At Distiller this week, I got to write about one of my favorite cocktails from my time in Melbourne, the Swanson at the Black Pearl. With three ingredients I love — Lagavulin 16, Becherovka, and PX sherry — there was no question which drink I would order off the menu. Get the full recipe here.
Living in Oregon, I don’t often get to try beers from Schlafly in St. Louis. Fortunately, though, they occasionally send new releases my way. The latest is limited to just 5,000 bottles that come out tomorrow and will likely sell out quickly. So despite this being a special release in a bottle that looks so nice that I almost didn’t want to open it, a friend and I got into it yesterday.
The Variant is the first release in Schlafly’s Ibex Rare series. This stout is blended from two components; part of it was aged in port barrels, and the other infused with cocoa nibs. The result is a very rich, very dark stout that comes in at 9.4% abv.
The blending approach taken here is definitely a good thing. The beer takes on a moderately lively carbonation and the dark chocolate flavors are well-integrated without dominating the beer. It’s dark and very roasty, with hints of coffee and a light savory note. The port influence is more mild, at least to my palate, coming across perhaps in dark fruit on the finish. It’s not overly sweet, keeping one coming back for more.
There’s a tendency with event beers like this to go big in many directions, and I sort of expected that here, but one of the great things about The Variant is that it avoids excess. It’s barrel aged but not too heavy, chocolatey but not overwhelmingly so, and strikes a great balance between its sweet malts and bitter roasted notes. Even the 9.4% abv, while not exactly sessionable, is moderate enough to make sharing a 750 ml bottle between two people entirely reasonable. The beer succeeds in seeming special without being extreme or gimmicky. Or, as my friend summed up, “It’s one of the best stouts I’ve ever had.”
It’s really good, and if I lived in the distribution area I’d keep an eye out for another bottle. Definitely recommended, and a great start to what will hopefully be a series of beers that continues to be worth seeking out when they emerge.
This May, I’ll be making my first trip to Australia to do a few events in collaboration with Good Beer Week, one of the world’s largest beer festivals held every year in Melbourne. The scope of the program is amazing and I’m very excited to be a part of it. Tickets for events went on sale this week; if you’re going to be in Melbourne, get them while they last!
Cocktails on Tap at Boilermaker House 5/13 — A masterclass on beer cocktails made in six different styles, with tastings of course! $40
Beer Cocktails at Black Pearl 5/14 — Teaming up with the staff at one of Melbourne’s best cocktail bars for a collaborative menu and a night of guest bartending. No tickets required.
Portlandia at Le Bon Ton 5/15 — It’s a Portland takeover with cocktails from me and beers and brewers from Breakside, Commons, and Deschutes. One of Good Beer Week’s featured events, so likely to sell out fast. $89
Beer Cocktail Battle at Carwyn Cellars 5/21 — A beer cocktail throwdown, me vs the staff of Carwyn Cellars. The audience decides the winner! Limited to just 25 seats. $50
Once Good Beer Week is over, I’ll likely head down to Tasmania for vacation. Any travel tips for Melbourne, Tasmania, or other nearby areas is most welcome.
I contributed the “Cocktail of the Week” feature for Distiller this week. There being some sort of big football game today, they asked me to write up something involved beer. I went with one of the recipes featured in my book, Erick Castro’s Abbey Street Punch from Polite Provisions in San Diego, California. This is a great one for winter parties, combining Irish whiskey, Jamaican rum, allspice dram, and stout. Click over for the recipe and some historical notes on using ale in punch.
(For more recipes like these, buy Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer.)
My work desk looks a little different than most people’s. There’s the usual clutter — pens, papers, a spare hard drive, a scanner — but also a whole lot of liquor. That’s not to fuel the writing process. It usually sits untouched, waiting for me to get around to reviewing it. Most of these reviews end up on Distiller, an app/website I’ve been contributing to for the past year. But others, for whatever reason, I don’t always have a place for, and they tend to accumulate. The ones worth writing about I try to round up every once in a while.
