We tasted every commercially distributed craft beer we could track down in Colorado, one of America’s true craft-brewing hot spots. (Yes, it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.) Here, in nine categories, we rank the very best.
Ladies and gentlemen of Denver and beyond, we are here to report that the state of beer in Colorado is strong! In fact, there’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker in the Centennial State—and, if current trends hold, things are only going to get better for the hop heads and the malt mavens among us. (Think: better quality, more diversity, and continuing experimentation.) Consider the numbers: In metro Denver alone, there are more than 20 craft breweries and brewpubs. Add in craft-brewing hot spots like Fort Collins, Lyons, Longmont, Boulder, and Colorado Springs, and it’s clear the Front Range has become the Napa Valley of beer. (Portland, eat your heart out!) This month (the 16th–18th), the 29th Great American Beer Festival descends on our fair city and will offer amazing (and some not-so-amazing) brews from around the world to sample. We decided, a year ago, to do our part to highlight our great state’s contributions to the craft-beer movement and taste just about every commercially distributed beer in Colorado. Yes, we had some late nights and some rough mornings, and we endured the wrath of our jealous colleagues. In the end, we found the very best brews being made here right now—and feel fortunate to be part of this craft-brewing renaissance. Enjoy.
Ratings Key: On a scale of 1–10, we ranked the maltiness and hoppiness of each beer on this list (1 = mild; 10 = aggressive).
The Glossary: A primer on beer terms.
- ABV: Alcohol by volume. Beer sold in supermarkets in Colorado cannot have an ABV of more than 3.2 percent. A beer with a 10 percent ABV will knock you on your ass.
- Barley: A cereal grain used to make malt.
- Hops: The female flower of the hop plant (a close relative of cannabis), which is dried and used to provide bitterness in beer.
- Malt: Barley that has been soaked in water to germinate and is then heated to quickly stop the process. Malt provides the backbone of flavor in most beers.
- Yeast: A fungus that converts the sugar in malt into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
- 1. Alpine Glacier Lager
Tommyknocker Brewery, Idaho Springs
Malt: 2, Hops: 7 ABV 4.5 percent
This beer is in the wrong weight class: Think of a middleweight who moves down to pummel a lightweight in a boxing ring. Although billed as an ultralean lager, this brew’s got more hops than some India pale ales. Bitter, and hoppy, hoppy, hoppy (did we mention hoppy?), Glacier is incredibly drinkable—even if it is cheating. www.tommyknocker.com
- 2. Joe’s Premium American Pilsner
Avery Brewing Company, Boulder
Malt: 2 | Hops: 7 | ABV 4.7 percent
Avery’s Joe’s Premium American Pilsner made its debut in June but is already one of our favorites: a bright, canned pils that’s perfect for camping, the park, or just drinking in the backyard. And, at an un-Avery-like 4.7 percent ABV, we can actually have a few without getting sloshed. www.averybrewing.com
- 3. Del Norte Mañana
Del Norte Brewing Company, Denver
Malt: 5 | Hops: 4 | ABV 5.2 percent
This tiny brewery focuses on Mexican-style beers, meaning that the staff will take a German-style lager and add a twist of Mile-High brewing (noticeable malt undertones) for a beer that is a bit of a mouthful but has a clean finish. Consider it Negra Modelo from the United States. www.delnortebrewing.com
- 1. White Rascal
Avery Brewing Company, Boulder
Malt: 5 | Hops: 5 | ABV 5.6 percent
Beer-drinking in Europe left us with a craving for Belgian-style wheat beers that are complex, crisp, and devastatingly delicious. We’re pleased to report that Avery’s homage to all-things-wheat gives us a fix. Weighing in at a doable 5.6 percent ABV—less than many Belgian brews—this beer has a medium intensity with a long aftertaste. (Oranges, anyone?) www.averybrewing.com
- 2. Sweaty Betty Blonde
Boulder Beer Company, Boulder
Malt: 4 | Hops: 5 | ABV 5.9 percent
Featuring a name so offensive that it’s not, this Bavarian-style wheat beer has a thin body that balances out its sweet aftertaste. An unfiltered (read: foggy), low-intensity brew, this is just the stuff we’d serve our “I-only-drink-light-beer” mother-in-law. www.boulderbeer.com
- 3. Mothership Wit
New Belgium Brewing Company, Fort Collins
Malt: 5 | Hops: 4 | ABV 4.8 percent
The love child of a Coors-like brew and a Belgian beer, this “white beer” tiptoes on the edge of being too sour, but lots of yeast and fruit balance it out. To boot: It’s organic, which makes eco-lovers (yes, they love beer too) rejoice. www.newbelgium.com
With more than 450 breweries, 50,000 people, and 36,000 gallons of beer, the Great American Beer Festival can be intimidating. Here, expert tips for navigating the thirsty throngs.
