Articles in Beer
Craft brewers are turning to local farmers, foragers and fauna to source their ingredients — from persimmons and pumpkins to hops and wild yeast. The “plow-to-pint” movement is giving beers an identity more tied to an area’s soil, climate and terrain, or terroir — much like wine.
“It’s really having a beer that’s unique to the location. To me that’s the most significant thing,” says Jeff Stuffings, founder of Jester King Brewery, about 18 miles southwest of downtown Austin, Texas.
For his beers, Stuffings turns to local farmers and growers for ingredients like figs, melons, grapes, strawberries and peaches. He also gathers his own yeast, harvesting microbes on lemon bee balm, prickly pear cactus flowers and other plants growing wild on the brewery property.
The wild yeast is mixed with commercial brewer’s yeast to create a unique yeast strain. Stuffings says the wild yeast adds variable flavors and “interesting mouth feels.”
“The mouth feel is very, very dry. It has a richness and fullness to it,” he adds. “From a sensory perspective, you’re able to tie a beer to the location.”
Supporting farmers, others
The local-ingredient movement reflects different factors. Brewers are responding to the demand for local foods. They want to help the local farm economy. And new laws in a number of states — including New York, Maryland and Virginia — support the use of local ingredients and make it easier for farm-based breweries to expand and serve locally sourced beer.
“A lot of it has to do with the larger ‘buy local’ movement,” says Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland.
For Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina, the use of local ingredients is tied to creating a “Southern Beer Economy” that supports local farmers, foragers and agricultural entrepreneurs. The brewery, for example, has used foragers for persimmons, figs and spicebush berries, also called Appalachian allspice.
Sometimes ingredients appear at the front door. Fullsteam founder Sean Wilson recalls a friend showing up with 100 pounds of Candy Roaster winter squash. “We made a beautiful, malty brown ale using the grilled squash, spicebush berries and local sugarcane molasses,” Wilson says.
Changes in laws
The local sourcing trend has accompanied a changing legal landscape. In 2012, Maryland passed a law creating a farm brewery license. Among other things, the license holder can brew up to 15,000 barrels of beer a year — provided it’s made with an ingredient from a Maryland farm, like hops, barley or fruit. Twelve farm breweries have since emerged, with the total number of craft brewers now 55. More farm breweries are in the works.
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Bruce Zurschmeide and his wife capitalized on a 2014 change in Virginia law that made it easier for farm breweries to open on land zoned for agriculture. The couple’s Dirt Farm Brewing, opened in 2015, is an “extension” of their 400-acre farm in Loudon County, Virginia, about 1 1/4 hours northwest of Washington.
“We were looking for a way to have the land pay for itself,” Zurschmeide says. “We’ve got quite a few recipes that we source from the farm.”
The Peter Peter Pumpkin Ale is popular. A sweet potato stout arrived for Thanksgiving. Zurschmeide has used cherries, peaches, apricots and plums, too. He grows hops and is testing grain varieties.
The local trend is expected to continue. It has attracted different names: “farm-to-keg,” “farm-to-barrel,” “plow-to-pint,” “ground-to-glass.”
“For sure, you’re going to see more people doing it,” Brett Joyce, president of Rogue Ales & Spirits, says. “Brewers are seeing what the consumer wants. People are looking for farmers markets and local. If you can get that through in your beer, there is a story to tell.”
The Newport, Oregon, brewery is a pioneer in local ingredients. Responding to a worldwide hop shortage, Rogue opened a 42-acre “hopyard” in 2008 on the Willamette River, about 1 1/2 hours northeast of Newport.
Today, Rogue Farm grows 42 acres of hops and 20 to 30 acres of other crops including pumpkins, marionberries, hazelnuts and jalapeño peppers. Rogue operates a 200-acre barley farm about two hours east of Portland, in the Tygh Valley.
At the start of 2016, Rogue unveiled its Hop Family Series of IPAs. The four India Pale Ales showcase the eight varieties of hops grown at Rogue Farms.
