From Wild Ales to German Lagers – A Day Out in Denver

A few weeks ago work took me to Colorado and Wyoming for the better part of my spring break.  What follows are some notes from a Sunday exploration of the Mile High City, plus a few quick peaks at breweries further north on the Front Range.  This is the third time I’ve written about Denver, but with somewhere in the vicinity of 60 breweries there’s always something new to explore.

Falling Rock Tap House

I landed at Denver International around 3:30 pm on a Sunday afternoon, about 3 hours later than scheduled.  Anyone who has flown United through O’Hare will not be surprised by that news, but it did significantly compress what I had envisioned to be a leisurely afternoon and evening exploring the Denver beer scene.  I’d booked a room at the Crawford Hotel, inside Denver’s historic Union Station.  It’s a bit pricy, but the upsides—luxurious rooms, a building oozing with character, a beer hall in the main foyer, killer location in the heart of LoDo, and a train that takes you directly from the airport to your hotel—are too good to pass up.

By the time I’d finished checking into my room I was feeling pretty hungry.  If I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s unwise to do this type of journalism on an empty stomach, so I headed for the Falling Rock Tap House. It seems fitting to start the evening with one of the most important beer bars in the American craft beer movement.  Plus, it’s a short five-minute walk from my hotel.  The Falling Rock doesn’t look like too much from the outside; a red brick building, set back from Blake Street, nestled between two taller buildings with a slab of cement in front that acts as a patio.  If you didn’t know better you could be forgiven for mistaking the Falling Rock for a college bar that serves beer by the pitcher.  One could easily be drawn to the more glamorous looking bar across the street with a rooftop beer garden and a banner boasting 70 taps of craft beer.  Fortunately, I know better.

Inside the Falling Rock is a classic 20th century brewpub.  Dark wood floors, wooden booths, shelves on the back wall that hold hundreds upon hundreds of beer bottles, a throwback to simpler days when the number of beers being made was an imaginable number.  The walls are covered with beer signs and other breweriana. There’s a long, well-worn, wooden bar and behind it the altar, a wall of more tap handles than I can count [1].  It’s not particularly busy so I take a seat at the bar and contemplate my choices.  It’s not every day you see Pliny the Elder on tap and pass over it without hesitation, but I’m not in the mood for a double IPA.  Being in Colorado, I’m immediately drawn to a special version of New Belgium’s La Folie, aged in sherry barrels with Tahitian vanilla beans and packaged on nitro.  It’s not clear that one should throw that many variables at one of America’s most venerable sours, but my curiosity is piqued.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way, because it’s sold out [2].  Plan B is a glass of Logsdon’s Seizoen, a personal favorite of mine that isn’t sold in Ohio, and a bowl of green chilli with flour tortillas on the side.  The food at Falling Rock is underrated in my opinion, and this combo is just what I need right now.

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A refreshing glass of Logsdon’s Seizoen in front of the altar at the Falling Rock Tap House.

Black Project

Although there are more than a dozen breweries within walking distance of the Falling Rock I’ve got my sights set on a more distant locale for stop #2, Black Project Spontaneous and Wild Ales.  Black Project makes all of its beers using yeast and bacteria that are either captured while wort is left exposed to ambient air in a coolship or foraged from nature (presumably this means on the skins of fruits and other ingredients). The brewery first opened in 2014 as Former Future Brewing.  It seems a pity to walk away from a name like that, but that’s exactly what they did when they decided to focus exclusively on spontaneously fermented beers, dropping it in favor of the current moniker.   Former Future/Black Project have won three GABF medals for their wild ales, so it’s no surprise they are darlings of craft beer world.

To get to Black Project I take the #0 bus from Union Station.  Public transport is a great way to experience a city on a visceral, more intimate level, one that involves all of the senses.  The trip, which goes by thrash metal loving, session ale maestros TRVE, takes about 30 minutes.  Navigating as usual by smart phone, I walk right by the white brick building on South Broadway that houses Black Project. Apparently, it would be too obvious to put the name of your business somewhere on the outside of the building.  If you want to avoid walking around like a lost tourist, look for the sketch of a black paper airplane and you can’t miss it.

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The hidden/not hidden entrance to Black Project.

