There is no way to truly know what the best Colorado-brewed beers were in 2019. There are simply too many breweries (over 420) and too many beers to try them all, let along rank them. So this is simply a list of thirty truly amazing beers that I tried during the year, either at the breweries I visited, the festivals I attended or in the cans and bottles I bought at my favorite liquor stores. Most are new or newish (or new to me, anyway). These are beers that surprised me, defied expectations or simply made me love them. Some are taproom-only specialities while others were distributed across multiple states. Overall, I feel like this list — which is presented roughly by style — reflects some outstanding examples of the depth and breadth of what Colorado's breweries are doing.
Sushi Date American Lager
New Image Brewing/Our Mutual Friend
This collaboration with Our Mutual Friend isn't what you'd expect from either brewery, both of which typically focus on bolder beers like New England-style IPAs, stouts and sours. Dry, crisp and somewhat delicate, this "noble lager" had an extra, wafting touch of old-world hops that were more floral than bitter.
Tactical Maneuver Foeder Helles
Although German-style helles beers are often described as being bready, malty or even floral, those words may be a bit of an exaggeration. In reality, hellesbiers are designed to be crisp, easy-drinking and light, and, frankly, to fade into the background rather than stand out. Cerebral's version does both. Although it is a lovely example of an inoffensive helles, making it perfect for a summer day on the patio, Tactical Maneuver is also aged for six weeks in a giant wooden vessel called a foeder — something that gives it a roundness to the flavor, a mid-dry mouthfeel and accentuated malt by adding a very light touch of wood.
Polotmavý is "an indigenous Czech style of beer that straddles the boundaries of light and dark lager," Seedstock brewing explained when it tapped this beer seldom brewed in the United States. Since Seedstock specializes in Czech lagers, however, it seemed like a natural. And the beer was a winner. Dry, bready and a little sweet, it had all the malt of a Marzen with the lightness of a helles.
Highside's Vienna lager is one of those of those beers that you take a sip of and then hold the glass up to your eyes and say, "Oooh, that's good," and then, before you know it, you've had two more. It's easy-drinking, but with a full flavor that convinces you not to even try the other beers on the tap list and stick with what you know is good.
Not Throwin' Away My Shot
Aged on American oak spirals for five weeks, Empourium's 5 percent ABV amber ale was a revelation. Although I don't often go in for ambers, the woody notes on this one made the malty flavors stand out. Together, they produced a delicious satisfying beer. I'd love to see more wood-aged ambers.
Zwei makes an enormous range of German-style beers, but its bigger, fuller brews, like Dunkel, Weissbier and Weizenbockenspiel, were the ones that most caught my eye, and my tastebuds. That last one in particular, a Bavarian-style wheat beer, was absolutely bursting with rich malt, caramelized banana and even some spicy notes. A version aged in wood from the Squarrel Square Barrel company was equally delicious.
Otto Von Eisbock
Cheluna Brewing/Prost Brewing
This cross-cultural collaboration between Prost, a German-style brewery, and Cheluna, which focuses on Mexican ingredients and flavor profiles, was featured first at Collaboration Fest (as were several other beers on this list). At 10.5 percent ABV, it was clearly a boozy beer, but it also boasted flavors of dark chocolate, brown sugar and maybe even a little pecan — which makes sense since the brewers called it Mexi-German chocolate cake.
Grandma's Carrot Cake
Denver Beer Co.
I'm not really going to try to explain why I liked this unusual beer so much — because I can't. It just worked for me. Sweet — very sweet — and light-feeling despite a higher ABV, the dessert-inspired blonde ale was brewed with shredded carrots, vanilla, raisins and cinnamon, just like the cake itself, along with lactose sugar. I passed it around the table to two friends who tend toward more traditional flavors, and they liked it, too. I guess when Grandma's home cooking is involved, it's hard to say no.
