Too Big to Ale?

Breckenridge Brewery keeps expanding while losing none of its craft-beer cred.

Tapping in: Too Big to Ale?

Among craft beer aficionados, a great deal of concern swirls around microbreweries that have “gone macro,” with some having even “sold out” to the more established big breweries. The mug-half-full argument, however, is that this growth and expansion indicates an industry healthy enough to spur investment and command an increasing share of a beer market that has been forever dominated by a handful of companies.

Several Colorado breweries are products of this environment, and due to their ever-increasing popularity, they have continued to expand both their facilities and branding.

Breckenridge Brewery is one example. A relative senior citizen in the craft beer industry, Breckenridge celebrated its 25th Anniversary in July. It also opened a brand new production facility and restaurant in Littleton. The new digs pump out 62,000 barrels of beer a year, compared to the 3,000 barrels-a-year from the original brewery.

To understand where the company came from and where it’s headed, I drove up to its eponymous Brewery and Pub in downtown Breckenridge. A heavy midafternoon shower didn’t deter visitors from packing the restaurant, which appears to be your typical take on an American brewpub, with a variety of house taps and standard wings and nachos pub fare. But it definitely ups the ante with non-standard dishes such as the tomatillo chicken salad sandwich and turkey apple sandwich. The heaping slices of fluffy, buttery focaccia bread did their duty of soaking up a sampling of all the house beers, and coming from someone who grew up with two Kentucky grandmothers, I can say with authority that the mashed potatoes are world-class.

Although I try to balance out my tastings when working through a large sampling, I finished the first beer on the tray, the Summer Bright Ale, before even taking a look at the others. The name says it all; the effervescence brightens up an initial aroma of citrus fruits, and also cuts into the slight pith-like bitterness. The addition of lemon and orange peels, along with a dry, spritzy finish is surprisingly thirst-quenching for such a full-flavored beer.

With the Front Porch Session IPA (4.0% alcohol by volume), Breckenridge throws its hat into the ring with numerous other low-abv pale ales being produced in the craft beer world. The overall balance definitely leans towards hops; it’s more fruity than piney, with a lingering herbal quality on the back end.

Both of the higher-strength IPAs, Breck IPA and 471 Double IPA, have big, malty backbones that balance toward chewy sweetness. Breck IPA is the lighter of the two, and has a piney tang, but is quite smooth and sneaky at 6.2% abv.

Breckenridge Brewery Littleton

Despite its enormity, The Farm House maintains the inviting intimacy of a classic brewpub.

Although it is ubiquitous across the nation as the perfect example of a flavor-infused porter, I’d be remiss not to mention Vanilla Porter. Some beers have a nostalgic quality and are able to transport you to another place, just like the aromas and flavor of comfort foods evoke childhood and home-cooked meals. Vanilla Porter reminds me of what it was like to try a craft beer before I understood what good beer really meant. The vanilla evinces itself throughout, both in aroma and flavor. The beer has a light body, but is not thin, which makes it much more drinkable than thicker versions where heavy stouts are the base. The delicate balance of creamy vanilla and hints of malted milk are the beer’s hallmarks, with little to no roasted qualities to mask the luscious flavors.

Breckenridge Brewery’s biggest seller is its amber style Avalanche Ale. Much like other such “intro” craft beers created by larger breweries—including New Belgium’s Fat Tire—it drinks easily and relies mostly on caramel malts for flavor. It is by far the most approachable of Breckenridge’s lineup and the one that established the brewery as the Denver area’s biggest producer of suds.

Outside of the genre-bending Vanilla Porter, you are unlikely to find any Breckenridge brews reaching cult status. But enough precious beers already fill that category. Although microbreweries will always be cranking out newer and bolder versions of classic styles, many of these beers will still maintain a relatively small audience, so it’s the mainstays of breweries like Breckenridge that will lead the ever-encroaching push into the overall beer market and make more room for the niche nanos.

The latest manifestation of this push is its Farm House Restaurant, in Littleton. I arrived via the South Platte River bike trail, which conveniently saddles up right next to the brewery. Although I appreciate a nice, cozy, no-frills nanobrewery, the size and beauty of the new 85,000-square-foot facility made me feel proud that the craft-beer industry has the ability to support the public demand for such an awesome site.

Despite its enormity, the Farm House was intimate and extremely inviting. My group of road-weary adults and an attention-deprived one-year-old were more than comfortable sitting on the huge wrap-around porch, which also connects to a beer garden (more like a beer field!) replete with outside mobile bar and plenty of seating and outdoor games for entertainment.

I’m not always in favor of breweries going big, especially if it’s at the expense of their ability to connect with their core customers, but if you are going to expand, this is certainly the way to do it.

Home-brewer and freelance beer writer Cody Gabbard contributes regularly to CAG and the Boulder Weekly.

Related Links:

Brews for the Ages

“I Always Play Better After a Few Beers”

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