Since it’s the end of the year, here are beers and spirits that have been on my to-cover list. Some of these were samples from the producers or their PR reps, while others I picked up on my own. And these are only the ones that stood out for some reason; the others get given away or enjoyed without note.
Alaskan Brewing Heritage Coffee Brown Ale and Perseverance — One of the highlights of the year for me was visiting Alaska for the first time. My tour included 18 breweries ranging from Fairbanks to the Kenai Peninsula. (You can read about that trip in the piece I wrote for Mixology.) Since I was on the northern leg of the trip, I didn’t make it to the most well known brewery in the state, Alaskan Brewing in Juneau.
Luckily they sent me a few beers to try back home in Portland. First up is their Heritage Coffee Brown, replacing their seasonal pumpkin ale this year. This brown ale was made not only with cold-brewed Brazilian coffee, but also with pale malts roasted along with coffee beans, which is a process I haven’t seen attempted before. Malt-driven beers were what I loved most about Alaskan brewing, and this fits that mold: not too dark, but with a nice bitter roastiness and an upfront coffee note. Available in six packs, it’s a very solid winter beer.
The second beer was Perseverance, their Russian Imperial Stout made in celebration of the brewery’s 30th anniversary. This stout is accented by Alaskan birch syrup, wildflower honey, and a touch of alder smoke. Very rich and not at all bitter, I would have liked a little more smoke on this one, especially given Alaskan’s history with smoked porter (one of my consistent favorites). Nonetheless, it’s worth picking up if you find a bottle, especially if you like beers on the darker, sweeter side.
pFriem Pumpkin Bier — Speaking of pumpkin beers, this is the year that the backlash to the style seemed to reach its peak. I found pFriem’s rendition on the shelf and figured that if anyone could redeem the style, it was this Hood River brewer. Made with roasted pumpkin, pumpkin puree, seasonally appropriate spices, and Belgian yeasts, this was a fantastic seasonal offering. If you’re around Oregon you might still find this on shelves, and I highly recommend picking it up if you do.
Stark Spirits Sunshine Orange Brandy — Stark Spirits from Pasadena, California caught my eye because of their aquavit, but they also sent me a sample of this orange brandy, which I foolishly left unopened on my desk for a few months. When I finally cracked it open, I was blown away by the aroma of fresh orange peel. This is an eau-de-vie of California oranges, made of their peels and juice, and bottled at 100 proof without any added sugar. It’s everything you like about a good triple sec, but without the sweetness. It’s a really cool spirit, and I bet it has great potential in cocktails.
Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye — I wish I’d had an opportunity to review this rye before now, because it’s fantastic. Entered into barrel at 103 proof, my bottle ended up at 111.8 after maturation. (The bottles come from single barrels, and this year’s batches came in a little higher than last year’s release). It sips really well for its high proof, with notes of honey, pecan, and a touch of orange peel. Listing around $75, it would make a great last minute gift for an American whiskey lover if you can find a bottle.
Lagavulin 8 (200th Anniversary Edition) — I’ve described the standard Lagavulin 16 as one of my desert island whiskies, the kind of dram I can turn to again and again and always be happy (never mind the sensibility of drinking Islay Scotch on a tropical island). For the distillery’s 200th anniversary, Lagavulin released an affordable 8 year version (about $60) and an unaffordable 25 year version (about $1,000). You can guess which one they sent me a bottle of. As one would expect, the younger eight year is paler in color and lighter in oak and vanilla than the standard 16. This allows the brine and peat to stand out even more, without hitting you over the head with smoke. If you like peaty, maritime style Scotches, this one’s worth picking up while it lasts.
Arvesølvet Juleakevitt — I’m going to be annoying and include one spirit that you’re unlikely to see in the United States anytime soon. This Norwegian aquavit was part of my bounty from the Oslo duty free shop. A holiday aquavit with strong spice character, the 2015 edition that I picked up is aged in oloroso sherry and port casks for at least three years. For my friends who’ve never had the opportunity to try an aquavit like this, it’s been a game changer. If you’re passing through Norway, try to pick up a couple bottles (one for me, one for yourself).
