Saturday, January 12, 2013

Railroaded at the Brewpub

Jenny says that if you want to get a seat at the Durango Brewing Company, you better get there by... oh, 1989 ought to do. I haven't told her yet that such punctuality would guarantee a year-long wait, since DBC has only been concocting since 1990. Besides, we showed up there Friday night about 6:45 and still claimed a table and two stools (yeah, but only after edging around the crowds, squeezing into corners, and forging our way to the bar through a blizzard of people!).

This place is a bit out of the way, by Durango standards. It's on Main Street, but up north out of the downtown district most frequented by visitors. And the brewery's ambiance is pretty cool (especially if you are a gunslinger and former train-robber who traded guns for skis). It has the wood and warmth of a ski lodge in a warehouse. In tune with the logo's steam locomotive theme, one wall by the bar is old red boxcar siding with stenciled white letters and the old Denver & Rio Grande Western logos. (Real old boxcars or well-approximated faux interior design? Heck if I know.) The exposed rafters are filled with black-painted insulation that kind of looks like an open coal tender. And there's at least nine of their own beers on tap.

Why stick with the standards that we can pick up in bottles at the grocery store any day? We pounced on two seasonal beers (like cats on string or the white disc of flashlight light). I claimed the Winter Ale (like a viking who claims most things with an ax), a dark dark brown brew with the warmth and spices of so many ideal winter drinks. The roasted malts make this beer hearty and satisfying to the stomach, while it also has a caramelized (but not sugary) hint around the edges. Think of a rich savory dinner with a candied glaze (pineapple upside down cake!), like roast ham or sauteed onions (oh, we have different ideas of dinner, I guess). The beer doesn't taste like any meal in particular, but it has the same delectable balance. As it warms, it maintained its best qualities (unlike most people). Perfect for a winter brew!

The Purgatory Ale had nothing distinct (she leans away at a skeptical angle) -- and when that includes no noticeable faults, that makes for a steady drink. It is full and smooth (not in a Miller way) front to back (wait this sounds like a description of me...). A straight-up good beer, even if it doesn't cause any surprises. It's the kind of beer you would go on a second date with, but you certainly wouldn't expect anything kinky afterward (While that sounds like an accurate description of Purgatory the place, it does not paint an accurate picture of Purgatory the beer. Maybe Zach's been mixing the primary colors on his taste "palette" again. I thought the Purgatory glowed like autumn gold. It smelled bready and fresh. And the taste was like hot-butter biscuits with a touch of marmalade. In other words, delicious!)

With so many seasonal and limited beers on the menu, we wished we could justify sticking around and drinking the evening away (DWI = Drink Without Inhibition, right?). Instead, we opted to take home a growler (no, he does not mean one of the red-cheeked and rugged mountain men hunched over the bar who growl when you try to place your order). We asked the waitress if we could sample the Helles lager and the Ghost Train pumpkin beer to aid our decision. The Helles is a fine enough pilsner in the German/Czech vein of yeasty, flavorful lagers (again, not that watered-down gnat's piss that parades as mass-produced lager). It has the right bready introduction with a touch of bitterness... but it doesn't delight in the finish like the truly exceptional pilsners of the world.  All the action is up front with this beer. (Perhaps I ought to defer to the guy who lived in the land of pilsners for a year, but to me the Helles was yeasty, but also exotically floral, tasting a bit like magnolias. Please don's ask why or how I know what those taste like.)

The Ghost Train, however, is unique (starting with its poltergeist passengers!). I've tasted many pumpkin beers (like a grown-up Charlie Brown), and all of them lack in some way, as if the brewer were afraid to go full-out gourd on the brew (dear Gourd, be merciful). The Ghost Train takes the flavors and embraces them. I can't say it tastes particularly of pumpkin (oh gourd, I was worried) -- have you ever eaten just a spoonful of Libby's? (not something to admit that on the internet, by the way) -- but it has the spices in conjunction with the pumpkin that most of us crave in the autumn and winter. That last part is key to this beer: it doesn't taste like a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks, but more like a pumpkin pie that's just as appropriate after Christmas as it was before Halloween. The spices are tingly and magical (like reindeer droppings). (The beer actually reminds us both of the Molé Stout from Ska Brewing in the way the unexpected zing of spices play with the tongue.) And unlike many novelty beers (and unlike most reindeer droppings), this one tastes like it will be good the whole way down -- no tiring of the flavor midway into a pint!

So we ordered a growler of the Ghost-juice* and disembarked from the DBC brewin' locomotive.

*Buyer beware: Durango is notoriously expensive in every way, including pints up to and above $4.00. (The "special" this Friday night was $3 and $4 pints.) And many of us from outside Durango are used to growlers (64-oz take-home jugs) costing anywhere from $12 to $20, reasonable enough for four pints of beer. So imagine our shock when the bill came with the growler -- thirty eight dollars!!!

At least the jug is pretty cool. And we made damn sure we enjoyed each and every drop of that pumpkin beer over the next two nights. Whatever the cost, the beer is truly delicious. And it may just be magical, after all: it turned our vegetable stir-fry into a gourmet experience, just by being so blasted expensive!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Feral in the Barrel

With all the rush-and-tumble and rip-a-gifting of the holidays winking by faster than reindeer over rooftops, Zach and I took a few (okay, more like 90) (oh-KAY, more like 128) selfish minutes to enjoy good beers and good friends at the La Cumbre Brewing Co. in Albuquerque.

We are, after all, two firm believers that auld acquaintances should not be forgot, regardless of the length of lang or syne. (Or cosine. Or tangent. Math jokes!)

