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A tale of two brewmasters

Andrew Tolvesummit daily news
Summit Daily/Brad Odekirk Dillon Dam brewmaster Matt Luhr is pictured with a Dam Lager.
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SUMMIT COUNTY – In the best of times, Breckenridge brewmaster Dan Finkleman is sitting where every avid poker player dreams to be: at the final table of a Texas Hold’em tournament with a ticket to the 2005 World Series of Poker on the line.”The World Series of Poker is the biggest poker tournament in the history of the world,” Finkleman said as he tended to a batch of brew at the Breckenridge Brewery. “Right now it’s the center of the poker universe.”And in early April 2005, Finkleman was staring at a pair of 9s, at the final table of an online qualifying tournament – a flop, a turn and a river away from his Mecca.”It was awesome,” Finkleman said. Better yet, the flop brought Finkleman three 9s, and the dealer’s final two cards gave him a full house. He had turned a $10 entry fee into a $10,000 ticket to Las Vegas.

“I love my job, but I’d rather win 10 million dollars,” he said last Friday. He wrapped his fingers on the stainless steel mash tun, squared away his World Series of Poker hat and, for the time being, turned his mind back to beer.Ten miles away, on the following day, Dillon Dam Brewmaster Matt Luhr works busily away at a batch of German Hefeweizen. He stands tall over the mash tun, stirring a mixture of wheat, barley and steaming water with a black paddle. “I have a genetically engineered body for brewing,” Luhr said as he rowed another powerful stroke through the consistency. Whether his body is genetically engineered or not, it shares little in common with Finkleman’s frame. Where the Breckenridge brewmaster sports short, red hair and a finely cured goatee, Luhr has long, unkempt locks and a permanent 5 o’clock shadow. Where Finkleman is 5 feet 8 inches tall and fashionable, Luhr is well over 6 feet and a touch eccentric. And as for poker, the only full house Luhr knows is a 20-by-20 foot garden overflowing with carrots, onions, snow peas, spinach and other horticultural wonders.”Seeing stuff grow out of the ground impresses me,” said Luhr, who graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in agriculture. “Beer and gardening take shape the same way – it’s putting stuff together from scratch from good old Mother Nature.”

But be it Finkleman or Luhr, poker or gardening, both brewmasters will tell you the same: Beer is the product of a long and nuanced procedure, one that relies heavily on ingredients, techniques and, most importantly, each brewmaster’s individual flavor perceptions.If a brewmaster wants his beer to be thick, for example, he can lower the temperature of the water in the mash tun (the bin where grains and water are mixed to convert starches to sugars) at the beginning of the brewing process. If he wants his beer to have a soft, lingering aftertaste, he can add vanilla or fruit extract before fermentation. In the end, what the brewmaster decides is what the patron drinks. “Everyone does this stuff a different way, that’s for sure,” Finkleman said. Like his poker style – calm and calculating – Finkleman likes his specialty beers to make a subtle, but bold, impression on his drinkers. “I’m a hop-head,” he said. “I like bitter beers.”

To give some of his specialty beers an added kick, Finkleman adds a higher concentration of hops to the kettle, where the sugary malt is boiled for several hours. Finkleman’s bitter beers in the past have taken on such names as Colorado Special Bitter, Hopsickle and White Ribbon of Death. His current specialty beer is a Vanilla Porter.”They used to be afraid of the word bitter around here, but now I’ve gotten them into it,” Finkleman said. “Now it actually sells.”Luhr, on the other hand, is less aggressive with his beers. The Dillon Dam Brewmaster likes to avoid a jolting, hoppy spirit in favor of a more delicate, clean flavor. He often uses pumpkin, chili and other natural flavors one might find in a garden to create a sensitive balance between body and taste in his specialty brews.”I try to brew beers that have a complement of body and flavor without being too overblown,” Luhr said. “That way it matches some of the more delicate subtleties of aroma and aftertaste that the beer gives you.”For the German Hefeweizen that he was brewing last Saturday, for instance, Luhr had chosen a specialty wheat malt and Bavarian-style yeast in order to draw out a faint clove and banana flavor in the final product.

“A lot of my inspiration comes from association with food,” Luhr said, standing over the mash tun. “I’m always thinking of a pumpkin spice ale for the fall or a chili beer for the spring, bringing the aspects of cooking and brewing together.”Luhr peers down at the soupy mixture of wheat and water. Like Finkleman 10 miles away, he still has the look of a passionate homebrewer turned professional. Indeed, 12 years ago both men were little more than brewing enthusiasts who experimented with different styles of beer at home. Now they find themselves as the official taste of their respective breweries.Andrew Tolve can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or at atolve@summitdaily.com


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