Two adages come to mind when talking about Phantom Canyon Brewing in Colorado Springs; familiarity breeds contempt, and if you stand still, you’re dead. While they’ve taken the latter to heart, the former is a tougher nut to crack. Both problems also face its sister brewery in Denver, the granddaddy of all Colorado brewpubs, Wynkoop Brewing. Both are adjusting to life after Gov’ner Hick, trying to keep up with differing tastes in the craft beer revolution, and to a new business arrangement with Breckenridge Brewery who also is dealing with its own crisis of identity.
All of this came to mind after reading a recent post over on the Focus on the Beer Blog in which they mentioned the bad rap that Phantom is getting in the Springs. They mentioned how most of the bad press PCB is getting is from people who haven’t been in there recently.
To understand why these breweries are having their current credibility issues, a little Colorado craft beer history is order. I’ve been visiting Wynkoop practically from the time they opened their doors in 1988, and so have seen the tastes of the craft beer movement change over the years. Those of you reading this post who are younger, or have only been into better beer 10 years or less, need to understand that craft beer was a whole different animal at that time. It was a response to the mass produced lagers that still plague us to this day, and as such was dominated by English style ales of all varieties. Many brewpubs wouldn’t even brew a lager, the more to distance themselves from the big boys. Just having a fuller bodied beer was a treat, but compared to what is considered good today, they would come out somewhat lacking.
Phantom Canyon was opened near the end of that first era in 1993, and with it’s sibling in Denver already making a name for itself, it followed the same basic formula. Both PCB and the Koop sat on their laurels for a little too long; while they still brewed new offerings periodically, they were passed over by prevailing tastes for fuller beers. I had heard many stories about both those first years and more recent times, and taken together, PCB seemed like the Harvey Dent of brew pubs. In the past ten years everyone I talked to told me to stay away, that it wasn’t worth my time. But I had also heard in recent years that they had hired a new brewer and that things were changing for the better.
As described in my post, A Craft Beer Weekend, we first visited the day before Independence Day, on the way back from Alamosa and the Rails and Ales festival. The wife had chosen to wear her Bristol Brewing t-shirt that day, which our bartender quickly pointed out, and prefaced light-hearted banter to come that day.
The structure, while not a carbon copy of Wynkoop, had much of the same vibe. The blend of refinished original wood and exposed brick combined with a two story open space in the back corner made for an inviting atmosphere. The old, long bar dominating the space was about half full when we arrived, so we bellied up to the bar. As usual, I ordered an IPA, and being summer, the wife had a hefeweizen. Both were much better than my preconceptions, especially after hearing all the disparaging remarks before our visit.
Truthfully, I had actually expected it to be better than what the negative nellies had been spewing. I reasoned that since they were part of the Wynkoop/Breckenridge family, they had to be following the trend of those establishments. For about four years or so, the quality and range of beers at Wynkoop have been steadily getting better; more body, more taste, and a greater variety on the rotating taps. Breckenridges’ 471 series is also a perfect example of a conscious effort to keep up with the times. Not to mention Breck’s 20th Anniversary ESB aged in Stranahan’s barrels.
We quickly fell into a conversation with two of Phantom’s regulars, Chris and Jerry. Chris works across the street at the Antlers Hotel, while Jerry is from nearby, and both love the camaraderie and beers at Phantom. Having an on the ball bartender like Lyle doesn’t hurt either. Always ready with a joke, a fresh beer, and food to your liking, the man is a dervish. He replenished my Phantom IPA (on nitro!) and the wife’s Hefe with expedition and a smile. Both beers were very good by the way; while the IPA was a little maltier than the norm, it still complimented the nitro that infused it; the Hefeweizen was very flavorful, with pronounced citrus esters, not needing any additional fruit slice as is common.
When we left that day, we were both of the opinion that the brewery could stand with any of its Colorado brethren with its head held high. At that time we weren’t sure if we’d visit again soon given that there are a number of breweries in the Springs we have yet to try. But the opportunity to return presented itself a little over a month later when the benefit for Patrick Tuffield from Bristol Brewing was held there.
I won’t go into a lot of rehashing about the event, other than to point you to the post about it. The beers we had before the benefit, while having lunch, increased our appreciation of the brewery. Zebulon’s Peated Porter is indeed peaty, like a cross between a dark Scotch ale and a Islay single malt. An additional IPA was available that day as well; the Streamliner IPA contained no fruit, but was extremely citrusy from the four different hops used in its brewing.
And then there was the Two Moons pale ale we had upstairs from PCB head brewer Alan Stiles, which was heavenly. After talking to Alan and relating my long history with the Koop, I was encouraged by his responses that he wanted to stretch peoples’ expectations about Phantom Canyon.
So if you’re a Springs resident, or are passing through, you would do well to stop in at PCB. If you’ve been in before, but have stayed away, you’ll be surprised. If you’ve never been in, but stayed away because of the bad press, you’d be better served making up your own mind on the quality of their beers.