It's getting more and more difficult for Colorado beer lovers to wrap their arms — and their tastebuds — around the depth and breadth of our brewery scene. With more than 300 breweries, all of them pumping out dozens of brews over the course of a year, it would impossible to try all of them. Even a representative sampling is hard to come by. But we try. Yes, we try.
So, as I did in 2013 and 2014, I've created a list of thirty outstanding beers, culled from hundreds that I tasted in 2015. The list (arranged in alphabetical order by brewery) isn't comprehensive. Rather, it covers some of my favorite new, newly packaged or sort of newish beers from the past twelve months. (I covered the Ten Best Newly Packaged Colorado Craft Beers of 2015 in a separate post.) Cheers.
Vanilla Bean Stout
Aged for three months in bourbon barrels with three different kinds of vanilla beans, Avery's newest year-round beer from its Botanicals & Barrels series packs a punch that will immediately have you holding your head out for another blow. Like almost every barrel-aged beer from Avery, this one is high in alcohol content, but also balanced and smooth; the flavors change and intensify as the beer warms.
Sharp, light and tart, Baere's Brewing's eponymous Berlinerweisse nails this odd German style, which is typically brewed with wheat and Lactobacilus to make drinkers pucker up. Add the traditional and non-traditional syrups that Baere has on hand, though, and you have a refreshing, soda-like quencher. My favorite was the grapefruit hops syrup.
Big Choice Brewing
Big Choice went all punk-rock with this one, taking a non-traditional route toward a surprisingly delicious beer. First, the brewery added Jamaican jerk chicken spices to a 10 percent ABV imperial stout — and then aged it in rum barrels. Then it canned the brew in a 19.2-ounce can with an experimental resealable lid provided by Xolution, a German company that has a sales office located in Boulder County. The result was a "Caribbean-inspired" sipper with a decent amount of sweet rum flavor. Oh, and those jerk spices? They sound weird, but were very subtle. In fact, the only note I got was a smokey saltiness reminiscent of beef jerky. It worked for me, though.
Cerealiously Sugar Cookie Toast Crunch
Black Bottle Brewery
In the same way that milk turns into a delicious, sugary treat after your cereal has been floating in it for ten minutes, Black Bottle's Sugar Cookie Toast Crunch was a bowl full of goodness. Brewed with the actual General Mills cereal – as part of Black Bottle's series of Cerealiously beers – this one truly tasted like sugar cookies in a beer. It was bright and sweet and remarkable.
Blood Orange Double IPA
Black Shirt Brewing
It took a year's worth of research and five months of brewing to produce this double IPA. Brewed with Centennial and Cascade hops, the beer was conditioned on “heaps” of in-season blood oranges, then double-dry-hopped on Mosaic, a variety known for its powerful citrus and tropical fruit flavors and aromas. The blood oranges complemented the Mosaic hops well, giving the beer a bright, refreshing feel.
Black Shirt Brewing
There's no one in Colorado doing hoppy beer with more passion and with more dedication than Black Shirt – and it shows. Although Red Evelyn was good when it first debuted a couple of years ago, Black Shirt has since tweaked it, and the most recent iteration was mesmerizing. Citrusy with a touch of sweetness, this double IPA was made with seven kinds of hops that were added at five different points during the brewing process.
Barrel Aged 471 IPA Hull Melo
Breckenridge Brewery's double IPA, 471, has always been among its tastiest beers – if not its single best creation. But with the opening of the company's twelve-acre, $36 million campus in Littleton last summer, Breckenridge vastly expanded its barrel-aging program and decided to play around by dry-hopping 471 in barrels. The first one I tried was Sorachi Ace — and it packed the kind of satisfying punch that true hops lovers appreciate. The second was Hull Melon, which gave the 471 an almost chocolate-y flavor that was rich and fulfilling. Breckenridge, which is now owned by AB InBev, maker of Bud Light Lime, turned out several other excellent barrel-aged beers last year, including Barleywine Batch 2, Barrel-Aged 72 Imperial and a 25th Anniversary Rum barrel-aged brew.
This was the year for coconut porters (see Death by Coconut on my list of the Ten Best Newly Packaged Colorado Craft Beers of 2015, and Scottish Tradesman, lower down in this post) and it's arguable whose was better. Or maybe it doesn't matter. The Broken Compass version seemed like it has a little more coconut than Oskar Blues, but with the same smooth, chocolate-y goodness that made it taste more like a candy bar than a beer with English roots.
Bull & Bush
A sweet, English-style barleywine, Royal Oil was aged for a very long time in bourbon barrels, waking deep, rich flavors of toffee and vanilla. The Bull & Bush hadn't released Royal Oil in several years, but it bottled this version. If you got one, you drank it slowly, like an after-dinner aperitif, and you let it warm slowly in your hands and on your palate.
