Over the course of 2020, I did my best to try each and every one of those beers. But I didn't get very far, relatively speaking. I did, however, sample several hundred — from around 100 breweries — a number that was actually lower than in past years, since I only attended one festival in 2020 before the rest were canceled.
Here are thirty of those that stood out among the competition. The list focuses on beers that were new or newish in 2020 (or new to me, anyway). They are beers that surprised me, defied expectations or simply made me love them. Some were small-batch specialties, while others were distributed across multiple states. Overall, the list — which is presented roughly by style — reflects some outstanding examples of the depth and breadth of what Colorado's breweries are creating.
New Zealand Pilsner
Lumpy Ridge Brewing
Maybe it was because this was the first beer I felt comfortable drinking on a patio after quarantine; maybe it was because of the early-summer air in Estes Park; maybe it was just because this is a really tasty brew. Whatever the case, Lumpy Ridge's New Zealand Pilsner is a globe-spanning lager that really stood out. Brewed in the tradition of more flavorful Czech-style pilsners, but with New Zealand-grown hops (Pacific Gem and Wakatu), it actually fits into the burgeoning "Italian-style pilsner" category of light lagers that are made with unusual hops. Clean, crushable and slightly woodsy, it made me want to have another. And another.
Oskar Blues Brewing
Oskar Blues was founded by a hophead — for hopheads — and its offerings only got bigger from there. But the Longmont brewery has certainly changed, grown and changed some more over the years, and some of its best beers are now a series of carefully created Slow Chill lagers that debuted in January. My favorite of the three (Vienna-Style Lager and Dunkel Lager were the other two) was the Helles, which certainly was reminiscent of Munich's best: bread-crusty with a bit of a floral aroma, smooth, drinkable and a tiny bit sweet. Prost.
Wild Provisions Beer Project
Wild Provisions Beer Project, which grew out of 4 Noses Brewing, opened in 2020 with a gorgeous taproom and a fascinating mix of sour and wild ales and Czech-style lagers, all of them fermented in open-topped vessels and stainless steel. Although cans weren't in the early plans, the brewery focused on its lagers because of the need to sell beer to go. But half the fun when it comes to Czech lagers is drinking them on tap, out of side-pour faucets, which create foam and flavor. Of the lagers, the Half-Dark (known as polotmavy in the Czech Republic) was my favorite, with its light but flavorful approach and noticeable Saaz hops presence.
Appearing for the first time in cans, with an excellent lederhosen design, Telluride's contribution to the ever-growing number of German-style Marzen/Oktoberfest beers in Colorado is quite smooth and slightly thicker than others of the style. It boasted a lovely touch of sweetness that I like better than some overly dry Marzens, along with the expected lightly toasted bread and dry caramel notes. Oktoberfish has definitely found a spot alongside my favorite Colorado Marzens from Odell, Ska, Bierstadt Lagerhaus and Great Divide.
This beer technically isn't new, but it is rare: Bierstadt Lagerhaus only brews it every other year. And this was the first time (and probably the last) that it was sold in cans. Rich and smooth, it tickles the back of your throat like a tiny touch of syrup on the fluffiest of pancakes. Gorgeous in its mahogany color, heady and loaded at 9 percent ABV, it was packed with dark fruit, warm bread crust and enough oomph to keep you warm on the inside.
Our Mutual Friend Brewing/TRVE Brewing
I love it when a beer catches me off guard, and Saison de'Cap did just that. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, though, as TRVE and Our Mutual Friend have made serious magic before when they collaborated. Loaded with raisin and crème brûlée, this beer is basically a Belgian strong ale — almost a quad — but with a much lighter, non-sticky, effervescent mouthfeel (even at 8.8 percent) from can conditioning with saison yeast. Brewed with malt from Troubador Maltings, it was really a delight.
Spice Trade Brewing
Like the other breweries that opened in 2020, Spice Trade Brewing got a raw deal: Plans were gutted and the brewery had to do everything it could just to hold on. But there are still big things coming to Spice Trade, with both its food menu, which features international street food, and its beer program, which is helmed by Jeff Tyler. Born out of Yak & Yeti, Spice Trade's beers are brewed with unusual ingredients from around the world, including a delicious Thai Tripel and Sichuan Saison. But the Cured Sumac Saison, brewed with tart red sumac berries from Turkey, really impressed with its maturity, subtlety and complexity. The beer was part of the brewery's Single Origin Series, which I hope to see a lot more of in 2021.
Ramblebine Brewing opened in 2020, and one of its first beers was God Hammer, an unusual hybrid of styles.
Brewed with a Scandinavian farmhouse yeast at high temperatures "to produce a deep toasted malt character with notes of cherry, orange and rye spice," the beer was also hopped with Columbus, Citra, Amarillo and Chinook, the brewery says. The result was like a cross between a hoppy, toasty brown ale and a malty German-style alt, but crisper and with just enough sweetness to carry it all across.
