June 22, 2012

Denver Chophouse

Think of your favorite steakhouse. Imagine that succulent filet mignon, air-whipped mashed potatoes…maybe a bleu cheese salad? It’s easy to take the stereotypical next step and add in a glass of red wine. It makes sense, in America the two are a standard pairing. Steakhouses across the country regularly top Wine Spectator’s “best of” lists and many employ an in-house sommelier.

So leave it to Denver, smack dab in the middle of the “Napa Valley of Beer”, to buck the trend and instead have the Chophouse, a beer-centric steakhouse that brews its own. This high-end “brew-steakhouse”, located just south of Coors Field, has been serving up steaks and house-brewed suds since 1995. Owned and operated by Craftworks, the company that owns Rock Bottom and Old Chicago, the Denver Chophouse’s success has led to additional locations in Cleveland, Boulder, and Washington DC.

Here is the thing about the Chophouse though, ask your average beer geek for a list of local breweries and chances are it won’t be on there. Most people think of it only as a restaurant and forget that it’s a brewery too. I admit I’m probably guilty of the same thing, not having stopped in for a few years. I recalled their beers being decent, but unexciting. I figure now was as good a time as any to drop in to see if they were truly forgettable, or just overlooked.

The restaurant and brewery are housed in the historic Union Pacific Building. Its vast size provides ample space for both a large numbers of dining patrons, as well as a decent sized brewing operation. The interior is dark with lots of mahogany and low lights; the feel of your stereotypical steakhouse. During the summer, their back patio opens up to overlook the pedestrian walkway to Coors Field.

Their beers are based on very classic styles which each large European brewing epicenter respresented: Germany, England, Ireland, and Belgium. Included are a Wheat, Pale, Stout, Red, and Pilsner, and they’re named as such. Also on tap are the somewhat obscure styles, Dortmunder, Dunkel (named Dark Munich Lager), and a bourbon barrel-aged, Oatmeal Stout (named Bourbon Stout).

A taster tray didn’t come cheap, ringing in at $15 (!) for 5-oz of each beer. Otherwise, beers are $5.25 a pint, except for the Bourbon Stout at $6. Prices are substantially more affordable during happy hour (4-7 P.M., Mon-Fri) when all beers are $3 a piece.

Now, it seems the brewing world has been inundated with these new, ultra-innovative beers intent on pushing creative boundaries. Beers like Belgian Double IPAs and Chardonnay barrel-aged Apricot Blondes. While I’m definitely not complaining, I’ve also found myself yearning for just a crisp, easy-drinking pilsner.  So when this selection of classic beer styles was laid out on the bar for me, I was excited.

However, as I worked my way through the samples, most left me a bit disappointed. The Pilsner had a syrupy, corn taste and none of the contrasting, elegant hops that complete this style. The wheat was filtered, so while there was some coriander spiciness, that full, chewy yeastiness was missing, leaving a bland impression. Even the bourbon barrel-aged Oatmeal Stout, by far the most creative beer on the menu, fell short; at only 6% ABV, it’s not strong enough to extract the oak flavors that make barrel aged beers so complex and delicious. In its place, was an overpowering strong bourbon presence over some sweet, roasted, chocolate flavors.  A shadow of what it could have been.

I’m not saying that the beers were bad per se, but they didn’t hit on what makes their brewing style special. They seem to have been crafted with the intention of being as inoffensive as possible, but were resultantly a muted version of what they could be. That being said, there were a few exceptions; the Pale Ale was quite drinkable, though was really more of an English Bitter, having some sweet caramel flavors and a complementary resiny, hop bitterness. The Dortmunder was also pleasant with its balanced grainy sweetness and floral hops. Overall, however, I found I left more beer at the bar than I drank.

Now, I’m well aware that the average customer at the Chophouse isn’t a beer connoisseur. The makeup of the clientele is probably a lot of tourists and people catching dinner before the ballgame. I’d guess the aim is to brew middle-of-the-road beers that are accessible to a very broad crowd. Although they probably accomplished that, their portfolio also isn’t going to inspire anyone to become a beer connoisseur either. While the Chophouse is a good downtown spot to grab a steak, when it comes to beer, I would turn to one of our other many great, nearby options.


