When Andrew Bradley left Phantom Canyon last October, after years of assistant brewing and two-plus years as head brewer, he didn't leave work.
"I started brewing on my stove at home, day-in and day-out, trying out recipes," he says.
That was at the request of Scott Koons, who'd just hired him away to lead future brewing operations at Colorado Mountain Brewery. Koons and his fellow Air Force Academy grads-turned-partners were serious about serving good beer — so serious, in fact, that they'd later invest in a $5,000-plus Brew-Magic System for their hand-picked brewer. The gadget, designed to help reproduce small batches on larger scales, enabled Bradley to refine what would become CMB's six staple ales.
Given the lead time, you might assume CMB's opening in July went smoothly for Bradley. But in fact, his entirely new set of equipment wasn't ready for operation until about two weeks prior. Now two months past opening, he says he's finally caught up to the point that he's been able to "have fun again" and brew an imperial pumpkin ale for release around the second week of October.
Pull past Hollywood Theaters on Interquest Parkway — a smart location near affluent suburbs with a view of the academy — and stop in for a beer, and you might be transported to Phantom Canyon during Bradley's late-aughts reign. "They're all new recipes," he says, "but I haven't changed my profile. My tastes are what they are — I'm a little maltier than a lot of brewers I know."
That's most evident with the Old 59er Amber Ale and the Roller Coaster Red Ale, two medium-bodied beers sure to ensnare the majority of guests. Ladies will largely lean toward the 7258 Pale Ale, a straightforward beer that reflects the lightness of air found at altitude. Hop heads will go for the Panther IPA, which I found less "aggressive" and "strong" than advertised, but enough in character. With a coffee nose and toasty, heavy body that fades to a bit of a flat finish, the Monumental Stout speaks best to dessert and winter weather. The UniBräu Hefeweissen (get it?), our favorite beer by far, is exemplary of the German wheat style, with a citric sweetness and crisp, bready body.
Bradley says he's satisfied with the series thus far, but that the new equipment poses a small learning curve, and that the beers should only get better with a little time. Of course, he adds, "I can't remember ever being entirely satisfied with my beers at Phantom."
Across the menu, just a little tinkering needs to happen.
Let's start with the most arresting dish of all: venison sausage in crunchy spring rolls with black beans, bell peppers, cheese, onions, mustard and a sweet chili sauce ($9). A little spicy and just damn good, they entirely eclipsed our pulled bison chipotle barbecue sliders ($9), which had good flavor, but were a little dry and in need of more sauce.
CMB's triple-cheese beer soup ($5) doesn't fly higher than Phantom's famous blonde ale and smoked gouda, which isn't to say it's without charm. The house ales also sneak into the tasty barbecue sauce cooked into the steamed-then-grilled ribs ($13 half rack/$21 full), helping give them a nice, charred bark. Accompanying slaw and fries are both up to par, with the starch as generously portioned on big square plates as the excellent house kettle chips that accompany our later sandwiches.
A Chilean rainbow trout ($13), served "crunchy" in a heavy breading, sports a fun mango jalapeño jelly and decent seasonal veggies, but generic white rice. Not the catch of the day, but serviceable.
Lastly on our dinner visit, a chocolate trilogy dessert ($7), of stacked mousse, cake and crumb with whipped cream, also rated fairly well. That said, we were a little disappointed when our server told us that it's made out-of-house, like all of the sweet offerings except the funnel cake fries ($6), which we missed sampling.
Call me biased or insensitive to the cost of a part-time pastry chef, but it seems to me that at a destination built around a custom-made product, all eats, too, should reflect a personal touch.
On that note, Colorado Mountain Brewery certainly achieves a distinct visual feel with its high ceiling, ornate woods throughout, and quality upholstered chairs and booths. It simply looks rich, a perception reinforced by the two large flat-screen televisions in the entryway that broadcast stills of CMB's lengthy construction process. All the new brew equipment, visible through large windows from the bar area, as well as expansive patio seating complete with a stone firepit, complete the opulent vibe. Look also for AFA inside-humor, such as "Bring me Men" and "Bring me Women" bathroom signs.
Back for lunch, we opted for a pizza, burger and healthy wrap to offset the accompanying fries and chips. With a thin, crunchy crust and quality toppings, our personal-sized Mountain Harvest Pizza ($11) simply slayed it: yellow squash, zucchini, bell peppers, wild mushrooms, onions and cilantro pesto topped in goat cheese.
From a list of six cleverly conceived "Fourteeners" (Boca veggie patty substitution available), we decided to climb Longs Peak ($11), which came with more mushrooms and onions, truffle oil, brie and, supposedly, prosciutto. I say supposedly, because it either was forgotten or so scant we failed to perceive it. The burger arrived well-done when requested medium rare, and the truffle and brie could also use some upsizing; still, the flavor was good and showed promise.
The Where's the Beef flour tortilla wrap ($9) answers with cream cheese and mozzarella, sun-dried tomato pesto, more sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and Portobello mushrooms. Though a vinegary note oddly pervades, it's fresh, light and a fine option for those drinking the aforementioned, light 7258 Pale Ale.
In terms of other food and beer pairings on the menu, Bradley says that essentially "there's a beer for everything." And food-wise, there's certainly something for everybody. So minor missteps aside, even a perfectionist like Bradley might have to admit that this new venture is off to a soaring start.