A few weeks ago Katherine Cole invited me to be a panelist on her new food and beverage podcast The Four Top, which is released every two weeks through Oregon Public Broadcasting. On this episode I join prolific beer writers Jeff Alworth and Lucy Burningham to discuss Soylent, issues in beer production, and the valuation of Yeti coolers. We also taste (and I mispronounce) Anchorage Brewing’s Anadromous sour ale aged in pinot noir barrels, and I recommend agricultural economist Jayson Lusk’s recent book Unnaturally Delicious. Listen and subscribe to new episodes here.
Back in May, I joined a few other drink writers for a tour of Alaskan breweries and distilleries. I wrote up the results of that trip for Mixology:
Sitting outside the brewpub at Kassik’s in Nikiski, Alaska, alongside a group of drink writers making our way through a couple tasting trays of beer, our experience was initially the kind one might enjoy at any number of breweries across the United States. There were solid renditions of classic styles with cheeky names, like their Morning Wood English IPA. Head brewer Frank Kassik stood by, genial but not particularly talkative, and I thought we’d soon be moving on to our next brewery stop. But it turned out that those ten beers were just the warm up. Soon his wife, Debara, appeared bearing the big guns: Bomber bottles of Statny Statny stout brewed with licorice and molasses, Big Nutz imperial brown ale, smoked Russian imperial stout aged in oak barrels, and Buffalo Head barleywine.
Suddenly this tasting was getting a lot more interesting, shifting into the darker, richer, maltier ales that I’d anticipated most on this trip north. As the outdoor chill set in and the abv of the beers got higher, the only thing that could have made this tasting more uniquely Alaskan would have been encountering a moose — which we did, about five minutes drive from the brewery.
Schlafly Beer from St. Louis recently sent me an interesting package of new beers for review, their Hop Trial SMaSH pack. “SMaSH” stands for “single malt and single hop,” with each beer in the series made from a nearly identical recipe, with the hop as the changing variable. The package included four golden ales brewed with two-row malted barley, each hopped to 45 IBU.
From the press release:
The Hop Trial program allows Schlafly to test out hops that will soon be introduced to market, offering feedback to the hop farmers on flavor and aromatic profiles, as well as viability in finished products. Schlafly begins the process by combining a base malt and single hop to create a simple SMaSH (single malt and single hop) beer, which brings out the individual qualities of each ingredient, making the profile of the featured hop variety the true focus. Schlafly’s Quality Assurance team tests the beer before it’s released at the brewpubs to consumers, whose feedback is crucial (and welcome) in order to determine the future potential of pursuing a particular hop to use in the brewery’s beers.
Brewers experiment with new hops all the time, but this was a unique opportunity to try four new hops in isolation, picking out the qualities (good and bad) that they can bring to a beer. The Schlafly pack included Eureka! from the United States, Hallertau Blanc from Germany, Enigma from Australia, and Bramling Cross from the UK. Since this held the promise of being a fun tasting, I assembled a couple groups of beer-loving friends to try them out and take notes. The panels included myself, sake sommelier Paul Willenberg, beer enthusiast and soccer teammate William Chasse, and our beer and wine steward at the Multnomah Whiskey Library, Kyle Sanders.
Some tasting notes gathered from our sessions:
Hallertau Blanc (Germany) — A very floral aroma with pleasant notes of honey and lemon peel. Not much pine on the palate and only mildly bitter. Refreshing and mostly aromatic. “Gorgeous. Very German.” One taster noted a “wooly” character reminiscent of Chenin blanc wine.
Bramling Cross (UK) — Less aromatic. Dank and earthy with a mild blue cheese funk. Cardboard, cellar. A hint of roasted arbol spice and grapefruit pith. Gently bitter, especially on the finish.
