For all the popularity of craft beer, it’s strangely absent in pop culture. While the country singers twang on about cheap, domestic swill, as rappers exalt gin and juice, Cristal, and “Sizzurp,” and whereas wine is glorified in films such as Sideways and Bottle Shock, the American craft beer phenomenon is left largely unmentioned in film, TV, and radio. There was a blip of hope in 2010 when Discovery Channel ran Brew Masters, a reality show following Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione and his quest to make weird and wonderful beers, but it was quickly canceled due to big beer threatening to pull their ads unless the show was axed or simply because of poor ratings (it depends on which story you want to believe). Regardless, mainstream media and craft beer haven’t had the strongest of relationships.
On September 23, 2013, Style Network was rebranded as Esquire Network and, ever since, the channel has been airing Brew Dogs on Tuesdays at 10/9c. Featuring Scottish brewers James Watt and Martin Dickie as they travel to America’s greatest beer cities, Brew Dogs strikes the golden balance between appeasing both beer geeks and casual viewers. For the hardcore fans, there’s talk of rare beer, discussions on brewing methods, and interviews with legendary brewers such as Stone Brewing Co.’s Greg Koch and Elysian Brewing Company’s Dick Cantwell. Meanwhile, the casual viewer remains entertained with Jackass-esque stunts (e.g. snorting powdered coffee, eating the world’s hottest chili pepper, waxing off nipple hair), inexplicable nudity, and sarcastic Scottish humor spoken in a thick brogue.
Craft beer newbies can learn a lot by watching the show but beer geeks, too, get an education. Beer geeks may know their local beer scene inside-and-out but they’ll also learn about other craft meccas with which they may not be familiar, places beyond their metro area. When Brew Dogs visits a city other than one’s own, the beer geek, in a sense, becomes a newbie.
What happens, though, when James and Martin visits your hometown? It’s then that hardcore beer fans realize that the pendulum sometimes swings a little further to the casual viewer side. When you’re an outsider looking in, the Brew Dogs synopsis of, say, Portland seems like the true beer geek’s perspective. When they come to your city, however, you notice minor errors and tweaked statistics that drive highly neurotic viewers completely insane. That highly neurotic viewer was me when the Denver episode of Brew Dogs aired.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the show and I especially loved the Denver episode; anytime Denver gets its due recognition for being a great beer city, I’m happy. It’s just that I, a local beer geek, understandably, know more about my city’s beer scene than some dudes from Scotland. They made infinitesimal and infrequent mistakes but, dammit, I’m a stickler for the facts (at least when it comes to my beloved city)!
Although Brew Dogs visits a different city every week, each episode follows a basic formula that’s repeated no matter where James and Martin find themselves. Let’s break-down the Denver episode based on this formula.
Meeting the Brewer
The first thing James and Martin do when they roll into town is talk to one of the city’s famous brewers. For this episode, they met with Oskar Blues Brewery’ Dale Katechis at the Tasty Weasel Taproom in Longmont. Let’s stop right there for a moment. I adore Oskar Blues’ beers but they are not located in Denver. As nit-picky as I am, this discrepancy actually didn’t bother me. Oskar Blues is a fantastic brewery but Brew Dogs will never do a whole episode on Longmont or Lyons, they have to mention Oskar Blues when they’re at least in the right state. Sure, I know plenty of Denver brewers but, let’s face it, few have the name recognition of Dale Katechis. It’s about striking that balance: give the beer geeks a legendary brewer and give the casual viewers a man (or, at least, a brewery) they recognize even if only superficially. Besides, this wasn’t the first time Brew Dogs stretched the city limits. While Stone has taprooms in San Diego, the original and main brewery is in Escondido. Likewise in the Philadelphia episode, Victory Brewing Company is actually in Downingtown. Brew Dogs has a “let’s just get it in the ballpark” approach to the term “local.”
Formulating the Recipe/Brewing the Beer
After their salutations, James, Martin, and the brewer taste beers that the brewer deems representative of the local craft beer scene (of course, this often involves beers from the brewer’s own brewery). Dale served up his flagship Dale’s Pale Ale along with Ten FIDY and G’Knight. From other breweries, they sampled Ska Brewing’s Modus Hoperandi and Great Divide Brewing Co.’s Hercules Double IPA. Sufficiently inspired, they set out to make the most Colorado-centric beer possible.
Making a local-specific beer is the overarching plot of each episode and it’s interspersed throughout the entire show. Generally, there are some really off-the-wall ingredients involved including some that make for a neat story but add nothing to the flavor. For example, they’ve collected fog from San Francisco Bay and they’ve tossed in a copy of the Declaration of Independence that was encoded on a strain of DNA. Then, to make it even more local, they brew the beer in an iconic location such as on a ferry in Seattle, on a 4th of July float near Philadelphia, or on the roof of Anchor Brewing where the first California common beers were created.
To make a Denver beer, Dale, James, and Martin decided to brew a pale ale using meat-smoked malts (the meat, a hind shank, came from Oskar Blues’ Hops & Heifers Farm), prickly pear cactus harvested from the foothills of the Rockies, and, the non-flavoring ingredient, Colorado’s famous 300 days of sunshine; instead of using a propane or electric heater, they set up an elaborate system of parabolic mirrors and a magnifying lens to boil their wort. Brewing location: atop Mt. Evans (Bonus: they had trouble boiling the water quickly so they used the lens to heat up a rock found on Mt. Evans and put that in the kettle; there’s actually a piece of the Rocky Mountains in this beer).