To make its Pumpkin Patch Ale, Rogue harvests its pumpkins each fall, chops them up and roasts them in a mobile oven at its Newport brewery. “It’s the freshest pumpkin beer you can have,” Joyce says.
Main photo: Fullsteam Brewery, in Durham, North Carolina, teams with local foragers to gather ingredients such as persimmons for its First Frost Winter Persimmon Ale. Credit: Courtesy of Fullsteam Brewery
Craft brewers increasingly are like chefs. They’re sprinkling herbs and spices into their beers much like a chef who wants to complement a dish. The upshot: Brewers have food in mind when selecting herbs and spices to use, ranging from basil and sage to cardamom and the world’s most expensive spice, saffron.
“The use of spices helps us design beers that are great for pairing with food, as well as just dang tasty,” says Tim Hawn, brewmaster at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc. in Milton, Delaware.
At the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver in September, the herb and spice category was the seventh most popular. It attracted 142 beers, behind the 149 in the coffee beer category.
What’s the trick to using herbs and spices in craft beers? “Try not to overdo it,” brewer Kevin Haborak, co-owner of Coastal Empire Beer Co. in Savannah, Georgia, advises. “I always start light because you can add more. And you can’t take it back out.”
With fall temperatures cooling, now is a great time to add some herbs and spices to your beer drinking. Below are 13 herb and spice beers worth trying.
Allergeez (ABV: 5.7%), an American wheat beer that won a silver medal at this year’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF), includes Texas honey, chamomile flowers and rose hips. “Rose hips help with a nice and subtle cranberry tart flavor while the chamomile gives a big floral nose,” says Ryan McWhorter, founder of Panther Island Brewing, in Fort Worth, Texas.
McWhorter, the head brewer, says Allergeez came about because he had a recipe for an American Wheat Beer — but wanted to add something. His wife brewed him a chamomile flower tea and added honey. “I thought it was delicious and decided to give that a try in the wheat recipe,” McWhorter says. Rose hips were later added.
Zarabanda (ABV: 6.3%) is a Spanish take on the farmhouse-style Saison. Deschutes Brewery, based in Bend, Oregon, crafted the beer in collaboration with famed Spanish chef José Andrés. This brew includes two ingredients Andrés likes to use in his cooking — lemon verbena and pink peppercorn — as well as dried lime and sumac.
Deschutes founder Gary Fish and Andrés began discussing the idea of collaborating on a beer “many years ago,” according to Fish. Zarabanda was introduced last year. Deschutes said the name was inspired by the Spanish saraband dance which, “loosely translated, means popular fun or enjoyment; hubbub; racket; row; party.”
Chai Milk Stout
Yak & Yeti Restaurant & Brewpub’s Chai Milk Stout (5.2% ABV) was a 2013 GABF silver medalist. The chai spices are Yak & Yeti’s proprietary blend. Adam Draeger, head brewer at Yak & Yeti, which operates a brewpub and two restaurants in the Denver area, says the blend uses spices typically used in Nepali spiced tea: whole cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon.
Chai Milk Stout is a riff on Yak & Yeti’s Milk Stout. “You usually add milk to your chai tea,” Draeger says. He is tight-lipped about the beer’s chai spice blend: “The only bit of info I’ll give you on the spices is that they are mixed and then finely ground and not left cracked or whole.”
Midas Touch (ABV: 9.0%), by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc., is made with ingredients found in the 2,700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas in central Turkey. The world’s most expensive spice, saffron, gets a starring role. “Saffron is perceived to add a bit of floral sweetness to the beer,” says Tim Hawn, brewmaster at the Milton, Delaware, brewery. He adds that saffron is “known to bring flavors together – in this case the grapes and honey from the base fermentable materials.”
The brewery calls its Midas Touch beer “somewhere between beer, wine and mead.” Dogfish Head, in general, uses many spices in its beers. “What we love about spices is the endless creativity they offer,” Hawn says. “Historically they have been used in the culinary world, but they can also play into beer flavors.”