Slovakian Tunnel Baltic Porter
Call to Arms Brewing/Ska Brewing
There are some beers that you just know are going to be good before you even have a sip. This collaboration between Ska Brewing and Call to Arms was one of those. In fact, since I missed it at Collaboration Fest, I made a dedicated trip to CTA just to try it, and I wasn't disappointed. Rich, aromatic and chewably fantastic, the 7 percent ABV lager was jet black in color with chocolate notes and clean mouthfeel.
Beers made with beets aren't that common, but if you look around, you'll be surprised that there is often a beet beer on tap at one brewery or another in Denver. Brewers are often attracted to the root vegetable because of its sugars, which are fermentable, its sweet and earthy flavors, and, of course, its color. Rustic in nature, beets seem especially appropriate for saisons. For this beer, Bruz took its occasional beet saison (made with beets grown in the brewery's own garden) and added wild yeasts to give it some funky notes. The result is a unique and very pink beer that blends some sweetness with floral aromas and funk. Although it is called Saisour, the beer is not sour at all — perhaps a little tart, but barely. It is also 11 percent ABV.
This 5 percent ABV refresher isn't necessarily new, but it's new to me, and it was a huge hit at Suave Fest, a September fiesta that featured Latinx-owned Colorado breweries. How do I know? Because almost everyone I asked mentioned it. Heavier on the mango, a flavor that goes well in wheat beers, and lighter on the habanero, so as not to overwhelm the senses, it is one of the few chile beers that quenches instead of setting fires.
Passion Fruit Orange Zest Chicha
Dos Luces Brewing
Corn gets a bad rap when it comes to beer, but there is only goodness at Dos Luces Brewing, which specializes in brewing corn- and maguey-based gluten-free beers inspired by Pre-Columbian traditions. The fruity chichas here, in particular, are refreshing, like Mexican juices, but with a deeper complexity and some alcohol (though not much; most are under 5 percent ABV). This one, which is much lighter than a typical beer, has flavors of passion fruit and orange zest, along with clove to give it some spice. Once you get started, it's hard to stop.
Fruit Squad + Red Wine
Westbound & Down Brewing
The brewers at Westbound share a small barrel-aging facility and occasional taproom with Amalgam Brewing, and both are turning out carefully thought-out, time-consuming works of liquid art that have people talking. For Fruit Squad, Westbound blended its golden sour base from five different oak barrels that had been aging for at least a year. The beer was then rested on Syrah and Mourvedre grapes. The result was a deeply complex though surprisingly refreshing treat. Although it was gently tart, there was also a lush fruitiness that popped out.
Sparkling Rosé IPA
Light, dry and really easy to drink, the Sparkling Rosé IPA from Upslope took me by surprise, in part because of what it was — and in part because of what it wasn't. Brewed with El Dorado, Galaxy and Citrus hops, along with beet juice to make it pink, this beer was effervescent like a brut beer or champagne, but it also had a floral, almost juicy, hop flavor that hit this IPA drinker's comfort zone. The brewery says: "Notes of peach skin, white grape and honeydew melon emanate from the glass with pomelo, jasmine and juicy citrus flavors," and I won't argue. There was no tartness, though, which I appreciated. Hopefully it comes back for summer 2020.
TRVE Brewing/Surly Brewing
Although this beer was brewed and canned in Minnesota by Surly Brewing, it was heavily influenced by — and a collaboration with — TRVE Brewing, and I include it on this list because it was one of the most unusual, complex and delicious beers I tried in 2019. A Scandinavian-inspired farmhouse ale, it was brewed with Norwegian kveik yeast — so hot right now — which often gives beers dried fruit notes. In this case, the breweries added Colorado honey and Citra and Hallertau hops to mix with and bring out the yeast's better characteristics. Then they aged the beer on birchwood. The result was a hoppy but light-feeling beer with eye-opening flavor.