Was this a beer? I'm not sure. Was it eye-openingly delicious? Absolutely. Devil in a Red Dress started life as a tart German-style wheat ale called Berliner weisse. But from there, the brewers added a voluminous amount of cherries, along with graham cracker, cheesecake, vanilla and lactose (milk sugar). The result was a 7.8 percent ABV dessert beer that tasted like liquid cherry cheesecake. It's the kind of beverage that makes you want to shut out every other sense and hum quietly to yourself while the rest of the world passes by.
Wiley Roots Brewing
Wiley Roots has created an expansive variety of mind-blowing beers and beer-based beverages, most of them tasting more like smoothies, cakes, ice cream and pie than like a hops-and-malt-based liquid. Among the best was Blueberry Maple County Fair Cobbler, a tart "milkshake sour IPA" that was put together using puréed blueberries, maple syrup, graham crackers, cinnamon, vanilla and lactose; it was also dry-hopped with Belma and Cascade hops. The result was sensory overload in a way that made you want to ask for another slice.
Casey Brewing & Blending
Sour beers can sometimes overwhelm the senses, and picking out flavors can be like trying to figure out who is real in the mirror room at a fun house. With Jammy, however, Casey Brewing has stripped away the distractions to focus solely on the distinct fruitiness of blackberry jam. Originally a collaboration with Side Project Brewing, it was made with five pounds per gallon of locally grown blackberries. But the vanilla is what really pulls Jammy forward; although not overt, its touch of sweetness took this sour ale to another level.
Crooked Stave continues to expand its repertoire into a wide variety of modern styles — and it is doing all of them very, very well. One of the most interesting and unusual beers this year was Bianca Peaches and Cream, a collaboration with Omnipollo. A tart ale fermented with wild yeast inside of oak foeders, the beer was then infused with peaches, vanilla and lactose to give it a creamy, soft-serve ice cream flavor and mouthfeel.
Purpose Brewing, co-founded by former New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert, is a tiny boutique brewery making some of the most unusual and interesting beers in the state. Although it typically only has five on tap at any one time, they are all worth trying. Smoektrekker is Purpose's sour series, and #22 indicates the barrel in which this beer was aged — in this case, a Belgian-style blonde aged in a 2015 albariño wine barrel. Elegant and carefully built, this beer was a slow-sipping revelation. We all need more Purpose in our lives.
Cannonball Creek Brewing/Telluride Brewing
Originally brewed for Collaboration Fest, which was canceled in April because of the pandemic, Cash Money was hopped with Azacca, Cashmere and Mosaic. Although its appearance is clear like a traditional pale ale, it had almost no bitterness — like a New England-style IPA. Smooth and heady, it’s the kind of beer that makes you close your eyes before you even take a sip — because the aroma is so lovely — and remember why you started drinking beer in the first place.
Westbound & Down Brewing
A very modern American-style IPA, True West's first iterations boasted both the tropical and slightly sweet citrus notes reminiscent of a hazy IPA, but with a clear appearance and a tangible bitterness that come with their West Coast counterparts. Elegantly structured and balanced — both hallmarks of Westbound beers — the beer evolved over a handful of versions throughout the year and was designed to raise money for different causes, including Foundation 1023, a nonprofit that provides positive mental wellness impact for first responders.
Fiction Beer Company
What do you get when you mash together malted oats, locally grown mash, a wide variety of beer geeks, juicy hops like Mosaic, Galaxy and Citra, malted wheat and a great brewery? You get Fan Fiction New England Double IPA, a collaboration of Fiction Beer Company and the CO:NEIPA & Hazy Haze Facebook group. This beer was a true labor of love — and it showed. Luxuriously soft and popping with tropical hops flavors, Fan Fiction was designed, named and brewed with the group's help and then carried out by the award-winning hazy IPA makers at Fiction — and it certainly lived up to its juicy, juicy billing.
Outer Range Brewing
Outer Range released this beer just a few weeks after the first pandemic-related lockdowns shook everyone to their core. But the brewery poured all of its passion into this one, because it stood out, which is difficult to do in what has become an Outer Range avalanche of what are consistently among the best New England-style hazy IPAs in Colorado. A double IPA brewed with Mosaic and Styrian Wold hops whose combination of aroma and flavor was a pillowy dream. And yeah, we still miss loud taprooms.
The first version of this hazy double IPA appeared in 2019, but WeldWerks spent 2020 experimenting with new twists, and they kept getting more complex and more interesting. Advanced Fluid Dynamics features Sabro and Lotus, two unusual hops varieties (while later versions boast the addition of other hops, as well) and offers a creamy mouthfeel and all of the classic flavors and aromas of a New England-style IPA. But there is more to this one: vanilla, sweet mandarin orange, guava, coconut. It feels like a culmination of all the research WeldWerks has put into this style of beer.
4 Noses Brewing
With a name inspired by the numerous Zoom calls of 2020, Casey, You're on Mute is a New England-style double IPA that was brewed and dry-hopped "with copious amounts of Citra and rounded out with Galaxy hops," the brewery says. Highly aromatic from the crack of the can, it follows through with a wave of tropical fruit flavors and some lush stone-fruit notes, as well.