Cambridge Brewing Co.’s Heather Ale (5.0% ABV) snagged a silver medal at the 2012 GABF and a bronze in 2011. Each summer the Cambridge brewery crew picks heather flowers along the Massachusetts coast. “It’s really just a beautiful floral character in terms of flavor and aroma,” brewmaster Will Meyers says of the heather, noting the beer is “all about the heather.” It includes sweet gale, lavender and yarrow.
Heather Ale has roots in Europe and Scandinavia. The brewery says inhabitants of coastal Northern Europe, Scandinavia and the Northern British Isles originally crafted similar beers, adding that “fresh heather flowers and other herbs were used to balance and flavor the rustic yet sweet toasted character of the malted barley.”
Harvest Pumpkin Ale
The spices typically featured in pumpkin pie are featured in Boston Beer Co.’s Harvest Pumpkin Ale (5.7% ABV): cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. To top it off, the brewery tosses “real pumpkin” into the mix.
The brewery says its Harvest Pumpkin Ale is a modern adaption of a traditional New England pumpkin ale. “Lacking the ability to produce barley, early colonists brewed with pumpkin,” Boston Beer adds, noting the beer delivers “a smooth, rich flavor and unmistakable malty character.”
Utah Sage Saison
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“We wanted to make something that expressed Utah and the high desert. Sage turned out to be the perfect ingredient, but it needed to be rounded out so we added thyme and rosemary,” Matthew Allred, communications director for Salt Lake City-based Epic Brewing, says of his company’s Utah Sage Saison (7.6% ABV). The Belgian-style ale captured a bronze at the 2012 GABF.
Epic uses fresh whole sage, rosemary and thyme for its Utah Sage Saison and steeps them in the wort kettle. “They have a huge impact on the nose, creating a very floral, savory aroma. This is an amazing beer with roast chicken, lamb or other fall seasonal dishes,” Allred says.
Royal Tea Chai Porter
Charlie Johnson, head brewer for The Brewer’s Cabinet in Reno, Nevada, says the brewery’s Royal Tea Chai Porter (5.4% ABV) was inspired by a dirty chai latte he enjoyed at a local coffee shop and “my love of Indian cuisine.” And the taste: “It’s basically like a spiced chai latte,” Johnson says of the porter.
The brewery uses a house chai spice blend, saying the beer has “a chocolate/roast backbone. The lactose balances the spice notes with a small amount of sweetness and a velvety feel.” Johnson adds: “I’d like to think our beer is made to be paired with food — or replace it as a course.”
A “Hawaiian fire” pizza topped with pineapple and jalapeño pepper inspired 5 Stones Artisan Brewery’s Aloha Piña (6.4% ABV). The beer won a silver medal at last year’s GABF in the Herb and Spice Beer Category. (This year, GABF added a Chili Beer category.) The Cibolo, Texas, brewery calls its Aloha Piña an American Golden Ale. The beer is flavored with roasted jalapeño as well as “massive amounts of fresh cut pineapple,” Amarillo hops, and honey.
Dawn Patrol Imperial Molé Stout
Coastal Empire Beer Co.’s Dawn Patrol Imperial Molé Stout (10% ABV) — a 2014 GABF bronze medal winner — is a seasonal stout aged four weeks on coffee, raisins, ancho and serrano peppers, cumin, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. The aim: achieve a background flavor profile similar to a Mexican mole sauce.
Chris Haborak, co-owner of the Savannah, Georgia, brewery, says the addition of the spices seemed like a good match with the other ingredients. “We figured the spices would pair well with the chocolate backbone of the Imperial Stout.”
Tennessee Brew Works’ Basil Ryeman (6.25% ABV) combines a Saison-style beer — also known as a classic Belgian Farmhouse Ale — with Thai basil. “We love the anise, fennel and spicy characteristics of Thai basil and the interplay of these flavors with the Belgian Saison yeast,” head brewer Laura Burns says. The Nashville brewery works closely with local farmers to source its herbs.
Burns says the brewery’s Thai basil and rosemary-infused beers are intended to be “very palatable and well suited” for pairing with food. “We use herbs to add distinct flavors that interplay with traditional brewing ingredients,” she notes. “But this also allows our beers to accentuate and help make dishes pop much like an herb does.”
