Fact: Fiction Beer Company was the first brewery in Denver to serve a New England-style IPA when it released “Somewhere Around Barstow” in late 2014. I understand that to some this is a mighty bold claim, but it’s also one that appears to check out.
Born three years and eight months ago (give or take a few days), Fiction has written its own remarkable story on East Colfax Avenue. Ryan and Christa Kilpatrick are the founders and owners of the operation, with Christa running the tap room and Ryan serving as Fiction’s Chief Beer Geek (and its initial head brewer) – by day he’s an accountant. Their brewery happily marries two of the Kilpatrick’s passions: beer and books, particularly – you guessed it – the fiction genre. Since many are already well acquainted with the theme behind this brewery, I won’t belabor that point, but I’m extremely happy that after close to four years in the beer-mad Denver market, this bibliophile-loving establishment is still kicking hard and producing excellent beer.
I used to work right down the street from Fiction, when the University of Denver housed its law school on the current Johnson and Wales campus. There wasn’t much in the area in terms of restaurants and bars, and at that time (1999-2003), there wasn’t a brewery located anywhere near Park Hill. When Fiction opened its doors, it helped spark a revitalization of the area, and soon the brewery became a fixture known for its welcoming atmosphere, delicious beer and superb service. (I’m looking at you, Laura Hoppis, beertender extraordinaire.)
When I stepped up to Fiction’s bar on a recent 80° spring afternoon, the first thing Hoppis said to me was, “We have a new beer on tap that I think you’ll like.” I did a double take – having only been to Fiction a handful of times since they opened, I was surprised that Hoppis remembered me, but she did, and I was impressed. The beer in question was a recent addition to their line-up, a New England-style IPA, Never Tell Me the Hops. It joined two others on the board: Madame Psychosis IPA (cans only when I was there – a new batch was due in a couple of weeks); and Beta Capsule Double IPA. Though all three are brewed in a similar fashion (hefty additions of oats and wheat produce that tell-tale “haze”), each one had its own distinct profile and personality. Though I was already a Madame fan, I quickly warmed to the Never and Beta came in third. It may be that I love Galaxy hops so much that the taste of the Never enthralled me, but I still loved Madame with its tropical liveliness and killer hop bill (Idaho 7, Mandarina Bavaria, Mosaic and Citra). Madame Psychosis is the least hazy of the three.
Truth be told, Hoppis had my number: I’d come to Fiction hoping to taste Never Tell Me the Hops, as I’d read about the release, and it was just my luck that she was working the bar. The brewery had hosted a “Saison and Salads” event the previous weekend, so there was a solid selection of Saisons on tap, including my favorite, the Falconer: Dry-hopped with 2+ pounds per barrel of Motueka, this soft and spicy beer was released on March 24 and is available in 16 oz four packs. I also sipped on five ounces of one of my go-to styles: Schwarzbier. I’d heard of Fiction’s version, called Alternate Present, because it won silver at GABF in 2016, and I get the medal-worthiness now — it’s the best Schwarz I’ve had in Colorado. On and on I went, tasting, savoring, taking notes. As I peppered her with questions, Hoppis didn’t miss a beat, and both her hospitality and knowledge of Fiction’s “liquid literature” were phenomenal.
Soon enough I learned from Hoppis that Fiction’s head brewer, Brittany Portman, was also in the house, and I could catch her for what I intended to be a short conversation – ask some specific questions, grab a couple quotes. Things unfolded quite differently. I can honestly say that ours was one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve had with any brewer (heck, any person) in quite some time. We talked about everything from her beginnings at Fiction (she came on in December 2015 as cellarwoman/bartender) to how her degree in Molecular/Cellular Biology, coupled with a certificate from the Applied Craft Brewing program at Regis University, made industry pros take her seriously. And of course, we talked beer. Portman wasn’t a huge fan initially – until she stumbled upon sour beer. “I tried an IPA when I first moved to Colorado and I thought it was gross,” she said with a laugh. “But then I tried a sour and thought Wow! How it this made?! Sour beers were definitely my ‘gateway’ beer. I love them so much.”
Fiction would like to expand its sour offerings but it’s all a question of space; right now, a Hoover-brand square tank nesting near the bar holds 17 Barrels of Golden Sour base that’s been evolving for a year and a half – Fiction’s version of a Solera. “We’ve refilled it twice now with wort… inoculating that beer was a LOT of fun.” Portman goes on to tell the story of a friends and family bottle share that supplied the yeast for the solera: “The share was sour-focused, and people emptied their cellars for us…Cantillon, Jester King, rare bottles, it was amazing…we picked our favorites from the bunch, took all the dregs, mixed them together, then pitched them that night.” I remarked on how much I would have loved to watch this process unfold in real time. “It was great,” said Portman. “We didn’t even open all the bottles. I kept saying that we needed to keep our wits about us since we had to pitch!”
Portman brews on a seven-barrel system, often double and triple batching to meet demand. When I visited, Fiction had 13 beers on tap: three NEIPAs (two singles, one double); seven Saisons, including two rum barrel aged variants (plum and blackberry) as well as a sour Saison that was pulled from the Hoover; a Pale Ale; and a Honey Wheat Common Ale. It was just a coincidence that I’d stopped by right after the Saison event – I knew from previous visits that Fiction brewed a variety of styles to satisfy a wide swath of beer drinkers, but the menu was a bit skewed when I was there. I do recall two specific stouts from other visits: the soft and silky Feely Effects (inspired by Huxley’s Brave New World) that’s made with green tea; and Malice and Darkness, a bold and smooth Russian Imperial Stout that ranked 12th out of 144 beers in Paste Magazine’s blind tasting (2017). If you like ‘em sweeter, the Fiction has also been known to brew with donuts and mint chocolate.
So what’s the next chapter for Fiction? It’s more like what’s the next volume – there’s that much material to work with, and a tight team of writers (read: owners, brewers, beertenders) driving the pen. Together they’ve created a delicious and welcoming world of beer and words. And I’ll be honest: I hit Fiction within the first month they opened, and I wasn’t an instant fan. As an avid reader, I loved the concept, but I could only find a couple of beers that I liked. Subsequent visits weren’t all that different, but until now, I hadn’t checked out the brewery in more than a year. It’s clear to me that I underestimated Fiction Beer Company. All this time I’d missed that they’d been growing, pushing, improving. All this time the badass science experiment that is the Hoover has been singing one long song of fermentation, its composition everchanging. I won’t make the same mistake again.
Before we parted ways, Portman shared that Fiction will brew a Strawberry Rhubarb Milkshake IPA this week, combining rhubarb’s vegetal tartness with fragrant strawberries and vanilla beans. I’ve yet to get into milkshake beers, but I grew up with a huge rhubarb patch in my Ohio backyard and I love strawberry rhubarb pie, so I’ll be keeping a close eye on that release. For now, Portman appears content to keep toiling away in the brewhouse, developing recipes, mashing in, mashing out. It’s obvious she loves her work and feels very fortunate to have advanced from cellarwoman to assistant brewer to head brewer in just two years. The Kilpatrick’s gave her their trust, guidance and confidence, and she brought her own grit, strength and smarts to the brew deck. You can taste that mutual trust and respect in the beer, and at the end of the story, that’s all that really matters.