When I enter at 6:45 pm on a Sunday, I’m surprised to find that I’m the only customer.  In sharp contrast with the Falling Rock here are only five beers on tap; three house beers—a salted sour wheat beer with apricot and guava (Magic Lantern), a sour wheat ale with cranberry and boysenberry (Shadow Factory), and a spontaneous peach ale (Stargate)—plus two guest taps. The setting is fairly spartan, probably big enough to hold 60-80 customers in a pinch, with a long bar topped with a shiny silver metal surface.  The beers are selling for $4/$5 per four ounce pour or $8/$10 for a 12 oz pour.  Given the nature of my mission, I opt for the smaller pours.  I start with the Magic Lantern, which is essentially a fruited gose.  It’s tart and fruity with a dash of salt at the finish, a good summertime thirst quencher, but not the kind of beer that justifies an hour-long round trip bus journey.

After a trip to the gents, which takes me past three handsome oak foeders and a room full of barrels stacked to the ceiling, I move onto Stargate.  The menu tells me it’s a spontaneously fermented golden solera sour, aged over local peaches in bourbon barrels.  I’m not sure it’s possible to squeeze in any more beer geek buzzwords into a beer that isn’t dry hopped.  Despite my scepticism regarding the hype factor, this beer delivers on its flowery description and then some.  I can’t detect any bourbon flavor, but there’s a touch of vanilla that perfectly complements the big peach notes that are the centerpiece of the beer.  The acidity is soft, accentuating the peach flavor rather than assaulting the palate.  The mouthfeel is delicate, the finish dry and crisp.  Spontaneously fermented beers can be a little like modern art, one can appreciate the unconventional approach, but that doesn’t make Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol equals of Monet and Rembrandt. However, this beer is freakin’ delicious.  You don’t need to know it was spontaneously fermented in a nondescript white brick building miles and miles from the nearest fruit tree to appreciate it, your taste buds tell you everything you need to know.

I’m tempted to buy a bottle to take home with me.  The prices start at about $20 and go upward.  That’s fair enough these are hard beers to make, but if I’m going to put down that kind of money I’d like to have some inkling of what I’m getting.  I ask if any of the packaged beers are similar to the peachy Stargate, apparently they’re not.  The bartender tells me many are wine-beer hybrids.  My luggage will be heavy enough by the time I get home anyway.

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The glorious Stargate golden solera sour at Black Project.

Dos Luces

A block north from Black Project is one of Denver’s newest and most unusual breweries, Dos Luces.  This Latin-themed brewery opened in the summer of 2018 and focuses on two traditional fermented beverages from the Americas: Chicha, an Inca drink brewed from corn, and Pulque, which comes from the Aztecs who spontaneously fermented the sap of the agave plant. Like Black Project I’m one of the only customers, so I sit at the small bar in the front of the well-lit establishment.  The bartender is happy to fill me in on my almost non-existent knowledge of these two fermented beverages.  I ask if chicha is fermented with the microbes in saliva, and if so whose saliva fermented the chicha I’m drinking?  The bartender grimaces slightly before dispelling me of that notion. While there may be some people in the Andes who do it that way, in Denver chicha is made very much like beer, with yeast cultures from a lab and malted blue corn taking the place of barley.  He also tells me that although pulque is traditionally made with 100% agave sap, here they use a mixture of agave and malted blue corn.  It seems the corn is necessary for the beverage to fall under the beer licensing laws.

Over the course of 30-40 minutes I have three 4 oz pours of these exotic beverages—chicha dry hopped with El Dorado, Pulque Metzli, and the Cucumber Lemon Pulque—each served in a white ceramic cup.  My notes are pretty sketchy here, but if my memory serves the chicha is similar to beer but sweeter, while the pulque is a bit stronger with a somewhat milky character and subtly spiced (cinnamon?).  I prefer the pulque, especially the cucumber lemon pulque, which is downright tasty.  The novelty factor and the friendly service make a stop at Dos Luces a no brainer if you find yourself on a South Broadway wild beer hunt.

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Dos Luces looks more like a tanning salon than a taproom from the outside, but don’t let the bright lights put you off.