Woods Beer Co.’s Local Honey (6% ABV) combines an American Pale Ale with Bay Area honey and flavors that attract bees: yarrow, eucalyptus and lavender. The Oakland, California, beer is available year-round on tap.
The base beer for Local Honey is an unhopped Pale Ale. The first batch relied on uber-local ingredients. “The herbs and honey were originally locally foraged, by me, from my neighborhood and my own beehives,” brewer William Bostwick, the creator of Local Honey, says. “But now that we brew it on a regular basis and on a larger scale, we can’t pick enough! So we buy our herbs commercially.”
Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Ale
“We wanted the taste and aroma to remind you of oatmeal raisin cookies,” Rebecca Batz, Aftershock Brewing’s tasting room manager, says of the Temecula, California, brewery’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Ale (5.5% ABV). “O.R.C.A.” won a bronze at this year’s GABF. The beer initially was intended to be a winter seasonal brew. It became a year-round offering thanks to popular demand.
Owner and brewmaster Marvin Nigh bases the ale on his wife’s oatmeal raisin cookie recipe. (His wife, Karen, is co-owner.) The beer includes oats, raisins and cinnamon. “Most people automatically assume this is a stout. It is not,” Batz says. “It’s just a cookie in the form of a beer.”
Main photo: Craft brewers are turning to herbs and spices as they look to add exotic ingredients to beers. Credit: Courtesy Deschutes Brewery
There’s an old saying in the wine business: It takes a lot of beer to make great wine. The adage is especially appropriate this time of year, when harvest crews work overtime in the late-summer heat to bring in the new crop. But for an adventurous group of American craft brewers, it’s also true that it takes a lot of wine to make great beer.
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No one knows that better than Vinnie Cilurzo, co-owner and brewmaster at Russian River Brewing Co. in Sonoma County, California. A decade ago, when he decided to make an American version of a Belgian lambic ale, he couldn’t resist putting a vinous spin on it. Lambic beers get their distinctive tartness from wild yeast and bacteria, and Cilurzo’s creation was no different in that respect. The twist came when he aged the beer in used Chardonnay barrels sourced from a local winery. The result was a sour beer called Temptation, and it was such a hit that Russian River added two more wine-barrel-aged sours to its lineup.
One of the most interesting examples is Noble Rot, from Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. “We worked with Alexandria Nicole Cellars winery in Prosser, Washington, and they helped us find all this amazing botrytis-infected Viognier grape must (unfermented juice),” said Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head founder and president. “The botrytis infection is kind of a benevolent fungus that really intensifies the complexity of the grapes. It’s a perfect mix between a Belgian saison, a beautiful white wine and a sour ale.”
Thirsty for more wine-inspired brews? Click on:
Main photo: Dogfish Head Brewery makes this saison-style beer with Viognier grape must infected with a desirable fungus called botrytis that intensifies its sweetness. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Dogfish Head
Maine lobsters. Peanut butter. Graham crackers. Old Bay Seasoning. Citrus fruits. Craft brewers are dumping out-of-the ordinary ingredients into their tanks to create newfangled beers. “Anything is fair game these days because of the innovation going on among craft brewers,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association.
What better time to try something new or offbeat than during the waning days of summer? We cast a wide geographic net to find anything unusual, surprising or particularly delicious. The results were diverse, from Choc Lobster (Maine lobsters and cocoa powder) from Delaware-based Dogfish Head, to Helluva Caucasian (based on a White Russian cocktail and using peanut butter) from Colorado’s Living the Dream Brewing Co.
These 12 beers represent new or uncommon brews. Like summer, some are fleeting and available for a limited time. Others are available in a limited geographic area, while others are more widely available.
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Main photo: Cape May Brewing Co. makes a beer with cranberries and lemonade called The Bog. “We have a hard time keeping it in stock,” lead brewer Brian Hink says. Credit: Copyright 2015 Frank Weiss Photo
Call it the ideal summer quaff for India Pale Ale lovers: This beer packs hop flavor, yet you can drink a few at a time — and still mow the lawn. Meet Session IPA: It delivers flavor characteristics similar to a standard IPA, but it’s less boozy than American and Imperial IPAs — by as much as half — maxing out at 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). It’s an American phenomenon.