Craft Beer Virgins
Wherever James and Martin go, they find non-craft drinkers and attempt to convert them into full-fledged craft beer lovers. This is done several times throughout each show but the first segment in the Denver episode would make any Colorado beer geek proud. James and Martin went to Boulder’s ten20 beauty salon, found a group of unassuming young ladies in the pedicure chairs, and asked them what type of beer they liked, surely expecting answers like “I don’t like beer” or “Shock Top” or some other clichéd girlie-girl answer. Not in Colorado, boys; “IPAs,” said one lady, “Porters,” said another, “Saisons,” chimed in the next one. You could tell from their responses that these girls weren’t virgins (er, craft beer virgins, that is). I guess the producers didn’t feel like scouting out a new location so James and Martin ignored the girls’ craft beer aptitude and had them drink (and probably not for the first time) Great Divide’s Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti. Thank you, ladies, for representing our state well; you’re beautiful and you know craft beer—you are every Colorado man’s dream.
Other Craft Beer Virgin segments were more successful: they had senior citizens at CommonGround Golf Course sample Left Hand Brewing Co.’s Wake Up Dead Imperial Stout and climbers on Mt. Evan’s taste Odell Brewing Co.’s Woodcut #6. The old folks did, indeed, seem new to craft beer but the people on Mt. Evans may or may not have been craft beer virgins as they didn’t really delve into their beer experiences. At any rate, it’s reassuring to know that people unaccustomed to craft beer are hard to come by in Colorado; everybody here knows their suds pretty well.
Top 5 Beer Bars
Brew Dogs comes back from commercial with a quick list of the city’s best craft beer bars. It was at this point that my beer geeks senses really started to tingle. Their list appeared as follows:
3: Star Bar
Overall, a pretty good list. Falling Rock is certainly the no-brainer answer and everybody here at Denver off the Wagon was psyched to see Star Bar since that’s our unofficial headquarters but what the hell is Wynkoop doing on the list? Don’t misunderstand me, Wynkoop is a fine establishment but it’s not a beer bar! It’s a brewery, dammit; the show put it in the wrong category. In my opinion, a beer bar does not have its own brewing equipment. Wynkoop has guest taps but, then again, so do lots of other breweries and you can’t just call every brewery with guest taps a beer bar, you have to draw a line of distinction. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of beer bars in Denver, either. Hops & Pie, anyone? Rackhouse Pub? Although they’re owned by Breckenridge Brewery, Ale House at Amato’s and Breckenridge Colorado Craft fit the definition, too. Why weren’t any of these places mentioned? You dropped the ball on that one, Brew Dogs, and, in my opinion, you lost a smidge of credibility.
It’s encouraging to see the concept of beer/food pairings getting airtime; the practice has grown in popularity in recent years but you still see wine pairings much more often than beer pairings. Brew Dogs is helping to bring to light the idea of beer pairings by visiting popular restaurants, challenging the chef or owner to present a dish, and having James and Martin find an accompanying local beer.
Mile High gourmands may be chagrined to discover the restaurant featured in the Denver episode was The Buckhorn Exchange. I have nothing against the Buckhorn—a place famous for game meats—per se but it’s a bit of a typecast, don’t you think? Denver has the (unjustified) reputation of being a town of nothing but steakhouses, BBQ joints, and other such “blue collar” restaurants. Honestly, that’s the type of food I love but I’m also aware of Denver’s thriving and diverse foodie culture and I don’t appreciate our stereotypes being perpetuated. Personally, I would have chosen Euclid Hall or Jonesy’s EatBar but I can at least be happy they didn’t go with Casa Bonita.
Course 1: Rattlesnake with chipotle dip and cream cheese paired with Odell’s IPA
Course 2: Grilled elk paired with Avery Brewing’s Hog Heaven
Top 5 Breweries
This is another run-down Brew Dogs does after the commercial break. Like the beer bar list, I take issue with their selections:
First of all, only one out of these five breweries is in Denver. As I mentioned before, I sort of understand their reason for straying beyond city limits; these are all great breweries and the only time they’ll be mentioned on the show is when James and Martin are at least in the general vicinity. Still, I feel it’s a snub to true Denver breweries. I suppose the producers were, once again, going for name recognition—New Belgium is on the nation’s radar but Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, for example, isn’t famous beyond Colorado’s borders.
But then the narrator said something that really boiled my blood. When he got to Great Divide, he said it was “one of the few breweries actually located within Denver city limits.” Say what? One of the few? “Few” is a relative term but I’d say 27 breweries in Denver proper is a pretty damn significant number! Not including other Denver breweries on the list is one thing, denying that they even exist is something else entirely and I think that it is a BS move on part of the show producers. You don’t get to be the “Munich of the West” by having a “few” breweries, good sirs.
Once James and Martin’s beer is ready, they hold a small release party in its honor. This time, they gathered their group at Home Made Liquids & Solids. In each show they ask the party if they want to “dump it” or “drink it” and, other than the occasional rabble-rousers, the show ends with the crowd raising their glass and shouting “drink it!” That, I’m sure, is staged; I’m a supporter of wacky, experimental beers but to think that everybody enjoys a meat-smoked beer or a seaweed and hot chili beer or a Berliner Weisse brewed with foraged herbs is a ridiculous notion. Even conventional beers have their dissenters, there’s no way James and Martin can please 100% of beer drinkers with their avant-garde recipes. Nonetheless, I’d certainly like to try them all; I’m always down for an unusual beer.
To steal the shows trademark quote, in regards to Brew Dogs, should we “dump it” or “drink it?” The answer is an unequivocal “drink it!” It’s fun, it’s humorous, and it gets craft beer in the spotlight where it deserves. Yes, I have my negligible criticisms but I’m far from dismissing the entire show. Besides, I’m sure beer geeks in Philly, Seattle, Portland…etc. were also shouting at their screens and pointing out mistakes when their respective cities were featured. It’s hard to get everything right all the time but Brew Dogs gets as close to craft beer perfection as any cable TV show ever will.