Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A bar with no name

Sam: What'll you have Normie?
Norm: Well, I'm in a gambling mood, Sammy. I'll take a glass of whatever comes out of that tap.
Sam: Looks like beer, Norm.
Norm: Call me Mister Lucky.

My friend told me that the bar was referred to a “Narnia.”

Kyle and I spent the drive questioning this. How on earth could a bar in Boulder be like Narnia?

When we arrived, the answer became obvious; we didn’t even need to discuss it. Walk in a random door between two restaurants on the Hill and you’ve completely escaped Boulder.

Even knowing about the bar and being relatively certain of its location, I wasn’t positive I was there. I called my friend to verify that I was in the right location. The sign on the door just says “Open Daily 4 p.m. – 1 a.m.” and has a small window with iron bars, as some sort of tribute to the days of speakeasies.

The place is beautiful – light wood paneling throughout the place, lovely sand-blasted glass lamps with dark steel fixtures – classy but homey in a style I have never before encountered in Boulder. The clientele was what I expected from Boulder when I was young and before I understood the term “college town” – old hippie types who seem more Coloradan than crazy acid heads. The younger crowd seemed like the kind of people I would have befriended, had I attended CU. They were certainly Colorado college students, but without the trustafarian or frat boy element.

The service was great, our waitress checked on our table at all the right times and even explained the neon sign in the window after overhearing us trying to guess what it was (I won’t tell, that’ll ruin the fun, but I will say Kyle was wrong).

The beer selection is a step above average: you have your regular taps – Guinness, Sierra Nevada, Harp, Bass, and two O’dells; then a few more interesting ones – seasonal Breckenridge IPA and Ska’s Modus Hoperandi. The bottled beer selection was more diverse with some typical brews and weaker beers, then Monty Python’s Holy Grale, Breckenridge’s 471, bombers of Avery’s Reverend and more. The rest of the menu was liquors and spirits, suggesting that their cocktails were good. After all, aren’t the best cocktails served at bars where there’s no menu listing what they can make?

I almost feel guilty talking about the bar – part of me fears that any publicity will lead to Narnia becoming just another quirky Boulder bar. But we drove 32 miles for the specific intention of visiting this place, so I’m writing about it, dammit. Expect to hear more about this bar, word will spread quickly – one of my friends decided it’s going to be his local from here on out. But for now, I’m leaving you pictures.

Arthur's craft

"What'll you have?

I'll have a pint!

I'll have a pint with you, sir!"

-The Pogues

Before I knew anything about beer, I knew about Guinness.

The summer I turned 16, I went to Ireland with my parents and brother. About two weeks before we left, my brother called me and left a long babbling message about how excited he was for the trip. I remember nothing from the message itself, except one thing: he was DAMN excited to show me Guinness.

Ten years later and Guinness has kept a special place in my heart. I, by no means, love it the same way my brother does, or even as much as my mam, but I do have a strong appreciation for it. So when I received an email offering the chance to interview Fergal Murray, the master brewer of Guinness, I couldn’t believe it. I honestly did not believe the email. Thank God I have people like Greggers and Kyle to keep me in line and look into these sorts of things; otherwise it would have been one hell of a missed opportunity.

Fergal spends about two weeks of March traveling around the States each year – acting as the face of Guinness, while the eyes of the world turn to Ireland for Paddy’s day.

Actually, regardless of the season, much of his life is spent being the face of everyone’s favorite Irish stout. Fergal spends his time traveling the world – from Cork to Dallas to Sydney and everywhere in between – talking about what makes his beer so iconic.

Guinness is special, he says, because it gives people the ability to “cling on something from home; coming home to the emerald island. When they can get a pint of Guinness it connects one to Ireland; it gives them the community spirit. It’s a symbol of people who want to become Irish. But it’s also the quality of the product: the taste – that bold and distinctive taste. That’s why it sticks out to much.”