Session IPA is the fastest-growing style in the U.S. craft beer market. At the end of 2010, three Session IPAs were available on U.S. supermarket shelves. By mid-May 2015, that number had grown to 43, market researcher IRI said. What happened? IPA lovers increasingly wanted a beer that delivered lots of hop flavors — but not all the booze. “People were saying: ‘Why does it have to be over 7 percent all the time?’ ” said Jeremy Kosmicki, brewmaster at Founders Brewing Co., a Session IPA pioneer.
By definition, Session IPA ranges from 3.7 to 5 percent ABV. “The trick is to get enough body and backbone to balance out the hop aromas, while keeping the alcohol level down without tasting thin or watery,” said Jack Harris, co-owner of Fort George Brewery.
Click through the following slideshow to find 12 Session IPAs worth trying.
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Main photo: Jeremy Kosmicki, brewmaster at Founders Brewing Co., is a Session IPA pioneer. Credit: Copyright 2015 Founders Brewing Co.
In the past few years, Denver — joined by its deluxe alter ego, Boulder, Colorado — has been at or near the top of so many national rankings, it would probably top the list ranking the lists themselves. It has consistently been named among the best (and fastest-growing) cities for millennials, for singles, for entrepreneurs, for outdoors enthusiasts, for beer lovers, you name it — and now that Denver is in the spotlight, its long-underrated dynamo of a dining scene is finally getting a chance to shine.
Here are just some of the kicks awaiting visitors in search of a Mile High culinary adventure. Or at least a cure for the munchies. Let’s face it: Marijuana legalization might have something to do with Colorado’s soaring profile.
It has stood at the edge of what’s now known as LoDo (Lower Downtown) since the fin de siècle — and Union Station‘s grand reopening in 2014 after a multimillion-dollar renovation marks the apotheosis of the neighborhood’s own comeback from late-20th century Skid Row into prime real estate.
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Some of the city’s most celebrated restaurateurs have set up shop on all sides of the magnificent Great Hall. At the casual end, there’s funky daytime franchise Snooze — where buttered-popcorn pancakes meet Thai-chili Bloodies — and Next Door, an ethicurean pub known for its beet burgers and kale chips. At the splashier end, Stoic & Genuine revels in a seafood repertoire that skews both wildly original — think miso-cured uni over kimchi granita — and classic, from clam rolls to caviar. Anchored by a gleaming deli and exhibition kitchen, Mercantile Dining & Provision turns out an ever-changing array of contemporary creations: highlights include exquisite pastas and anything featuring products from co-owner Alex Seidel’s Fruition Farms. And The Cooper Lounge, overlooking all the action, is as swanky a setting for cocktails as you’ll find in this dressed-down town.
Think of it as Union Station’s flip side: a gritty-chic urban marketplace that opened in 2013 along a still-gentrifying stretch of Brighton Boulevard with a roster of rising culinary stars and cult vendors. Now arguably the hub of the RiNo (River North) district, The Source is a one-stop shop for extraordinary beans (Boxcar Coffee Roasters), breads (Babettes) and beef (Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe), among other goods, that prove the word “artisanal” hasn’t lost all meaning just yet. It’s home to two beloved restaurants — the globally inspired Acorn and Comida, a modern taqueria/cantina — and ultra-cool cocktail bar RiNo Yacht Club. Capping it all off is the taproom of Crooked Stave, founded by a brewer whose experiments with brettanomyces and barrel aging have put it at the forefront of Denver’s world-class beer scene.
Breweries, breweries and more breweries
Speaking of beer: If ever there were proof that statistics don’t tell the whole truth, consider that Colorado, with about 250 craft breweries (or 6 per 100,000 adults), ranks “only” third in the nation. After all, that figure comes from the Brewers Association, which happens to be located not in California (first) or Washington (second), but in Boulder — the outgrowth of an earlier organization started by association president Charlie Papazian, aka the godfather of American home brewing. Papazian also founded the nation’s largest craft-beer showcase and competition, the Great American Beer Festival, held annually in Denver. It’s worth noting, too, that a fellow local microbrewing pioneer, Wynkoop co-founder John Hickenlooper, is now governor.