Brewed with NEIPA stalwarts Mosaic and Citra hops, along with El Dorado, Cerebral's double-dry-hopped Double Rare Trait Double IPA comes at you strong, at 8 percent ABV, and is incredibly solid, with all kinds of tropical fruit and some nice green dankness. Cerebral is turning out top-tier beers week after week after week, and almost with eyes closed at this point.
New Image Brewing
New Image releases beers at a frenetic pace — and with blasts of creativity — often in loosely coordinated series. One of the best among many standouts this year was a collection of double-dry-hopped double IPAs, each using two different hops. The first of this Double Double series was brewed with Enigma and Citra hops, and for those who love high-ABV, low-bitterness hops explosions, this one was a dream.
New Image Brewing/Peculier Ales
You probably have to have gone down the hazy IPA rabbit hole to truly appreciate this beer. Sweet and breezy, every sip was like falling asleep in a hammock on a Hawaiian island, slightly buzzed and with a gentle, warm breeze washing over you and vanilla brightening your tongue.
Knotted Root Brewing
I'm not going to lie: The name is part of the reason that this beer was so fun to drink. But Taylor Ham, Egg and Cheese SPK (dedicated to the famed New Jersey breakfast sandwich) was also a perfect example of why Knotted Root has gained a buzzing name for itself among hazy New England-style IPA drinkers. Holding its own alongside the state's other specialists in the style, this double IPA was double-dry-hopped with Motueka, Hallertau Blanc and Vic Secret — and it thankfully bore no resemblance to the savory sandwich, instead offering aromatic notes of tropical fruit, berries and even white wine grapes.
Great Divide Brewing
Over the past two years, Great Divide has upped its Yeti game by releasing a slew of new variants. These have included everything from Chocolate Cherry Yeti, S'mores Yeti and Mexican Chocolate Yeti to Vanilla Oak Aged Yeti, and my favorite from 2020, Pumpkin Spice Yeti. The seasonal spices used in the beer worked particularly well with Yeti's distinctive roasty flavors to produce a dark beer that was perfect for the fall.
Like more than 1,000 other breweries worldwide, WeldWerks participated in the Black Is Beautiful initiative, which was conceived by Marcus Baskerville, the head brewer and co-owner of Weathered Souls Brewing in San Antonio, Texas, with the goal of raising money and awareness for racial justice. Although Weathered Souls provided a recipe, the brewery encouraged others to make it their own. WeldWerks cooked up a 10.9 percent ABV version made with Madagascar vanilla. Impossibly rich, it was both over the top and perfectly nuanced.
Wiley Root Brewing
Wiley Roots's Du Hast Cake was absolutely mind-blowing with its rich chocolates and silky creaminess. Brewed in collaboration with California's Bottle Logic Brewing, it was made with cacao husks and coconut powder, then aged for fifteen months in a Tennessee bourbon barrel with toasted coconut and Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans. Actual desserts don't stand a chance against beers like these.
Left Hand Brewing
There are two kinds of peanut butter beers in this world: those that taste like sticky peanut butter goodness and those that taste like dried-out peanut butter powder. Left Hand's Peanut Butter Milk Stout, which made its debut in January, is an eye-openingly luscious member of that first category. Made with lactose and peanuts, this exceedingly drinkable, 6.2 percent ABV beer hits the mark on all levels, and was so popular that Left Hand brought it back as a year-round beer rather than just a seasonal. Try it on nitro if you can find it.
River North Brewery
Brewed to celebrate River North’s eighth anniversary, this 10.5 percent ABV imperial stout offered the perfect mix of heavy roasted flavor and extra-rich smoothness. Jet black in color and with a deep, heavy feel to it, the beer spent eight hours in the boil in order to extract every last bit of flavor from the barley. A monster of a beer, Anniversary 8 pushed everything about stouts to the limit.
Station 26 Brewing
Station 26 Brewing has been releasing a barrel-aged stout on Black Friday every year since it opened, providing a local and independent alternative to Goose Island Brewing's famed Bourbon County Stout, which is also released on that day. Since then, the Black Friday tradition for barrel-aged stouts has become widespread. At the end of 2019, Station 26 introduced a new version for the occasion: an 11.5 percent ABV beer aged in wet whiskey barrels from Mythology Distillery, on Denver's west side. Over the course of 2020, the brewery released several variants, and they got better each time — complex, whiskey-forward and delicious.
Verboten is one of the most underappreciated breweries in Colorado — not by those who know it, but by those who haven't had a chance yet to drink the beers. The brewery's barrel-aging program leads the way. Its latest release along those lines was Not a Speck of Light, a 14 percent ABV imperial stout aged in barrels from Peach Street Distilling and The Axe & the Oak Distillery. Lush, smooth and layered, the base version was a well-balanced marvel. The German Chocolate Cake version elevated things to another level, however. It literally tasted the way a pastry shop smells.