Much of the importance of Guinness, he says, relies on the visual impact of the craft. “You have to see it poured correctly. I don’t ever want to be disappointed by a bartender. It should be a work of art coming across the bar – the final top off the dome. The flavor’s the bonus. That’s what Guinness is about.”

With 250 years of brewing history, Arthur Guinness signed the lease for St. James Gate 17 years before America declared its independence, Guinness must be doing something right. Fergal tells me about how the stout has developed in the past two and a half centuries. “It got better. It has consistently improved. It’s a journey. If Arthur were around today he’d agree. The computer technology has improved, which affects the craft – it makes it easier to brew. The flavor recipe is exactly the same, but the consumers experience is so much more.”

So how does one obtain the “most envied job on earth?” “It’s about mastering a craft, understanding it and having that passion. Whether you’re making chocolate or fixing clocks, it’s about the passion, it’s about the beliefs and knowing why it’s such a great product.”

While the passion for Guinness shows in everything he says, Fergal’s love for his job is most apparent when he describes his travels, “The engagement is so cool: the passion of the people, the opportunities of pouring a perfect pint. Watching people obtain the bragging rights of pouring the perfect pint...”

Everywhere he goes, he says, he finds fantastic bars and delights in the experience of watching the training of the bartenders. “Getting it into the glass is the art, the same perfect way that they get it in the glass. I’m very content that you’ll get a great tasting pint no matter where you go.”

Fergal speaks highly of the stouts from the craft beer market, saying, “other breweries do a good job…it’s cool to see the distinctive flavors between them.” However, he insists that on Paddy’s day no beer other than Guinness should be drunk. “If anyone does something silly like drink a domestic American product on March 17th, I’m certain St Patrick will come down and haunt you.”

While my experience with Catholicism has suggested no such thing, I trust Fergal on this one. Tonight, I’ll be drinking Guinness.

Happy Paddy's Day, everyone. And remember, clovers aren't Irish.

[Timothy, you can stop holding your breath now.]

Photo courtesy of Taylor Montgomery.


"Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza."
-Dave Barry

I love cheese. To me, beer and cheese belong together. Great Divide apparently understands this. Once a month they, with the help of St. Kilian’s cheese shop, host a beer and cheese pairing. Five beers, five cheeses, one very happy Jenn.

We arrived late, probably around 6.30. The benefit of our tardiness was being seated in the brewery between the kegs and the Stranahan’s barrels used for oak aging the Yeti. Sure, I would see all this if I ever made it to Great Divide in time for the tour. But relaxing in the brewery, enjoying a drink and delicious cheese? Pretty close to perfect for me.

On to the pairings.

Starting in the middle and working around the photo clockwise, here’s a list of the cheeses and beers:

1) Tommy Crayeuse – Denver Pale Ale

2) Bucheron – Colette

3) Beemster – Titan IPA

4) Morbier – Hercules Double IPA

5) Valdeon – Oak Aged Yeti

With the exception of the Colette, I was quite familiar with all the beers. However, trying them with cheese was a different experience. I’ve always been prone to ignore the drink this beer/wine while eating this food guidelines. I want this beer and this food. Rarely do my choices pair well, but it’s what I want, so I’ll order it anyway.

I was surprised to discover how much one affected the other. The DPA was the same average DPA that I’ll occasionally drink. After a bite or two of the Crayeuse, it was much more exciting. I didn’t like the Beemster cheese much, but paired with the Titan, the flavor was greatly improved. And in the case of the Morbier and Hercules? They go together like Simon Pegg and zombie movies.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Seattle, Last Call

She likes to think/she likes to drink

We managed to fit in one last brewery visit before I had to go to the airport on Sunday: Big Time Brewing Company. Judging from the website, I expected this place to be like the Wynkoop. Instead it had the feel of a worn in country bar, complete with old advertising signs and aged wood paneling. I couldn’t quite figure out why the bar's logo is an elephant, nothing about this place seems remotely Asian/African or safari like. However, there was a giant dinosaur head mounted on the wall, so it’s pointless to try to make assumptions about this place. (Take a moment to pause and consider the idea of a dinosaur head mounted on the wall in a country-style bar. How great is that?)

