Adventures Around Alamosa

The centerpiece attraction on the second day of our grip to Great Sand Dunes was actually in Alamosa… involving beer (of course!).  During the course of doing research for something at work, my husband discovered a new brewery outside of Alamosa that essentially is a farm-to-table brewery.  They grow as many of the ingredients for their beer on their farm and serve it in their taproom on-site.  Pretty cool concept, especially as it pertains to both agriculture tourism and beer geekdom!

 

Based on the hours they’d be open, we decided to spend the morning at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge just to the east of town.  We’ve driven by it so many times and never made the turn to check it out, so it seemed like something fun to do.  We weren’t sure what we’d see once we got back there, but if nothing else we’d get a good walk/hike out of it.

 

The parking lot at the Refuge was empty aside from a lone person who rode in on his mountain bike.  Empty trail heads are a wonderful sight, since they often mean the trails aren’t crowded!  The refuge had a loop that you could drive or a nature trail that ran along an irrigation ditch that you could walk for a couple of miles.  Walking sounded good, so off we went down the nature trail.

 

The views of the San Luis Valley, the mountains, and the Dunes were beautiful.  It was nice for us to get a different perspective on the scenery in a literal sense since we were looking at sites we’re so familiar with from a few miles further south than where we usually hang.

 

Prairie Mountain View

 

The one drawback to this walk along the irrigation ditch was that it was full of water.  Water means there’s bugs.  And we’re not talking just any bugs… crazy-big biting horseflies.  The flies would not leave me alone.  They generally left my husband alone, but not me.  At points some were trying to bite me through my hiking leggings!  I gutted it out as best as I could, but it was getting nuts between bites that were swelling up and swatting at myself constantly all while wearing my pack with my big camera strapped to the front.  My husband even started walking behind me to help swat them off of my back because it was getting that insane!

 

Given the personal insect invasion I was experiencing, I was walking at a pretty good clip to get back to the trail head.  I had my hiking boots on since the trail wasn’t perfectly clear and had a fair amount of tall grass & sticks along the way, though the boots weren’t laced up all the way to the hooks above my ankle as I normally do when I don’t need the extra ankle support.  (Do you sense disaster coming yet?)

 

Well, we got to about 100-150 yards from the parking lot.  Shelter from the biting flies was in sight!  That’s when the loop on the shoelace of my right boot caught in the unused hook of my left boot, quickly changing my stride length from a couple of feet to less than 6 inches in an instant.  I managed 1 or 2 stumbling steps in an attempt to catch myself, but the momentum was too much.  I went down.  Hard…. with my big camera hooked to the straps of my backpack.

 

My left knee took the brunt of the impact, but I was more concerned about what impact my camera took.  I was uber fortunate because – somehow – I managed to turn my camera just enough that it took the impact towards the end of my 24-70 prime lens that had a polarizer on it.  A little dirty, maybe a scratched filter, but both the camera and lens were still working without any problems!  Huge sigh of relief… now let’s see how bad the knee is and if I can walk.  (Yes, my priorities are a little whacked sometimes when it comes to my camera.)

 

Unbelievably, my hiking leggings weren’t ripped open.  I thought for sure they’d be in tatters with a really badly scraped knee and other assorted bruises.  So I rolled my pant leg up to check the damage and – amazingly – not bad, at least in terms of open wounds.  However, from the throbbing, I knew I hit right on the top of the shin bone at my knee, so I figured I’d be in for a colorful souvenir from this trip within the next day or so.  Time to hobble back to the car for some preliminary first aid.  Needless to say, hiking for the day (and maybe the weekend) was over.

 

We drove into Alamosa and picked up an ice pack and a bandage to try to keep the swelling at bay as we still had another night of camping at Dunes ahead of us.  So this became my fashionable look for the rest of the weekend:

 

Clumsy Casualty

 

With my gimpy leg, the options for activities were limited, so we did what we do best – found a new place to eat and have adult beverages!  We drove further west to Del Norte (pronounced “Del Nort” by the locals) to a brewery recommended to us mainly for its pizza.  We were not led astray – the pizza was fabulous and the beer was really good too.  Another great food find in south central Colorado!

