Words - Matthew Curtis | Photos - Matthew Curtis & Dianne Tanner
For a while now I’ve used Google Keep to try and keep track of the myriad tasks, duties and commissions that make up my day-to-day existence. Amidst the colourful chaos are ideas for articles that for one reason or another never got written. The majority of these are very simple, photo driven travel stories. Now that I’m freelance I have to spend my time concentrating on producing the articles that bring home the bacon (a writer’s gotta earn that paper after all) but it’s a shame that so much of what I wanted to write about has been left by the wayside.
With that in mind I’m going to produce a new section on Total Ales called In Retrospect. These articles will be little more than the places I visited, the beers I drank there and the photos I took along the way. This is the simple stuff that deserves just as much screen time as the more complex stuff. Looking at these stories retrospectively as opposed to currently may perhaps give them a slightly different perspective. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I do writing them down. Colorado, of course, seems like the natural place to start.
I’ve visited Colorado in September more times than I have any other month. For me it’s the perfect time to visit the Mountain State. You still get the lingeringly hot and clear days, permeated by cool, refreshing nights, which are ideal for hunkering down on the patio with a blanket and big imperial stout. You also get to see the first signs of autumn creeping in, the Aspen leaves turning golden and maybe even the first big snowfall of the season up in the foothills.
September 2015’s visit started in much the way as any other trip to Colorado: steaks on the grill at my Dad’s place in Fort Collins, as we attempted to fight back the jetlag and keep ourselves awake into the late evening. A few Zwei Brewing Pilsners pulled from his kegerator and a large glass of Blanton’s Single Barrel Reserve consumed before hitting the sack ensure that we manage to carve out an adequate amount of sleep.
Early one morning a few days into our trip my friend Jess, one of the many Coloradoans that have become close friends over the past few years, picked up myself and my partner Dianne and we headed south from Fort Collins to the town of Boulder. The drive takes around 40 minutes, stopping short of Denver’s urban sprawl, which juts out of the distant landscape in a way that’s almost alien to the mountains and plains that surround it. At this point in time Jess, who has since relocated to San Francisco, called Boulder home – and her aim today was to take me to a few of her favourite local breweries.
Boulder is similar in many ways to Colorado’s other Front Range towns but it certainly feels a little more well to do – there’s definitely some serious money here. Like Fort Collins it’s also a university town, with the students of the University of Colorado calling Boulder their home. It sits much closer to the Front Range than Fort Collins though, sidled amongst the pine trees that line the mesmeric Flat Irons, which jut out of the horizon like the giant stone horns of some long-buried creature. It also happens to be where the Brewers Association has its headquarters, which should be a pretty good indicator in itself that this is very much a beer town.
We begin our day with a drive up to the edge of the Flat Irons, passing underneath crystal clear sheets of Colorado blue sky as we drive into the foothills. Jess takes us to a viewing point so that we can take in a panoramic view of Boulder as well as the Flat Irons and the Rocky Mountain ranges that lie behind them. We snap a few photos before making our way back down to slightly more sensible altitudes and our second stop of the day, Twisted Pine Brewing Company.
I was first introduced to Twisted Pine’s beers with a harsh bump: a bottle of its Ghost Face Killah chilli beer which I shared with an unsuspecting crowd at Brodie’s Bunny Basher beer festival at Leyton’s King William IV pub one Easter. Ghost Face Killah is brewed with six different varieties of chilli, including the potent naga or “ghost” pepper. The beer itself is pretty one-dimensional, it tastes like chilli peppers and if you keep drinking enough of it then your mouth really begins to burn. It scores nine out of one hundred on Ratebeer.
Despite this negative experience, Twisted Pine is still considered to be one of Boulder’s better breweries and so we sidled the car up to the brewery and made our way to the taproom. The inside is modern, clean and has more of a canteen vibe as opposed to feeling like an out and out bar. We sit down and our server comes to take our order. I don’t know what to try so I simply ask to try “one of everything,” which, a few moments later, is exactly what I end up with.
As I sit facing the four flights in front of me, each containing six beers apiece, Jess informs us she won’t be joining us for a beer just yet. She’s driving after all, so this makes total sense. Then Dianne decides that as its only 12pm it’s too early for a beer, for her at least, so I’m left with 24 four-ounce pours to finish mostly by myself. This is the exact moment I feel out of love with the beer flight.
