If you ever needed a good beer, 2020 was the year. And Colorado breweries didn’t disappoint.
The industry’s ability to pivot and make the best of a bad situation — not to mention the loyalty of legions of beer fans — is evident in The Colorado Sun’s survey of the best breweries and beers in 2020.
The results of the survey — completed by dozens of brewers, industry experts and beer enthusiasts — offer a good look at what’s hot in craft beer right now and what’s to come in 2021. More than 50 breweries in Colorado were nominated at least once, showcasing the wide range of good beer in the state.
This year, we are adding a new winner in the top categories: crowd favorite. This nod goes to breweries with the top rankings on Untappd, the popular social media app that allows beer lovers to rate their favorite breweries and beers.
The overall winners represent the top picks from both data sources — the survey and average Untappd ratings data provided to The Sun.
Colorado Brewery of the Year
For the second straight year, a house of lagers is Colorado’s favorite brewery. Bierstadt Lagerhaus was recognized across the board. It received the most votes for best brewery in the survey and a top 10 finish in the Untappd ratings. In addition, five of its brews were nominated for best beer.
The Denver brewery kept its position at the top with a graceful shift during the pandemic as it began canning its world-class beers for the first time and opened a huge outdoor yard and served small personalized kegs for quarantine pods to drink beer safely at a distance.
Bierstadt’s clean, crisp lagers are the antithesis to the current trends toward big, adjunct stouts and super-hopped hazy IPAs. But most beer drinkers appeared to agree that what we all need right now is a well-made, beer-flavored beer that won’t put you on the floor in one pint.
Crowd favorite: Amalgam Brewing
The small Denver brewery is typically open once a month and distributes only a small number of bottles outside its beer club. (The tasting room is closed for now amid the pandemic.) Even though it specializes in barrel-aged sours and saisons, Amalgam’s bold stouts — loaded with vanilla and other adjunct ingredients — often get the most recognition on Untappd. Its Underground Breakfast 2020, with additions of vanilla beans, maple syrup and coffee, ranked as one of the top 10 beers in the state, based on Untappd user rankings.
Top crowd favorites in this category, per Untappd numbers, included Burns Family Artisan Ales in Denver; Casey Brewing and Blending in Glenwood Springs; and Primitive in Fort Collins. Other survey finalists included New Image in Arvada; Holidaily and Cannonball Creek in Golden; Wiley Roots in Greeley; and Outer Range in Frisco.
John Frank’s pick: Cerebral Brewing
When the pandemic hit, I doubled down on a brewery a mile from home and rediscovered the super interesting and delicious beers from Sean Buchan and his team at Cerebral in Denver. The hazy IPAs are better than ever and the intricate foeder-aged lagers hit the spot when you want a break for the overpowering nature of today’s beer offerings.
Colorado Beer of the Year
Slow Pour Pils, Bierstadt Lagerhaus
A great brewery is built on great beer. So a double win for Bierstadt Lagerhaus makes sense.
Slow Pour Pils is clear and crisp with a bitter bite that is refreshing. Its name comes from how it is poured at the taproom, ever so slowly with a white foam head crowning the tall, skinny glass. The German pilsner is what they call crushable — meaning you can drink a few of them without going overboard.
If you didn’t make it to the taproom, no worries. One of the few silver linings from the pandemic is Bierstadt’s decision to can the beer and distribute it to stores in the Denver area. Pour it slowly at home or not, it’s a special Colorado treat.
Crowd favorite: Starry Noche, WeldWerks Brewing
The barrel-aged imperial stout — originally set for release at the Greeley brewery’s fifth anniversary party, which was canceled because of the pandemic — is part of the Medianoche stout series. This version aged nearly two years in bourbon barrels and then sat on toasted coconut flakes and raw coconut chips and was finished with toasted hazelnut.
A close second in the Untappd ratings was Coconut Medianoche. In fact, seven of the top 20 beers in Colorado this year came from WeldWerks. Both ranked high in the survey, too.
The Untappd ratings showed the top 20 beers all separated by 0.3 in the ratings. The other finalists in this category included the Fruit Lady series from Wiley Roots Brewing in Greeley and Casey Family Preserves and Leaner from Casey Brewing in Glenwood Springs.
John Frank’s pick: Crooked Stave’s Gift of Time and Fiction Beer’s 6
I can’t pick just one, so here’s one stout and one IPA I am still thinking about. The Gift of Time Stout Month edition from Crooked Stave was a deeply complex yet smooth blend that aged in select barrels for more than 44 months. Fiction Beer’s 6 is a hazy IPA that celebrates the Denver brewery’s sixth anniversary and remains one of the best I’ve ever had from them. It popped with citrus flavors from the hops and yet finished soft and pillowy.
Favorite Up-and-Coming Colorado Brewery
Knotted Root Brewing
Knotted Root arrived on the scene in July 2019 and made a distinct impression in its first year. The brewery’s collection of hazy IPAs showcased big flavors from a variety of top-notch hops and the tart and fruit-forward sours landed perfectly on trend.
The Nederland brewers received a handful of survey votes for top brewery, and Untappd ratings put them at No. 4 in 2020.