Bierstadt

It’s now past 8 pm and completely dark outside. It seems wise to choose a destination in the LoDo or RiNo districts, somewhere closer to my hotel.  I was thinking about going to Epic so as not to disappoint my friend Bill Koeppen, but since I’ve struck up a good rapport with the bartender at Dos Luces I ask him where he would go.  He doesn’t hesitate to recommend Bierstadt Lagerhaus, raving about their traditional German lagers.  Recently I’ve been on a lager kick, so I throw the playbook out the window and go off script.  Twenty minutes later my über driver drops me off in front of a large warehouse in RiNo neighborhood that houses both Bierstadt Lagerhaus and C Squared Ciders.

The inside is cavernous, very warehouse like, with large banners from area breweries and sport teams hanging from the rafters.  It takes me a minute or two to get my bearings, because there’s a beer hall on the lower level (think beer garden in an industrial space with a limited selection of beers) and a pub on the upper level.  Eventually I get a table on the upper level that overlooks the beer hall.  I start with the Small Pour Pils, which the menu tells me has twice been chosen Colorado Beer of the Year by the Denver Post.  It takes five minutes to pour a 0.3 L glass, but what a beautiful sight when it finally comes; pale straw yellow, brilliantly clear, topped with a creamy dollop of snow white head that sticks up above the rim of the glass.  The taste is a perfect expression of pilsner malts, descriptors like grainy and bready don’t do it justice, but the pilsner fans out there know what I mean.  There is an underlying spicy hop note, a very clean fermentation profile, and a crisp, dry finish.  You don’t find too many pilsners this good west of the Rhine [3].

From my table I can look down into the beer hall. A group of people are playing giant beer pong, with basketballs substituting for ping pong balls and garbage cans for cups.  It doesn’t take too long to empty my narrow stange-like glass of pilsner.  Having just enjoyed an amazing beer you’d think I’d get another, but the damn craft beer ethos of seeking out new things is too strong, so I order a half-liter of the unfiltered smoked helles. It’s tasty (though it seems odd for a beer advertised as unfiltered to be crystal clear), but it wasn’t as mind blowing as the pilsner.  [Note to self, when you find an exceptional beer, order more than one.]

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Two time Colorado Beer of the Year, the Slow Pour Pils at Bierstadt Lagerhaus.

Odell

I could probably go all day drinking dainty pours of sour ales and South American corn beer, but half-liter mugs of German-style lager are another matter.  The smart move would be to call it a night after leaving Bierstadt, but the Hemmingway school of writing suggests another path, and I convince myself there’s time for one more stop.  I’ve missed the window to visit Epic, which is very close, but there’s still time to check out Odell’s newish Denver taproom on Larimer Street, a 2-minute walk from the Lagerhaus.

I arrive about 30 minutes before the 10 pm closing time.  The two-story space is well conceived.  Exposed brick walls, gleaming new wood bar and table tops.  There’s a second story patio that gets some rave reviews online, but I didn’t make it up there.  At least half the beers on tap are brewed at this location and presumably not available elsewhere.  I tend to think of Odell as having a balanced portfolio that leans toward hop-centric beers, but it would be stretching things to call tonight’s tap list—8 IPAs, 3 sour ales and a white stout—balanced.  I ask for the bartender’s recommendation and she steers me to the Mountain Standard IPA, which she describes as a cross between a West Coast IPA and a NE IPA.  I don’t think I’ve ever had an Odell beer that disappointed me, and this is no exception.  It has all the haze you expect from a NE IPA, an aromatic bouquet of hops that transports you to a fruit stand in an evergreen forest, and most importantly a clean finish that avoids the lingering sweetness of many hazies.

I pay my tab and head back out into the now very crisp air of an early spring night in the Mile High City and make the 30 minute walk back to my hotel.  It’s been a good day.

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The Crawford Hotel at Union Station is hard to beat as a base of operations while in Denver.

Further adventures on the Front Range

The next several days are mostly work, I give a seminar at Colorado State University on Tuesday and another at the University of Wyoming on Wednesday.  At both places my hosts are exceptionally hospitable, which leaves not too much time for solo beer explorations.  A late winter storm that drops a foot of snow and 50 mph winds on the northern Rockies doesn’t help.  Nevertheless, I did manage to squeeze in three stops worth noting.

