Monday, November 19, 2012

Colorado Vs The Pacific Northwest: This time its Personal

Andrew at long last gets to those beer reviews he's been promising from his summer travels.

Colorado and Washington are two of America's most touted microbrew hotbeds, and having traveled to each this year, and as a man who in his lifetime can claim 425+ beer "notches" on his belt, and because I, unlike 3 or 4 of our oldest citizens, have a personal blog, I am uniquely qualified to compare these two regions and decide once and for all: who makes the best beer west of the Mississippi?

Now, before we begin, I should note that I am lumping Washington and Oregon together to form a Pacific Northwest tag team, which may seem unfair.  However, as Portland is the center of Oregon brewing and beer culture, and Seattle, the heart and hub of Washington is only 2 hours away, and since you can find plenty of Washington beers in Oregon and plenty of Oregon beers in Washington, I think this is sensible.  Besides, to treat them both separately, I would need to set up a bracket tournament, where Portland, Seattle, Denver, Fort Collins, Boulder, Olympia, and a few other cities battled it out for a final champion.  Maybe I will do that inane idea one day, including California cities and East Coast brewers, but for now, its Colorado, verses the Pacific Northwest.  This blog is free, so if you don't agree, leave now and write your own.  I'm sure it will be much better.

So, first, let's do a very informal "feel" comparison.

The Market:
In any grocery store in Washington you can find a whole aisle of chilled microbrews, most available in packs or as singles, of various sizes, prices, and up to 100 varieties.  This is not a specialty store, just any run-of-the-mill grocery.  Gas stations offer a whole rack of single serves and a surprising variety of cases/packs.  Colorado grocery stores offer mostly pedestrian options, mostly in cases, with a few singles. 

Edge: Pacific Northwest

The Culture:
In Washington and Oregon I found many restaurants with thoughtful and long beer menus, loaded with locals, and it was quite natural to sit indoors or out of doors sipping a beer, enjoying atmosphere, music, talking with people, without any pressure (social or from the establishment) to get drunk.  In Denver, every corner has a liquor store, many of them seedy and run-down in appearance, they specialize in hard booze, not beers, and I never once saw a beer specialty store despite being lost a lot, as the roads are appallingly laid out, probably by some high person since the state is so into legalizing marijuana.  When I went with the girlfriend downtown, we came across a band concert with very stoned people, and drug dealers so plentifully packed, the pigeons were intimidated, and a fight was likely to break out any moment.  No cops to be seen.  Menus in my experience were tragically short, with mostly national shit beers only.  In Washington, I attended a beer tasting without looking for one.  In Colorado?  I think anyone slowly savoring a beer would be considered an asshole, or a worse word. 

Extremely sharp edge: Pacific Northwest

The Captains:
Now, let's take the 3 top brewers from each region, based on (my) ease and frequency of finding them, without really trying when perusing beer shelves in Utah, Washington, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Illinois, Arizona, Virginia, and New Mexico.  Yeah I just put my "luggage" on the table, as the saying goes.  That's credentials.  This is a fair assessment.  So my 3 Pacific Northwest team breweries are: Deschutes of Portland, Rogue of Ashland, and Pyramid of Seattle.  My top 3 for Colorado are: Breckenridge, Left Hand, and New Belgium.  All 6 of those breweries offer several varieties and ship national.  Pyramid and New Belgium are essentially everywhere.  I think I would take note of them only in absence: that is, should a store not carry their "crafts" (and I use the term lightly), I would notice, but when they are available, I look right past the bottles.  Rogue is the blue jeans of beer: generic mostly, but in a wide variety of somewhat redundant flavors/shades/options, only good for certain occassions, and completely conformist, but still promoting itself as a statement of individuality.  Kids who want to stand out buy blue jeans to blend in, but hope their pair proves they are a rebel.  Rogue is a large national brewer still pretending to be the little guy they once began as, but whom they sold out.  However, some of their beers are good.  Or is that all of them, but that most of them taste the same?  Breckenridge makes a wide variety of beers, with a few I have liked, and a few of which are good.  Of all these brewers, none names a beer as cleverly as Breckenridge.  Deschutes is of all of these probably the best, if you consider the primary function of a beer to be taste and drinkability, but that is like saying an orange with a little fungus is less rotten than one that spent a year behind a dumpster.  Left Hand wins some points for putting the most consistent effort into their labels, but its really more of an apology than an artistic statement.  Kind of like: hey sorry you are actually going to drink this, but if you do just pour it down the sink, you can at least add this little cartoon-covered bottle to your collection of empties to impress people with.  As home decor, I approve of Left Hand Beers.  Now, that leaves me only to comment on New Belgium, a hugely popular and acclaimed brewery with a signature draft: the red ale, Fat Tire.  This is one of college culture's most treasured gems.  Many an underclassmen will, while dusting off his Hawaiian-style dress shirt collar while his date is in the bathroom, explain to you how Fat Tire introduces culture and even class to a whole generation who know better than to drink Miller Light.  He says this with the superior air of an Ivy Leaguer or a proud papa at a dance recital.  There is only one problem with it: Fat Tire is a terrible beer.  It is undrinkable swill.  It is trash.  The only worse beer I've ever had (note: I have never lowered myself to taste a product by Miller, Coors, or Budweiser in my life and will not I hope) is called 2 Below, a winter ale, sold by...wait for it...New Belgium.  Actually, New Belgium cleaned up at my Worst Beers in the Worlds Award post last year.  There was only one rival.  New Belgium also tipped me off to the word "style" as evidence of danger.  Its like a skull and a cross bones on a beer label.  For instance, Belgium "style" ale, translates approximately to: trash swill made with cheap ingredients for poor losers who don't know better and are already drunk anyway, have 20 pothead friends over, and can't take pride in their prowess with women or on the field and so consider themselves beer snobs.  