 

Eventually, we ended up at our main destination at the Colorado Farm Brewery and it did not disappoint.  They can’t always grow every single ingredient they need for their beers, but they do grow as much as they possibly can.  (Some varieties of hops, in particular, are tricky to grow in Colorado.)  They did have a beer that was made with only ingredients from the farm and it was really good.  The scenery from the patio at the taproom wasn’t too shabby either.  The combo was exactly what I needed for a relaxing afternoon after my clumsy/semi-dramatic start to the day’s adventures!

 

Ingredients to Glass

 

– JC

Pursuit of Petroglyphs

Before we left Mesa Verde National Park for the last stop on our trip in Durango, we had time for one quick morning spin to Petroglyph Point.  We hadn’t done that hike since the first time my husband took me to Mesa Verde back in 2007.  (In fact, this may be the very first hike I ever went on in Mesa Verde!)  Ten years later seemed like a good time to check it out, and the length of the hike certainly fit our itinerary for the day.

We decided to hit the trail as soon as it opened.  Since the trail starts near the popular Spruce Tree House site and the museum, access to the trail is controlled by a locked gate that’s only open during daylight hours.  We thought the gate opened at 8am.  Surprise!  It wasn’t going to open until 8:30.  What to do with time to kill and good morning light?  Take pictures of yucca, of course!

Eventually 8:30 came, so we schlepped down to the gate to start our day and it was still locked.  Huh?  We waited a few minutes, figuring maybe the rangers were running late, yet still no signs of it opening.  I hiked back up to the museum at the top of the trail to ask the rangers was up and it turned out there was some sort of coverage miscommunication, so one of the rangers came back down with me and opened it for us.  Sweet!  That guaranteed we were the first ones on the trail for the day so we could set our own pace and have some peace and quiet along the way.

I took some pictures along the way out to Petroglyph Point, but much of the trail was in shade since the sun wasn’t very high in the sky yet.  I tried not to slow our pace too much with picture-taking, but there was one exception…

We came upon a rock along the trail that had some huge holes eroded in it.  The way the light was coming through the holes, it looked like mini caverns or slot canyons.  The lighting was so delicate that it took some time to get the exposure dialed in, and then a little more time in post processing to bring out the light the way my eyes saw it.  I think it was time well spent based on the results.

A couple of miles down the trail, we reached Petroglyph Point and still hadn’t seen or heard another soul on the trail.  It was wonderful!  We took quite a bit of time at the petroglyph panel itself because it’s really interesting to study in detail when you have the opportunity to do so.

Petroglyph Point

Only mere yards after you reach the petroglyphs, you start your ascent up some ladders back to the mesa top to walk back around to the trailhead through some pinyon and juniper forest.  Before we climbed out, we turned around and found that the canyon was lit up beautifully in the morning sun.  Picture time!

Around the Bends

Turns out that wasn’t the only cool view.  There was a tiny one right next to us as we were looking out across the canyons – a cluster of cacti thriving in a crack on one of the big boulders next to us.

Prickly Rock

Once we returned to the car, it was time to leave the park.  Always a bittersweet feeling, but we still had an afternoon and a night in Durango to look forward to before the long drive home.

Since we couldn’t check into our hotel quite that early, we went directly to Ska Brewing in Durango.  We’ve enjoyed their beer many times, but had never managed to make it to the brewery itself to check it out.  I was sold the second I saw what might be one of the best traffic control signs ever in their parking lot (complete with aspens changing color in the background)…

Best Brewery Parking Lot Sign (Ska Brewing)

Wonderful brews and a tasty lunch were had by all.

The melancholy of our trip coming rapidly to a close was starting to set in, but we enjoyed our short stay in Durango.  It was a whirlwind week in Utah and southwest Colorado, but a really fun one.  Can’t wait to do it again!!

– JC

Mountaintop Beer

And now, we time warp all the way to summer with the shots hiding on my phone – our hike up Twin Sisters in Rocky Mountain National Park.

We had a really grand plan for the day.  Left Hand is one of our favorite breweries in our town.  They make a special Double IPA beer called Twin Sisters that comes out only every other year.  When we moved in 2013, we just missed this beer, so this year was the first chance we got to have it and it’s awesome!  One night – probably after a serving of Twin Sisters – we decided we should grab a bottle of the beer and take it up Twin Sisters with us and toast with the beer on its namesakes.  Bottle purchased, plastic cups packed, and off we went a week or two later.