Without making too much of a detour on the way to Fort Collins I was able to stop into Weldworks Brewing for an afternoon beer while I went over my presentation for the next day.  Greeley, home of Northern Colorado University, has a working class/small college town vibe that reminds me of Pocatello, Idaho where I spent my undergraduate days.  It’s surrounded by fields of ruminating livestock, which lends a certain bouquet to the air that might explain the local’s preference for beers made with exorbitant amounts of hops.  Weldworks’ best known beer is Juicy Bits, a hazy IPA that helped make them a household name, so that’s what I order.  It doesn’t let me down, gloriously hazy, bursting at the seams with juicy fruit-forward hop flavor and a bitterness level that is more Jimmy Carter than Hillary Clinton.  With 11 IPAs (all hazy?), 3 pastry stouts and hefeweizen on tap they’ve doubled down on brewing the most sought-after styles (and Bavarian wheat beers). Who am I to second guess their business model, but my palate can only take 1-2 of these beers?

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No questioning the haze of Juicy Bits IPA.

The next evening on my way up to Laramie I stop in for one beer at Funkwerks before leaving Fort Collins.  I’d like to stop by Purpose Brewing, the new brewery opened by Peter Bouckaert, former brewmaster at New Belgium, but they are only open Friday through Sunday.  That Funkwerks is my consolation prize says something about what makes Fort Collins such a great beer town. I love a good saison, and the Saison d’Brett is fantastic.  The funky, fruity brett flavors combine with the spicy phenols of the saison yeast to make for a superlative beer.  While I’m at it I pick up a bottle of their Oud Bruin, which took home a gold medal from the 2018 World Beer Cup, to bring back to Ohio.  Fort Collins has many amazing breweries, but Funkwerks could well be my favorite.

My last notable stop is Altitude Chophouse and Brewery in Laramie.  This is the local favorite of my friend and host Brian Leonard, who is also a homebrewing chemist.  While the gusts of wind blow the freshly dumped snow into impressively high drifts we sit and drank beers like you can only do when you know every road out of town is going to be closed for at least 24 hours.  At a modest 5.8% the barrel aged coconut brown ale was impressive.  Their altbier is the reigning World Beer Cup gold medalist and worthy of the accolade in my humble opinion.  I made a note that the American wheat beer (Tumblewheat) has taken home numerous awards, including a gold medal from the 2016 GABF, but what kind of person would order an American wheat beer during a blizzard?

The next time you’re driving across Wyoming and find yourself in dire need of quality food and beer, remember the Altitude Chop House and Brewery.  It’s nothing less than an oasis in one of America’s least densely populated states.  After all, if you are driving west on I-80 the entire population that lives along the next 200 miles of I-80 isn’t enough people to sell out a single date on a Dexie’s Midnight Runner’s reunion tour.

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A glass of Saison d’Brett at Funkwerks in Fort Collins.

Related Links

For those contemplating a trip to the eastern slopes of the Colorado Rockies, here are links to earlier posts about Denver and nearby locations.

Endnotes

[1] This may be an exaggeration, later research shows that the number of tap handles is on the order of 75+, a number I was able to count to the last time I tried.

[2] Later in the trip I purchased two bottles of this special La Folie at a beer store in Fort Collins.  It turns out all the extra bells and whistles are pretty subtle, because I felt it tasted pretty close to standard issue La Folie.

[3] I was so impressed with the Slow Pour Pils that I brought a crowler home with me, but when I shared it with friends a week later the magic seemed to have dissipated. Apparently the act of slow pouring the effervescent pale pilsner is a key component of its seductive appeal.

2 thoughts on “From Wild Ales to German Lagers – A Day Out in Denver

Add yours

  1. Great stuff as always- leaves me salivating, though I do wonder about the economics of some of the high end price breweries. I get why they need to sell at premium prices but as there are so many in certain locations are there enough customers able to stump out regularly enough to make it all stack up?

    1. I guess the market will ultimately decide the fate of breweries like Black Project. For most people it makes drinking that beer a special occassion, so it seems to me you need either a wide distribution footprint or a very small production volume.

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