Edge: Neither top 3 is impressive and perhaps I should not declare a winner, but I'm going with the Pacific Northwest.

So clearly, the Pacific Northwest is my winner. Colorado also houses a Budweiser, Coors, and Miller plant, basically the big 3 of evil, bad beers produced solely to get jerks drunk.  I'd say that should count against them, when assessing microbrew culture.  But now I will get more scientific.  Here are some specific beer reviews that I recommend from the top brewers I have found in each region.

Let's start with Elysian of Seattle.  This is a very inventive, passionate, and dedicated beer snob's beer snob's brewery.  I wrote about the amazing and inspired "12 Beers of the Apocalypse" before: a 2012 feature where they released a limited edition brew with unique, wide-ranging ingredients each month of the year, all with labels drawn by a famed graphic novelist.  The original kernel of thought was: what would people make beer from if society largely collapsed. Here are the 11 releases thus far:

Torrent Pale Beet Bock
Dragon's Tooth 
Ruin Rosemary Agave
Nibiru Yerba Mate Tripel
Rapture Heather Ale 
Peste Chocolate Chili Ale
Fallout Green Cardamom Pale 
Maelstrom Blood Orange Ale
Wasteland Elderflower Saison
Blight Pumpkin Ale
Mortis Sour Persimmon Ale

That list alone makes them a top American brewer in my book.  Of these I tried the Elderflower, which I do not remember a thing about and so will simply give a passing grade to, and the Beet Bock, which was brick red, earthy, tangy, strong, and very unique.  It certainly felt like something you'd not want to brew with ideally, but it was drinkable, and I thought, very good.  I covet the rest of these and hope to find a 12 pack end of the year release, which does not cost $200.  

I tried 2 other Elysian brews: Dragonstooth Stout, a serviceable, even a fine, stout, but not a life-changer, and Avatar Jasmine IPA, which claimed to be the perfect companion for "food".  Not a certain kind, just all food.  I tried it with curry, I tried it with pasta, I tried it alone, and with crepes.  It is perfect with foods.  Flowery, and aromatic with a refreshing mystique, a satisfying almost sweet aftertaste which lasts a long time, this should also pass for the alcoholic's mouthwash each morning.  Don't let your friends know you have a problem.  Interventions are not fun.

Elysian offers only large bottles, but they go for around $6 each and are worth it.  I've not had a bad beer yet.  I wish Utah carried their beers rather than Epic's wine-size bottles of meh and whatever.

Flyer's Porter: Classy label, classy beer, steep price at $7.  If you want the bottle to save buy this, otherwise remember that no style of beer is harder to screw up than the porter.  Every brewer in the country besides New Belgium probably offers a good porter.

Widmer Brothers: Wild Berry Gossamer- a thin, red sweet ale without much distinction, but nothing to gripe about either.  A bit of a man's man's chick beer.  I'd recommend this over their Brewmaster Limited Edition labels though.  The most expensive beer I ever paid for was a Chocolate Raspberry 2012 summer Stout, which was not even worth 1/3 its price.  Steer clear of expensive beers from mediocre brewers, this is my advice to you.

Breckenridge Vanilla Porter: The optimist in me remembers my first experience with this beer when I found it a very unique take on one of the least experimental styles of beer.  The pessimist in me, who tried it again, thought it did not live up to nostalgia, was a little rotten, thin, and that if you were a poor brewer who had even screwed up a porter, that adding vanilla might be a good way to hide the thinness of body, flavor, and chocolate undertones that make people call for a porter.  Decide for yourself.  A better idea than looking for this one might be to find your favorite porter, pour a little into a glass, add some vanilla, see what you think, and then evaluate your options from there regarding the rest of your beer.

I hope this inspires some of you to find some good beers, and to plan vacations.  As far as beer culture goes, Washington is tops, Oregon is good too, and Colorado stinks in my opinion.  For scenery, and specifically mountains, I'd say Utah has better skiing than Colorado, and the Cascades kick the ruckus out of the tuck-us of Rockies.  Better climbing, flowers, views, hiking, and forests.  Less pine beetles too.  Colorado is the trailer park of the wild west.  Only Easterners and rednecks believe its many tourist claims.  However, Denver and Colorado Springs do have spectacular museums, zoos, and an aquarium.  Let's be fair and give credit where its due.

No comments: