The Colorado Spartans and Their Well-Crafted Beer Tour

It's always good when your friends know the stuff that you really like. And I learned recently that it's even better when your friends know that one of the things you really like is craft-brewed beer.

A loyal graduate of Michigan State University, I am a member of the MSU Alumni Association (MSUAA) national advisory board and the MSU Alumni Club of Metropolitan Chicago, aka the Chicago Spartans. This is why I happened to be having lunch in early November with MSUAA Executive Director Scott Westerman -- a college classmate and former campus radio colleague -- and Sue Petrisin, an associate director, both of whom were in Chicago on business.

While discussing my efforts to reinvent myself as a food journalist, I mentioned that I have been writing quite a bit about artisan brewing here in Chicago and other places in the Midwest. I could kind of see the light bulb go off over Scott's head, and he asked if I'd like to represent MSUAA at the Colorado Spartans club's annual Spartoberfest -- a tour of four of the breweries that have made the Denver area one of the nation's craft brewing capitals.

Michigan State Denver alumni's Spartoberfest cozy

(In case you weren't aware, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was a co-founder of Denver's pioneering Wynkoop Brewing brewpub. Which is why I am rooting for him to run for president in 2016.)

Scott's request was one of those "you had me at hello" moments. So off I went, and spent the better part of Saturday, Nov. 10 enjoying great beer and excellent company. Which made it easy to ignore the fact that Denver was having one of its quirky weather weekends, with the temperature dropping from 67 degrees when I landed on Friday to 15 on Sunday when I arrived at Denver International Airport for the return trip home, with a light snow in between.

Snow in Boulder Colorado Nov 10 2012

So you won't see beautiful photos of the Rockies in this post. If you're a fan of beer porn, though, you're in the right place.

Avery Brewing beer sampler Boulder Colorado

The picture above was taken at Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, which was founded in 1993 and thus is a relative veteran of the craft brewing revolution. Despite its unprepossessing location in an industrial park -- which it has outgrown, prompting plans for a major expansion on a nearby campus -- Avery has a small but welcoming tasting room with an attentive and knowledgeable staff.

Avery Brewing tasting room Boulder Colorado

Knowing the importance of pacing yourself when you are on a beer-athon, I limited myself to samples of three of Avery's beers... reluctantly as it turned out, because all of the beers I tasted were excellent. (I even had to take a pass, despite my background as a political journalist, on Ale to the Chief, a variety brewed every four years to mark each presidential election.)

The Lilikoi Kepolo (5.4% alcohol by volume) has the golden but cloudy look of many wheat beers. What distinguishes it is a heavy dose of passion fruit that gives it an unusual tropical fruit dimension that tasted to me a lot like grapefruit. The folks at the RateBeer site love this beer, giving it a 95 of 100 overall and 99 on style.

The Out of Bounds Stout (6.3%) is described in the liner notes as a "big, roasty stout takes flavor to the extreme." I don't know about the extreme part, but it is big and roasty and very good.

But as a long time fan of bourbon barrel-aged beer, the Sacrilicious -- served in a small snifter -- was bound to be a highlight of the day for me. The combination of Avery's barrel-aged Recolte Sauvage and the Belgian-style beer called the Reverend, Sacrilicious did not disappoint.

After a tour and lecture about Avery's history that was held in the brewery's barrel-aging room...

Avery Brewing barrel aging room Boulder Colorado

... we clambored back on the bus and headed a short distance to Boulder Beer Company, which was founded in 1979 and claims to be Colorado's oldest microbrewery.

Our group of about 30 people was seated at tables in a small side room. I passed on the option of sampling all 12 beers the brewery was featuring -- maybe if it had been our only stop, but not a good idea, I thought, on stop 2 of 4.

Boulder Beer beer menu place mat

Instead, I got a pint of a cask-conditioned Never Summer (6%), a winter seasonal ale (and no, November is not too early for a winter seasonal in Colorado). To be honest, this modestly hopped beer was on the mild side for me, but that's my taste, which runs to big, powerful hoppy beers.

Boulder Beer pint Boulder Colorado

Then we were off to Longmont and Left Hand, which was founded in 1993, but merged with Tabernash Brewing Company in 1998. Tabernash was phased out in 2008 and Left Hand has grown rapidly since (and is distributed fairly widely in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest).

Left Hand brewery tasting room Longmont Colorado

While making new friends at the crowded tasting room bar, I went all in on a four-beer sampler. It included the Sawtooth "American-style" ESB (English Special Bitter - 5.3% alcohol); the Warrior, a harvest India Pale Ale (IPA) -- meaning it is a seasonal beer brewed with freshly picked instead of dried hops (6.6%); Black Jack (6.4%), a porter with dark chocolate and coffee accents that could win some new fans for dark beer; and the Wake Up Dead Imperial stout, which at 10.2% is like candy for bold black beer fans, but maybe a bit overwhelming to those just being converted from mass-brewed American light beers.

Left Hand beer sampler Longmont Colorado

The last stop was at Oskar Blues, also in Longmont, which began as a brewpub in nearby Lyons in the late 1990s, then made its first big splash 10 years ago by becoming the first major craft brewery to abandon bottles for cans.

Oskar Blues brewery cans Longmont Colorado

The brewery has gained widespread distribution in recent years -- I'd sampled its Dale's Pale Ale and Mama's Little Yella Pils at The Reef, my favorite bar in Washington, D.C., before we moved to Chicago in 2011 -- and has grown very big indeed, as a guided tour among the brewery's ginormous fermenters underscored.

Since I was already familiar with a couple of Oskar Blues' standards, I sampled a couple of beers I hadn't had before: Old Chub (8%), a Scottish strong ale with a hint of smoke, and G'Knight (8.7%), from the fairly unusual category of Imperial red ales. Both of these very good beers receive knockout ratings from Beer Advocate magazine and website, and they have knockout beer and alcohol content to match.

Oskar Blues beer samples Longmont Colorado

The trip of 40 miles back to downtown Denver took a while, with traffic slowed by snow showers. We were dropped where we started, at Blake Street Tavern, about a block from Coors Field (the home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team) and the anchor bar for the Colorado Spartans' MSU game-watching events. While I'm sure the tavern has a nice beer selection, food -- and an iced tea -- seemed like a better choice after a long day of hearty drinking.

Blake Street Tavern, Denver Colorado

Many thanks to my fellow alums for their hospitality. I'll be back for Spartoberfest 2013. And this time, I'm bringing some of my Chicago craft brew crew.

And Scott Westerman, anytime you need someone to represent our alma mater at a beer event, just give me a call.

[Correction: The original version of this post said Left Hand Brewing was founded in 2008. It was actually founded in 1993 but merged with Tabernash in 1998. The Tabernash line was eliminated in 2008 and Left Hand has enjoyed exponential growth since.]

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