Enigma (Australia) — Tropical, pineapple or passion fruit aroma. Slightly green and herbal. The sweetest hop on the palate, bringing tiki cocktails to mind. Not at all bitter; very fun and enjoyable up front, but a little unpleasantly murky on the finish.
Eureka! (USA) — Sweet pine, Doug fir bud, and citrus on the aroma, but a little funky in ways some tasters found off-putting (note of “sewer water”). Possessed a hard-to-place savory flavor, reminding one taster of the sauce on Totino’s pizza. Rich on the palate and quite bitter; very West Coast IPA in style.
If we were ranking these in order, the German Hallertau Blanc was the nearly unanimous favorite, with the American Eureka! the nearly unanimous least favorite. Enigma placed a solid second for most of us, though it was a bit sweet to stand as a solo hop beer. Most of us found the Bramling Cross simply inoffensive and unremarkable on its own, but one taster ranked it dead last.
Of course, most of these hops won’t be used primarily in single-hopped beers, so this tasting was mostly an academic exercise. The experimental hops will likely be used as accents along with other, more typical hops. Of the four we tasted, Hallertau Blanc was the standout, and I’d be eager to try more beers that feature it prominently. It was also the only beer of the pack that many of us said we would happily buy on its own. The aptly named Enigma was also very interesting, and while it may not carry a beer by itself, it could provide intriguing tropical notes to summer beers. The Bramling Cross and Eureka! I’d probably most like to see used in supporting roles to other hops.
Schlafly’s Hop Trial pack was released to the public earlier this month. While it wouldn’t top my list to pick up for casual enjoyment, getting to try the various hop varieties side by side makes for a very interesting tasting and highlights the extent to which selecting the right hops can make a massive difference in the final quality of a beer.
Earlier this year, my friend David L. Reamer (photographer of my book Cocktails on Tap) recruited me for a collaboration with Union Wine. The project: Create a collection of cocktails with Union Wine’s popular Underwood Rosé to be published by Scout Books. It’s finally come together with illustrations by The Ellaphant in the Room, and it looks great. My fellow Portland bartenders Mindy Kucan (Hale Pele), Lauren Scott (Angel Face), Douglas Derrick (Ava Gene’s), and Ansel Vickery (Free House), along with Maitland Finley from Union Wine, all contributed recipes.
My first contribution (above) is the Pink Peruvian, which was an opportunity to mix with Encanto Pisco’s new Barkeep’s Whimsy, a pisco created by a team of bartenders on a visit to Encanto’s distillery in Peru. The grape blend essentially inverts their popular Grand & Noble pisco, leading with Torentel grapes backed by Quebranta, Moscatel, Mollar and Italia. It’s beautifully floral and aromatic, perfect for light and complex summer cocktails.
2 oz Encanto Pisco Barkeep’s Whimsy
1 oz Underwood Rosé
1/2 oz Combier Pamplemousse Rose (grapefruit liqueur)
lemon peel, for garnish
Stir with ice and serve in a cocktail glass, expressing the lemon peel over the drink.
My second contribution is the Rosé City Sour, a fairly straightforward gin sour with a rose wine syrup. A dash of Chartreuse provides a little herbal complexity.
2 oz London dry gin
1 oz lemon juice
3/4 oz rosé syrup
1/2 teaspoon green Chartreuse
edible flower, for garnish
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass, garnishing with the flower.
For the syrup:
1 cup Underwood Rosé
1 cup white sugar
Combine in a pot over medium-low heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Bottle and refrigerate.
Look for the Drink Pink booklet to appear around Portland this summer.
For my first contribution to the Distiller weblog, I take a look at the sudden arrival of rice whiskeys on the American market, including Kikori from Japan and Vinn from right here in Portland, Oregon.
I was also a guest on Greg Pulscher’s “Free to Brew” podcast out of North Carolina, discussing corporate welfare for craft brewers. (See my recent Reason article on the topic.) On that note, we can unfortunately add Ballast Point to the list of West Coast breweries getting public subsidies to fund their East Coast expansion.