The hike wasn’t particularly long, but it was tough because it was really steep in some sections.  One extra complication was damage from the floods of 2013.  A massive landslide took out a good chunk of the trail about 1/3 of the way up, so hikers have to pick their way through the debris field as best as we can to safely get across the chute.  Looking down into the valley floor below, you can see how far the destruction went when the mountainside came loose.  (There were still a few hundred feet – if not more! – of slide behind us when I took the picture on the left that looks west.  You can see the full magnitude of the slide in the picture on the right in a shot I grabbed a few days ago while we were hiking up to Chasm Lake, looking back towards Twin Sisters. )

Once we got through the mudslide area, it was hiking as normal – including racing the weather rolling in for the early afternoon.  As we were getting near one of the peaks, we also saw a ranger pop up on the trail on some sort of patrol.  Dang it!  Beer on the trails in national parks are kind of a no-no, so we had to be watchful and respectful.  Between the weather and the ranger, our plan was definitely in jeopardy.

As we reached the first peak, things were starting to look good on the ranger front.  As in, the ranger was nowhere to be found!  So we went about finding a place to settle in, away from the wind and the trail, and had ourselves some lunch.  Storm clouds were close enough that we weren’t going to be able to summit the other peak, but no matter because we had one hell of a view!

Rocky Mountain National Park from Twin Sisters
Rocky Mountain National Park from Twin Sisters

After lunch, it was beer time.  As I was literally unzipping my pack to pull out the bottle (and yes, our plan was to be discreet), the ranger magically popped up again and foiled our plans.  We didn’t want to take any chances as the weather was starting to build, so we couldn’t wait him out and decided to head back down to the trailhead.  Before we did, I at least got proof in a picture that I hauled the bottle up there with the best of intent.

Twin Sisters on Twin Sisters
Twin Sisters on Twin Sisters

Once we got back to the house, we cracked that bottle open and enjoyed it.  Just too bad we couldn’t have it at the peak like we had hoped!  Maybe in 2 years we can try again when Twin Sisters is back, and have a little better luck next time.

-JC

Chowdah-ry Goodness

Last night was the night – Hop Chowdah was released to the world!  Well, maybe not the world, but at least Longmont, CO and its surrounding towns.

We weren’t able to get over to the Oskar Blues taproom right at the tapping because of our jobs – boo office work! – but we hauled our behinds over there as soon as we could.

Walking in, it was a really cool feeling to see something you had a hand in making up on the specials board, especially at a place like Oskar Blues that’s so well-known in the beer world.  (Not to mention, at a brewery whose stuff we’ve enjoyed for so many years, even when we lived in PA!)

Chowdah is Special
Chowdah is Special

Juice – the brewer who guided this whole thing – told us ahead of time that the beer turned out really well.  But until we got that first sip, we wondered.  Once we got our hands on that pint – oh wow!  He was totally right!

Glorious Hop Chowdah
Glorious Hop Chowdah

The beer had a gorgeous caramel color and a ton of hops in the nose.  Once you got a sip, you started smelling and tasting the aromatic hops.  Then it mellowed in the middle before giving you a slap of bitterness at the end.  Thankfully, that slap of bittering hops was the good kind that comes from a strong American-style IPA (which is a style we adore).

Hop Chowdah came in at a hefty 8.5% ABV, so it’s pretty strong.  Since we live just far enough from the taproom that we had to drive, we had to be responsible and keep our Chowdah servings at one each.  That just means we’ll have to go back this weekend and enjoy a leisurely afternoon at the Tasty Weasel.  (Having too-hot-for-October weather in the forecast could be the perfect excuse to do that… as if we needed an excuse!)

We’ve gotta say thanks again to Juice and CAN’dAID for this awesome experience.  We’d do it again in a heartbeat because we had so much fun (and the final product is excellent!).

