What goes into good beer? Answers from the Breckenridge Spring Beer Festival
As more than 50 local, regional and national brewers took over The Village Plaza and Main Street Station for last weekend’s Spring Beer Festival in Breckenridge, exactly what goes into making a great beer depended largely on whom you asked.
Whether it’s adhering to time-tested procedures, using quality ingredients or sprinkling in a little of “the love,” as some put it, the results spoke for themselves. And as thousands of drinkers waded through long lines to fill, refill and fill again their small bottomless cups — perhaps with a lager, stout, international pale ale or any of the other more than 100 different types of beer being brewed today — a few fan favorites emerged.
“Fresh Squeezed IPA — my favorite,” said Narda Hammell of Tampa, Florida, who came to Colorado with her boyfriend last week to ski, drink up the festival and party. “It’s light, kind of wheaty and 6.9 percent alcohol.”
Made by Deschutes Brewery, based in Bend, Oregon, the beer with a juicy citrus and grapefruit profile actually stands at 6.4 percent. However, estimating that she had sampled around 30 different beers by that point, Hammell was more interested in enjoying the drinks than she was in soaking up all the minor details.
Other festival-goers, like Lisa Monroe of Frisco, were partial to the IPAs of the local brewery, Outer Range, which opened in Frisco in December.
“I definitely like Outer Range,” she said of Summit County’s newest brewery. “They are doing a really good job.”
Lee Cleghorn, one of three founders and the only master brewer at the brewery, explained as he worked the beer booth that crafting a great IPA — Outer Range’s specialty — is all about the ingredients.
“To make a great IPA, you’re going to spend money on the best ingredients you can get,” he said. “You can’t take any shortcuts because you can taste it in the beer.”
Historians credit the Bavarians for first adding hops to beer, an ingredient that contains aromatic substances and a bitterness that balances out beer’s sweet maltiness.
Asked where he gets these ingredients, Lee explained he often has to go online to various hop exchanges in search of these little, fluffy, cone-like gems.
“Making those beers is more expensive,” he said, “but we think people want to taste that so we’re willing to do it.”
In the same breath, Mike Myers of Strange Craft Beer Company, based in Denver, talked about the importance of the yeast and how it affects the final product. Strange Craft is known for its Belgium-style beers, including its award-winning Cherry Kriek, a Belgian blond brewed with Montmorency pie cherries.
“The main thing that dictates (one beer from another) is the yeast that you use,” he said. “The Belgium yeast will give a different flavor to it, a different odor, than an English or a German yeast. That’s the main thing that will dictate a Belgium beer.”
A brewery could use the same malt, the same grain, with three different types of yeasts, he said, and the flavors and smells will all come out different.
Fresh, high-quality ingredients were a common answer among the brewers — coming up almost as often as the word “love” — but for Mustard Robbins of Declaration Brewing, based in Denver, making beer is a heady endeavor.
“I think we do that by trying to just — that’s a very tough question,” Robbins replied after being asked what makes great beer.
“I think we look at such a technical aspect that we look at every single scientific term we possibly can,” he continued. “The brewers are all graduates of the Colorado School of Mines, so I think that helps play into our flavor and style of beer making.”
The most unique — and in many ways most informative — answer came from Andy Astor of Elevation Brewing in Poncha Springs, who believes the first step is understanding the time-honored beer-brewing processes that have evolved over the centuries.
“Sanitation and good ingredients,” he said of what makes great beer. “But I think it’s about an accurate representation of the historical precedent set for that beer.”
He added that brewers shouldn’t get “creative” or “weird” until they have those basics honed.
“A lot of beers have already been brewed, and so if you’re going to brew this beer, you want to do it justice how it was done historically,” he said. “Once you can execute a clean, awesome historical style, then start (expletive) with it, but until you can nail basic fermentation — basic beers that were perfected, you know, in the 14‘, 15‘, 16‘, 17‘, 1800s — until you can do that, you probably shouldn’t start throwing a bunch of extra weirdness on top of it.”
No one can say exactly where it all began, but historians widely agree the first beers came out of Mesopotamia by accident as many as 6,000 years ago or more, perhaps as mankind was transitioning from hunting and gathering to farming and raising domesticated livestock.
Not surprisingly, beer remains the No. 1 selling drink in the world today, and is as much a part of American history as baseball or the Constitution.
President George Washington was said to be partial to beer brewed with molasses, and the commander in chief ordered daily rations of beer be provided to his soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
Even before that, beer came over with the first colonists on the Mayflower, and it was a staple of the 13 colonies. Researchers have even found that the Egyptian pharaoh Tutakhamun, better known as King Tut, had a beer recipe carved on one of the walls in his tomb.
It’s no secret Colorado is as much in love with beer as any other place in the U.S. or the world, and stands as a magnet for micro breweries. As much as the Colorado brewers seem to love making it, however, people appear to enjoy drinking it even more.
Dan Bannach, 28, who lived in Breckenridge for five years before he moved away last week, said he and his buddies had been “killing it all day long,” throwing back at least 20 tasters apiece as the festival closed in on last call.
Calling this the best festival he had been to yet, Bannach struggled to name his favorite beer — eventually settling on a Hefeweizen-style brew from Elevation Brewery because it “tastes like bananas.”
While Bannach wasn’t exactly sure which was his favorite, after more than 20 tasters, he was certain of one thing.
“It’s way better to walk through Breckenridge with a buzz than to walk through Breckenridge without a buzz,” he said.
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