And speaking of Reason, Baylen Linnekin quotes me in his column today about one of the USA’s most ridiculous alcohol laws, Utah’s “Zion Curtain.”
“I sure am glad I had this old bottle of Frangelico lying around,” is not a sentence I expected to be saying to myself this week. But when working on unusual cocktail assignments, sometimes those neglected dusty bottles can come in handy.
Tonight is Portland’s annual Rye Beer Fest, a celebration of rye beers taking place during PDX Beer Week, and this year the festival is extending into rye whiskeys as well. As part of that expanded focus, founder Kerry Finsand invited me to create a beer cocktail for the festival using George Dickel rye whiskey and the official beer of the fest, a collaboration with Back Pedal Brewing in the Pearl District.
The beer we came up with is Oatmeal Ryesin Cookie. Back Pedal’s idea was to create an ale made to “conjure up childhood memories of a fresh baked cookie.” The mash combines English malts, rye, and toasted oats, and it’s fermented with aromatic saison yeasts. The beer is cold conditioned on Flame raisins and an addition of Tongan and Madagascar vanilla beans. At 33 IBU and 7.8% abv, it’s a lightly hopped, smooth, malty ale.
Taking a growler pulled fresh from the conditioning tank, my main goal in making a beer cocktail with it was to keep highlighting those raisin cookie notes. That’s where the hazelnut liqueur Frangelico came in handy. After one try at a Flip that was actually pretty good, I decided an ale punch in the old English social tradition was the way to go. The maltiness of Back Pedal’s beer is perfect for this. (And it’s a lot less work for me than shaking Flips all night.)
I’ll be serving this Oatmeal Ryesin Punch tonight at the Rye Beer Fest from 7:00-9:00 pm at Eastburn in Portland, Oregon (where I’ll be selling signed copies of my beer cocktail book as well). Given the rarity of the beer, this is probably the only time the punch will be served. But for the sake of completeness, here’s a recipe that could be used as a template.
4 tablespoons sugar
peel of 1 lemon
4 oz water
1 1/2 oz lemon juice
6 oz George Dickel rye whiskey
2 oz Frangelico
16 oz Back Pedal Oatmeal Ryesin Cookie
cinnamon, for grating
Make an oleo-saccharum of the lemon peel and sugar in a punch bowl, muddling the peels to extract the oil. Add the water and lemon juice and stir until the sugar is fully dissolved. Pour in the remaining ingredients and grate fresh cinnamon over the surface of the punch. Slip a large ice block into the bowl, or ladle into individual glasses over large cubes.
Bonus footage: Here’s a clip of us making the punch live on KGW News in Portland, Oregon.
I’ve only once spent more than a few days at at time in Denver. That was 2008, when I was in the midst of a cross-country move from Washington, DC to somewhere out west. Portland was always the default destination, but I was open to staying put somewhere else. I stopped in Denver for a few weeks and was very tempted by the parks, sunshine, and mountain access to stay. The thriving coffee, cocktail, and beer scene in Portland won out however, and I’ve been living here ever since.
When I visited Denver for the Collaboration Festival and Colorado Craft Beer Week a few weeks ago, I also had the opportunity to catch up with a city I haven’t visited in a few years. The number of breweries has exploded since then, along with every other aspect of its food and drink culture. If it was as good in 2008 as it is now, I likely would have stayed. (For that matter, if DC had shown more signs of being where it is today in 2008, I might not have ever left.) Guided by Two Parts, who organized Collaboration Fest and set me up for the weekend with the Colorado Brewers Guild, these were some of the highlights in the city’s growing beer scene (with a bonus visit to Colorado’s first aquavit distillery, because of course I couldn’t pass up.)