Punk Is Dead India Pale Lager
Blue Tile Brewing
Big hops and light lagers don't usually meet in my mind, but there a few breweries in Colorado that are defying those stereotypes with India Pale Lagers that insist on doing both — and doing it well. One of those is Blue Tile Brewing, which makes Punk Is Dead IPL using a mix of Pilsner malt and an experimental malt, along with a single hop variety, Styria Wolf, which typically possesses floral and berry notes. In this case, Blue Tile says the hoppy beer is inspired by bitter West Coast IPAs, but its clean drinkability gives it a drier, brighter texture.
Can-O-Bliss Tropical IPA
When big breweries get into the hazy game, I always view it with trepidation. Few have been able to capture the flavors that I believe are the true heart of the style, in part because they sacrifice flavor and aroma in favor of a beer that will last longer on the shelf and in multiple states. Pros and cons. But Oskar Blues pulled it off with Can-O-Bliss Tropical IPA, the first of three rotating IPAs that it released this year — the other two were Hazy and Citrus — all under the Can-O-Bliss name. An absolutely tropical blast, like getting off an airplane in Hawaii, this beer was made with five kinds of hops breathing pineapple, guava, coconut, mango and ripe kiwi.
Neon Nail Hazy IPA
Our Mutual Friend Brewing
Our Mutual Friend isn't just one of Denver's top breweries because of its friendly staff, its cozy-electric vibe and its patio. It also makes some of the best, most consistent beers in Denver — and in a mind-boggling variety of styles. In the hazy IPA category, Neon Nail stood out on multiple visits. Brewed with Galaxy and Vic Secret hops, it's the kind of beer that a brewery plans to make once or twice but ends up keeping on tap for years because fans just keep asking for the soft, juicy, lush and easy-to-drink brew.
Leave the Light On
WeldWerks is well known now for making dozens of different New England-style IPAs each year, some of them similar to one another and some very different. Many consistently rank as some of the best examples of the style nationwide, however, including Extra Extra Juicy Bits, which won gold at GABF this year. For me, though, the best of the bunch in 2019 was Leave the Light On, a bold 9 percent ABV hazy double IPA brewed with Ekuanot, Azacca and Simcoe hops. "The Azacca and Simcoe hop mix bring that dank tropical vibe that has come to be a pretty signature trademark in our double IPAs," the brewery says. "But we elevated the flavor profile with Ekuanot's complex array of aromatics, suggesting lime, melon, papaya and eucalyptus." Perfectly said.
No Third Eye Double IPA
New Image Brewing
The juice. The haze. The fabulous sensory overload that New England-style IPAs bring is all clear and present in New Image Brewing's No Third Eye, which kicked out several delicious collaborations this year. This one, made with Transient Artisan Ales in Michigan, was a 10.5 percent ABV double IPA that was triple-dry-hopped with a massive amount of Michigan-grown Chinook hops. No hop burn. Just orange, pineapple and mango.
Shelter Double IPA
Outer Range Brewing
Lovely, tropical and slightly sweet, Shelter was like having protection from the wind, but in this case, the wind was a warm breeze, so you actually go outside and enjoy it. Brewed and then double-dry-hopped with Citra, Mosaic and Topaz hops and oozing with dank aromas, this beer was pure hop candy.
Eclectic Potion Triple IPA
Cerebral makes a wide range of beers and a wide range of IPAs, but the brewery's specialty has almost always been hazy hop bombs. As such, it is sometimes hard to pick a favorite. Eclectic Potion, hopped with Citra, Motueka and Idaho 7, stood out to me this year, though — and not just because of its 11 percent ABV. The beer was also brewed with sauvignon blanc juice, made from a wine varietal that is known for tasting like grapefruit, tropical fruit and cut grass. And like Motueka hops, which are known for a similar flavor profile, sauvignon blancs are big in New Zealand. So the interplay between the two gave a beer a beautiful presence.
