Best Of The West 2012: Western Craft Breweries Savor The Flavors
Photography: Aaron Dougherty Photography
In one swift motion the bartender flips a coaster onto the dark wood of the bar, sets down a glass, pops the tab of a can, and pours. A pint’s worth of foamy amber liquid fills the glass. Brewmaster Dave Chichura reaches out and grabs it, but he doesn’t down the brew right away. Instead, he holds the glass up to the light then checks the can for the production date.
“I’m seeing a little chill haze,” says Chichura, frowning slightly before sampling his pour of Oskar Blues Brewery’s Mama’s Little Yella Pils. After a quick taste of the bright golden pilsner-style beer, he taps a few notes into his smart phone. Whether he’s on-site at Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colorado, or on the road promoting the brand, Chichura is engrossed in his process, always thinking about the batches, always tasting, always tracking samples of his product firsthand.
But when asked about the current state of the craft beer business, his concentration breaks a little and he offers a wry smile. “Well, there’s a lot more competition, that’s for sure,” he says.
About 2,000 breweries’ worth of competition, that is.
Welcome to the burgeoning world of craft beer, which takes pride in hands-on attention to detail, artsy labels, funky flavors, and small-batch production. Which begs the question: What does small mean, exactly, when it comes to beer? The Brewers Association (the trade group representing the majority of U.S. brewing companies) defines small as 6 million barrels of beer or less a year. That may sound like a lot, but compared with the big boys like Anheuser-Busch (which produces nearly 100 million barrels a year) or MillerCoors (about 60 million barrels a year), you can understand why craft beers are also commonly referred to as “microbrews.”
In addition to the volume requirement, a regional craft brewery is supposed to be independently owned and, interestingly enough, required to have at least half of its production focused on beers “which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.” That clarion call for enhanced flavor is tantamount to a dare. Take risks, young man, it says. Surprise the beer-jaded, the taste-dulled. Tweak proportions, experiment with yeast strains, gamble on local or seasonal ingredients. Take well-established ideas about brewing into uncharted territory.
And the brewers have taken heed. For them, no aspect of creativity is off-limits. Example: Chichura’s Oskar Blues is one of the few craft brewers that market their products in a can. In a craft-beer world of brown and green bottles with clever and colorful labels, the irreverence of an aluminum throwback bucks the trend of those that buck the trend. And it’s true for the beer as well. Oskar Blues’ Ten Fidy Imperial Stout (pronounced fiddy, gangsta style) is, as the name implies, thick and viscous as 10W-50 motor oil. In contrast, Mama’s Little Yella Pils is a swing in the opposite direction, like clear and golden sunshine on a late afternoon in the Rockies.
Other Western breweries are embracing that same fearless pioneering spirit, while bottling a little history along with the hops. In the modest town of Krebs, Oklahoma, the Krebs Brewing Company is earning gold medals with its version of Choc beer, a kind of homemade brew that was popular in southern Oklahoma in the late 19th century. Choc (short for Choctaw) beer came about because selling alcohol was prohibited in Indian Territory, and then Prohibition kept the state dry until 1959. So if you wanted hooch, you had to brew your own.
The recipes vary from place to place, but a young Italian immigrant turned coal miner named Pete Prichard (born Pietro Piegari) would soon lay claim to the name, after a mining accident forced him to make ends meet by brewing his own ale. “With the passage of time details have become more and more murky,” says Zach Prichard, Pete’s great-grandson, about the source of the recipe. “We do know Pete was not alone. The practice of home-brewing Choc was fairly common, and some locals still carry on the tradition.”
Although Pete ended up doing two stints behind bars during Prohibition, the brand and the beer survived and have since become an Oklahoma institution. “The greatest thing about making beer in Oklahoma is getting to share our unique story and the beers that help tell those stories to new people,” Zach says. “At the same time, it is great to turn people on to a style of beer they might have never tried before.”
And that’s exactly what it all ferments down to: turning people on to new beers, each with its own unique tale. Each craft brew is distinct to its region because of the local ingredients, the brewmasters’ ingenuity, and the independent spirit that went into its creation. And each one sure makes for a good story to tell over a good stout.