I ordered the Atlas Amber Ale. (For some reason, I think my brother would like this beer. Someone must have said something about it sometime.) I wish I could remember the Atlas better, but all I have is what’s in my notes: “Amber’s good, fruiter than most. Weak fruit smell, relatively weak taste – but not necessarily a bad thing.”

It did make me realize that there was some underlying similarity among all the Seattle beers. No matter what I drank – stout or hefeweisen, there was some characteristic that unified all the beers. Justy suggested it was the water and he could very well be right. All I know is, there was something that connected all these beers together, some sort of underlying taste, and thinking about it further, I would say the same is true of Colorado craft beer.

As we discussed this, our conversation turned to beer culture. Justy (cautiously) asserted that Seattle has a stronger beer culture than Colorado. To his surprise (and relief), I agreed with him, but considered Seattle to be more of a beer community. Seattle, as a city, has the feeling of community running through it. Coloradans, while certainly friendly, are too independent to have a cohesive community. Even Denver is too sprawling too diverse to feel completely unified. And that applies to the beer culture as well. Picking up one of the beer newspapers available around Seattle left me feeling like I had tapped into (no pun intended) the Seattle beer community. There’s no equivalent to that back home – The Westword and 5280 are great publications and offer endless amounts of Colorado based information, but they don’t leave you feeling like you are necessarily a part of Colorado culture. Leaving Seattle I felt like I had experienced their beer community. And while there was still plenty of this beer culture for me to explore, I felt connected to it.

Someday I’ll be back for more.

Crawling through the Emerald City. A Seattle Six Shooter

(Jenn's note: Apologies for my lack of posts. New job apparently means less time for blogging. I'm working on developing this balance, don't worry.)

I don’t think Justy knew what I had in mind when we started drinking Friday afternoon. Shortly after booking my flight to Seattle the week before, I started considering a Six Shooter for my last night there. When Justy and I started counting the bars and breweries we intended to visit that day, I realized we could actually accomplish it. Keeping it simple, the theme was Seattle beers. Not hard to accomplish when you’re visiting Seattle breweries.

1.18 p.m.

The Pike

1415 1st Ave. Seattle, WA

Pike XXXXX Extra Stout, $5

Something about this bar feels so very, very Seattle. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but to drive the point home, Nirvana starts playing as I try to describe the bar in my notes.

The walls are decorated like a Hard Rock type bar, with nick-knacks and paraphernalia all over the place. Only, instead of music or Americana themed decorations, it’s all Pike’s beer related. The bar is downstairs in a shopping center. There isn’t even a ceiling, just beams that create a sort of overhang. Looking through the ceiling of the bar, you can even see a clothing shop on the second level of the mall. It’s like the perfect escape for the guy who got dragged along shopping. I wish we had a bar like this back home; I might be more willing to shop if good beer was included.

Justy orders the IPA and I decide to try the XXXXX Extra Stout. Anything with that many xes in the title will either be awesome or terrible.

Justy told me that he likes the Extra Stout because of its strong chocolaty flavors. I refrain from looking at him like he’s crazy – all I’m getting from this beer is smoke. I mean charcoal-like smoke. Really nothing but smoke. About a third of the way through my pint, my palate adjusts to the smoke and the chocolate starts to make itself known; I guess there was more to the beer than just smoke. But I still think Justy’s crazy.

Halfway through my pint, I start counting the breweries we were planning to visit that afternoon: Pike, Pyramid, Elysian and Fremont. That’s four. And we had plans of going for drinks that night. Five pubs. Obviously I needed one more. I explain the situation to Justy, and he agrees. We left the decision for our last two destinations to a later time. But it was official: We were going Six Shooting.

3.15 p.m.