Of course, the ultimate metric of achievement becomes evident to anyone who spends even a short time here: the presence of a taproom on every other street corner, each with its own niche. For the most up-to-date and comprehensive information on breweries large and small, check out Westword’s Beer Man column and the Fermentedly Challenged blog. But some of my favorites include Diebolt and Prost for traditional (read: Eurocentric) styles, Former Future and Coda for adventurous tastes, and Renegade and Station 26 for sheer high-energy atmosphere.
One of Colorado’s most renowned (and widely distributed) envelope-pushing brands, Avery Brewing Co., recently opened a state-of-the-art, city-block-sized facility complete with sit-down restaurant and gift shop at the northern edge of Boulder. It’s a must for any suds buff — as are much smaller but no less superb breweries such as the chef-run BRU and the locals’ secret, J Wells — but it’s just the tip of the Berkeley of the Rockies’ gastronomic iceberg. To name some solid candidates for the connoisseurs’ to-do list: splendid sandwiches and specialty goods at gourmet shop Cured. Tea at the jaw-dropping Dushanbe Teahouse, an architectural masterpiece built by Tajikstani craftsmen. Genuine farm-to-table feasts at Blackbelly or Black Cat Bistro — both labors of love by chefs who really do run their own farms. Exquisite Japanese bites at the twinkling izakaya called Amu, wood-fired pies at the mod-rustic Basta, displays of Old World oenophilia at PMG. And as for Frasca Food and Wine — suffice it to say that chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey’s mecca of Friulian cuisine continues to earn the accolades it rakes in nationwide (and beyond).
If it’s teeming diversity you crave — admittedly not Boulder’s strongest suit — Aurora, on Denver’s eastern border, is your destiny (along with Federal Boulevard, thronged with Vietnamese and Mexican kitchens). Though it feels like a suburb, it’s actually Colorado’s third-largest city and a center of immigrant life. Here, sharp-eyed explorers will find Korean, Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian, Sudanese and Hawaiian restaurants lined up in strip malls one after the other; they’ll find ramen and barbecue and tacos galore — and they’ll encounter the most random of surprises to boot, like soul fast food (Kirk’s Soul Kitchen) and a biker bar that serves Chinese eats (Piper Inn).
On that note, long before Denver had a culinary leg to stand on, it boasted watering holes whose potent mix of Wild West grit and urban grime earned them a place in, variously, Jack Kerouac novels, Tom Waits songs and one particularly infamous Playboy article. It still does. And although a whirlwind tour isn’t for everyone, here’s the itinerary any counterculturalist at heart should follow. Start at Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill or My Brother’s Bar to hang out where Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other Beat legends once drank. Catch some live jazz at El Chapultapec, the 80-year-old remnant of an era when the Five Points neighborhood was known as the Harlem of the West. Or simply cruise East Colfax Avenue: Though in the throes of change, it’s still an embarrassment of divey riches. There you’ll find Pete’s Satire Lounge, where an as-yet-undiscovered Bob Dylan used to perform, as did the Smothers Brothers; not far away, PS Lounge illustrates the power of kitsch to bring all walks of life together. Meanwhile, situated at the western end of the 26-mile-long avenue, Casa Bonita may not be a dive, but it’s got cliff divers, among other carnival attractions parodied in a famous “South Park” episode.
Casa Bonita is strictly a sightseers’ stop, but you’ll have no trouble finding terrific Mexican eateries on just about every corner of this city (to pinpoint just a few admittedly downscale gems: El Taco de Mexico, El Original Tacos Jalisco, Tarasco’s, Chili Verde and La Calle Taqueria y Carnitas on West Alameda Avenue). Many of them will offer green chile; the sauce/stew is as traditional here as it is in New Mexico, though the Colorado style is thicker and often includes tomatoes with the chiles, pork, onions, garlic and so on. Cruise down Federal Boulevard in summer and you’ll see the roadside roasting stands hawking Pueblo (as well as Hatch) chiles by the bushel. Of course, Colorado lamb and beef are even more famous, as is Rocky Mountain trout — but locals equally covet Olathe corn, Palisade peaches and Rocky Ford melons in season. For a taste of the bounty, head to farm-centric fixtures such as Beast + Bottle, The Kitchen and Old Major.