Our first stop was not at all what I would have expected: a gluten-free brewery in Golden. My limited experience with gluten-free beers has been that they’re either a poor substitute for beers made with typical grains, or that they’re interesting, but different, drinks in their own right. (Groundbreaker in Portland, which makes gluten-free beers with sorghum, lentils, chestnuts, and other ingredients falls into the latter category). Holidaily is the first I’ve tried making gluten-free beers that stand up to their barley-mashed counterparts.
Holidaily brews with millet and buckwheat. Talking with their brewer, relying on these grains apparently raises all sorts of challenges: smaller particle size after milling, less efficient fermentation, and higher costs overall. Yet they’re still turning out good, interesting beers. When I visited they had a double IPA, Belgian-style wit, red ale, and stout on tap. The last of these was my favorite, perhaps because the emphasis on roasty flavors obscures the difference between traditional grains and their millet and buckwheat counterparts. Regardless, though I was a little skeptical going in, I’d gladly return here for more.
Cannonball Creek Brewing Company
Our next stop was just up the street at Cannonball Creek, a brewpub making a diverse range of beers with a tap list that veers toward the hop-driven. A stand out was the “Trump Hands” session IPA, a low-alcohol session beer named after everyone’s least favorite tiny-appendaged aspiring authoritarian. You don’t have to get it in a comically small sample glass, but that seemed the most proper way to enjoy it at the time. The beer, fortunately, goes down a lot easier than the candidate. The pub also features a rotating array of food truck vendors setting up shop outside, keeping the menu varied.
Baere was the standout brewery for me at Collaboration Fest, thanks to their smoked pineapple saison and rye saison aged in rye whiskey barrels. Returning to Denver proper, we stopped into their strip mall brewery before opening hours to check out their current line-up, which included wonderfully malty and crisp farmhouse ale made with Sorachi Ace hops, a bretty brown ale partially aged in rye barrels, and a very dry, roasty winter stout. With my interest in beer cocktails, I was especially curious to try their low-abv Berliner weisse mixed with housemade woodruff, raspberry, and grapefruit and hops syrups. There is resistance among some beer lovers to “prepared beers” — and good beer should arguably need no augmentation — but the practice allows for interesting additions of flavor, especially when the additional ingredients are well-made. (Neon green artificial woodruff syrup is best left out.) Sampling a flight of Berliner-weisse preparations is the kind of thing a beer cocktail fan like me can’t resist. Though it looks unassuming from the outside, Baere’s the place I’d like to return again and again.
Trve Brewing is just a few blocks away from Baere, making the pair ideal for a one-two pub crawl. The aesthetic is heavy metal, though I’m told the clientele is diverse. They make clean beers at the brew pub, but at a second facility the make sour ales that can be purchased their in bottle. I opted for their “Buried Sun,” a lightly tart saison fermented with a mixed culture. They’re also producing some of the most striking label artwork I’ve seen.
I only had time for one beer at Ratio, but their “Dear You” saison would be one of my go-to every day beers if I could get it in Portland. I had a great time sipping on a flight at Call to Arms, a damn near ideal neighborhood brew pub. And though Crooked Stave‘s tasting room was closed when I visited The Source — a shared space with great food, drink, and coffee — I got to catch up with owner Chad Yakobson and bring home a few barrel aged fruit beers to enjoy in Portland.
Beer mecca Euclid Hall, whose initial program was founded by my friend Ryan Conklin, was one of the few places I returned to from previous visits. As great as their beer selection is, I wanted to go back for their Pig Ear Pad Thai, an addictively delicious take on the dish that swaps strips of fried pig ear for the noodles. It works amazingly well, and it was just as good as I remembered from my visit several years ago. They also have a section of the menu devoted to beer cocktails, which I obviously couldn’t resist. I tried the”Litre O’Cola,” made with gin, cherry and thyme shrub, lemon, coffee, and Diebold porter. It was really good, taking on cola notes without being too sweet; it’s the kind of drink I’d have liked to include in my book, if I’d encountered it before publication.