Pyramid Brewery

Alehouse Amber Ale, $5, and free tasters(!)

Pyramid is not a brewery that I would rank highly on my Breweries I Respect list. It produces a lot of mediocre beers. They have good starter-beers – something you’d suggest to someone who insists that they don’t like beer, if you’re determined to prove them wrong. Visiting the brewery changed my opinion of Pyramid quite a bit.

The atmosphere of the place strongly resembles New Belgium, if New Belgium were more restaurant than tap house. Light wood, slight industrial feel, copper pipes and decorations, high ceilings with huge windows peering into the brewery.

My rule about beer is always order what you haven’t had before. If there’s a beer that is only available on site, I must drink that. Alehouse Amber was an Alehouse exclusive. So I was obligated to order it. While I perused the menu for food, Justy started chatting with the bartender. Apparently it was a worthwhile conversation – when I looked up there were three eight-ounce tasters sitting in front of us.

I failed to write down anything about the Alehouse Amber and only noted two of the three tasters, but Justy and I agreed that the beers available at the brewery were by far the best Pyramid brews we’d found. That being said, two of the samples were from MacTarnahan’s brewery in Portland (I *will* visit that brewery someday).

The waitress tells us that Spine Tingler, a MacTarnahan’s brew with a dragon’s head tap (yes, that *is* why we ordered it), is 9% ABV. As a result, there’s a two pint limit. I appreciate the let’s-keep-people-from-getting-too-drunk efforts, but I can’t imagine this happening at a place like Great Divide. An image of a particular friend of mine being limited to two Hercules pops in my head: “what do you mean ‘only two pints’?!” It wouldn’t go over well. Ah well, Coloradans are a different breed of people.

4.23 p.m.

Elysian Brewery

Bye-bye Frost (failed to notice the price, it was Justy’s round)

When I was on the Obama campaign my producer would frequently quote “Ghostbusters” saying, “Jenn has gone bye-bye, Egon.” The description for Elysian’s Bye-Bye Frost was “Too much Bye-Bye will make you gone gone.” Thinking of Greggers, I couldn’t pass up ordering this beer.

The beer is 10.6% ABV and other than that I have nothing to say about it. It’s a standard pale ale. That’s all I’ve got. For comparison, Great Divide’s Hercules is 10% ABV and Espresso Yeti is 9.5%. Strong beers, yes, but I don’t immediately worry about them making me “gone gone.” (For reference, see above.) And they’re more exciting than Bye-Bye. The Coloradans win on this one.

Lacking anything more to say about my beer, I’ll talk about the brewery and the other beers. The place reeks of malt. The thing about that smell is, as an avid beer drinker, you come to love it. It’s like dating a smoker – no matter how much you want to dislike the smell, you’re attracted to it because of what it represents.

There are gigantic windows peering into the vats of brewing beer. As I sipped my Bye-Bye Frost, I watched one of the brewers climb a ladder up the vat and proceed to tend to his craft. From a beer drinker’s perspective, nothing beats watching beer get brewed while drinking it from a few yards away. Actually brewing the beer yourself probably tops this, but it’ll still be a little while until I can vouch for that.

We met up with two of Justy’s friends, who did a better job of choosing beers than I did. Justy, showing a bit of his Colorado roots, ordered the Trip V – a New Belgium and Elysian collaboration. The waitress and my friend explain how New Belgium and Elysian have been working together for the past year and a half to help promote their beers in a more environmentally friendly way. I’d heard a bit about New Belgium’s work with other breweries on their tour, but hadn’t seen it in practice. I was delighted to see how well it worked – Trip V was a gorgeous chocolate cherry brown ale, like a liquid Godiva truffle.

While we all agreed on the Trip V, I was the only one who enjoyed the XOXO Chocolate Chili Stout that one of the friends ordered. This was my first chili stout and I found it incredibly interesting. The flavor had a chocolate front with a sharp chili back. I don’t know if I could drink an entire pint of it and certainly didn’t love it as much as Golden City’s Javapeno, but it was exciting to try.

