I don’t know about the rest of you but by the middle of February I’ve had my fill of winter. So when we finally get to the spring equinox I’m more than ready to move on. This year on the last official day of winter (March 20, 2015) I found myself in Denver, Colorado on a glorious Friday afternoon—the sun is shining, the temperature is hovering around 70 °F, and I’ve got an appointment to visit one of the most interesting breweries in the country, Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project. Life is good.
Crooked Stave is the creation of Chad Yakobsen, a man with a passion for the wild yeast Brettanomyces (aka Brett). He’s got the credentials to back it up too, with a Master of Science degree from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, culminating with a thesis entitled “Pure culture fermentation characteristics of Brettanomyces yeast species and their use in the brewing industry.” As many of you will know Brett is the scourge of conventional breweries, but Yakobsen has embraced it with an audacity rarely seen since Jethro Tull decided to build a rock band around a ginger haired lead flautist. The quintessential Brett beer Orval, which is brewed at the Trappist monastery of the same name, is one of my all-time favorite beers, so as soon as I found out I was going to be in Denver for business I started planning a visit to Crooked Stave.
Brettanomyces, Bacteria, and Sour Beers – A brief primer
Before jumping into the details of my visit let’s take a short detour to make sure everyone is up to speed on the microbes and the basics of making sour beers. If you are already a sour beer aficionado, feel free to skip ahead.
- Brettanomyces acting alone will not generally produce a sour beer. The sour flavors come from the presence of acid, mostly lactic acid and in some cases acetic acid, produced by bacteria such as lactobacillus, pediococcus, and acetobacter.
- While it is possible to ferment a beer entirely with Brettanomyces, in most cases a conventional ale yeast (saccharomyces) is used in the primary fermentation and then Brett takes over for the long, slow secondary fermentation.
- Just as there are different strains of saccharomyces that give different flavors, there are even more strains of Brettanomyces, in fact scientists have identified four different species of Brett.
- It is common to age sour beers in oak barrels or foeders for many months because Brett and his bacterial sidekicks thrive in the pores of the wood. Hence barrel aging is a go-to source of the microbes that have proven capable of delivering the desired level of funk.
- Although Brett is often referred to as a wild yeast, that does not mean that “Brett” beers are spontaneously fermented by exposing the wort to ambient air while cooling. In most cases the Brett yeast is pitched in a controlled manner just like ordinary ale or lager yeast, generally assisted by microbes already living inside the oak barrels where the secondary fermentation is carried out. At this point in time I don’t believe any of the Crooked Stave beers are spontaneously fermented.
To fully calibrate everyone let’s end this section with a short passage on Brett from the book “American Sour Beers” by Michael Tonsmeire.
“The primary role Brettanomyces plays in the fermentation of sour beer is to ferment dextrins (chains of sugar molecules too long for saccharomyces to break down), during which time it produces a wide range of characteristic esters (fruity) and phenols (spicy, funky, and smoky). Available strains are capable of producing aromatics with an immense range, including: lovely ones like pineapple, hay, apple, and pear; those that may be appreciated in low levels, like horse blanket and barnyard; and batch ruiners, like acrid smoke, Band-Aid, and the dreaded fecal.”
The exact flavors that one gets from Brett depend on a number of factors including the species and strain of the yeast, what you feed it, and the fermentation conditions. Cleary if you are going to work with Brett you need to know what you’re doing. It’s a serious problem if you are shooting for pineapple and end up with fecal.
- Website: http://www.crookedstave.com/
- Address: 3350 Brighton Blvd, Denver, CO 80216
- Hours: Sun-Mon 12-8 pm, Tue-Sat 12-11 pm
- Food: No (but there is food available in the market complex)
- Prices: Varies, tasters are $2-$4 each and full glasses $6-$10
The Crooked Stave taproom is located on Brighton Boulevard about a mile north of the hip LoDo district that surrounds Coors Field and Union Station, in what is called the River North or RiNo district. The surrounding neighborhood seems to be in the middle of significant gentrification. There are several trendy new condominiums juxtaposed with auto repair shops and storage units. I did come across a few bottles of half empty malt liquor on the side of the street while making my way down Brighton on foot, so the neighborhood does still have a little of its old grit, for now. The taproom is tucked away in an indoor marketplace called The Source. There is no outdoor signage to indicate that the large brick building that dates to the 1880’s houses a brewery. After some wandering around I eventually decided that this must be the place and headed inside. I made my way past shops selling cheese, flowers, coffee, and liquor to the Crooked Stave taproom that is located in the back corner.