Devil’s Head Distilling
A few weeks before my visit, Ryan White from Devil’s Head Distillery got in touch with me about his new aquavit. They’re the first ones producing the spirit in Colorado, alongside a gin and vodka. Made with 100% barley, it’s a grain-forward aquavit with a complex botanical blend led, but not dominated, by caraway.
Lastly, I really enjoyed my stay at The Crawford Hotel, located in the newly renovated Union Station, where I was hosted for the weekend. The amenities here are really amazing: craft beer, good coffee, ice cream, and complementary Tesla rides in the area are included in the stay. (Surprisingly, I took advantage of all but the beer — I was never actually there for happy hour, but the tap list had a strong selection of local beers.) There’s also a stylish cocktail bar, The Terminal, upstairs, and the free WiFi in the sunny, bustling lobby makes this a dream location for a work base in downtown.
This week at Reason, I look at the proposed Mexican law that threatens small producers of mezcal:
That legislation is NOM 199, a proposal that would place additional restrictions on some of the least advantaged producers of agave spirits just as just as mezcal is finally beginning to receive the global acclaim it deserves. These distillers are already forced to compete without using the word “mezcal” on their labels; the term is governed by Denomination of Origin (DO) regulations that limit its use to just seven states in Mexico. Producers outside of those regions make spirits historically and informally known as mezcal, but they’re not permitted to call it that on their labels or when exporting. Instead, they must market their products as “destilado de agave,” or agave distillate.
This is a truthful description of their product, though many producers resent being excluded from the mezcal DO and make the case that use of the word has precedent in a much larger area than current law recognizes. But all definitions of spirits by geographic borders involve some arbitrary demarcation, and if this were only a debate about where to draw the line for where the word “mezcal” can be put on a bottle, it would be a less interesting story. NOM 199 goes even further, banning producers not only from calling their product mezcal, but requiring them to abandon use of the word “agave” as well. A new word, “komil,” would be forced upon them. Critics assert that this would further marginalize the producers of these spirits, many of whom are poor and live far from the central Mexican government.
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.
Despite my obsession with all things aquavit, I’d never set foot in any of the Nordic countries until last month when I was invited to Iceland as a media guest for the second annual Reykjavik Bar Summit. The event brings in bars from all over Europe and the United States for two days of friendly cocktail competition and is also a great opportunity to showcase Iceland’s emerging cocktail, beer, and distilling scenes.
I wrote about my favorite spots to drink in Reykjavik for Eater, so head over there for tips if you’re planning a visit. In this post I’ll write about the local distilleries, three of which I got to visit on a tour around the city. I’d arrived fortuitously on the morning of “Beer Day,” the anniversary of the day Iceland finally fully legalized beer on the surprisingly late date of March 1, 1989. We celebrated with cans of Bríó on a northbound bus, learning about the country’s long, strange relationship with the temperance movement along the way.
The most famous Icelandic spirit is Brennivín, an aquavit flavored with caraway, for whom I do a bit of work in the United States. We didn’t have the opportunity to visit the distillery, but the Bar Summit arranged an even better setting for imbibing it: inside the ice cap of Langjökull glacier. Man-made tunnels allow visitors to hike down into the ice, where caves, gathering rooms, and even a small wedding chapel await. No marriages occurred among our group, but we did enjoy a celebratory toast of ice cold Brennivín.
From there we went on to enjoy a few more drinks in hot tubs under a spectacular display of the Northern Lights, followed by a late night cocktail dinner that had us back at the hotel around 4 am. That allowed for just a few hours sleep before the next morning’s tour of three distilleries local to Reykjavik.
I’ll confess that I was still feeling the combined effects of jet lag, aquavit shots, and a post-midnight four-course cocktail dinner when we made the drive over to 64° Reykjavik, so I wasn’t quite as up to enjoying their wares as I would have liked to be. Co-founder Snorri Jonnson had prepared combinations of desserts topped with his fruit-forward liqueurs that looked amazing. Fortunately I was able to take a few of the elegantly designed bottles home to try later.
