At Ale House at Amato's, don't worry, be hoppy

The Elk sausage plate: "Slices of smoky, pungent sausage, caramelized onions and soft chunks of apple bathed in a brown-ale sauce, along with toasted bread swiped with a blend of goat cheese and mustard." More Ale House at Amato's photos.
The Elk sausage plate: "Slices of smoky, pungent sausage, caramelized onions and soft chunks of apple bathed in a brown-ale sauce, along with toasted bread swiped with a blend of goat cheese and mustard." More Ale House at Amato's photos.

Much to the chagrin of my parents, who moved to Colorado to enjoy the great outdoors, I've never been big on athletic activities. But childhood is not a democracy, and they dragged me along on their mountain climbs, bike rides and ski trips no matter how loudly I cried, hoping to instill in me some sort of appreciation for the wilderness.

It didn't take. But I did discover one lifelong love on these treks.

Our family activities focused on Summit County, and my dad was an early fan of brewpubs. So after a day spent suffering through cold lift lines or hot, grueling hikes, my brother and I would be rewarded with a trip to Breckenridge Brewery, where we'd feast on bangers and mash, burgers and fries and house-brewed (root) beer. No one cared that we were still in our sweaty clothing — the place felt like someone's ski condo or rec room, anyway — and we didn't care (much) that the room had a weird smell that I'd later come to associate with barley and hops.

I didn't know it then, but I was witnessing — and sniffing — the beginning of Colorado's craft-beer movement. And fortunately, Breckenridge's efforts with beer went a lot further than my parents' efforts with my outdoor education.

Richard Squire, a ski bum and home brewer, opened the first Breckenridge Brewery in Summit County in 1990, brewing up a small number of handcrafted beers on site and selling them in the restaurant. From those humble beginnings, Breckenridge has expanded into three brewing facilities, churning out tens of thousands of barrels of beer each year and distributing it across the country. In late 2010, Breckenridge entered into a partnership with the Wynkoop group, which owns a handful of restaurants including the Wynkoop Brewing Co., which was Denver's first brewpub when it opened in 1988. Both entities kept their names, while using each other to expand their reach: Wynkoop got a partner that knew how to package and distribute beer in vast quantities; Breckenridge got a partner that knew restaurants.

And just in time, because by then, work was moving along on Ale House at Amato's, the brewpub that Breckenridge was building at the very edge of Highland.

Photos: Brews and Unbeatable Views at Ale House at Amato's.

This expansive, ambitious project bore little resemblance to the original Summit County brewpub. The spot derived its name from Amato's, the family-owned statuary business that had overlooked downtown since 1947. The redesign of the space and lots of fresh construction created a two-level, multi-roomed restaurant with two excellent decks, one with a rooftop fire pit, both with absolutely stunning views of downtown.

The mantra at Amato's is "Good food, good drink and good cheer." But for the first couple of months after it opened this spring, there was almost too much cheer, with long, long waits for seats at the bars and decks. On my first visit, my friends and I settled for a table in the large, boringly beige front dining room where we waited, and waited, for a server to stop by. The waiter who finally showed up had no knowledge of his restaurant's beer list; he told us he hadn't tasted much and left us to our own devices.

Which was too bad, because the beer list — divided into three sections: "summer & refreshing," "malty & complex" and "hoppiness & flights" — looked fairly pedestrian, and I really wanted a smart suggestion. Unsurprisingly, Breckenridge and Wynkoop selections dominated, and they were supplemented by mostly run-of-the-mill Colorado brews from the larger craft breweries as well as some mildly interesting — though common — out-of-state drafts. At a forty-plus tap line beer bar, I expected some surprises — or at least a handful of options I couldn't find in many, many other bars around town. I eventually opted for a Boulevard Tank 7, since I knew the lightly hopped, lightly fruity ale from Kansas City would be refreshing, easy to drink...and delicious.

The same was not true of most of the dishes that landed on our table. I'd expected the wild-boar sliders to be a little gamey, but the meat tasted like unseasoned ground turkey, and the mango salsa on the side didn't help. The pappardelle chicken and mushrooms was even blander; the sauce of butter and cream had somehow turned into a gummy paste studded with rubbery bits of chicken and mushrooms. And the sauce for my lobster mac and cheese was a disaster: broken, mealy and oddly sweet. The lobster itself was so overcooked that I couldn't force down more than a bite. A healthier — and, apparently, smarter — friend had opted for the smoked salmon salad, which topped a bed of baby greens with strips of tart apple, dried apricots, shredded carrots and a hefty piece of smoky fish. It was an excellent mix, especially when drizzled with lemon, olive oil and a little salt.

But while our meal was disappointing, the space itself was not. As the summer wore on, I often found myself on one of those patios, enjoying the view and a beer or two from a list that was getting much more interesting, as offerings from such breweries as Upslope, Dry Dock and Strange Brewing were added. But I still couldn't get into the food. The spinach-and-artichoke dip seemed tired — both in concept and preparation. The Cholula jalapeño burger sounded good in theory, but under a dollop of jalapeño cream cheese, the beef was just as dry and flavorless as the wild boar in those sliders. And if there was Cholula sauce anywhere in the mix, I couldn't find it.

Still, I kept dropping by Amato's to enjoy the brews and views. And a few weeks ago, bolstered by a smart server, I got brave enough to try the food again.

"How's the pumpkin beer?" I asked the server as I took a seat on the patio.

"Eh," he replied. "I liked the Dogfish Head pumpkin better." That was an encouraging sign, since I consider Dogfish Head Punkin the best pumpkin beer of all time.

"We just tapped Great Divide Yeti," he then confided. "It's not on the list yet." Sold! The massive, chocolatey imperial stout is one of my favorite cold-weather beers of all time, and since fall was in the air, it seemed especially appropriate.

The server quickly returned with my beer and the elk sausage plate: slices of smoky, pungent sausage, caramelized onions and soft chunks of apple bathed in a brown-ale sauce, along with toasted bread swiped with a blend of goat cheese and mustard. Both elements were fine on their own — but together, they created an impressive harmony of tart, savory and sweet.

At the server's prompting, I decided to give the lobster mac and cheese another chance. It was vastly improved, now loaded with the sharp bite of Romano, and creamy with a blend of white cheddar and butter. The chunks of lobster still didn't do much for me; next time, I'd probably sub bacon and pair this dish with an IPA. Much as I love the Yeti, it didn't cut the richness the way a bitter finish would have. And there will definitely be a next time.

While Amato's doesn't yet feel like it's at the forefront of the craft-brewing industry the way that the original Breckenridge Brewery did, that meal revived my hopes that the kitchen will continue to evolve, like the industry itself. And in the meantime, there are all those brews...and the unbeatable views.

After the plates were cleared away, I sat back in my seat on the patio and sipped beers until way past my bedtime — enjoying the great outdoors the way it's meant to be experienced.

Photos: Brews and Unbeatable Views at Ale House at Amato's.

Ale House at Amato's has quickly become the town's go-to place for brews and views. More photos: Brews and Unbeatable Views at Ale House at Amato's
Mark Manger
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