continued….. It’s Friday night, we’re in Denver and the Great American Beer Fest is happening! Unfortunately it’s sold out and has been since an hour after tickets went on sale six months ago, all the same to us as we’re enjoying being outside and experiencing the city not as a couple of drunken blithering idiots. Our hotel is a few miles out of town in a congested suburban hell, where lifeless row houses, condos, supermarkets, and minivans distract from the gorgeous rocky mountain views. However, behind the “progress” lies incredibly flowy bike and walking trails that criss-cross through an open range like plaid patterns in a lumberjack’s shirt.
At dinner we ordered a flight featuring brews by Oskar Blues, Breckenridge, Left Hand Brewing Company, Boulder Beer Company, and a brew crafted specially for the restaurant whose origins I don’t recall, maybe it was Crooked Stave but sadly I’m not sure. Of course all of these beers were brilliant, especially the cask poured Oskar Blues offering which was my favorite of the bunch. To be honest I wish I could remember the exact names and styles more vividly to discuss them but I don’t and those breweries are world class, well known and loved, so I think it is safe to say, if you’ve had one of their beers then you already know their commitment to quality beer craft. So in the spirit of the GABF, let me talk about the lesser known delicious beer we drank.
A few days before we arrived, Julie read about a GABF ‘fresh taps’ event at a small Denver brewery called Copper Kettle Brewing Company. Being familiar with all the big names around, we wanted to go there and try their special keg of Tequila Barrel Aged Mexican Chocolate Stout, which is their 2011 Great American Beer Fest Gold Medal winning Mexican Chocolate Stout aged in tequila barrels.
So after two days of hiking, biking, acclimating, seeing the city, and getting used to the place, we wound our way through some neighborhoods and slipped into Copper Kettle Brewing Company’s “mom and pop” vibe, brewery and tasting room. We were welcomed when we open the door, almost as if they were expecting us, so we took a seat on the leather couch in front of the TV that was showing the Bills game. Of course we ordered the Tequila Barrel Aged Mexican Chocolate Stout and are wowed! A symphony of complex flavors from three very spicy Mexican Chili Peppers, blended with cinnamon, and bittersweet Mexican chocolate, that overwhelm the palate in a powerful bold synthesis that months later I can still taste and feel. According to the brewery/owner who also holds a PHD (in brilliant beer craft probably) this recipe was inspired by a 500 year old Aztec prescription for Mexican hot chocolate. Truthfully this is not the easiest beer to drink, but unlike the beers I mentioned last time from Ballast Point, where cohesion and continuity were completely disregarded, this was a culinary experience to behold. The Tequila Barrel Aged Mexican Chocolate Stout felt completely thought through, despite the varying ingredients it was not willy nilly or like the brewer had just threw shit at the wall to see what stuck, which to say again and finally was exactly how those concoctions from Ballast felt and tasted. Also in the glass next to the Tequila Barrel Aged Mexican Chocolate Stout was their Black IPA, also nice. I like IPAs and I like dark smooth beers, Black IPAs can often feel overly malted and yeasty, but not here, not this one. Copper Kettle’s was nice and down the center, as the style should be. So here we are sitting in what resembled and felt like the living room of a friend, as a calm and gentle intoxication slowly washed over all of us in the room. The experience of drinking good beer in and of itself is lovely, but drinking great beer with other folks, even if they’re strangers and the conversation is banal at best, is a fantastic human to human experience and something our world should do a lot more of. Despite all of our potential differences in the room, it’s in this moment that we’re all enjoying well-crafted beer armed with comfort and camaraderie and to me that is community at it’s finest.
Hiking in Red Rocks was cool, a band not worth mentioning (OK it was the Counting Crows) was sound checking, people were running up and down the steps, and those beautiful blue Scrub Jay birds were flying all around us. Awesome. The views, intoxicating, intoxication….right, back cooling nicely in our hotel fridge were five Leffe Blonde Ales. Now I know Leffe well, I also know Leffe is mass produced by Anheuser Busch-InBev and I don’t really see the value in my discussing InBev’s $110 stock price or that they hold 25% of the global beer market share (46% in the US) according to the Wall Street Journal. Or that I think their Six Sigma manufacturing approach to brewing has distorted the beers on their label. None of this lies within my area of expertise, but if I am going to dance with Devil that is AB-InBev because I’m on the road in the middle of the Kansas prairie and wander into some forgotten town’s Piggly Wiggly in the mood for a decent beer, then I need only to look next to the Bud Light Dry Ice Maximum douchery date rape beer that’s selling like hot ham steak sandwiches at a county fair to find a row of Leffe six packs. It’s odd to see, but ultimately I’m grateful it’s there and despite all the mud slinging at Inbev it’s still a good beer. As are InBev’s Becks and St. Pauli Girl, Spaten, Lowenbrau, Labbatt, Franzikaner, Bass, Boddingtons and Goose Island, frankly they make Goose Island better than Goose Island did when I visited the Goose Island brewery in Chicago back in 2008. Which also happened to be the same Chicago trip where my brother Pete got molested by a waitress in a diner, but that’s a whole different story.
What scares me about InBev’s proliferation and behemoth catalogue of beers is how it can confuse and ultimately cheat an unfamiliar new palate in the beer aisle. The beers I just mentioned are still great, but have become a little flavor related, despite being different styles there is a noticeable singular sweetness to all of them. While it is acceptable to drink these beers on occasion, it is imperative that those of us who know better must encourage the exploration of the lesser known true craft brands that are desperately vying for the attention of the unfamiliar, uneducated new palate and wallet. To even further obfuscate matters in the beer aisle the clever marketing minds behind AB-Inbev have blurred the lines on pricing too, taking notice that a new fresh want-to-be craft beer lover assumes a more expensive six pack is the mark of higher quality ingredients crafted by a small artisan producer, which is no longer the case. Someone needs to tell these folks and it’s up to us beer lovers to do so! If a beer is mass-produced with an altered recipe of possibly inauthentic ingredients and sold everywhere, it should be priced no higher than $7.99 for six long necks and that’s all I want to say about the five delicious mass produced Leffe’s chilling in my hotel fridge, in Denver, during the Great American Beer Fest of 2013. (for additional thoughts on AB-Inbev dig my ‘ode to the king‘)
More hiking, cycling and finishing our five Leffe blondes its time to leave Denver, however the details of the next 24 hours are embarrassing, frightening, outlandish and bizarre. From sleeping at a rest-stop where a guy was selling rattlesnake skins out of his suitcase, to almost driving off the road surely to our deaths in the Sangre de Christo mountains, to buying the wrong octane gasoline for our Element, to getting sick (read: flying Hawaiians) in a snow bank as ranchers drove by, we make it eventually and mercifully to Taos, New Mexico, the hard way, the long way, and probably the most beautiful way I’ve ever driven in my life. Oh yeah and there’s a brewery in Taos too!