The Cut: Blackberry
Casey Brewing & Blending
Intense. That's a good way to describe all of the beers coming out of Troy Casey's brewery on the banks of the Roaring Fork River in Glenwood Springs. But the juiciness of The Cut: Blackberry, which I was lucky enough to try, truly earned that description: It immediately commanded my attention, from the first sip to the last.
The classic oatmeal stout got a welcome makeover when Cerebral Brewing opened in November with Dark Galaxie on tap. Cerebral's version has lactose added, which gives it a creamier mouthfeel that brings out the chocolate and coffee flavors, not to mention a little raisin. It is very smooth, which means that at under 5 percent ABV, you can have a couple or three.
Although it falls into the Kolsch category, Coda Brewing's Sleepyhead Kolsch, which won silver at the Great American Beer Festival, doesn't taste much like a traditional kolsch. Amped up with extra malt, it's an imperial version, which gives it more malty flavors – and it was brewed with an impressive quantity of passion fruit. Tart and effervescent, it's like drinking biscuits and jam.
Fresh Hop Superpower IPA (Superdamp)
A newlyminted master of hoppy beers, Comrade has been turning out beer after beer to delight Denver hopheads. The brewery first brewed this one last year, and promptly took home a GABF medal. Comrade brewed it again in 2015 — and did the same. Made with hops that were picked less than 24 hours earlier on Colorado's Western Slope, this one has all of the classic dank, piney, citrusy notes, but with a freshness that will leave you breathless.
Basil Cherry Blonde Ale
Copper Kettle/Strange Craft
It's possible that Strange Craft's Cherry Kriek simply goes perfectly with everything (see Strangely Epic, below), but I never would have predicted basil. Still, this beer was one of my favorites from the 2015 Collaboration Fest. Orchestrated by the two breweries working together (Copper Kettle has also loaned its bottling equipment to Strange), the big basil flavors somehow worked with the sweet cherries to make a light, bright, refreshingly unusual brew.
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I've liked just about every beer I've tasted from Fermaentra, where I go when I need a fix of something big and sweet or big and roasty. But the brewery also does hoppy really well. In this case, it brewed an American strong ale, at 10 percent ABV, but hopped it up with Citra, Columbus, Zeus, Glacier, making this beer more than just a meaty malt bomb, but a hoppy hand grenade as well.
Former Future/Black Project
Former Future Brewing debuted a side project in 2015 called the Black Project, dedicated to spontaneously fermented creations that owner James Howat inoculates with whatever yeast lands in the “coolship” on the roof of his brewery. But before Black Project was born, Howat poured Jumpseat, an early incarnation of a Black Project beer, at the 2015 Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival in Vail. It was unusual, to say the least – a dry-hopped wild ale that was at once funky and bretty, but also full of soothing, always-sweet apple, apricot and tangerine flavors.
Putin on the Fritz
Former Future Brewing
Laws Whiskey House, located just off South Broadway, began distributing its used whiskey barrels to breweries around town last year, much to everyone's delight, and the breweries immediately began aging beer in them. Former Future, which is near Laws, was the first to get some, and used them to age a couple of beers. One of those was the luscious, powerful Putin on the Fritz, a Russian Imperial Stout that was full of deep, dark flavors, like licorice, chocolate, roasted oak and bourbon.
Roasted without being bitter, thick without being too sweet, cask-conditioned Divine Right is a Russian Imperial Stout with so much depth and complexity that I had to have two of them (and then walk home). Tasting the beer, I pulled out some of the charred, welcome bitterness that comes with classic stout malts, but also fleeting waves of caramel and toffee and, of course, chocolate. I want another one right now.
Scottish Tradesman Coconut Porter
Horse & Dragon Brewing
I got a chance to meet the folks behind Horse & Dragon at the Big Beers Fest in Vail last January, where they were holding up the bar at Bol, a restaurant and bowling alley. But I hadn't had a chance to try one of their beers until GABF week, when Chris Black, always on the lookout for local gems, tapped Scottish Tradesman. I was blown away. Porters can often be bland, but this one is loaded with one of the smoothest combinations of coconut, sweet caramel and vanilla that I've had. A winter warmer, for sure, it weighs in at 9.5 ABV.
Peanut Butter Porter
Peanut butter is one of the most difficult ingredients to incorporate into a beer – and the breweries that try it don't always get it right. The key is to impart the taste and feel of peanut butter just enough so that the person's brain takes over and does the rest: We all know peanut butter when we taste it. Liquid Mechanics nailed it with this one, which has a chocolately character coming from its porter base and just enough peanut butter to remind you it's there. I put it up there with Dry Dock and Renegade when it comes to excellent examples of this style in Colorado. (P.S. This will be available at the Vail Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Fest this weekend.)