It’s just after 3 pm on a Friday when I arrive. There are already a dozen or so people there who have made their way to Crooked Stave for an early start on the weekend. I take a seat at the L-shaped bar, which occupies the back corner of the taproom. Sunlight is streaming through windows high above bathing the brick walls of the old foundry in a warm light. The bartender, whose name is Alex, is very knowledgeable and agrees to be my guide to the world of Crooked Stave. Over the next two hours I work my way through much of the taplist while Alex shares the back story behind each beer.
Unlike many breweries the taproom and the brewery are not co-located. In fact the beer has to make two relatively short trips before finding its way into your glass. The wort is brewed at Epic Brewing’s Denver facility and then transferred to the Crooked Stave Barrel Center where it spends the next 6-9 months (or more) aging in oak barrels or wooden foeders. When it’s finally ready for consumption it is brought down to the taproom for the public to enjoy. At the time of my visit Crooked Stave was in the midst of expanding so that all stages of brewing can take place at their barrel center.
All of the Crooked Stave beers are sours, and all utilize Brett at some point in the fermentation process. While that may sound like a narrow focus they are able to get a surprising amount of diversity by combining the funky byproducts of Brett with approaches such as massive dry hopping, fruit infusions, or aging in used spirit barrels. Among breweries that specialize exclusively in sour beers I’ve yet to come across one whose beers span such a gamut. Here are some of the highlights:
Vieille – This saison, whose name means “old” in French, is made with a combination of barley, wheat and oats and spends 6 months in oak foeders. It’s light in color and low in alcohol (4.2% abv), lightly acidic with notes of lemon and green apple. The mouthfeel is ephemeral and the finish very dry. It’s a quaffable beer that reminds me of Jolly Pumpkin’s Bam Biere. If you want to ease into the world of sours this is a good place to start. I also tried a crimson red version that was aged with cranberries, hibiscus, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The spice and fruit additions were quite subtle.
Surette – A more assertive beer than Vieille, Surette is made with rye and spelt in place of the wheat and oats. It spends a full 9 months in oak foeders before it is ready for consumption. The resulting beer is tart and fruity, with a touch of musty Brett funk on the nose, and a mouthfeel that evokes a glass of dry white wine. A good example of how Brett can produce fruity esters in addition to the funky phenols it is better known for. They were also pouring a version of this beer infused with Colorado Wild Sage.
St. Bretta – A rare example of a 100% Brett beer, meaning that Brettanomyces yeast is used for both the primary and secondary fermentations. The wonderful earthy, musty, wet hay aromas and flavors of Brett are on full display here, particularly on the nose. There is also an ample amount of fruity esters which are accentuated in this beer by the addition of citrus fruits, a different one for every season. St. Bretta Autumn is brewed with navel oranges, while St. Bretta Winter is made with darker malts and Satsuma Mandarin oranges. One of these beers is a must try if nothing else than to see what Brett can do when given full reign over the fermentation process.
Progenitor – I read one interview with Yakobsen where he describes himself as a sour beer lover with a serious hop addiction. Here he has taken St. Bretta and dry hopped it with a ridiculous amount of New Zealand hops. The combination is a mind blowing combination of musty Brett funk, tropical fruits and a splash Sauvignon Blanc. Tart up front with a kiss of bitterness on the finish.
Progenitor Noir – The base beer here is the dark St. Bretta Winter dry hopped with the juiciest west coast hops. A big dose of citrus, pine, and resin get intimate with the Brett funk in yet another beer that is unlike anything I’ve had before. The Brett is more pronounced at the beginning of each drink while the IPA character comes on strong at the finish.
Origins (Batch 4) – After the progenitor beers I didn’t think it could get any better, but I was wrong. Origins is Crooked Stave’s homage to America’s first widely available sour beer, La Folie by New Belgium, which was in turn inspired by Rodenbach Grand Cru. Origins is a blend of beers aged in four different types of barrels—whiskey, red wine, white wine, and fresh oak. The resulting beer is delicious, tart yet drinkable, with notes of black cherries and other dark fruits on top of a caramel malt base. All of it is complimented with just the right amount of acetic acid to evoke the balsamic vinegar taste that is a hallmark of Flander’s Reds, but not so much that it tastes overly of vinegar. I’d have to taste them side by side to say which is better, but Origins is definitely in the same league with La Folie and Rodenbach.
