Sunday, 1 March 2015

Discovering the Pennsylvania Swankey - A Return to Verboten Brewing

I first paid a visit to Loveland's Verboten Brewing back in February 2013. I had been invited by owners Josh Grenz and Joe Akers along with Kevin Bolin, manager of Fort Collins' ├╝ber-beer bar The Mayor of Old Town, to brew an imperial version of a Kentucky Common, an almost forgotten, pre-prohibition beer style. At this point their brewery, tucked away in a small Colorado Front-Range town, was only two months old but they were already managing to fill their tap room with customers. A solid range of core beers with movie inspired names was in part the reason for this, that and the sense of community that's immediately apparent when you step inside the brewery, even before you've ordered a beer. 

The resulting beer, named I'm All Right Jack, a reference in part to Pink Floyd's Money and in part to the acidulated malt we were using to make a 'sour mash,' was mostly aged in rum barrels. It demonstrated the ambitious nature of head brewer Grenz and was only the beginning of several ambitious forays into barrel ageing. The barrel aged version of this beer went on to win gold for its style at the 2013 All Colorado Beer Festival and I finally got to taste it when I returned to the Mountain State later that year. It was like liquidised Christmas pudding in a glass, rich and intense and incredibly accomplished. I was not surprised by the amount of praise it garnered from local drinkers.

Fast forward and it's December 2014, Kevin and I are back at Verboten but the place has changed remarkably. The once seemingly spacious brewery floor is now crammed with more barrels, more fermenters and seemingly endless coils of industrial hosepipe that snakes across its concrete surface. The moustachioed Grenz is zipping around the room like a hummingbird in search of nectar and suddenly he disappears into the cold room only to return with an unlabelled, wax-sealed bottle of beer. It was a bottle of I'm All Right Jack that had been resting, maturing and it became integral to what was to become a heavy drinking brew day. It was remarkable how the beer had matured, all of its complexities becoming more restrained, elegant and integrated. I only wish there was more of it so I could have shared it with the folks back home, for me it really marks Verboten as ones to watch.

The mash was already on when I arrived, we were brewing a beer that was going to be called 'More,' another Pink Floyd reference. Such is his love for the prog rocksters sometimes you can arrive at the Mayor only to find Kevin on stage, jamming out the bass grooves that made Roger Waters a household name. We were brewing another pre-prohibition beer style I had never heard of, a Pennsylvania Swankey. My research unearthed very little information about the origins of this beer style. What I discovered was that the Swankey was a very low alcohol ale, similar to a British mild but instead of hops the beer was flavoured with herbs such as star anise. It was popular with Dutch and German settlers in the early 1900's but the style eventually diminished. I can imagine than an aniseed flavoured beer was very much an acquired taste.

This being Verboten though, we were pulling no punches. This was not going to be a historically accurate reproduction, this was going to be an imperial version that would finish at around 9% ABV. Grenz had no plans of stopping there though, nosiree, next door to Verboten is the Dancing Pines distillery who, by chance, had just finished a batch of barrel-aged Absinthe and Josh had gotten hold of the barrel. The idea of ageing a star anise infused beer in an Absinthe barrel is either genius or pure insanity, either way it's sure going to be fun finding out what comes out of that barrel. If one thing's for certain it's that if you're not already a lover of liquorice or aniseed then it's unlikely this will be a beer for you.

The brew day went by in a blur, with bottles being opened and stories being shared. What was clear to me is that Verboten are cruising along like a steam train, becoming ever more ambitious and, rightfully so, more popular in a marketplace where it can be difficult to get noticed. It's surely only a matter of time before a lot more people get excited about their beers and that Verboten are spoken of in the same revered tones as some of the USA's most well-loved breweries. What's also interesting to me is how in two brew days I've witnessed the twisted resurrection of two long forgotten beer styles. How many more historical styles are still out there waiting to be rediscovered and, more importantly, how will modern brewers adapt them into something modern drinkers can appreciate.

A non-barrel aged version of More was released at the start of the year, lucky denizens of Northern Colorado can expect the barrel aged version to hit the taps around June. Photo of the Absinthe barrel courtesy of Frank Curtis (or Dad, as I call him.) 

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