The whole impetus for this craft beer odyssey was born the minute I boarded the plane to fly back home to Minnesota from Colorado in March of 2014. I had visited Colorado for ten days on a spring break trip to essentially visit as many breweries as I could and understand what everyone referred to as a beer mecca. Of course, we get a handful of popular craft beer from the Rocky Mountain state back home and such wonderful beers like Odell, Oskar Blues and Breckenridge are some of my favorites. However, I knew that in order to learn more about beer, I needed to go to a place that has been a craft beer destination for a long time. The 2014 trip consisted of brief stops in Boulder, Longmont and Fort Collins as well as two weekends in Denver.
We packed all we could into those ten days, but just as feral alpha male dog is taken away from a kennel of toy poodles at the Westminster Dog Show before he gets his chance to sow his wild oats, that trip left me wanting more. Luckily, three of the best things about teaching are June, July and August, and I would be able to go back and dedicate the proper amount of time to truly immerse myself in the Denver craft beer culture.
As I cruised along I-70 through the rolling hills of Kansas, the flatter final third of Kansas and finally the really flat eastern part of Colorado, my mind replayed every moment and highlight of the earlier trip. Remembering places I had wanted to see but didn’t and wondering about new places that I had researched made the trip seem to drag as the anticipation of the next week built. Finally, thanks to the sweet and sultry voice of the android backseat driver of Google Maps, my destination was on the right. I got out, stretched my legs and was met by my Thai-German birthday twin and cousin-in-law. She suggested that the minute after moving my stuff into the house that we should go to a brewery. I was not going to argue with that. It was off to Dad and Dudes Breweria. I had already stopped for dinner on the road, but my birthday twin ordered pizza and I did not refuse a piece because that would have been rude. I ordered some tasters of their beer and really liked what they had. We enjoyed beer, pizza and some great conversation. As I still had some work to do, my counterpart went to go to a different store to shop for a bit. I continued jotting down notes and struck up some conversation with the bartender, Robbie. He explained that this place has been open for about four years and that they have some of their beers in distribution and are on tap at as well. I had 8 of their tasters and the favorites for me were the Leaves of Lemongrass, a very summery and herbaceous brew and the porter, which had a great roasted malt flavor. In MN, usually places located in suburban strip malls leave a little something to be desired, but out here, it is a whole different story. I thought that given the awesome pizza and tasty beer, this would be a place that I would probably frequent if I lived here. I would have loved to stay, but we had more important things to do like go to the liquor store and get some beer for the fridge.
As we drove around, we found a place that was open until 10 on a Sunday night. It was 9:10 and we had plenty of time to window-shop. Being that liquor stores with a great craft beer selection are places I can spend a lot of time, a liquor store in a totally different market could turn into three hours. As I perused the cooler, I was amazed at all the new labels and breweries. It was sensory overload. Luckily, this particular store did not have a build-your-own-six-pack or bomber aisle. If they had, I would have had to crawl through the ductwork after hours for some really serious beer shopping. I went with a sixer of Prost Pilsner and Upslope Thai Style White IPA. It was time to head home and enjoy a beer before hitting the hay. An 8 hour drive can take a heck of a lot out of a man, so falling asleep happened almost instantaneously. I didn’t even hear my other cousin-in-the-law come home in the middle of the night. He is a pilot and was catching a crazy flight back from somewhere.
I got up the next morning, got some coffee and breakfast and started to formulate a plan for the day. Being Monday, most of the breweries in Denver didn’t open until later in the afternoon. There was also the prospect of meeting another cousin-in-law at a place called Tipsy’s Liquor, a place that did have a build-your-own-six-pack and a walk-in bomber cooler. I figured out that the best way to maximize my time would be to go to Renegade Brewing, Hogshead Brewing and then the liquor store.
