Gunnison brewery pairs pizzas with basil brew
By Steve Graham
When Scott Cline needed a beer to complement the Italian fare on his brewery menu, he added one of the core ingredients in pizza sauce and Italian salads — basil.
Cline is the co-founder and brewmaster at High Alpine Brewing Co. in Gunnison, and he likes good food as much as good beer.
“I am very much a foodie,” he said. “I love to experiment in the kitchen, and I experiment in the brewery.”
One of his most successful experiments is a basil-infused blonde ale.
“It kind of spoke to me when I had a piece of basil in my hand and did a little rub in my hand and was drinking a kolsch,” Cline said.
He decided to treat the herb like dry hops, adding a pound and a half of fresh, organic basil per barrel to the fermenter after primary fermentation. He said after settling on a recipe, he didn’t even need a test run.
“We didn’t even pilot it,” Cline said. “We went ahead and made 10 barrels.”
The seasonal favorite was on tap all summer in both 2017 and 2018. High Alpine has sold 100 barrels of the beer, which Cline described as a “beautifully light, fresh, drinkable, patio crusher.”
Assistant brewer Marshal Kelley said the result is less intense than might be expected.
“It doesn’t punch you in the face with basil,” he said. “It’s more balanced on the front with a beautiful basil finish.”
Cline said customers tend to agree with Kelley.
“I think for the most part people are pleasantly surprised,” Cline said. “The refreshing nature of it makes people want to drink more.”
Of course, not everyone in the bar appreciates the pungent plant in their brew.
“It’s really interesting that people who don’t like basil will order a basil beer,” said Cline, adding that they will then complain that it tastes like basil.
After 24 years of brewing, he knows better than to take the critiques personally. A couple of years ago, he was home brewing and working in Crested Butte and moved to Gunnison for his wife’s job. Four weeks later, the old Gunnison Brewery shut down.
He had planned to launch a real estate business. Instead, he was inspired to buy a building with his business partner, and to open a replacement brewery for the town. He gutted and rebuilt the site, about five storefronts away from the old brewery.
“It’s been my passion for such a long time, so why not make your avocation your vocation?” Cline asked.
He has since built a “brain trust of top scientists” to help him brew creative and consistent beers, isolating their own yeast strains and experimenting with basil and other ingredients.
Bartender and manager Abigail Williams has a recommendation for a food and basil ale combination.
“It’s a taste treat on your palate,” she said. “I love pairing this beer with our Burrata (cheese) appetizer.”
On the other hand, a mushroom pizza might pair well with Cline’s next experiment, a chanterelle mushroom beer. However, that brew is dependent on end-of-summer drought conditions in the Gunnison Valley, allowing for enough local chanterelles to hunt.
In the meantime, there is still enough water to brew beer — and grow basil.
Steve Graham is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor who likes taking his two young boys biking, hiking and brewery-hopping in northern Colorado.