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Taste of Travel: Colorado

High Season for Beer Nuts

It's Oktoberfest year-round in Denver, but next month brings a microbrew Olympics

September 20, 1998|ROBERT H. LYLE | Lyle is a financial correspondent for an overseas radio news network. He is based in Washington

DENVER — The Mile-High City is a top draw for beer aficionados. More than 30,000 are expected to sip and sample the best that the country's craft brewers have to offer at the Great American Beer Festival next month: 1,700 brews--lagers, ales, stouts, porters and dozens of seasonal beers--from 450 brewers will be in the Oct. 1-3 competition.

The annual festival has gotten so big, important and crowded with competitors that Denver has started a spinoff, all-Colorado version. It's not competitive--no medals or awards--but about 40 Colorado craft brewers now present their best every June, along with lots of music, food and festivities, at the LoDo Brew Fest in historic lower downtown Denver.

Festivals can be fun, but you don't have to fight the crowds or even be in Denver a specific week to try some really good craft beers. As I discovered while on a work assignment there last summer, there are five microbrewery pubs in and around LoDo, with enough variety of ambience, menus and drinks to satisfy the most demanding connoisseur of fine beer (as well as companions who don't really care for the stuff).

Champion Brewery is part of the rehabbed Larimer Square, which tries to feel like Greenwich Village. The crowds thronging the sidewalks can sometimes get to be a bit much, especially if you're sitting at one of the outdoor tables on a warm weekend evening, but the beer is excellent and the food goes well with it--lots of grilled specialties and what they call "updated" regional entrees, many of them featuring buffalo.

Champion is known for its stout, a full-bodied, dark bitter beer with a tight head of tiny bubbles, and for its much lighter Norm Clark's Sports Ale. Its Home Run Brown Ale won a bronze medal at the 1997 Great American festival in the English-style Brown Ale category.

Breckenridge Brewery claims to be Denver's largest, operating seven pubs. One is in a handsomely restored brick building on Blake Street at the edge of LoDo. Try Breckenridge's delicious Avalanche Ale, a malty, rich yet clean brew.

Wynkoop Brewing Co., across from Union Station (built in 1881 and still a busy rail hub), is Denver's most commodious brewpub, but don't go there because of its size; go for everything else.

Looking as if it's straight out of Denver's pioneer days, Wynkoop is in the 1899 J. S. Brown Mercantile Building. Check the stunning engraved glass door just beyond the pub's front entrance; inside, admire the hardwood floors, pressed metal ceiling tiles, thick timber pillars topped by pilasters of pressed ornate metal, gas light fixtures and the open wooden staircase in the center (more about where this leads later). The booths are formed by wood benches of the type found in the more formal railroad waiting rooms of the late 1800s, picking up on a railroad theme that pervades Wynkoop, but doesn't overwhelm it.

While the pub can get noisy on busy nights, the food and beer are worth the visit. The kitchen has fun with the brewery connection--creamy Gorgonzola ale soup, honey beer mustard chicken breast, beer bread, even microbrew ice cream featuring house ales (yes, it works, with a lighter taste than you'd expect). Entrees range from staples like a shepherd's pie of braised Colorado lamb to charbroiled medallions of Rocky Mountain elk and such vegetarian delights as a sandwich of grilled whole Portobello mushroom topped with Provolone cheese.

The standout beer here is Wynkoop's Railyard Ale, a hearty, deep amber brew that is loaded with flavor and satisfies like a chunk of whole-grain country bread. But don't pass up a chance to taste the India Pale Ale (hoppy, bright and rich), the St. Charles Extra Special Bitter (very English and very good) or the Sagebrush Stout (unusually light but flavorful). If you like a very mild ale, try Quinns Scottish Ale when it's available.

Matt McAleer of Wynkoop points out that while their lighter ales are carbonated and served cold (about 40 degrees), their British-style dark ales are served at cellar temperature (around 50 degrees) and are without carbonation. They are hand-drawn, using genuine English pumps too.

But don't leave the drinks list yet. On the nonalcoholic end, Wynkoop brews its own Tiger Root Beer, and you haven't tasted real root beer until you've tried this. It's not just for kids.

At the other end of the beverage spectrum, Wynkoop carries the longest list of single malt scotches I've come across in one location anywhere, including in Scotland. They range from 12-year-old Glenfiddich (from the Speyside region) to 17-year-old Deanston (from the Highlands) to 20-year-old Ledaig (from the Islands).

Now check out that central wooden staircase. It takes you down to the basement Impulse Theater comedy club. The same good beer and food are available, but with improv comedy to brighten the evening. I wasn't able to catch a show, but I'm told they've been packing locals in for some time.

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