Boulder Beer company has the reputation of not very good beers amongst people I have been talking to lately, so I went to see for myself. I have never been to their facility. I have had their flagship beers, Singletrack Copper Ale and Buffalo Gold which are served at most Old Chicago Restaurants (they have a strategic partnership with Rock Bottom Brewery (owner of Old C) and are also distributed coast to coast. Their distribution map looks like a snake throughout the United States, Washington to California, through the southwest up diagonally to Minnesota, across all of the Great Lakes States, splitting eastward to New York and MA (and adjacent states), and southeast down the Dixie Highway to Florida. I guess almost no one has an excuse not to try this beer.
My first taster was that of a Pass Time, a traditional English Pale Ale....emphasis English.
This beer is unlike what you usually get when ordering a pale ale. The sweet flavor emphasizes the malt which is unusual, or has it been that long since I had an English Pale Ale? I might be tempted to call this under hopped, but I think, rather, most examples are probably over hopped or an "American" Pale Ale mislabeled simply as a Pale Ale. It is drinkable, and these days falls into what I would call a session beer. I also tried Cold Hop, their current seasonal, hoppier and stronger than Pass Time, perhaps an Export version of Pass Time (but not an IPA), still smooth, balanced.
I next contrasted their Sundance Amber Ale and their Hazed and Infused Dry Hopped Ale. I asked the barkeep if these were the same beers with different hop schedules (and the Hazed is unfiltered, hence the name).. The barkeep denied it, but I don't believe him. Even the ABV listed for both are the same....this makes for an interesting question, is it wrong to make two of the same beers with differing hop schedules and sell as different beers? I would probably prefer an acknowledgement of the sameness by calling it out in the description. Hazed and Infused is a good beer, but it still doesn't overwhelm with hop bitterness, aroma, or flavor comparatively to other big beers. It is listed as 38 IBU's (International Bittering Units), that is low....this beer is all about the dry hop (addition of hops in the primary or secondary fermenter, imparting a strong and fresh hop aroma).
A girl all of 22 sat down next to me and ordered a "hazed" and proceeded to text away....a couple of guys are in for the afternoon Rockies game, a good lunch crowd is on the patio. A couple of regulars sit at the bar. The girl's nasally voice is killing me, but she smells nice, and she is drinking a real beer on a Thursday afternoon, making the experience palatable. This is starting to sound like a Sheryl Crow song.
The last comparison of beers I tried was Planet Porter in bottle vs. casked. The Planet Porter is one of the original recipes from 1979. When I asked for a porter, and when he moved to open the bottle.....I told him to stop. I don't want to try a bottle of anything when I am in a tap room. He asked, "Do you want to try it on cask?" I can't believe he didn't offer it up before, duh, yeah. A Porter, in my opinion should be on cask, served slightly warm....the comparison was more of a contrast, the porter in the bottle was carbonated and tinny, the cask was warm and smooth.
I guess the cask wasn't listed on the board as it is newly tapped. I am a cask fan, I like dark or heavy beers served this way (but not exclusively). At any rate, if your local establishment has a beer on cask, try it in a taster, and compare with their normally produced and served product. Ask for a free taster...if they don't give you any or want to charge for the taste, there is something wrong with them. You are just trying to find a beer that you will be happy with.
The difference between the same kind of beer from a standard keg and cask is sometimes astounding. Technically, they are the same beer....but served differently. For full disclosure, I am pro-keg, even though I bottle my own beers. I think beer tastes better on tap. Someday, I will buy into a keg system, but I like the portability of bottles for my beer. Cask beer is pumped by hand from a beer engine into your glass. The cask vessel is usually small (a firkin or quarter barrel) and cask offerings are only good (and available) for a day or two at a time because unlike modern kegs, the cask pumps air into the cask, rather than CO^2. It is wise to ask when a cask was tapped to ensure that it is not more than a couple of days old.
I was just about to leave and they announced a tour. I almost never pass up a chance to go on a tour, even at breweries I frequent, as it is nice to look around at the equipment and see real beer being made up close. I never expect the information from the tour guide to be entirely accurate though. This tour was more informational and showed a number of locations in the brewery more than I expected.
The thing that you notice about the brewing facilities at the Boulder Beer Company, is that like their pub, things are old (twenty five years old to be exact). This brewery facility was built in 1984. Although the 50 barrel system's mash tun and kettle are copper and the facility upstairs was clean, they are the old-school, built into the floor variety, and they don't spend a lot of time shining them up. The downstairs (fermentation and storage) was a little gritty and all the concrete surfaces were stained with mildew from years of humidity. The fermenters were wrapped in foil surfaced insulation, which made them look duct taped together. This is a stark contrast to newer breweries bright, clean copper mash tun and exposed double walled stainless steel conical fermenters.
Years of modifications and expansions in this brewery result in a maze of areas and equipment and a preference of function over form. This brewery was built when no small brewery model design was available. They were the prototype of the small brewery and seem to have made changes over time on the fly. Perhaps it is the MacEyver in me that likes this. The tour ended in their banquet room with samples of all of their current offerings, and some free swag. All in all, the tour, the tasting, and the free swag all exceeded my experience at many other breweries. My favorite tours, though, are those impromptu offerings when I happen to be able to talk to the brewer in person (usually small places) and he/she invites me in after learning I am a brewer myself.
I realized after I left the brewery that I forgot to pay my tab.....crap...the free beer at the end obviously threw me. I went back the next day to pay and apologize profusely. The barkeep was not the same guy, but I had him promise to pass my apology along (with the payment and tip). I hope he got it.
My impression of the Boulder Beer Company is that they don't specialize in fancy beers that knock your socks off, although some of their offerings are hoppy and/or strong. Their beers are more basic, and I hate to say it, maybe not entirely memorable. That is not saying that the beers are not good; they are, and they consistently win medals at the GABF. They do stay true to the defined styles, and as a result they are not attention grabbers. Even their Hazed and Infused (which is a great name and their best seller at their pub) seems subdued and tame (a good term instead of tame is mellow) compared to the big beers of the day.
I enjoyed these beers, and can drink a few. Maybe these types of beers were built into the Boulder Brewing Company brewery's DNA as the brewery was born when just making good beer was the most important thing, maybe the only thing, necessary to grab your attention.