Tight Quarters, big beers

By Neill Pieper

Carver brewers Cody Looman, left, Patrick Jose, center, and Glenwood Springs brewer Todd Malloy, right, scoop and stir rice husks into the mash.

Carver brewers Cody Looman, left, Patrick Jose, center, and Glenwood Springs brewer Todd Malloy, right, scoop and stir rice husks into the mash.

Down in the southwest corner of the state, the town of Durango is known for its historic train, its world-class skiing and biking and now,  more than ever, its incredible craft beer scene. Durango’s diverse brewing scene has evolved over the last 20 years. From its first brewery, Carver Brewing Co., to heavyweight Ska Brewing, locals and tourists alike have plenty of options to grab a brew.

Of the six breweries in town, Carver Brewing might be the most unassuming. Located downtown on Durango’s bustling main street, Carver is Durango’s veteran brewery and eatery. Established in 1988, it is the self-proclaimed pioneer of craft beer in the southwest (since prohibition that is) and the second brewpub to open in the state. 

Inspired by a collaborative spirit that is alive and well in the craft brewing industry, I was part of the Thirst Colorado team that joined Carver brewers and its affiliated brewery, Glenwood Canyon Brewing, to jump in and create a wheatwine. 

The crew consisted of Carver head brewer Patrick Jose and brewer Cody Looman, Glenwood Canyon Brewing Co. head brewer Todd Malloy, Thirst Colorado publisher Paul Johnson and myself.

Jose and Looman began at neighboring brewery Ska but now are the gurus behind Carver’s beers. Their lab is tucked behind the restaurant and adjacent to the kitchen. A 10-barrel system is tightly packed into a roughly 400 square-foot room, soon to be our home for the day. The goal? Brew Carver’s first wheatwine. 

Cody Looman takes a breather from stirring the dense wheatwine mash.

Cody Looman takes a breather from stirring the dense wheatwine mash.

A spinoff of the barleywine style, a wheatwine is brewed with a majority wheat mash as opposed to barley. The wheatwine style purportedly originated in California when brewers made a mistake and used too much wheat in a barleywine recipe. Wheatwines belong to the American strong ale style and have soft, bready and sweet characteristics with a “fluffy” mouth feel. 

Packed into Carver’s brewhouse for around seven hours, it is apparent that brewing life is rewarding yet not as glamorous as many might think. Dumping heavy grain sacks into the mill, scooping mash out of a mash tun, sanitizing and cleaning all the equipment and working next to a 150-degree kettle is taxing work. The results of a brewer’s creation make the hard work worth while when the tap is pulled. 

In these close quarters, inspiration for some of Carver’s best selling beers come to fruition. Their Raspberry Wheat Ale begins as a simple wheat-based beer that is dominated by oodles of fresh raspberry puree that lends to a tart and dry finish. Jose prefers beers like their Lighter Creek Lager, balanced and clean in traditional European fashion, because “there is nothing to hide behind.” 

Lucky for us, Carver’s is known for its food. Executive chef Dave Cuntz serves up mouthwatering meals from breakfast through dinner. Whether ordering a buffalo burger or a zesty Thai curry quinoa bowl, the kitchen pumps it out. Chef Cuntz periodically checked in on us while we brewed (probably wondering if the Thirst guys were doing any work). We, on the other hand, had undisputed evidence of his handiwork, judging from the divine smells wafting from the kitchen. 

Thirst Colorado team member Neill Pieper, right, empties a bag of Simpson malt into the mill while Patrick Jose picks another bag of malt for the brew.

Thirst Colorado team member Neill Pieper, right, empties a bag of Simpson malt into the mill while Patrick Jose picks another bag of malt for the brew.

It wasn’t long before the brewhouse began to give off its own scent. Our 53 percent wheat mash bill featuring chocolate and German wheat was transferred to the kettle, where we added Chinook, citra, centennial, simcoe and warrior hops. Some of the hops hailed from the nearby town of Bayfield, while the rest were sourced from the Northwest.

When all was said and done, the fruits of our labor appear to have paid off. The wheatwine is on track for an 8.8 percent ABV. Jose and Looman dry-hopped the brew for added aroma.

Now our crew will sit back and wait as the beer rests in barrels. Yes, that’s right, Glenwood and Carver intend to barrel age the lot of it.

So, look for barrels to be released here and there during the upcoming year once the barrel-aged wheatwine is deemed perfect by the experts. When we know more about its release, you’ll know more!

 Neill Pieper uses his considerable thirst for the craft beer scene to provide editorial, marketing and online production at Thirst Colorado.