It's American Craft Beer Week - seven days that even the United States Congress felt should be set aside for drinking micro brews. But Colorado's beer culture is worth a deeper look, since 100 craft breweries operated here in 2008, producing 75,000 barrels of delicious beer.
Of particular interest is the continued growth of canned micro brews, a trend that started in 2002 at Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons and continues with at least seven other breweries that now can their beers and two that are about to start.
To laud the pioneering spirit of Colorado's canned crusaders, Westword will feature an online article each day this week about some aspect of craft-beer canning. Click here for yesterday's story on Oskar Blues; look below for today's on Ska Brewing, as well as two bonus reviews of Ska offerings.
Bill Graham and Dave Thibodeau were too young to buy beer when they began home brewing in the mid-1980s, and Denver was too green to have a home-brewing store. "We had to drive all the way to Laramie to get our supplies," Thibodeau says. "That was the only place to go until they opened that shop on Sixth Avenue a few years later."
But by the time they'd graduated college -- Graham from the University of Colorado and Thibodeau from Metro State --craft brewing had finally caught on here. Ska Brewing got its start in 1995 when the two friends moved to Durango and turned their hobby into a business, complete with a comic-book and ska music soundtrack. And their beers followed the theme, with names like True Blonde Ale, Steel Toe Stout and Pinstripe Porter.
Eight years later, Ska became the second craft brewery in the state to experiment with canning. But its hand-canning line was so small that the guys started with just one beer, ESB Special Ale. That changed late last year, however, when Ska opened its new, $4.8 million, 24,000-square-foot world headquarters and tasting room, and added a larger canning line -- one purchased from the canning gurus at Oskar Blues.
The result? In February, Ska released Modus Hoperendi, a powerful IPA, in a nifty green can. And just last week, it began selling True Blonde in a can as well.
"Our one can was growing exponentially," Thibodeau says, adding that sales have been up over 100 percent every year for the past couple of years. "We really, really enjoy the can for all manner of reasons, from the environmental side, to the ease of transport and because of all the places you can take a can that you can't take a bottle."
Like many Colorado brewers these days, Ska wants to lower its carbon footprint, and Thibodeau says cans are a good way to do that because they require less packaging than bottles and can be easier to recycle. Plus, if someone throws them in the trash, they take up less room in landfills.
The company's new facility (a project overseen by Ska partner number three, Matt Vincent) was also designed to be environmentally friendly, with solar lighting, wind power and other processes that recycle water and heat.
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At the moment, canned beers represent only 12 percent of Ska's packaged beer sales (the brewery makes about 12,000 barrels a year total), so Thibodeau says the company will continue to rely on bottling for most of its beers. Still, he says, the Ska brain trust has talked about switching everything to cans at some point. "The market is leaning that way," he says. "It's hard not to think about one day being all cans."
I'd been coveting Ska's cool, Modus Hoperandi can ever since I started seeing it on liquor store shelves, but hadn't purchased it for one reason: I still have a hard time paying $8.99 for a six-pack, expecially a six-pack of cans. But this is part of the bottle v. can mentality that all craft brewers are no doubt dealing with. I'm glad I finally shed my greenbacked fears, however, because Modus quickly vaulted into my list of top-5 hop-bomb IPAs bottled or canned in Colorado, a list that includes Great Divide's Titan and Avery's IPA. The beer has that delicious bitterness that comes with all big, hoppy beers, but it adds a layer of fresh, almost flowery flavor as well, plus a dose of malty richness that rounds out the taste and makes it extremely drinkable.
Ska's ESB Special Ale, with its "Lip Up Fatty" motto and red can, has found a home behind the glass cases of liquor stores in Denver, and it's decent, if not my favorite Ska offering. The ESB looks and smells fantastic in a glass. It has a mellow sweetness, and a thin layer of hoppy bitterness, but not enough to give it a satisfying punch.