- Be selective Your liver isn’t up to the challenge of sampling the more than 2,200 varieties in the hall. A little pre-show research goes a long way. Create a plan of attack by focusing on a region, but at a certain point, just give up and sample something new and surprising.
- Nosh on a pretzel necklace Tackling the GABF on an empty stomach is a rookie mistake. Yes, you’ll look ridiculous with salty twists around your neck, but at least you won’t be heaving into a garbage bin at the end of the session.
- Let good beer go to waste The one-ounce pours seem measly at first, but after 20 or so, the hall may start to spin. Don’t be a hero: Smell, sip, and savor, then pour the rest into the waste buckets at every booth.
- Show up late Most folks will tell you to line up early so you have first dibs at the hot brewers. We take a different approach: Show up about 40 minutes late to a session to avoid wasting time wading through the entrance lines, which often circle the block but are mostly gone after 30 minutes.
- Call ahead GABF lists the exhibiting brewers, but not the beers so as not to impact voting—this is a competition, after all. Call your favorite brewery ahead of time to see if it’ll spill about what it’s tapping in the hall.
- Hold it The absolute worst wait at the GABF isn’t at a brewer’s booth or entrance; it’s the line for the loo. Skip the overcrowded stalls in the front of the hall and veer to the back of the hall, which had nary a wait last year.
- Forget agua You might not want to waste valuable stomach space on lowly water when there’s so much beer to quaff, but the water stations—located at every column in the hall—are vital. Stop there often. Trust us.
- Ask for more You’ve just discovered your new favorite beer. Your brain tells you to beg for another pour. Wrong! Go to the back of the line. You’ve had your fair share—for now.
- Wait around You can get a six-pack of Deschutes, Dogfish Head, or Avery anytime at your local liquor store, so make sure to veer off the beaten malt path to search out new or itsy-bitsy breweries. This is their chance to stand next to the big boys; help these artisans out.