6.38 p.m.

Fremont Brewery

Little Woody $5

Justy and I stopped by Fremont the day I arrived in Seattle to find out what time their tasting sessions took place. Between our brief visit and Friday night, I had thought of little else but going back to Fremont. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I was excited about this brewery.

It’s a warehouse, just like Great Divide’s (random note: how many times can I bring up Great Divide in a post, sheesh!), but without a tap room. Walk in the door and you are surrounded by kegs, barrels and vats. During our visit on Wednesday a man, who we guessed was the master brewer, explained that the hours of drinking at the brewery were limited because of the liability it created: they were concerned that people visiting might get injured by forklifts when the brewery was in operation. That’s how small a place this is.

Considering the size of the crowd, Fremont won’t last much longer at such a small location. The picnic tables (held up by kegs) were full and the line for beer wound through the brewery. It was easy to imagine that during the summertime people would spill out onto the sidewalk through the garage door of the warehouse. Even on a February night, a cluster of people gathered on the sidewalk outside. Between that and the dogs and children wandering around the place, the brewery felt like a block party.

Little Woody was as unique a beer as the “bar” that served it. It’s based off Fremont’s flagship beer, Universale Pale Ale, but aged with medium-toast American White Oak, dryhop with Chinook Hops. I still don’t know enough about hops and the beer brewing process to comment on the production of Little Woody, but however they make it, they need to keep doing it. If Jameson made a beer, this is what it would taste like. It’s light, smells of wood with flavors of whiskey and honey. It’s amazing.

If I forget everything else that happened in Seattle, this is the one experience I want to remember.

10.15 p.m.

Naked City

Naked City Desantis $4.50

We took a break for dinner and Olympics after Fremont. Probably a good thing too, anything after the last bar was bound to disappoint.

Naked City took me back to the days of Justy living in Denver. It felt like the Thin Man, only bigger and without the Jesus paraphernalia.

Justy tried to tell me about how Naked City isn’t a brewery, but they have beers brewed for the bar offsite. About halfway through the explanation a bright shiny object distracted me or maybe I started reading at the chalkboard listing their beer selection, but something happened that made me tune out.

We played cards and talked beer. We ordered a Jubel 2010 so I could finally try it. Again, fruity beers and I don’t get along. But it made me like the Desantis a lot more. Overall, a relatively unremarkable experience. Guess that’s what happens when you break up the Six Shooter over 10 hours.

Aside from the selection of beers, I wasn’t too impressed with the bar. I wrote in my notes “I wonder how I’d feel about it in Denver.” Too much time has passed between writing that and now, as a result I can’t remember what I meant by that. The rest of my notes were random comments and questions: “have I had many Belgian style reds?”, “second time we’ve heard the modest mouse ‘all all something all right’ song tonight,” “total beginners luck at ‘Oh Hell’” things of that ilk. It was time to move on and finish up the night.

11.10 p.m.

Pillager's Pub

Black Boney Porter $4.50

This place was ridiculous. It was situated in a building that looked like one of the new brick structures on Broadway in Denver. The inside was like Black Bart from Casa Bonita had opened a bar: horrible wood paneling, silly pirate flags, netting, murals and fairy lights, complete with a little toy cannon. Again, this place was ridiculous.

I didn’t bother to find out about the beer. It obviously had some specific relationship to the bar, but couldn’t have been brewed onsite. Frankly, I don’t care enough to find out. Fruit forward, smoke back. Not what I want in a porter. I wrote in my notes “some fruity theme based on Caribbean/pirate beer?” Judging from my comment, I must have found the others’ beers to be just as excessively fruity as my own. The flavors fit the porter about as well as the music fit the bar (back to back Johnny Cash songs, on a Friday night, in a pirate themed bar. Really?). I wasn’t having it. Drank up, headed home.

At least Casa Bonita has cliff divers.