So, I plugged in the GPS coordinates and I was on my way to the Renegade Brewing Company. Since my gracious hosts live in Aurora, it was a little bit of a jaunt to get to Denver. After navigating a bit of construction, I found the place located in an area that felt very similar to Nordeast Minneapolis. The brewery had a brick exterior with garage doors opened revealing a nice bar to face the outside and I could see people hanging out drinking beer. I walked in and saw that their list of beers was quite extensive. One of the tricky things that happens in Denver is that the elevation makes drinking a little bit different. The elevation amplifies the effects of alcohol and the elevation makes it incredibly easy to get dehydrated. In addition to being responsible and making sure I was good to drive, I needed to drink a colossal amount of water to ensure I didn’t get dehydrated. However, drinking a lot of water on top of drinking beer puts quite the strain on the human bladder. I ordered 10 of Renegade’s offerings and left it up to the beertender to decide which ones I should do first. She brought out 7 samplers, each glass adorned with the Renegade logo. It was a mix of lighter colored beers and some amber/copper pours. The styles of the first seven pours were incredibly eclectic. Renegade’s IPA and their Session Beer were very straight forward examples of those particular styles. Both very spot-on and tasty. Being that it was 95+ degrees and their AC was not working, anything that was lighter in ABV and refreshing went down incredibly well. As I get into more of the varied takes on beer styles, I began to see why Renegade was regarded highly and billed as a must-see from people I talked to on my trip. The Redacted Rye IPA, Consilium Pale Ale (lots of great citrus aroma and flavor with a robust mouthfeel), Disarm(a combo of a saison and pumpkin beer) , Hypocrisy(Pale Stout) and Sunday Morning (Coffee-infused American Strong Ale) were craft beers that really got me thinking. These beers were challenging the mainframe computer of my palate. The sensations I was experiencing while enjoying these craft beers were exciting and new. The craftsmanship that went into concocting these incredibly libations was astounding. These were not just beverages to quench my thirst, these were liquid sledgehammers to style barriers that I had previously not thought possible to break. The marriage of pumpkin spices and light citrus Saison in Disarm was so delicate and refreshing. The aromas and flavors of Hypocrisy reminded me of everything I love about a 3 Musketeer bar. The mouthfeel on this beer was a substantial stout feel, but the visual deception of a lighter beer in color made me question how they were able to get those flavors into the beer. All in all, the craft beer at Renegade was a way to start out the day. I wanted to stay and have more, but the lack of AC was taking its toll and I felt it best to move on.
Next on the docket was the Hogshead Brewery just west of downtown Denver. This was a place that also came highly recommended from people that I talked to before heading there. What I did not realize was how much of a crown jewel of the Denver craft beer scene this place was. I parked and stepped out of my car and it was about 4:00 on a Monday afternoon. Sitting outside on the patio was not an option because it was full, so I headed inside. Immediately meeting my gaze was a large wooden sign behind the bar with the Hogshead logo on it. I would later learn that a hogshead is an old English unit of measurement that equates to roughly 54 gallons. As I continued panning the room, I saw 7 beer engines,many regular keg taps and an actual hogshead protruding from the wall that separates the taproom from the brewery. On looks alone, I knew this was a brewery that I would love. Now, all this visual stimulation was cool, but I had yet to sample any beer yet.
As I was snapping pictures, a bespeckled gentleman with dreadlocks tied up and tucked under a hat was sitting by the door asked me in a distinctly British accent if I was going to be making a movie. I told him that I was in town from MN on a beercation and that I was taking pictures for Beerploma. This man, Stephen Kirby, is one of the owners of this wonderful establishment. As I staked my claim to a seat at the bar, I was greeted warmly by the bartender (and cellarman as I would learn later) and I asked for a 10 oz. pour of their Denver Pride, a 4.5% Best Bitter on cask.
Maybe you are wondering what a cask beer is? A cask beer, if done properly, is brewed and fermented in the brewery, and then put directly into a wooden cask, where the beer will undergo more fermentation as the conversion process of yeast eating fermentable sugars will naturally create CO2. As a result of this process, the beer is smoother and the flavors are more delicate. Because the beer is unpasteurized, once a cask is tapped, it is good for about 72 hours. The quality of cask beer is only as good as the cellarman who watches over this prized liquid. The relationship between the cellarman and the cask beer is one of great care and respect. One of the hallmark qualities of cask beer is that it is meant to be enjoyed at the pub to ensure the patron is experiencing the beer at its peak of flavor and quality. While this is just a very brief and cursory description of cask beer, there are many resources online. I would recommend started with CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ales) and learning about a movement to preserve a great tradition of brewing real ales. Now, back to the Denver Pride that I was drinking.