Ever since I got into craft beer, the beer flight had been a staple part of my experience. I have wanted to try as many beers as I could wherever I’ve been and it’s led me to discover plenty of favourites but actually at this moment in time all I really wanted was a nice pint of pale ale or perhaps a refreshing saison to help kick start the day. I had plenty of those in front of me, along with hefeweizens, IPAs, stouts and amongst the fray was yet another glass of Ghost Face Killah that I was going to have to contend with.
There was however, one real standout from the various flights in front of me – La Petite Saison. It’s a beer that I’ve since returned to several times over. It’s a great Coloradoan riff on a classic Belgian Saison with notes of white pepper and banana buoyed by a sweet body before being scrubbed clean by the dry, bitter finish. I think I’d have been much happier if I’d just had a whole glass of that Saison all by itself, instead of it being lost amongst the multitude of other beers on that flight.
Before we headed to our next brewery Dianne and Jess wanted to visit the home of Celestial Seasonings, an internationally distributed herbal tea manufacturer. So we went here, toured the factory and drank some tea. There’s not much more to tell than that, this isn’t Total Tea after all. After a short stop here we headed out towards the edge of town where we’d find our next destination, Avery Brewing Company.
Avery Brewing Company, founded by Adam Avery in 1993, is now the largest brewery to call Boulder its home. It’s also one of the largest breweries in the US and according to the Brewers Association it’s the 48th largest craft brewer in the country by sales volume. I’d already had the pleasure of visiting Avery at its original site a couple of times before. The first of these was in 2013, the week of GABF and boy did they have some special and vintage beers pouring that night - from what I can remember of it at least. I’ve said previously that Avery makes some of my favourite beers coming out of the US and there are few styles they haven’t successfully tried their hand at. Its barrel-ageing program is truly a spectacle to behold.
Avery’s original facility was in a low-key warehouse with a compact bar area and a smattering of outdoor seating. In fact the taproom’s environment was very similar to what you might find currently at a British brewery such as Beavertown or Cloudwater. The purpose of this visit however, was to check out Avery’s brand new purpose-built facility. Within moments of arriving at the new brewery the shift in vibe and the seriousness of this Colorado brewery’s intentions towards national growth was starkly obvious. It’s clear that Avery intends to not just maintain but also bolster its status within America’s beer industry.
The angular, purpose built, brilliant white building projects out of the horizon to the point where it quickly takes your attention away from the breathtaking Rocky Mountain vista just behind it. Barrels full of steadily ageing beer can be seen through windows at the front of the building. To your left is a vast patio filled with revelers and street food vendors alike but to physically get there the layout of the building purposely takes you through the entirety of the building beforehand.
Upon entering the front door you’re led upstairs and into an area that’s used specifically as a restaurant for more formal dining. It even offers the same 30-strong draught offering as the main bar downstairs. Before you can get that far though you enter the merchandise store where you can buy bottles, cans and t-shirts galore. You can also make your way onto an adjoining walkway and give yourself a self-guided tour through the upper half of the brewery. In taproom terms, this is the American dream personified.
The three of us set ourselves at a table, order a few snacks to tide us over and then set about ordering four-ounce pours of whatever takes our fancy. Dianne is immediately besotted with every sour beer she tries and that shouldn’t be a surprise because Avery undoubtedly makes some of the best sour beer in the US. I calibrate my palate with a couple of classics, White Rascal and Avery IPA. White Rascal is a classic American wheat beer: crisp, refreshing with just a hint of drying spice. It’s an ideal beer to order when you’re confronted with an intimidating lineup of beers and prefer to take a moment while you decide what else you’d like to try.
My palate now realigned, it’s time to carve my way into the big stuff. Raja double IPA was a delight, it’s the kind of mouth watering DIPA I crave–soft and juicy to start, cleansingly bitter to finish. A perfect balancing act within an 8% ABV package. Things only got sillier from here on in. There were Belgian quads and grand crus, imperial stouts and dry-hopped sours. Few beers fell under a bar I’d label as exquisite. Avery’s portfolio features a huge range of beers, probably too many, but little they turn their hand to falls underneath that high bar.
