but they were great for making organized notes to remember what you’re trying — which, lets be honest, isn’t always easy at a beer festival.
The beers below were the best I tried at the festival. The recommendations for these specific beers may not be useful — though who knows, they could be made again — but if you’re visiting Colorado, perhaps they will steer you to some good breweries to try. And should you be in town for next year’s Collaboration Fest, I highly recommend attending.
Baere Brewing Company, Mockery Brewing, Inland Island Brewing “Mocking Baered Episode II La Isla Se Esta Quemando” — Possibly my favorite beer of the event was this collaboration between three different breweries, a “tropical saison” flavored with fresh and smoked pineapples. I’m partial to smoked beers in general, and smoking pineapples with applewood for this beer was inspired decision. The fruit, the robust smoke, and the saison-style ale came together perfectly for my tastes. The only thing missing was a glass of mezcal on the side.
Blue Spruce Brewing Co. and Rock Bottom Brewery “Petrified Spruce” — The biggest surprise of the fest was this unassuming India Pale Lager made with an unnamed experimental hop. At a festival where so many brewers are showing off barrel aged beers, sour ales, hop bombs, or unusual flavor additions, this collaboration played it safe. Yet the brewers knocked it out of the park. Sessionable, moderately bitter, and with a pleasantly piney aroma, it was the beer I could most happily drink all day.
Baere Brewing Company and Mother Road Brewing Company “Mother Baere” — Baere really was the standout brewery for me at this fest, with their second collaboration — this rye saison aged in for six months in rye whiskey barrels — being another of the best beers I tried there. I’ve had a handful of rye beers, but can’t remember any others with so much of that distinctive rye spice coming through.
Crazy Mountain Brewing Company and Stillwater Artisan Ales “Neoteric” — On a personal note, it was fun running into Brian Strumke from Stillwater, who I got to work with on a Kopstootje project with Bols Genever a few years ago. The itinerant brewer’s collaboration was this IPA made with wort soured by wild yeasts and hopped with Sauvie, Citra, and Mosaic hops. It wasn’t overly sour and had great aroma. (As with many of Brian’s beers, the name might need some explanation. For what it’s worth, this one means “modern.”)
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project and Evil Twin Brewing “L ‘Brett D Lil B” — Of all the ways breweries can make a collaborative brew, this might be the simplest: Taking one beer from each brewery and blending them together. If I remember correctly, that’s what these two did with barrel aged beer from Crooked Stave and Evil Twin’s Lil B Porter to make a “dark sour.” It’s a combination that works, with a strong raspberry aroma and a pairing of berries with dark, roasty malt.
Denver Beer Co. and DC Brau “Peanut Butter Lunchbox” — As a former resident of DC who moved away before the city had any brewing scene to speak of, I was excited to see a brewery from the District taking part in the fest. This Elvis-inspired ale is made with the malt bill of a brown ale, is fermented with Weizen yeasts for banana notes, and has local peanut butter from Boulder added to the brew. With a very strong peanut aroma, it was sort of reminiscent of dan dan noodles, in a good way. It was one of the most interesting beers of the fest, and it had consistently long lines to try it. It was intriguing, and I enjoyed it, though it may a little too out there for drinking regularly.
Little Machine Beer and Bull & Bush “Mechanical Bull” — I was a little wary of this dark lager aged in syrah barrels, but it ended up being one of the highlights of the fest. With light smoke, notes of stone fruit, and a roasty bitterness, they hit the nail on the head with this one.
Falling Rock Tap House and Star Bar “Rock Star” — This beer breaks the mold of the fest a bit, being a collaboration between the owners of two of Denver’s best beer bars rather than two brewers. Chris Black from Falling Rock and Justin Loyd from Star Bar (my favorite place to end a night in Denver) create this custom blend from New Belgium’s “Foeder Forest,” the breweries collection of wooden vessels for sour ales. This is the third year the bars have made a blend, with this one falling on the lighter side of the spectrum. It’s tart, funky, and really good — definitely one to look out for in successive years.
Oskar Blues Brewery and Horse & Dragon Brewing Company “I Smoka” — Oskar Blues is one of the best known Colorado breweries outside of the state, whose offerings I enjoy fairly often in Portland. For this collaboration, they stayed local with additions of chocolate and coffee. That’s is a solid combination with stout, and it came together really well with roasted coffee aroma and fruity chocolate on the palate.
Weldwerks Brewing Co. and Snowbank Brewing Co. “Barrel-Aged Mocha Stout” — This was another beer with consistently long lines. And with good reason: This was one of the richest beers at the fest, very decadent and chocolaty, approaching the edge of being too sweet. But it was excellent, and a moderate pour would make it the perfect night cap.