-JC

PS – There seems to be an unspoken debate on how to spell “Chowdah”.  Notice how the taproom spelled it on the board without the H at the end.  In talking with Juice and his family, we all agreed that the beer’s name has got to be spelled “Chowdah” to really dive home the Boston accent-ness of it all.  Since we’re all from the East Coast and we made the beer, that’s how we’re gonna spell it…

 

Making Some Hop Chowdah with Oskar Blues

We interrupt our posts about the goodies I found while cleaning out my iPhone for an important post about… a special beer we helped make at Oskar Blues!  Grab your nearest beverage of choice and settle in for the back story behind this beer that comes out on Thursday (October 8th)!

Earlier this summer, my husband and I attended a fundraising concert for Oskar Blues’ charitable foundation called CAN’d AID.  A silent auction was held that night that included the chance to spend a day making beer with the head brewer at Oskar Blues’ brewery in Lyons, CO.  I’d never bid in a silent auction before, but I knew it was something my husband would love to do and the money would go to an awesome cause.  Fortunately, the bids were reasonable, so I went for it to surprise him!  By the end of the night, I won the auction!!

About a month later, we finally got away from our “day jobs” and spent a day making beer.  While we were making arrangements, Juice – the brew master – asked about my husband’s beer preferences.  I told him he drinks a ton of different styles of beer, but his go-to is IPA’s… and the hoppier the better!  He’s not one that’s scared away by a big beer in terms of hops or strength either.  Juice immediately said that’s something we could work with, and I sensed over the email that his mind was already racing with possibilities of what we could make.

When we arrived at the brew house in Lyons, Juice outlined his idea for the beer – using hops throughout the entire brewing process and making a big, bold, high alcohol bad ass of an IPA.  That certainly sounded like a good plan to us!  He had a plethora (one of my favorite words in the English language, by the way) of hops to choose from, so we could shoot to balance the bitterness from some varieties with the citrus and floral tones of others to make something that’s really balanced, drinkable, and simply smacks you in the face with hops (in a good way!).  He also mentioned that we’d have to name the beer, so to start thinking about it as we worked through the day.  It’s always good to have something for the bored monkey in our minds to chew on in the background as we focus on the important matters at hand – making beer!

First up – creating the mash.  Having only homebrew experience ourselves, it was so much fun to play with the big boy toys like the pumps and hoses and the massive amounts of ingredients that go into a 20-barrel batch.  (At home, we brew a whopping 2 cases at a time.)  We got to see the pumps and hoses get to work right away sucking up the grains, mixing them with some water, and plopping this oatmeal-like mix into the mash tun.  As the 400 lbs. of malt slowly worked its way into the tun, we got to work on the 1st hops addition.

Getting the hops meant a trip to the walk-in refrigerator.  This walk-in is a beer lover’s behind-the-scenes playground with all kinds of ingredients, brews aging in barrels, and an array of little special trial batches of beers for tasting.  Once we regained focus, we emerged from the walk-in with a big bunch of Galena hops.  Our job was to take the massive brick pouch of dried hops, break up the clumps, and start releasing all of their hoppy oil goodness by rubbing the leaves and cones between our hands before tossing them into the mash tun.  Hops in their natural state don’t weigh too much, so by the time we put in I-can’t-remember-how-many-pounds of the hops, things were smelling pretty good (even though it looked like a big bowl of leafy, steel-cut oatmeal)!

Once all of the grains and hops were in the mash tun, it was time to just stir and cook the mix – possibly one of the easier parts of the brewing process, especially when you have a pro there to monitor temperature and do the big thinking work.  The mash cooked for about an hour, so that gave us plenty of time to ask more questions, see some cool behind the scenes stuff at the brewery, sample some fresh beers straight out of the tanks, and attempt to stay out of Juice’s way as he kept things running smoothly and – perhaps more importantly – do a bunch of beer math to make sure we were making something drinkable.

Next up was transferring the wort over to the brew kettle.  Our timid little beer was about to grow-up big time, but it already smelled really good.

During the boil, I lost track of how many different hop varieties were used and all of the differently timed additions.  (This is why Juice gets paid the big bucks – he was writing everything down!)  Going on memory alone, there were at least 3 different hop additions that included some from Australia.  We even added a touch of some new hop extract that’s just straight-up, intensely bitter hop goodness to top things off!  With everything we added, Juice calculated that the finished beer may have an IBU as high as 153!  (For reference for the beer geeks out there, Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA is 90 IBU’s.)