Then we get the bill. Somehow we’d managed to spend over $50 on tasters alone. To be fair that’s easy to do at Avery with so many great beers on offer but I couldn’t quite believe how many we’d managed to work through in little over an hours time. The beer didn’t stop flowing at this point either, no, the kind folks at Avery then send over three “thank you” tasters of its Tweak bourbon-barrel aged imperial coffee stout.
Tweak is a beer that gets the party started and it should probably come with a government warning considering that it weighs in at near 18% ABV. (In actual fact I think it probably does.) It was born out of Avery’s already infamous Mephistopheles imperial stout, with the addition of coffee and bourbon barrel ageing taking things up a few more notches. I took my time as I savoured the delicious glass of seemingly life-giving beer in front of me. It was intense with notes of molasses, licorice, vanilla and oak, with an astringent, espresso-like hit of coffee in the finish.
Upon emptying my glass I saw that two still full glasses of Tweak sat before me. Jess was driving and Dianne had taken a few nimble sips but had kindly left the rest for me. As these beers were a gift it would have been a shame let them go to waste, I thought. Dutifully, I drained both of these glasses too. Let me put this bluntly: as beautiful a beer as it is, Tweak is a beer that can righteously fuck up your day, and it was still only 3pm.
Our next stop, just a short drive from Avery in the neighbouring town of Niwot was Bootstrap Brewing Company. I’d wanted to visit Bootstrap ever since I first laid eyes on the can of its Insane Rush IPA that Jess had gifted me some months earlier. It wasn’t just a pretty package either, Insane Rush is a serious IPA for hop lovers. It’s jammed with tangy citrus and resinous pine before being completed by a stupendously bitter finish that is a hallmark of what I consider to be a Colorado-style IPA.
The space at Bootstrap is compact, cosy and welcoming. It offers the kind of experience that you can only achieve if you take the time and effort to visit the taproom itself. Bootstrap might be brewing one of the best IPAs in Colorado but its not something you’ll find easily on bottle shop shelves, or see getting hyped up on ratings sites or by beer writers. It’s just a brewery going about its business trying to make a buck in this world. It just so happens that they also make a stunningly good IPA.
Deciding on my order has been made immeasurably more difficult due to the three glasses of Tweak I enjoyed just minutes ago. I want to drink a pint of Insane Rush but it’s the only beer on the menu that I’ve already tried and this is a research trip after all. So despite falling out with the concept of the beer flight earlier that day, that’s exactly what I order. I spend the next few minutes working my way through the resulting tray of beers while watching a pair of older gentleman sat opposite do the same, discussing each beer as they do so. Every beer is good, some are great but I still find myself wishing I’d just ordered that pint like my gut had told me to. If anything at least my newly discovered feelings towards the beer flight had now been confirmed.
With the visit to Bootstrap ticked off our list we headed back towards Pearl Street, Boulders central thoroughfare. Here more friends, including my Dad who had driven down from Fort Collins, joined our party. We browsed at a few second hand clothes boutiques before grabbing a quick sushi dinner and continuing on our quest to drink as much good beer as Boulder had to offer us.
Although this is when the day went a little off the beaten track. We had intended to check out some of the brewpubs that litter downtown Boulder but legs and minds were tired and let’s be honest, some of us were a little hammered. So we headed down a staircase and into the nearest bar. The Sundown Saloon is described on Google as “a collegiate underground watering hole” but this place was too damn good for college kids alone.
The ceiling was lined with multicoloured strips of fairy lights, illuminating the bar on one side and leading the eye to a row of pool tables on the other. At the back there were a few dartboards and, importantly, a shuffleboard table. We decided to set up camp here and play a few rounds. Beers were needed, of course, and handily the bar had a special offer available that night: $1 lucky dip domestic cans. All you needed to do was simply leave the amount of dollars per beers you required, plus tip, and help yourself whatever you happened to pull out of the bucket next.
There was PBR, Miller Highlife, Hamm’s – and it was glorious. Our palates had taken a collective battering at our previous stops. Now it was time to kick back, relax and get our asses kicked by Americans who actually knew how to play shuffleboard, which for the record is especially difficult after spending all day drinking flights of very strong beer. Our day drew to a close at The Sundown but something about the vibe and energy of the dive bar gave us our second wind. It was here where our evening began before drawing to a close in exactly the same spot a few hours later.