Sunday stop: Summit County brew tour
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Among High Country brewers there seems to be an understanding that the best beers in the world are those brewed in the searingly fresh air and pure icy water of the Rocky Mountains. Maybe they’re right, maybe not, but their theory is definitely worth investigating. A trip to Summit County would be incomplete without a refreshing sampling of what might be the best beers in the world, each featuring the unique and adventurous spirit of the mountain lifestyle and all hand-crafted in one of the four local micro-breweries. So for those who can be drawn away from the slopes or the trek home for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, a brew tour of Summit County might be the perfect way to finish off an awesome ski weekend.
The tour begins at the Breckenridge Brewery, located on Main Street at the very south end of town. A Breck institution, the brew pub is the self-proclaimed oldest in the county and highest (by elevation) in the country. Unlike other breweries, which keep tanks in back rooms or behind glass walls, Breckenridge does their brewing right in front and over the heads of customers sitting at the bar, with towering holding tanks greeting visitors as they enter. The brewery prides itself on its inventive line and often has something new and experimental on tap for the adventurous drinker. Brewers Jimmy Walker and Matt Darling’s current project is a Belgian series cultivated from the brew pub’s most popular beers. The Belgian flavor of the month is the Trademark Triple, which follows the brewery’s popular Trademark Pale Ale, but contains Trappist yeast. The Triple, a lighter brew, blends citrus with a spicy finish for a full, unique flavor that Walker calls “funky.”
“It’s kind of cool because it shows you what a yeast will do to a beer,” Walker said. “It’s a learning experience.”
Their seasonal beer is the malty Christmas Ale. Sometime in the next month the Breckenridge Brewery will introduce the Double Chocolate Stout, which, from someone who got a sneak preview, is creamy, smooth and satisfying. Walker promises Stout-lovers will “freak out” over it.
The Breckenridge Brewery bottles its beers out of its Denver location, but all beers on tap in Breckenridge were brewed in-house.
Winding 10 miles north on Highway 9 from Breckenridge into Frisco, the next stop on the tour is the Backcountry Brewery, across from Lake Dillon at the very end of Main Street. The restaurant and brewery are upstairs, where guests will find beers that are pretty much as fresh as it gets. Owner Charlie Eazor promises the brews never see light or air until they flow from the tap and into the glass. His philosophy on beer is simple.
“I think you’re supposed to enjoy drinking it,” Eazor said.
With five Great American Beer Fest gold medals in the bag, the Backcountry brews seem to be pretty enjoyable, from an easy Wheeler Wheat that will be a winner with lighter beer drinkers to the more intense Peak One Porter that’s a favorite with the locals. But it’s the Telemark India Pale Ale, a gold medalist, that really delivers. The copper blend of northwest hops goes down easy and tastes great.
For visitors looking to take their favorite brew home with them, bottles and Backcountry’s signature pig kegs are available for purchase.
The tour continues across the Dillon Dam road or over the hill on Interstate-70 (the Dam road is closed at certain times of day and in bad weather conditions) to the Dillon Dam Brewery, just off Highway 6 in Dillon. The brewery is a local hot spot with a big bar and an energetic atmosphere. The broad variety of beers on tap makes it a good stop for groups with diverse tastes. With a selection that ranges from a light wheat to a no-nonsense Irish stout, the brews that fall toward the middle of the spectrum offer a unique opportunity for those loyal to one kind of beer to venture out of their comfort zone.
“Part of what we try to do is do something for everybody,” brewmaster Cory Forester said. “I love when I can surprise somebody. Ask for a sample and sometimes you’re going to be surprised at what you might like.”
The Dam Straight Lager, a smoky smooth Great American Beer Fest silver medalist, is a good bet. The amber offers a full, caramel malt flavor that beer connoisseurs will appreciate, but has a relatively lighter body and isn’t bitter, making it enjoyable for those who usually stick to the wheats and pilsners. Sweet George’s Brown is another house favorite, owner George Blincoe said. True to its name the English-style ale is almost sweet and surprisingly smooth for its color. Look for a seasonal pumpkin brew coming soon to a tap near you.
The Dam offers bottled beers for those who want to take the flavor home and tours of the massive behind the scenes brewery can be scheduled ahead of time.
The brew tour then heads up the hill on highway 6 away from the interstate, concluding on Village Place in Dillon at the infamous Pug Ryan’s Steak House and brewery, named for an infamous 19th century bank robber. Warm and inviting with low ceilings and a wood burning fireplace, the little brewery is a favorite with locals and offers some of the most creative brews in the county. Where other breweries rely on the same base grains for all their beers and flavor the individual brews with different spices and strategies, Pug Ryan’s takes variety and experimentation right down to the foundations of their beers. The brewery buys grains in smaller batches giving brewers the flexibility to switch things up more often and be adventurous with their recipes, CEO Travis Holton said.
“(With smaller batches) our brewer can craft each beer kind of like the recipe for a soup,” Holton said.
The Belgium style Saison, flavored with spiced coriander and orange, is a pleasant late-year seasonal and the Pallavicini Pilsner is a popular seller, but the Kitchen Sink Stout is not to be missed by anyone who appreciates a darker beer. The beer, aged seven weeks in a burnt oak whiskey barrel delivers a flavor that is complex and innovative. It begins as a traditional stout, strong and smooth, but slowly brings to life the smoked wood and whiskey tastes infused during the aging process. The stout is brewed only a couple times a year and this batch might only last through the holidays.
Pug Ryan’s beers are canned, never bottled and available for purchase.
The SDN recommends anyone planning to take a brew tour of Summit County designate a driver or use the free Summit Stage transit system.
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