Like so many breweries these days, the tap and can list is a constant rotation that provides new flavor experiences with each one. The brewery’s beers are available at select retailers in the Denver and Boulder areas, and Chris Klein, the co-founder, says distribution is expected to become more frequent in Colorado Springs and Fort Collins in the new year.
Crowd favorite: Knotted Root Brewing
The survey and Untappd ratings found agreement here. Knotted Root is the newest brewery to land in the top brewery ratings for 2020. And it drew plenty of attention. It ranked second among all breweries with more than 5,000 check-ins. The brewery’s Purple Paste — a fruited gose with blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, black currant, and pomegranate aged on vanilla beans and marshmallows — landed in the top 20 beers of the year based on Untappd ratings.
The other finalists in this category included Wild Provisions Beer Project in Boulder; Raices Brewing in Denver; Tres Litros in Salida; and Metric in Colorado Springs.
John Frank’s pick: Raices Brewing
This Latino-owned brewery in the shadow of Mile High Stadium in Denver is producing some of the city’s most interesting beer flavors and boasts a gorgeous taproom. When COVID-19 clears, put Raices’ Suave Fest beer festival on your list as a must-do.
Colorado Brewery to Watch in 2021
Opening a brewery is tough, and the pandemic made it even harder. But Peculier Ales in downtown Windsor managed to do the seemingly impossible. Former WeldWerks brewer Nick Armitage began pouring beers in August that immediately drew attention.
Peculier is dedicated to making “beer that is set apart from the traditionally accepted standards” — a nod toward the derivation of its name. The tap list includes a mix of lager, interesting fruited Berliner weisse and big stouts, like its new Christmas Truffle.
In the survey, the brewery received nods for best up and comer and as the one to watch in 2021 as it completes its first year. Kyle Carbaugh, the co-owner at Wiley Roots in Greeley, says Peculier deserves a place on the map “because they’re putting out some great beer from the start!”
The other finalists in this category included Wiley Roots in Greeley, which just announced a major expansion, and Outer Range, which added a coffee shop and restaurant as it expanded its taproom in Frisco.
John Frank’s pick: Wild Provisions Beer Project
This Boulder-based spin off of Four Noses Brewing is a super interesting business and beer concept. While Four Noses is known for its hazy IPAs, Wild Provisions is dedicated to spontaneous and mixed fermentation sours as well as open-fermented lagers. It’s almost an experiment about whether new or old will win in the current beer landscape. I’m hoping both find tasty success.
Top Beer Trend in 2020
The No. 1 answer in the survey was the move toward packaging beer in cans and getting it into distribution. It’s definitely a trend forced by the pandemic.
Until this year, many brewers were content on serving at the taproom rather than distributing their cans. But with taprooms closed or at limited capacity, getting beer to consumers became the trick to survival. The trouble is that now beer shelves are not rainbows of eye-catching cans and it’s harder than ever to stand out in the crowd.
“Pivoting your business to stay afloat — whether it was delivery, packaging, service model changes, added virtual marketing or increased presence online. Everyone had to draw new lines in which to color in for any stream of revenue,” says James Howat at Black Project Spontaneous and Wild Ales.
John Frank’s pick: Smoothie sours
These days, an average beer drinker needs a glossary to explain all the emerging beer “styles” that are designed to replicate other beverages. One of the new entries is smoothie sours, which finished second in the survey.
The beer starts as a kettle sour — a quicker souring method — and then loads of pureed fruit are added to make the flavor and thicker consistency resemble a fruit smoothie. It’s a cousin to the pastry sour in which a sweet element is added to evoke a dessert, often lactose or vanilla, or more.
For brewers, it’s love or hate. But the trend toward fruit in beer seems to be hitting its peak and the smoothie sours are just one of the ways brewers are reaching consumers who aren’t interested in traditional beer styles and want something new and refreshing.
Beer Trend to Watch in 2021
A return to normal times
The optimism in the survey is evident. Colorado brewers are eagerly looking ahead to 2021 when brewery taprooms can return to normal.
When will that be? No one knows for sure. The idea of full taprooms seems like a foreign concept after months of capacity limits and outdoor seating. “The breweries that make it will truly be in an incredible position,” says Andrew Duvall, the community manager at Resolute Brewing Company in Centennial.
The COVID-19 vaccine distribution is fueling hope for a return to more normal business operations, but it will take half a year before more of the public starts to see it. Nonetheless, the wishful thinking is ramping up.
“I think we are going to see record-smashing taproom sales in Q3 along with the rowdiest most convivial beer fests ever,” says Andy Astor at Elevation Beer Co. in Poncha Springs.
John Frank’s pick: Low-alcohol and nonalcoholic beers
More than a year ago, I wrote about the trend toward lower alcohol beers, and the interest is only accelerating. The trend seems particularly poised to blossom here in Colorado given the state’s reputation for active lifestyles.
“New lower (alcohol by volume) options will help support longer and more frequent visits to breweries and beer-focused restaurants,” says Casey Kirk, the general manager at the Lowry Beer Garden.
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