Hopping the Brew
Hopping the Brew
In between all of the hop additions, we were pressed into clean-up duty.  After all, somebody’s gotta clean out the 400+ pounds of wet grain and hops from the mash tun so it’s ready to go for the next beer.  On this day, those grunts were us.  Compared to our “day jobs”, this was still fun.

Two things to note here:

  1. Everything we scooped out of the tun was heading to a local farm to feed animals.  (Yay recycling!)
  2. We were closely “supervised” by Juice and Tim in the background as we scooped out the spent grains.

I think it was during this rather mindless chore that we came up with and settled on the name for our beer – Hop Chowdah.  Just looking at the mash as we transferred the wort over to the brew kettle, it all just looked like a semi-creamy soup.  Add to that the fact that Juice is originally from Maine and wearing his Red Sox hat, “chowder” came to mind – to which we all immediately dropped the ‘r’ to make it Boston-sounding (even though Juice doesn’t have that accent).  We tested the name on a few folks as they popped by the brew house and they liked it too.  So, Hop Chowdah was born!

As the boil was finishing up, we all grabbed a bite to eat and wrapped up our day.  “All” that was left to do for the day was pitching the yeast and getting the brew over to the fermentation tanks so those lovely little yeasties could do their thing over the next few weeks while we (tried to) wait patiently.  Regardless of the results, we had a blast the entire day – totally worth it for the experience.  The cherry on top is that the money we contributed via the auction went to a really good cause, t’boot!

So that brings us back to today… Almost 6 weeks have gone by since we brewed the beer, and now it’s almost time to unleash our hop beast on the world!  Juice told us it came out great.  (I believe his description of the final product was something along the lines of a big, strong, bad ass beer.)

On Thursday, October 8th at 4pm the first keg will be tapped at Oskar Blues’ Tasty Weasel taproom in Longmont, CO and we’ll see for ourselves how it turned out.  Until then, we’ll sit tight, feeling like little kids waiting for Christmas morning to arrive!  (In some ways it is exactly that, just an “adult beer geek” Christmas kind of morning.)

So, stay tuned to see if we met our goal of making a hoppy beast of a beer!!

-JC

PS – I’ve gotta say – yet again – a big thank you to Juice for having us over to brew together for the day… especially since he was totally cool with my taking pictures along the way!!

Update:  Looks like we’ve finally settled on spelling chowder as “Chowdah”.  This post is now lined up with that. 

 

Mmmm… Green Chile Beer

(Originally posted September 26, 2012)

Green Chile Beer San Luis Valley Brewing
Green Chile Beer San Luis Valley Brewing

One of the many things my husband misses most about Colorado is the beer.  While more Colorado craft beers are becoming available on the East Coast, there’s one style that has yet to arrive – green chile beer.

I’m sure you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What!?  Chile pepper in a beer!?!  Ewwww…”  I know that was my first reaction years ago, but I’ve come to learn that there’s a chile beer out there to fit most tastes because each brewery has their own take on it.

In Denver, Wynkoop has Patty’s Chile beer – light, but sort of spicy.  In Fort Collins, Coopersmith’s has their Sigda’s Green Chile beer – another light style with some zing.  Durango brings us Steamworks’ Prescribed Burn – medium color with tons of chile heat.  And Alamosa has San Luis Valley Brewing Company’s Valle Caliente – a light color beer with minimal heat and all of the flavor of the green chile.

My husband is a connoisseur of all of these chile beers, but I’ll always be partial to SLV’s version.  It’s simply a fantastic beer that tastes even better after a long morning of hiking in massive piles of sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park (located about 45 minutes from the brewery).

The day that this picture was taken, SLV Brewing was our oasis.  Situated in an old bank building in downtown Alamosa, Colorado, the pub gave us warmth, shelter, food, and drink as a a sunny morning in the Valley gave way to a showery afternoon.  We had a fantastic morning of hiking at Dunes before the skies opened, so we topped it off with a trip to town for lunch while we waited for the storms to move through.  By the time we were done, the rain was nearly over and it was time for some late day hiking.

The chile beer never tasted as good as it did that day, especially when paired with a basket of sausage and other snacks!

 

-JC