Where a local focus and a cosmopolitan outlook come together, you’ll find Denver’s most distinctive dining and drinking spots. Take Beatrice & Woodsley, combining eye-popping decor designed to evoke a mountain cabin with a fascinating menu that simultaneously reflects the agrarian past and a global future. At Lower48 Kitchen, up-and-coming chef-partner Alex Figura takes a similar approach to yield some of the most exciting food around. Visionary restaurateur Justin Cucci is building an empire on extraordinary ambiance as well as consciously sourced contemporary cuisine, with venues housed in a former gas station, mortuary and brothel, respectively; the latter, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, emits a dazzlingly risqué vibe. Jim Pittenger of Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs has rightly garnered national attention for his reindeer, rattlesnake and other wild sausages, with wacky toppings to match. Same goes for Sean Kenyon, bartender-owner of Williams & Graham, a celebrated rendezvous for cocktail aficionados. And then there’s Work & Class: its exuberant yet intimate atmosphere and Latin-influenced comfort food will linger in your mind long after your visit.
The great outdoors
With its enviable high-desert climate (not to mention the Rocky Mountains in its backyard), Denver is an obvious draw for outdoors enthusiasts — and an ideal site for seasonal festivals and markets of all kinds. Food-truck chasers mustn’t miss Civic Center EATS, where mobile specialists in everything from pierogi to Popsicles gather in the namesake park twice a week from May through October. The Big Wonderful is its even-hipper counterpart, bringing to a vacant lot in RiNo not only trucks but also stalls selling gourmet pantry products and household goods, a live-music lineup and a full bar. The Denver Flea hosts similarly massive bashes with food, booze and arts-and-crafts vendors a couple of times a year. In a Larimer Square courtyard, the pop-up Le Jardin Secret proves as charmingly chichi as it sounds. And — to return once again to Denverites’ favorite subject — themed beer festivals are a near-weekly occurrence. But be warned: They often sell out in no time.
Main photo: Stoic & Genuine at Denver’s Union Station. Credit: Copyright 2015 June Cochran
Malt is a fairly mysterious ingredient, but craft beer is about to change that.
Like milling helps turn wheat into bread, malting helps turn barley and other grains into beer. Malting is the process of germinating (sprouting) and then kilning grains, which allows access to the starches and enzymes necessary for fermentation.
The importance of malt
Malt’s job is not strictly functional, though. Different types of malt contribute flavors and other elements to the final product. Malt is to beer what stock is to soup, as brewer John Mallett writes in his book, “Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse.”
“As craft beer has exploded in popularity, hops have often been seen as the sexy ingredient in beer,” he says. Mallett is the director of Bell’s Brewery in Michigan. “On first glance, malt seems kind of dull, but it actually contributes the key attributes that largely define beer, including color, flavor, foam, body and, eventually through fermentation, alcohol.”
Craft malthouses opening
At one time, malting was a domestic chore, same as baking bread. Prohibition and changes in farming helped consolidate the industry and put the production largely out of sight. Now, in response to curiosity about this ingredient, craft malthouses are opening across the nation. New York State has more than its fair share.
This is because New York created a friendly environment for micro and nano brewing with the Farm Brewery Law. This licensing, which went into effect at the beginning of 2013, requires that breweries use a percentage of state-grown products. A revival of hops production was already underway, and the law nudged along the boom in malt. Nine malthouses are in operation across the state, and more are in the works.
Brewing at the local level
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“It’s been exciting learning a whole new skill, one that’s been pretty much forgotten,” says Bob Johnson, who runs Niagara Malt. A professor of plant ecology and biochemistry at Medaille, a small liberal arts college in Buffalo, Johnson also grows hops, and farms and malts barley. “Malting is relegated to big commodity houses, and it’s nice bringing this whole process … to the local level.”