Nightmare on Brett – I finish off with yet another beer that I’m still thinking about a month later. Nightmare on Brett is a 9.666% abv dark sour ale aged in Leopold Brothers Maryland rye whiskey barrels. Take all that you love in your favorite barrel aged stout (big notes of vanilla and molasses) and then turn the familiar into exotic by adding the tart flavors of a sour beer.
I’ve not encountered this many unique, yet delicious, beers in one sitting since I visited The Bruery last March. If you like sour beers Crooked Stave is a mandatory pilgrimage. My advice is to stick to the sampler sizes because so many beers here that are must try, and your taste buds can only take so much lactic acid before they give out.
A Taste of Denver – Six Additional Breweries/Bars to Visit
While Crooked Stave may be the top attraction, it’s hardly the only game in town. I spent four nights in Denver and used the evenings to check out as many beer destinations as my schedule would permit. My base of operations was the Crawford Hotel, located inside Denver’s historic Union Station (1701 Wynkoop). It’s a bit pricy, but very elegant and strategically located only a few blocks from Coors Field in the LoDo district which is ground zero for the craft beer revival in Denver. So if you want to splurge on a beercation this is the place to go. Here are another six breweries/bars that are located within walking distance of Union Station and/or Crooked Stave.
In the atrium of Union Station you’ll find the Terminal Bar where you can walk-up and choose one of 30 Colorado beers on tap (including Epic, Left Hand, Funkwerks, Odell, Upslope, Crooked Stave, Great Divide, Oskar Blues, Dry Dock, New Belgium, Telluride, and many more). The hardest part is choosing. Hanging out with my friend Michelle we soaked in the ambiance of the great hall at Union Station on a sunny Sunday evening, while reveling in the glorious hoppiness of Comrade Brewing’s Superpower IPA. If you see this beer on tap order a pint immediately, it’s one of the best IPAs you’ll find anywhere.
As a side note there is a hip breakfast spot in the station called Snooze. They specialize in southwestern takes on breakfast classics like eggs benedict and specialty pancakes. In two visits I had the Chile Verde Benny and the Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes, both delicious. If you go at a popular breakfast time expect a bit of a wait (probably a long wait on a weekend), but I thought the food was delicious.
A few blocks from Union Station is one of the most famous craft beer bars in the country, the Falling Rock Taphouse (1919 Blake Street). Smaller and more homey that I had expected, with a English pub feel to it. While I was visiting they were having some sort of Imperial Stout tap takeover, which afforded me the opportunity over three nights try hard to find classics like Bourbon County Brand Stout, Prairie Bomb, and two different vintages of Avery’s The Czar. This is another spot not to be missed if you go to Denver.
On Saturday night I made my way over to Euclid Hall (1317 14th Street) with my friend and fellow beer lover Chris Hess. More restaurant than bar and pretty crowded on a Saturday night, but they were pouring Pliny the Elder, which made every step of the walk totally worth it (although I thought Comrade’s Superpower IPA was a shade better than PtE).
About a mile NE of the Falling Rock taphouse just off of Blake Street is the Denver outpost of Epic Brewing (3001 Walnut Street). Unfortunately their excellent imperial stout, Big Bad Baptist, was out of season when I visited with Chris and our friend Terry. They had a good selection of beers across a wide variety of styles, from sours to stouts to lagers, but (unfortunately for Epic) our visit followed a second sojourn to Crooked Stave and by comparison Epic seemed a bit pedestrian.
Right across the street from Union Station is Wynkoop Brewing (1634 18th Street). Started in 1988 by now governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, Wynkoop was founded before either craft beer or the LoDo district of Denver were fashionable. The old multistory brick building that occupies the corner of Wynkoop and 18th streets has a lot of character, and the second floor contains the biggest billiard hall I’ve ever seen at a brewery (22 tables in all, and Monday through Thursday you can play for free before 6 pm). I was curious to try the Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, but it was out when we visited. Somewhere in Colorado there are some bulls happy for that fact.
A half mile due east of the Falling Rock Taproom is another old-timer of the Denver beer scene, Great Divide (2201 Arapahoe Street). They have a relatively cozy little taproom that was packed when I visited on Friday evening with my friend Matt. They feature a wide selection that ranges from session beers to hop bombs to Belgian trippels to imperial stouts. I procured a snifter of the delicious yet potent Yeti Imperial Stout and we snagged a seat in the smallish streetside patio to celebrate the last few hours of winter. Au revoir freezing temperatures and icy streets.