When it comes to Colorado breweries, it’s hard to say who is the Rocky Mountain highest in the eyes of the national beer scene. Oskar Blues might be the best known, if for any other reason than their importance in the advancement of canned beers. Perhaps, it might be one of the cult favorites, such as Avery or Great Divide, with their powerful barleywines, aggressive IPAs, and molasses-thick stouts. Then there is always Coors and the “New Coors,” also known as New Belgium. Then there are some fifty- plus breweries around the state that intense scholars of the subject might know about, but you most likely are not familiar with.
Not tremendously far from New Belgium’s brewery in Fort Collins and sharing Longmont, the same otherwise nondescript farm town along the Front Range as Oskar Blues’ brewery, is Left Hand Brewing Co. While the other tasting rooms either are in the spacious brewery room itself or resemble frat rooms, Left Hand could be the corner pub if it weren’t for the national level quality of what they serve. This is where Norm Peterson would get a nightly pint if he followed Wes Welker west from Boston.
Left Hand started in 1990 as the home brewing project of Dick Doore. For those of us who aspire as homebrewers, it never fails to astonish me how some can continue on to make such incredible brews, while the rest of us could never dream of opening a place like Left Hand. Doore teamed with ex- college friend Eric Wallace in 1993 and started the Indian Peaks Brewing Co.
Then the lawyers got involved. Another brewery was making a style at the time with the same name. Cease and desist is never a fun game. Hence, the brewery’s new name came from the local southern Arapahoe Indian tribe’s leader, Chief Niwot, whose name translates to “Left Hand.”
It’s hard to imagine Left Hand without its iconic logo, one of the most recognizable in the diverse world of beer handles and glass coasters. There is no forgetting who is Left Hand once you’ve heard the name.
Chances are that the reason you know Left Hand is because of its Milk Stout. Like how New Belgium’s Fat Tire is the benchmark amber and Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale is the most tried and true in most circles, the Mil Stout is the standard for…milk stouts. Think, Guinness.
The head is paramount with the Milk Stout, presenting a formidable thickness that stirs emotions of root beer floats more than the often weak creamy tops capping stouts. The body is dense, but not heavy, mixing brown sugar, dark cacao, and hints of oatmeal. The Milk Stout’s greatness is really two parts; the appearance and the tasting experience, something that can only be matched by a true Guinness in Dublin (not the same texture and structure with imported versions).
Left Hand’s introduction of the Milk Stout to the nitrogen draft system only gave the body more depth and the profiles more clarity. Then in 2011, Left Hand went a step further and applied this nitro system to bottled Milk Stouts.
From the numerous Left Hand brews tasted recently in Longmont, I can’t speak as glowingly to the somewhat one-dimensional Sawtooth Ale, an American-style ESB without enough bite. The Milk Stout is without a doubt the company’s most important beer, but the Sawtooth was the original brewed way back in the early days.
For those who prefer lighter IPAs, the Warrior IPA is faithful, more refreshing than the bitter dried hop versions, at only 69 IBUs. Other regular beers include the Polestar Pilsner, Black Jack Porter, and Stranger Pale Ale. The potent four month aged Wake Up Stout doesn’t get the press that its good friend the Milk Stout might receive. However, for those seeking wicked Bourbon barrel aged stouts with sharp licorice and currants, the Wake Up Stout aged in Bourbon barrels is your wake up call. We food and drink writers split cocktails as “fresh” or “spirit driven.” This folks, is a spirit driven beer.
Yet as much as we’d like to continue our poetic prose about the Milk Stout, the stand-out from Left Hand was a Smokejumper Smoked Imperial Porter, which in fact is the official beer of The National Smokejumper Association.
The BBQ edge comes from the smoked barley malt hand, smoked in house like any good BBQ joint from Kansas City to Memphis would do. The porter aspect excels with phenomenal espresso beans mingling with that sour-sweet hybrid of a cacao bean’s pulp. The medium, closer to full body structure is absolutely present, and so is the creamy head of the Milk Stout, two definitive signs of an imperial porter versus a regular porter.
At 8.8% ABV it’s not light, but doesn’t weigh you down. Like good BBQ, you can’t resist a few more bites, then some banana pudding (or Milk Stout).
We raise a glass to the courageous smokejumpers protecting our forests. There will have to be a second round if it’s the Smokejumper Smoked imperial Porter in those glasses.