Knotted Root Brewing
Founded just this year by former Fiction and Joyride brewer Chris Marchio, Knotted Root has already become both a cozy mountain-town hangout and destination spot for haze hounds. That's because it has been turning out New England-style IPAs from the beginning that rank up there with some of the best in the state. My favorite was Beyond Description, made with Simcoe and Rakau hops. It provides the tropical notes and soft mouthfeel of an NEIPA along with a sharper, more citrus-y zing common in more classic American IPAs.
Named for the 1,000th batch of beer brewed at Upslope's original Lee Hill location, Batch 1000 was a unique and fascinating beer and a worthwhile risk. Brewed with an insane ten different types of sugar and aged for a year in fresh bourbon barrels, Batch 1000 was packaged "still," meaning it wasn't carbonated. The upshot was a 17.5 percent ABV beer (a much higher ABV than even wine) that poured and tasted more like a dessert wine, but with some of the flavors that come from beer styles like Belgian quads and English old ales. Slightly syrupy and richly sweet, it gave off notes of melted caramel, peach crisp and crème brûlée.
Mexican Chocolate Yeti Imperial Stout
Great Divide Brewing
Ranked for years among the nation’s top beers on many lists, Great Divide's classic imperial stout has at times been overshadowed by newer beers since it debuted in 2003. But the brewery has began adding variants at a rapid rate, expanding beyond Chocolate Yeti, Oak-Aged Yeti and Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti to more sought-after flavors, like vanilla, s'mores and coconut macadamia nut. But my favorite is Mexican Chocolate Yeti, a truly luxurious version made with cinnamon and other spices, along with vanilla and coffee to create what the brewery says is its version of a hot-chocolate-like champurrado drink. This year, Great Divide released the 9.5 percent ABV stout for the first time in 19.2-ounce cans.
Barrel Aged Marzenator
WeldWerks is anything but traditional. As such, the brewery created a hybrid between a Marzen lager and a dopplebock last March. Then it took some of that beer and aged it in bourbon barrels for six months. The resulting beer treat was a mix that melds fall and winter and pours caramel on top. Rich but not syrupy, sweet but not heavy, it has a lager's crispness, a malty ale's satisfying mouthfeel and a flirtatious kiss of bourbon.
Barrel Aged Bamburana
This collaboration stout from Oskar Blues and Cigar City (which are both owned by Canarchy) was aged in brandy barrels with figs, dates and South American amburana wood spirals, and it was like nothing I've had. Creamy, chewy and oh-so-smooth, at 12 percent ABV, it tasted like your favorite tree was made of vanilla cinnamon cookies. It was one of the beers I kept heading back to the store to buy more of.
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Gino Imperial Dessert Stout
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project
Thick, sweet and luscious, this collaboration with Omnipollo was absolute ice cream in a glass. Brewed with banana, toasted coconut, chocolate, vanilla, kiwi and strawberry, it was named for a Swedish dessert, and every one of those ingredients was evident in the aroma and flavor.
Westbound & Down Brewing
This blend of bourbon barrel-aged Russian imperial stouts from the wizards at Westbound & Down tasted and felt like dark silk. Rich and full, with notes of chocolate and coffee, it was made with toasted coconut rather than fresh coconut or extract, which helped steer it away from being overly sweet and instead brought out some roast. It was simply one of the best barrel-aged stouts made in Colorado in 2019.
Denomination of Origin: Ecuador
New Image Brewing
Some beers bowl you over so forcefully from the first sip that you are left quivering in a corner, wondering where that particular bit of nectar has been all your life. Such was the case with New Image Brewing's Denomination of Origin: Ecuador. Soft like a pillow and rich like fudge, this 12.5 percent ABV imperial stout was brewed with Ecuadorian cacao and Tahitian vanilla. It was the first in what looks to be a series of stouts with different vanilla origins; the second, which debuted just before the end of the year, was brewed with whole vanilla beans from Papua, New Guinea. If you like cake, milky cereal, truffles and ice cream, you will love these beers.