The Chophouse

(303) 296-0800

1735 19th St, Denver, CO

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May 2, 2012

Great Divide Brewing Company

It’s officially baseball season. The Rockies have dusted off their gloves and set to work on their destiny to becoming 2012 World Champions. Living so close to a MLB stadium is a privilege I’ve not always had, so my better half and I try to make it to Coors Field whenever possible. Whenever we go, it’s no coincidence that we seem to park next to the Great Divide brewery. Popping in to see what new brews they have on tap has become something of a pre-game ritual.

The cornerstone of the craft brewery revival in Denver, Great Divide Brewing Co. has been around for a while. Actually, a long while considering the average lifespan of many craft breweries. They began brewing in 1994 and opened their taproom doors to the public in 2005. While they first focused their efforts on their more easy drinking, mass marketable beers  such as DPA (Denver Pale Ale) and Wild Raspberry Ale, they found their niche in the scene with their ultra-strong, aggressively hopped ales like Old Ruffian, Yeti, and Hercules.

Since then, their success has brought about a massive brewery expansion. Demand has been so high they have actually had to halt distribution to some of their out-of-state markets because they could not keep up with orders. A problem I bet many businesses wish they had right now.

Now, I’m sure Denver beer lovers are well aware of the wealth of offerings of Great Divide, from their beat-the-summer-heat Samurai Rice Ale to Titan, their uber-hopped IPA. But what many might not know is that they offer a few taproom-only beers to those willing to seek out the source. These beers are often brewed on their new pilot brewing system, a very small, almost homebrew sized setup. This system allows the brewers to tinker with different styles without the financial burden of a massive commercial-sized batch. It’s these creative beers that keep us as regular patrons.

Located just north of downtown, the taproom was recently expanded to double its previous square footage; a welcome change to a bar regularly packed to the gills.  In addition, a front patio nearly doubles the occupancy in the warm summer months. Located on a somewhat busy street, it’s not the lazy, dog-day patio we all dream about during the cold winter months, but it can still be a pleasant respite from the noisy hubbub of the taproom. No food is served, however, regular visits from Denver’s fine selection of food trucks fill the void nicely.

Beers are fairly reasonable at $4 a piece, but note that the size of the pour will vary based on the strength of the beer. Plus, all beers are $1 off during their happy hour from 4-6 P.M. making it one of the cheaper taprooms in town. It was only last year that they began charging $1 per beer sample, but with all proceeds going to support charity, it’s hard to complain (though I still do sometimes).

Two beers have especially stuck out in recent visits. The first, the Rockies Real Ale, is a throwback to English pub beers of yore. Real Ales, as the Brits call them, are beers that are unfiltered, unpasteurized and served with active yeast. This yeast allows them to carbonate naturally with fermentation-produced CO2 instead of being forced carbonated. The finished product is a beer that is often more complex and better integrated when compared to their filtered brethren.

The Rockies Real Ale is an unfiltered, “Real” version of their award-winning pale ale, DPA. With malt flavors that pop with a unique nuttiness and floral, almost blossom-like, hop aroma notes, it makes one wish that this beer was available year round. And this is coming from a huge fan of normal DPA.

The second beer that stood out was their oak-aged double IPA. Weighing in at a hefty 10% ABV, Great Divide brewed this monster up as their 18th Anniversary Ale. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical after reading the description. The typical warm, vanilla and coconut-ey flavors from the oak didn’t seem a nice compliment to the strong, citrusy, American hops that Great Divide normally uses in their beer. However, the oak was subtle (think French Chardonnay oak versus American bourbon barrel oak) and the hops were more of the English-style, with an earthy resin flavor that blended nicely.

Who’s to say how long they’ll have these beers, but experience predicts whatever replaces them will be worth the trip. So, if you haven’t been to the taproom yet, or think that you have already conquered all that Great Divide has to offer, stop in. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Prost!

Great Divide Brewing Co. Taproom
2201 Arapahoe Street
(303)296-9460 ext. 26

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