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MOUTHING OFF

Brew send me: Colorado is becoming the "Napa Valley of the beer world." Or so says the Association of Brewers, a national organization that just happens to be located in Boulder, in close proximity to some of the finest beers being produced in the United States. There are 44 breweries in the state, including the headquarters of Coors Brewing Company and a satellite of Anheuser-Busch.

Denver itself now has seven microbreweries (there's also Lonetree Brewing on 55th Avenue, just outside the city limits), four of which are also pubs. All of them will give tours of their operations; by spending just enough time at each place to try the beers and hit the bathrooms, we managed to hit all seven in seven hours.

Our first stop was Great Divide, at 2201 Arapahoe Street. The microbrewery, which started production last May 30, is owned by Brian and Tara Dunn, neither of whom ever made beer before this. But their inexperience doesn't show--all three of the beers available were pretty solid brews. The most sophisticated was the Saint Brigid's Porter, a thick-tasting but light porter with a roasted chocolate flavor. For those who aren't Irish, Saint Brigid was the one the nuns rarely talked about in Catholic school--she turned her bathwater into beer for a group of clerics (where are miracles like that when we need them?). The Dunns prefer to follow a more traditional route in making their two American-style beers. The Whitewater Wheat Ale was for serious wheat fans; it tasted as though it could fulfill the daily fiber requirement. The Arapahoe Amber Ale was more drinker-friendly but not as interesting--the hops jumped out, but the flavor slipped into more of a commercial taste.

The same applies to Red Robin, at the two-year-old Breckenridge Brewery, at 2220 Blake Street. This is a brewpub with above-average grub and brew kettles right in the middle of everything. The beer sampler ($3 for five four-ouncers) is served in the style of formal wine-tastings, with a placemat describing the beers so you don't have to keep bugging the bartender. Red Robin is one that the brewery makes all the time but doesn't bottle, so it's not on the mat and was forgettable, anyway. Avalanche was much more flavorful, distinctly malty and very smooth. The India Pale Ale was smooth but had a thin quality, as did the Mountain Wheat. And the Oatmeal Stout was overflowing with a roasty oatmeal taste but had a bitter coffee finish that needed some sweetness to round it out.

Ales head the list of choices at Broadway Brewing Company, a brewpub at 2441 Broadway (don't worry, it just looks like a warehouse on the outside) with some gnarly nachos and a roster of twelve Colorado microbrews on tap. The company, which started brewing last May and cooking in June, is a joint venture between Denver's Wynkoop Brewing Company and Aspen's Flying Dog; to make matters more complicated, it also does some contract brewing for Idle Spur Crested Butte Brewery. In the pub, a few beers from all involved are usually available, although Railyard Ale and Doggie Style Ale, from Wynkoop and Flying Dog respectively, are always around. The former is one of Wynkoop's most popular beers, very easygoing and simple. The latter, with its catchy slogans aimed at frat guys (yeah, man, I do it Doggie Style), was more bark than bite--a heavier-tasting beer without much to it. Idle Spur's White Buffalo Ale and Red Lady Ale were more professionally done, with their only similarities being the word "ale": White Buffalo had an unusual aftertaste and more body. We were able to taste all four, in four-ounce portions, for $4.95.

The taste was free at the year-old Tabernash Brewing in the industrial section of Denargo Market. Tabernash Weiss is still my favorite non-Guinness brew, although it has changed a little since I tried the very first batch. While the newer version was more refined (and probably more market-compatible), I actually preferred the earlier, rawer quality. It still had that banana-y base, though. And the brewer used an actual fruit extract for Tabernash's Passionate Wheat, a test beer created for the Cherry Cricket to serve as a New Year's Eve alternative to champagne. The passion fruit flavor took a little getting used to, although I liked it better than most raspberry and blueberry concoctions I've tried. And although Tabernash's Golden Spike Lager lacked oomph, the Denargo Lager was rich and smooth. I'd love to see what these guys could do with a stout or a porter.

The dark beer at Champion Brewing Company, at 1442 Larimer, was among the best we sampled of their six-beer set of three-ouncers ($2.40). This three-year-old establishment is owned by the Larimer Group, which also owns Cadillac Ranch, Josephina's and Mexicali, as well as every tiny pebble on Larimer Square. Black Magic, with its pilsner tones, was their replacement for Stout Street Stout, which was much heavier. The Larimer Red, a punchy red in true Irish tradition, was another standout--no surprise, since brewmaster Mike Fahy is responsible for Coors's Killian's. Also up there was Home Run, a Scottish-style nut brown that's light enough for you to drink a lot of. And the El Diablo Rojo (Red Devil, for you gringos) wasn't bad, either, but it was a seasonal beer brewed for the Stock Show and won't be around much longer. Unfortunately, Norm Clarke's Sports Ale will. Named for the Rocky Mountain News sports columnist, this pale ale tasted as if Clarke stopped by an old paste-up room on his way to the pub and they made the beer from the waxy stuff stuck to his fingers. The Buckwheat Raspberry was typical of fruit beers--too sweet to drink too much.

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