Touring wineries can make you feel like a jerk. Not just from saying that yes, you do totally taste the gooseberry in that merlot but also because the chemistry of oenology makes you feel stupid, the picking and crushing of grapes makes you feel wimpy, and the giant estates make you feel poor.
Luckily, the growth of the craft-beer industry has spurred the proletariat-friendly beer tour. Sure, there are downsides to brewery-touring: because barley and hops ship well, breweries are traditionally far from pastoral farms and close to ugly, industrial areas, and because artisanal-beer makers tend to be hippies, you're going to hear a lot of Grateful Dead. But there are some major upsides: you can visit breweries, unlike wineries, right in major cities; you're finished admiring the operations in 10 minutes; and instead of sipping and spitting in uptight tasting rooms, you down samples in attached bars, many of which have food--much of it fried.
The best place for brewery-touring is Denver, partly because of its water, partly because it's the home of Coors and partly because skier, mountain-biker and hiker dudes love them some beer. Sure, Portland, Ore., has more microbrew outlets, but many of its 46 brewhouses are brewpubs, which produce beer only for their own bars, and part of the fun of a beer tour is seeing where bottles you can buy at home are manufactured. San Diego may have a more innovative beer scene--guys experimenting with huge alcohol and huge bitterness--but it has only 28 breweries, and the intensity of the beer will freak out anyone who grew up on Bud. But Denver, dubbed the Napa of Beer, is the most tourist-friendly. It has 74 breweries within 100 miles (160 km) of downtown, restaurants that often offer beer-vs.-wine pairings, the yearly Great American Beer Festival and the country's first chief beer officer.
He's Scott Kerkmans, a former brewer who was hired last year by Four Points by Sheraton to help design its Best Brews program, which puts local beers on tap in the hotel chain's bars across the country. Kerkmans, 28, also recently set up a bus tour of Denver-area breweries brewtours.com) and he invited me to some of his favorites. The thing was, I explained, I don't really like beer.
This did not faze Kerkmans, who was sure he'd have me loving beer by the first afternoon. We started by trying some nonlight American lagers over lunch at the hotel bar to figure out what I like, which definitely included a beer float using vanilla ice cream and an ale called Tommyknocker Cocoa Porter Winter Warmer. What I liked, Kerkmans determined, was rich, toasty malt over biting hops, ales over lagers and anything with a Belgian yeast. I also seemed to like beers more when I drank a lot of them.
The next day we drove 45 minutes north to Longmont, near Boulder. At Left Hand Brewing Co., co-founder Dick Doore, who has a master's in mechanical engineering as well as a crazy, bushy mound of long red hair and a beard, took us behind his beautiful wooden bar and gave us a tour of the vat rooms, which were littered with copies of the New Yorker and a half-finished chess game. Afterward, I sat at the combination bar-gift shop, and Doore let me pour a cream stout that was all malty, roasty goodness.
From there, our hired driver (hey, you can't drink this much and drive) took Kerkmans and me one town over to Lyons, where we parked in a strip mall to drink at Oskar Blues, a brewery--restaurant-country bar that is one of the few craft breweries that can their beer, claiming it stays fresher than it does in a bottle because light never gets in (a New York Times panel of critics named Oskar Blues' Dale's Pale Ale its favorite American pale ale). Oskar's sells a beer-flavored lip balm and some very intense beers. That means they're high alcohol (up to 10.5%, compared with 5% for a Coors) and have wads of hops--the green, pinecone-looking plant that gives beer its floral aroma and bitterness. In fact, bitterness is measurable (in International Bittering Units, or IBUS), and brewers are almost all men, so they tend to get competitive about how many IBUS they can get into a beer, no matter how insanely expensive and difficult it has become to get hops because of increased demand and weather-affected shortages and no matter what kind of face the hop attacks cause me to make.
Our next stop was Boulder, where we visited Avery Brewing. While located in some kind of industrial park, it has a lovely, Napa-like tasting room. Avery makes some of the most extreme beers in the Denver area: with a high cost (some are $10 for a 12-oz. [40 mL] bottle), a high alcohol content (as much as 18%) and a high IBU count (more than 100, which is a whole lot when you consider that Budweiser's is 8.5). "We make beer for weirdos," explains president Adam Avery. For dinner, we went to the Kitchen, a local organic restaurant, where our waiter knew an awful lot about beer and how to pair it with food. I wish he had known a little bit more about making sure people drank enough water with their beer so they didn't feel so hung over in the morning.
Still, I woke up early the next day and, in the most American morning of my life, ate some fresh pie (besides the Best Brews program, Four Points has a pie program), watched some exhibition baseball and got right to drinking beer. Kerkmans led me around Denver, where, just blocks from Coors Field, we went to Wynkoop Brewing Co., a microbrewery co-founded by the city's mayor, John Hickenlooper. It's a big, sprawling restaurant with a comedy theater in the basement, and brewer Thomas Larsen makes a beer subtly flavored with chili spices and a stout with oatmeal and other nonbarley grains. He generally uses British hops, which I found easier to take. Larsen says he's more interested in making "session beers"--you can drink several at a time--than in producing the extreme beers other Denver brewers are increasingly making. "It's an American thing. Everybody thinks bigger is better, and you have to throw as much of this or that in," he says of the hopheads.
After a few more breweries, I tried to duck out of the tour parts, since they were all the same: they smelled like baking bread, there were huge kettles where the brewers threw barley (delicious raw) and hops shaped into long-lasting pellets (not as delicious), and somewhere men at a tiny assembly line were boxing bottles and listening to the Grateful Dead.