What's a concept beer? Good question. I've heard the term thrown around, but I've never really heard it defined. To me, a concept beer is something that goes beyond just the ingredients and encapsulates a larger idea that the brewery or brewer wants to get across to the people who drink the beer. What kinds of ideas? Well, they can be anything from a political statement to a message about sustainable ingredients. Maybe the brewery wants to start a discussion, push boundaries or simply educate drinkers about brewing history or tradition.
Here's how Fiction Beer Company's Ryan Kirkpatrick describes his brewery's latest concept beer: "The Unidentified IPA Project was sort of an epiphany. I was literally driving home one day and the thought just popped into my head: We spend so much time tasting and evaluating beer so that we can write descriptions that tell people what the beer should taste like... So I wanted to create a way for beer drinkers to just experience the beer for what it is without us telling them. If we could have a way to have them taste without preconceived notions, it would be very interesting to see what people think."
What a concept!
This week, with the Craft Brewers Conference in town, breweries all over Denver have been tapping their rarest and most interesting or unusual beers. The following five creations weren't necessarily timed to that, but they do all represent something larger than themselves. Here are five concept beers to look for this week:
Ever since Colorado got rid of its antiquated 3.2 beer laws at the beginning of 2019, people have been waiting for local breweries to begin producing and selling beers that were lower than 3.2 percent by weight (or 4 percent by volume). Although it seems counterintuitive that low-alcohol beers would become more popular after supermarkets stopped selling them, the truth is that these beers are gaining in popularity because they don't get people drunk as fast. And because of the politics behind the 3.2 laws, breweries weren't allowed to package or sell beer under 3.2 percent to liquor stores or restaurants. So far, the buildup to lower-alcohol beer has been slow. But late last week, trendsetting TRVE Brewing made a splash by brewing and serving a 2.8 percent table saison. "Lower," as the beer is called, was brewed with Colorado malts and noble hops and fermented in oak barrels. The style fits TRVE's model, as the company has always prided itself on making session beers. I'm guessing that other breweries will follow its lead.
Craft Maltsters Guild beers
Colorado Farm Brewery and the Colorado Malting Company were both founded by the Cody family, which has been growing barley in the San Luis Valley near Alamosa for four generations. Part of the goal of starting the brewery two years ago was to highlight malted barley and to educate consumers. On Tuesday at 5 p.m., the brewery will visit its friends at Baere Brewing in Denver to tap five beers it brewed with five different members of the Craft Maltsters Guild, which represents small, independent maltsters. They are the Colorado Malting Company (of course), Mecca Grade Estate Malt, Admiral Maltings, Two Track Malting and Rabbit Hill Farms. These beers were brewed with 80 percent base malt and 20 percent specialty malts from each malthouse, then hopped with a touch of Cascade to showcase the differences between the malts.
Hops are king when it comes to beer. IPAs — both the bitter kind and the less bitter aromatic kind — dominate the landscape, and the number of hops varieties has exploded in the past twenty years. But that wasn't always the case. For the majority of the history of beer, hops were merely a bittering, flavoring agent, used sparingly (by today's standards). And before that, in northern Europe, some malted beverages didn't contain hops at all. Styles like Finnish Sahti used juniper berries or bog myrtle for bittering and flavor, while "Gruits" contained a mixture of herbs, like mugwort, yarrow, horehound and heather. There have been a handful of gruits and sahtis made in Denver in the past, but Seedstock Brewery, which specializes in old-world styles of beer, is taking particular delight in the gruit tapped last week for its third anniversary. This "Viking beer," as the brewery calls it, uses an herb mixture that creates "an herbal aroma and full mouthfeel, followed by hints of anise and a unique spiced-tea finish."
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Upslope's latest beer — which honors the 1,000th batch of beer made at its main production facility in Boulder — is unusual in several ways. For starters, Batch 1000 weighs in at 17.5 percent ABV, which puts it above most wines and higher than almost any other beer made in Colorado (only Avery, Oskar Blues, River North, Burns Artisan Ales and one or two others have approached that level). Also, it was made using ten different types of sugar and then aged for a year in fresh bourbon barrels. But the oddest decision is that it was intentionally packaged without carbonation. "Why produce a beer without bubbles?" asks Upslope head brewer Sam Scruby. "We believe that the grandeur of this special project is best enjoyed without the carbonic bite that carbonation would impart. This preserves the rich, viscous body and decadent malt complexity of the beer as it came out of the barrel. As a result, sealed cans of Batch 1000 may feel less firm than one is accustomed to and will pour completely flat without a head. The beer will continue to open up and reveal new complexities as it warms to room temperature." Scruby says the brewery knew the beer would be a risk, but he wanted to make something that wasn't easy to categorize, something that could be enjoyed almost like a liqueur or a cordial.
The Unidentified IPA Project
Fiction Beer Company
Fiction is trying an experiment that fits into a recent trend of challenging consumers to trust their own senses about what makes a beer good — rather than the label. On Saturday, it released four-packs of canned IPAs, with each can containing a different "style we’ve been known to brew," Fiction says. "The catch? Each IPA is unidentified. We wanted to throw out preconceived notions about a beer and challenge you to try something blind. Each can is distinctly different. We encourage you to first taste the beer from the can, evaluate it, discern what aromas come to mind and what flavors you taste. Can you guess which style? Next, pour into a glass and consume the beer as you normally would. We want you to experience the beers for what they are without our lengthy, adjective-laden descriptions, and without someone else’s idea of what it should be. You be the taster, you write the description. And then let us know if you liked it." The bottom of each can has the name. "Our name has never been prominently featured on our cans. For us it has always been about the beer name and beer style," adds Fiction co-owner Ryan Kilpatrick. "Now we're trying to take that out of the equation to make it solely about the beer."