Buffalo had several malthouses, he notes, and three of its mayors were maltsters. Johnson says regional products lend distinctive flavors to beer.
“Plants really have an intimate contact with the soil,” Johnson says. “I’m at the base of the escarpment and all my soils are very limey; sitting at the base of a limestone cliff — my soils are very sweet as they say. That gives a flavor. The microorganisms in soil strongly influence the health and metabolism of plants.”
His adventures in making ingredients began with a taste for fuller flavored beers. “I realized the chemicals I was enjoying so much were from hops,” he says. Intrigued, he started to look into hop farming. Three years ago he planted 1,200 plants but lost half of them to drought. Hearing rumblings of the Farm Brewery Law, he realized there was going to be a programmed demand for hops and malt. This gave him the courage to replant and buy some equipment. His hop yard covers 1 1/2 acres and has 1,400 plants.
Johnson malts in the original malting system designed by pioneering Western Massachusetts maltsters Valley Malt. This system malts 1 ton of grain at a time, carrying out all the procedures, from steeping through germination (sprouting) and kilning in a single tank.
As he explores malting, Johnson also benefits by being a member of The Craft Maltsters Guild, which was formed last year to help shape the burgeoning industry by setting standards for production, performance and sourcing, and building a network for sharing information.
Given the rise of the craft beer market, the potential for growth in small-scale malting is tremendous, and New York has created an economic architecture to help develop that potential.
Private/public partnerships are helping to build momentum. Cornell University is researching what varieties of malting barleys are suited to the climate. Greenmarket Regional Grains Project is pairing farmers, maltsters and brewers for collaborations and otherwise working to raise awareness of the local agricultural products. Entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunities in beer. New York has 210 craft breweries, and 78 of those are farm breweries.
“Farm brewers have to use 20 percent New York ingredients,” says Paul Leone, director of the New York State Brewers Association. (The rate will change as the region’s capacity to produce local products increases.) “The market is there automatically for that group, but beyond the license every brewery in the state would use local ingredients.”
A steep learning curve
For now, use is limited by quality and price. Farming malting barley in a region that hasn’t done so for almost a century is a steep learning curve. Commodity malts cost significantly less than craft malts, and beer is thirsty for grains. Even if there were no difference in price, New York could not supply all its breweries. The largest of the new craft-malting facilities in the state only produce three tons a week. A ton of malt can only make about 13 to 15 barrels of beer, or about 26 to 30 kegs.
“What’s unique about New York State and craft beer is that at one point we owned the hop industry. It’s a natural progression to own it again, or a share of it,” Leone says. “Beer does have a certain terroir. The barley that’s grown here and the way that its malted here is going to be a little different than when it’s from out West, same as the hops. Brewers have an ability to engineer their own flavor profile that’s uniquely New York.”
Main photo: A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett
There are more than 3,400 craft breweries in America, with another 10 breweries opening each week. Retail sales of craft beer grew 22 percent in 2014, as overall beer sales stayed flat with the popularity of Budweiser and Miller dropping like a stone. The incredible consumer demand for craft beer makes the failure rate for new craft breweries … effectively zero.
Across the nation, beer lovers are daydreaming about jumping on the craft beer bandwagon and opening their own brewery.
Last fall, Zester contributors fanned out across the country interviewing craft brewers, distillers and cider makers for a book we’d been commissioned to write on how to start these ventures. We had a fabulous time talking with a number of unusual characters working in these fast-growing sectors. Our book — “Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery” — will be released June 30 by Entrepreneur Press.
In the process of writing our book, we read extensively about the craft beer business. Obviously, we think our book is an invaluable addition to the collection, but it tells only part of the story. Our “beer library” is a list of must-read recent releases for everyone interested in craft beer. There is no homework here. These are fun, entertaining reads.
10 beer books reviewed by Zester Daily:
Main photo: Greg Koch, co-founder and CEO of Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, California, and co-author of “The Brewer’s Apprentice.” Credit: Copyright 2011 Quarry Books