- 1. Dale’s Pale Ale
Oskar Blues Brewing Company, Lyons
Malt: 2 | Hops: 9 | ABV 6.5 percent
Eight years after Lyons’ tiny Oskar Blues debuted Dale’s Pale Ale—kick-starting the canned craft-beer movement (see page 90)—the hoppy hype surrounding Dale’s refuses to die. National publications like Men’s Journal, the New York Times, and Details still give Dale’s regular love, and with good reason: Dale’s isn’t just the best pale ale in Colorado; it’s one of the best in the country. We tip our hat to you, Dale. www.oskarblues.com
- 2. Red Rocket Pale Ale
Bristol Brewing Company, Colorado Springs
Malt: 3 | Hops: 7 | ABV 5.2 percent
The crisp Red Rocket from Bristol is the type of pale ale you give to your friend who claims to hate hoppy beers: Sure, it’s a bit bitter, but it’s not overwhelming—it’s what a balanced and traditional pale ale should taste like. One tester described it as an “old friend,” which struck us as a dead-on description: an old friend with many promising years ahead. www.bristolbrewing.com
- 3. (tie) Jackman’s American Pale Ale
Left Hand Brewing Company, Longmont
Malt: 4 | Hops: 5 | ABV 5.8 percent
We hate to sound like a commercial for an international brewing conglomerate, but Jackman’s is smooth and drinkable—your bottle will disappear before you blink. By not going overboard with hops, Left Hand wisely veered away from the rest of the craft-brewing pack. A very fine pale ale indeed. www.lefthandbrewing.com
- 3. (tie) Hazed & Infused Dry-Hopped Ale
Boulder Beer Company, Boulder
Malt: 4 | Hops: 8 | ABV 4.9 percent
Boulder Beer Company, Colorado’s first microbrewery, was started by two University of Colorado professors in 1979. Little surprise, then, that one of the brewery’s flagship beers is named Hazed & Infused, a homage to Boulder’s favorite cousin of the hop plant (that would be cannabis). This aromatic, resiny pale ale is the beer to crack open and sip in a lawn chair while watching the kids run themselves silly. www.boulderbeer.com
India Pale Ale
- 1. India Pale Ale
1. Odell Brewing Company, Fort Collins
Malt: 5 | Hops: 9 | ABV 7 percent
Although the label depicts a bucking elephant, this brew is a surprisingly smooth ride. IPAs—first brewed in the 1700s with more hops and a higher alcohol content to survive the long boat trip to British soldiers in India—have a bad rap for being unbalanced behemoths. For any of those naysayers, we’d pour this beer, which is bold without being bombastic. www.odellbrewing.com
- 2. (tie) India Pale Ale
Avery Brewing Company, Boulder
Malt: 5 | Hops: 10 | ABV 6.3 percent
Avery has long been known as a brewer’s brewery—the kind of place that makes interesting, exciting beers just for the hell of it. Little surprise, then, that its IPA doesn’t pull any punches, opting for a mega-load of hoppy bitterness. And that’s what we like about it. www.averybrewing.com
- 2. (tie) Titan IPA
Great Divide Brewing Company, Denver
Malt: 5 | Hops: 9 | ABV 7.1 percent
A word of warning: Don’t treat this as a session beer. The 7.1 percent ABV hits hard—and fast. That said, we love it and keep coming back, regardless of too many morning-after headaches. It’s strong enough to stand up to a spicy meal—just remember to bring along aspirin. www.greatdivide.com
- 3. Hoppy Boy IPA
Twisted Pine Brewing Company, Boulder
Malt: 5 | Hops: 9 | ABV 6.2 percent
We like smelling this beer as much as we like drinking it: Notes of weed (er, hops) mix with citrus as this beer pours out a murky gold. Hoppy Boy is a tasty, complex IPA that won’t knock you over (for that, you’ll need to try its father, the Hoppy Man, a double IPA). www.twistedpinebrewing.com
The best bars for drinkin’ colorado brews
- Cherry cricket
Crowd Families and frat boys eating burgers and drinking good beer.
Toast-worthy A pitcher of a Colorado microbrew is about the cheapest thing you’ll find in Cherry Creek North.
Buzzkill The game might be over before a table opens up.
We’re Drinking Great Divide Titan IPA.
2641 E. Second Ave., www.cherrycricket.com
- Falling Rock Taphouse
Crowd Beer geeks and Rockies fans trying to escape the crowds of LoDo meatheads.
Toast-worthy The overwhelming—in a good way—selection of more than 75 draft beers.
Buzzkill Popular and unusual kegs go quickly; you might need to have a backup beer choice.
We’re Drinking Whatever crazy Colorado seasonal beer we’ve never tried before.
1919 Blake St., www.fallingrocktaphouse.com
- Jonesy’s Eatbar
Crowd Uptown hipsters unwinding after a workday, munching on fries and tossing back bottles of microbrews.
Toast-worthy One of the best local-centric beer lists in town.
Buzzkill Despite the killer beer list, most are served in bottles.
We’re Drinking Odell Double Pilsner.
400 E. 20th Ave., www.jeatbar.com