Grave Robber Fraud Quad
Lost Highway Brewing
Lost Highway (named for its location on Colfax Avenue) likes to name its beers after local landmarks or characters, and this 9 percent Belgian-style quadruple is no exception. "When the cemetery that was located on what is now Cheesman Park was moved, the city discovered they had been duped into paying for more graves than were actually moved. Years after the graves were moved, bones were still found in the park," the brewery says. Very cool. The beer itself, which I first tried at the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival in Vail last January, was brewed with Belgian malts and a Trappist yeast and has many of the traditional flavors that quad-lovers know and love, like dates, plum, caramel and toffee. Lost Highway also had some barrel-aged versions of the quad over the course of the year that were delicious as well.
Mountain Sun/Vine Street Pub
The Mountain Sun restaurant and brewery group knocks it out of the park every February with Stout Month, when it taps dozens and dozens of stouts, many of them made by the company itself. The best of an awesome bunch last year was Chocolate Thunder Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout, a creamy, addictive elixir that was worth standing in line for. Made with milk chocolate, dark chocolate and milk sugar, the 10 percent ABV beer boasted a roasty-sweet thickness with velvet edges, like your favorite blanket.
Madagascar Cream Ale on Nitro
Platt Park Brewing
Pouring smooth and creamy, like its name, Madagascar “Dream” has a light but fluffy feel and a pleasant sweetness that comes from Madagascar vanilla beans. The nitro pour really works for it as well, and you wouldn't know that it packed a nearly 7 percent ABV punch.
Old Crow Cream Ale
Pug Ryan's Brewing
New Year's resolution: give cream ales another shot. As you can probably tell from this list, I tend toward big-alcohol beers, like barrel-aged stouts, quads and double IPAs; the lighter stuff just doesn't tickle my fancy. But I continue to try them because — you never know. As a result, two cream ales ended up wowing me this year. The first was from Platt Park Brewing (see it above). The second was this truly creamy brew from Pug Ryan's. And yes, you are right, this beer is not new at all, but it's new to me. Malty enough to satisfy my taste buds, it also carried such a smooth mouthfeel that it went down like eggnog.
Barrel Aged Genius Wizard
Not all young breweries are able to pull off a great barrel-aged beer, but Ratio did it with this version of its excellent Russian Imperial Stout, Genius Wizard, that was aged in whiskey barrels for eleven months. Smooth and balanced, the length of the aging clearly showed since this one wasn't “hot,” as some whiskey-aged beers can be. Ratio also sold it in 375 ml bottles (and still has some available).
One of the best saisons I've had in Denver, Dear You was a hit from the start, getting buzz from beer drinkers shortly after Ratio opened in February. What's all the fuss about? Maybe it's because Dear You is different than the average saison, having been brewed with a French yeast strain rather than a Belgian one, something that the brewery says gives it an “earthier flavor.” I liked the fact that it had a gentle hops touch to it, along with light, sweet notes of clove and banana.
Aged for three years in Peach Street Distillers bourbon barrels, Ska Face was a runaway hit with anyone who got to taste it at the annual Big Beer, Belgians and Barleywines Festival in Vail last January (not to mention a GABF award winner). Loaded with sweet vanilla and bourbon flavors, this English-style barleywine was backed by a solid, malty mouthfeel that didn't fade, despite how long it had been aging. I hope they have more of it somewhere.
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Night Walker Con Alma
Spangalang opened in April in a former Denver Motor Vehicles office with a solid lineup of beers that spanned the spectrum. Night Walker, a chocolate-y 10 percent ABV imperial stout, was on from the beginning and was joined by Night Walker Con Alma, a version that had been aged in wine barrels and had deep and complex flavors of berries and grape.
Strange Craft Beer
Yes, this beer has been made before, by both Epic Brewing and Strange Brewing (it started as a collaboration between the two, using Epic's Big Bad Baptist and Strange's Cherry Kriek), but it hit liquor-store shelves in bottles in 2015. Like a dark chocolate candy cordial but without the cloying sweetness, this under-the-radar blend is like nothing else being made in the state. For this batch, Strange used Epic's recipe for Big Bad Baptist, brewing it on-site, then blended it with its own Cherry Kriek (about one third Baptist, two-thirds Kriek). Then the whole thing was aged in whiskey barrels. The next batch will be released in January or February.
Wit's End Brewing
There are no bananas in this hammock – just the spicy, yeasty esters that give hefeweizens their familiar banana-y flavors and aromas. The Wit's End version, which has been around for a while, is a little different, however, coming in more crisp than a traditional hefe, possibly because of the rye, which gives it a nice sharpness. I drank three in rapid succession.