I am by no means an expert on cask ales because they are few and far between. I do know that when I am lucky enough to stumble upon a good one, it is a very special craft beer experience. The Denver Pride was no exception and it had an amazing flavor of bready malt in it along with a wonderfully smooth mouth feel. This is a beer that one could enjoy for a long while because it is 4.5% ABV. I was about halfway into my pour when Stephen Kirby made his way over to chat. I would reflect back later on how lucky I was to catch him at the brewery. Everyone who worked there was in varying states of recovery from their anniversary party over the weekend. While most of the craft beers at Hogshead are very sessionable beers, they did bring out some heavy hitters from the cellar to celebrate their anniversary.
Stephen’s passion for serving excellent beer along with providing a backdrop for a special drinking experience is something that is obvious right off the bat. This man knows craft beer and understands the importance of quality. One of the most important things according to Stephen is the relationship between the cellarman, the publican and the public. If this relationship is not connected, the quality of the experience will suffer. Trust me when I say this, the connection of these things at Hogshead is intact and seamless. Stephen asked the cellarman what is pouring well today. I thought this was curious, so I asked Stephen why he would ask that question. Stephen went on to explain that cask beer is alive and the character will change from day to day. If the beer is not pouring well, it is not served. This is a testament to the commitment to quality and craft at Hogshead. Hogshead serves more beer on cask than they do on keg. This is indeed a rarity for a place in the U.S.
In addition to being supremely knowledgable about beer, Stephen is also an incredibly storyteller. When I asked him about what got him into beer, he recounted a story involving a much younger Stephen Kirby and how he and two friends would go into a pub where a man by the name of Harry Hopper was the barman. Harry would always be reading a gigantic newspaper and Stephen would add a bit of gruffness and bass to his voice as he ordered 3 pints of bitter. Harry, without setting down the paper to appraise Stephen’s age, mentioned casually that there was an article stating that underage drinkers were a worry to police. At this point, Harry Hopper lowered the newspaper, gave Stephen a glance and poured him three pints of bitter with the following warning, “If the police show up, you put your pints down and f@#$ off.” Stephen tells this story with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. That story illustrates how the beer culture in Britain is much different than in the U.S. and I think that there is a much higher level of respect and understanding of beer and its overall purpose. I believe that Harry Hopper had the intention of teaching Stephen and his mates the importance of respecting the pub and the beer. He went on to say that he started drinking when CAMRA was necessary. He remembered his friend Frankie’s dad acquiring a kilderkin (an old English unit of liquid measurement containing 18 English beer gallons) of beer for the Christmas holiday. When he and his friend figured out that nobody would miss a little beer here and there, they partook and enjoyed the Bitter. As Stephen was telling these stories, he was also suggesting other things to try that they had on cask and on tap. He poured me a 10 oz. glass of their Porter with cocoa nibs. I asked about how he decided on the name and he said he decided on “John Shaft” for the namesake because, “that motherf#$%^& is so smooth.” At his, I chuckled deeply and realized that along with his incredible beer knowledge, Stephen also has an incredible sense of humor. I came to find out that the name was fitting; the beer was incredibly smooth, but also had a chocolate depth and velvety note to it. The aroma of “John Shaft” really does defy description, a wonderful mix of roasted malts and cocoa complexity that made me almost weak in the knees. I would go on to enjoy the Window Licker Barley Wine, a remarkably smooth and balanced rendition of the style. The Divine Right Imperial Stout has a great toasted malt flavor along with lots of coffee and chocolate; definitely some heft to this brew. The Chin Wag ESB is a wonderful pairing of robust and bready malts along with hints of caramel that finishes with a nice hop note for balance.
The craft beer at Hogshead is truly an homage to the artistry of craft beer and specifically real ales. Hoghead is a place where locals as well as other brewers and industry people frequent. Along with the ales being alive, the spirit and culture of the Hogshead is alive and I felt like my soul was being energized with each sip of beer and each story that Stephen told. I have been to my fair share of breweries and craft beer bars, but very few will ever live up to the hospitality and warmth that I felt at Hogshead.
My first full day in Denver was full of great beer, new friends and the wonderful feeling of reconnecting with a place that I love. A worry that I had about Denver not being as special a second time around was quickly pushed out of my head. Instead, the realization of another six days of new discoveries kept me from falling asleep. Prost!