The liqueurs feature local Icelandic ingredients: blueberry, rhubarb (“rabarbara”), and crowberry. The pale pink rhubarb liqueur is bright and lively; I could see it going great with brut sparkling wine, and it worked well in a tequila cocktail I mixed up at home too. The crowberry liqueur is made from small, black berries that grow all over the country; it’s richly colored, with dark, jammy fruit notes balanced by a touch of tannic bitterness.
The distillery also makes three dry spirits: a vodka, gin, and aquavit. I was most interested in the last of these, of course. Their aquavit is flavored with caraway and angelica seeds. It’s clean and crisp, with assertive caraway flavor that doesn’t excessively dominate the spirit. You could keep it in the freezer, but it’s soft enough to enjoy neat and unchilled.
Our next stop was Eimverk, where a glass of tonic water revived me to life and put me back in the saddle for more spirits tasting. Eimverk is best known for their Flóki malt whiskey made from 100% Icelandic barley. Their lightly aged young malt is currently on the market and their fully aged single malt will be out in limited quantities soon. I also got to sample a batch made from barley smoked and dried over burning sheep dung, the Icelandic equivalent of a peated Scotch. It was deliciously smoky, and I’ll absolutely buy a bottle when it’s released to market if I ever get the opportunity.
Eimverk also makes a gin called Vor and aquavit called Víti. The aquavit is also distilled from malted barley, which comes through on the nose with the familiar graininess of new make whiskey. The brash notes of young malt combined with unusual botanicals — Icelandic moss, kale, meadow sweet, among others — make this one of the most unique and interesting aquavits on the market.
Our final stop was Foss Distillery, where the distillers transform Icelandic birch into enchantingly complex spirits. The mildly astringent, woodsy Birkir snaps is made by infusing birch into neutral spirits lightly sweetened with local birch syrup. The more approachable Björk is more heavily sweetened, though not at all cloying. Both are finished with a small birch twig in every bottle, and both are well worth picking up; I already have plans for Birkir on an upcoming cocktail menu.
Foss also just unveiled two new products, Eimir vodka, which is vacuum-distilled with birch, and Börkur, an intense birch bitter. I enjoyed all of their spirits; with Birkir and Björk both available in the US, I’d recommend picking up Eimir or Börkur if you’re traveling through the country.
A note on buying spirits: The duty free shop at Keflavik airport does a great job featuring Icelandic spirits, and everything mentioned here is or will be on sale there. Given Iceland’s high taxes on alcohol, your best bet for buying these is at the airport on your way home.
My latest story for Reason looks at how some of the biggest names in craft beer are raking in millions of dollars in public subsidies to fund their expansion:
“Virginia is for beer lovers,” Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) proclaimed at a recent press conference. He was obviously not referring to a lawsuit challenging the state’s use of an antiquated “habitual drunkard” law to jail indigent citizens without due process, but rather to $3 million in corporate welfare from the state’s Commonwealth Opportunity Fund that he approved to lure Bend, Oregon based Deschutes Brewing toRoanoke for the construction of their first East Coast brewery.
For those of us who follow the beer industry, the announcement stirred feelings of déjà vu. It was less than two years ago that McAuliffe was tapping a keg from San Diego’s Stone Brewing and putting Virginia taxpayers on the hook for a $5 million grant to bring Stone to Richmond. That was in addition to a $1.5 million economic development grant, a $500,000 sustainability grant, and $31 million in bonds from the city to build a brewery and bistro.
Read the whole thing, which includes many more breweries, including Stone’s new operation in Berlin.
A few months ago I shot a few how-to videos for Tales of the Cocktail at my friend’s new bar in Portland, Victoria. The videos detail a couple of my favorite techniques.
- How to make a very old school Flip using a metal loggerhead and a torch.
- How add a touch of hoppiness to tropical drinks, as in my Mai Ta-IPA.
- How to mix aquavit, demonstrated with a Dill Collins.
Speaking of aquavit, I’m also interviewed on the topic in the April issue of Wine Enthusiast.