I was first to arrive and claim one of the precious few open tables. Even at three o'clock on a lazy post-holiday Friday, La Cumbre is not just busy, but bursting at its industrial seams. For reasons I do no know, film director John Houston was driving the universe that day, which meant that a series of comical mix-ups, misunderstandings, delays, and misfired texts would cause me to spend the following hour alone, defending my table and its vacant chairs from swooping social vultures.

At last, Zach arrived! After spending the day helping his mother schlep bulk baking ingredients out of bulk-buying stores to her North Valley bakery, he was more than ready to enjoy a craft brew. Not long after he sidled up to the table and shooed away a jovial bench-stealing buzzard (tougher than it sounds), our auld friends Gabe and Leighanna arrived. I say auld not because they are auld folks, or because our friendship has lasted a decade or three (although we surely hope it does), but because it had been such a lang syne since we had last seen them.

While spending the last year in Ireland, Zach and I enjoyed a pre-Christmas getaway to Germany to see the twinkling and sizzling splendors that make up the Weihnachtsmärkte, or Christmas markets. Gabe and Leighanna, who were studying abroad in Germany for the year, took the train to Cologne to meet us for a day and a night out on the town. The four of us had a blast, but had only been in touch online ever since.

We ordered our drinks, reminisced about the glühwein (said like glue-vine, though it tastes too wonderful to be anything like glue in wine), and got up-to-date on each other's lives and job situations. We were just about to tear into the bad economy making job searches tougher than usual when our waitress -- a dark-haired Sheryl Crow, I kid you not -- delivered our drinks.

I got LCBC's 2nd Anniversary Stout, a seasonal brewed to celebrate their second year in business. How could I not partake of the celebration? I love supporting local businesses! And, the bulletin broadcasting the beer's flavor profile and brew process bragged about 1700 pounds of British malts, countless gallons of molasses, 100 pounds of dextrose, and an "astronomical" quantity of hops. The bulletin also noted how the the beer was left to mellow out in Pinot Noir and Syrah wine barrels for about three months. My curiosity was piqued, but my tastebuds were ultimately assaulted.

When the stout arrived in a snifter, I knew I was in for something strong, but I still nearly choked on my very first sip. That dark and sultry stout had wreaking wine-breath, worse than my Aunt Mable. (I don't actually have an Aunt Mable, but if I did, I'm sure she'd be a wino.) The wine vapors inherited from the barrels overwhelmed all other flavors leaving the stout tasting dry and almost antiseptic. Clearly that beer had gone feral in the barrel. I finally had to quit sipping and leave the beer alone. Warmed to room temperature, the beer's overpowering aroma and zing of wine-breath dissipated, opening up a comforting yet complex palate of sweet cocoa and bitter raisin flavors, which is to say, a very enjoyable beer! (Meanwhile, she stared longingly at all of our drinks, wishing for a two-foot straw so she could delicately steal sips from our pints.)

Now, you're all probably saying, "Jenny, dear -- Raisinets are not complex." But should you find yourself sipping a snifter of Anniversary Stout -- comfortably cooled, and less crazy at room temperature -- you'll see, or taste, exactly what I mean.

Meanwhile, across the table, Zach was trying to fish the flavors out of another of La Cumbre's seasonals, the Trout. She makes it sound like I struggled to find something to enjoy. On the contrary, the fishing here was much more like a beautiful day out by the lake -- mild, chill, relaxing, and just warm enough. The Trout plays on its more famous (and decidedly fishier) English counterpart, but this English-style pale ale is much prouder of its flavors. It has its hops, but they don't kick in your teeth like in so many American-style hooligans IPAs enjoy doing. Instead, they impart a delightful citrus profile; not so much bitter lemons as sweetly tart tangerines. The grassiness of some pale ales wasn't to be found here, and the beer was just as enjoyable at the end as at the beginning. The Brits know how to spend a day-long session in the pub, and just like a day spent dangling empty hooks in the lake, I could have enjoyed the Trout from noon to night.

Just before the sun went down, our happy quadra-quaffing group became a quintet when Thomas, another auld friend, beer-lover, and local coffee roaster, breezed through La Cumbre's doors. Another round was ordered, but because John Houston was still at the wheel of the universe, I wound up with a sample of the Hot Shots Rauch. Essentially, a lot of words were misunderstood when the new waiter (who looked decidedly less like Sheryl Crow, for better or for worse) asked what I wanted. I thought he asked to see my ID. When I said I would have to get it out of my wallet, he somehow heard the words "Rauch" and "sample." (Hold your fingers ID-width apart. Then hold them sample-glass-height apart. You'll begin to see how this happened.) Lucky for me it was just a sample, too. The Rauch turned out to be too much for my tastebuds after the feral-barrel stout. Touted as smokey, bready, and full of apples, the Rauch reminded me of the gravy-makin' Liquid Smoke ale we'd sampled in San Antonio. This beer was smokey, but to put it more accurately, and to quote Leighanna when she sipped the sampler, "It tastes like someone put their sparkler out in it." (You mean it tasted like extinguished patriotism? Oh... like sulfur. Got it.)

The waiter seemed all but demoralized when I told him I did not want a full pint of Rauch. He assured me that the brewers had worked extra hard to make those flavors super-subtle. I assured him that the only Hot Shot capable of saving my tongue from the Rauch's pungent singe was a cool and refreshing South Peak Pilsner -- one of LCBC's rock-solid year-round beer selections! He obliged, and with beers in hand, the five of us enjoyed some more "quint"essential quaffing!