By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(This feature originally appeared in Sensi magazine)
So there I was inhaling scented oxygen and sipping on a blueberry water kefir when I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror behind the bar at Tonic Herban Lounge. I guess nobody ever looks great with a cannula stuck in their nose, but when everyone around you is wearing one, well – you go with it.
One key to a memorable tasting room experience is to embrace it all – the rituals, the history, the equipment, the terminology and the ambience. It help to have an open mind when you take you first sip of “archie” kava from a bowl at Denver’s Kavasutra. The greyish liquid has an odd root-like flavor and slightly numbs your tongue.
Tasting rooms for craft breweries and distilleries have proliferated and big festivals draw crowds almost every weekend in the Denver metro area. However, consuming is not tasting. Whether you are quaffing ale, kava or whiskey you hit the point where your ability (and desire) to pay attention drops pretty fast.
At the following out-of-the-ordinary Colorado tasting rooms your guide is often the person who brewed the perry, kept the bees, crushed the Riesling grapes or roasted the coffee beans. Ask them what they taste, smell and feel when sampling the beverage.
(Perhaps someday this list will include public places where you can taste diverse strains of cannabis.)
Oxygen and Jun
Open 15 years, Tonic Herban Lounge is best known as an oxygen bar where you buy scented O2 in ten-minute increments. Many a tourist who ignored warnings about the altitude has been revived here along with some who simply overindulged the night before. The subdued lighting, meditative music, cool vibe and couches make relaxing hard to avoid. I hooked up to the oxygen (with my personal disposable cannula) with lavender-accented “Joy,” one of many aromatherapy blends. The packed 12-page menu is only available as plastic-covered sheets in a binder and not online. Besides hot tea, French press coffee, organic wine and sake and various cocktail combinations with added potions and herbal elixirs, the roster features jun. Jun is a slightly effervescent drink like kombucha fermented from green tea and honey. Tonic’s water kefir is fermented from water and fruit juice or honey, not milk. I did overhear some only-in-Boulder, otherworldly conversations but I saw no one at Tonic glued to their smartphone (including me). I departed feeling nicely rebooted.
Tonic Herban Lounge, 2011 10th St, Boulder, 303-544-0202
It makes a certain sense to locate a bar celebrating South Seas tranquility in one of the noisiest, grittiest urban stretches in Denver. Colfax disappears when you walk into Kavasutra with its cool feel, mesmerizing flatscreen videos and pulsating ambient tunes.
Kavasutra, part of a five location group, serves kava, a legal island root that is made into a beverage found to be relaxing and good for calming anxiety. Two varieties are sipped from plastic bowls that look like coconut shells. Milder tasting Van Kava and the manlier Archie Kava are served in single, double and triple pours. I had an Archie and felt a mild, pleasant sense of well-being. To avoid flavor qualms enjoy a frozen kava pina colada or margarita or stay simultaneously perky with a “Kavachino” made with cold brew coffee. The menu also includes hot teas including matcha and yerba mate and bowls of acai sorbet, granola, coconut flakes, banana, bee pollen and honey. The bar’s $1 happy hour is at 1 p.m. and 1 a.m. but the kava must be gulped down by 1:01 p.m. or a.m. to get that price.
Kavasutra Kava Bar, 1232 E. Colfax Ave., Denver; 720-708-5651; kavasutra.com;
Perry and Cider
Benjamin Franklin had the right idea. “It’s indeed bad to eat apples. It’s better to turn them all into cider,” the founding father wrote. Hard apple cider is now the fastest-growing type of alcoholic beverage in the U.S. but sadly much of that are sweet commercial cider beverages. Stem Ciders in Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood is just the ticket to alter your perception of how fruit-based beverages can taste. Order your flight of four semi-dry, lightly fizzy ciders at the bar and settle in to sample the range of tastes from red Zinfandel barrel-aged Le Chene to Branch & Bramble brewed with raspberries. My favorites are the seasonal dry perry made from pears and aged in French oak and the game-changing NovoCoffee Cider, great coffee cold brewed in apple cider. Every week small firkins are tapped of experimental flavors such as Strawberry Basil. Me? I’m coming back for the monthly cider pairing with four flavors of freshly baked mini pies.
Stem Ciders Tap Room, 2811 Walnut St., Denver; 720-443-3007; stemciders.com
Almost everything about Balistreri Winery is a surprise for first time visitors. Start with its location near a power plant in an industrial neighborhood off of I-270 where the winery sticks out as a cool wooded oasis with a winery tasting room, patio and event center. Winemaker John Balistreri favors rich flavors, ripe fruit and a slightly higher alcohol content that charm visitors wondering about Colorado wines. He started me off with a not-sweet 2015 Colorado Riesling – nice spicy floral aroma, and continued with his 2015 Colorado Sangiovese or 2014 American Tempranillo (using some grapes from a family farm in California). Another revelation is a worth-the-drive lunch menu starring crusty bread and olive oil, salumi and cheese boards with lots of tasty side grilled and marinated vegetables plus hot Italian sausage with peppers and avocado soup. Finish up with a tour of the cool downstairs barrel room that includes kegs of dessert-like Colorado Cherry Wine aged in Stranahan’s Whiskey barrels and a wonderful aged Port.
Balistreri Winery, 1946 E. 66th Ave, Denver 303-287-5156; balistrerivineyards.com
Are you a cupping virgin? Do you know your full-bodied Ulas Batak beans from your juicy Ojo de Agua? One of the best ways to elevate your coffee consciousness is to experience one of the Friday tastings at Denver’s Novo Coffee. A cupping of various beans and roasts with the head roaster really helps you identify what you’ve always been tasting in your morning mug. The group tour includes the roasting room and attendees leave with a bag of fresh coffee beans. Reservations are required.
Novo Coffee, 3008 Larimer St., Denver; 303-295-7678; novocoffee.com
Medovina, one of Colorado’s finest makers of honey wine, doesn’t have a tasting room but meadmaster Mark Beran offers private group seminars and the Niwot meadery where Medovina’s bees produce the honey it uses to make mead. If all you know about mead is that it is too cloyingly sweet, Medovina offers an eye-opening range of styles from the off-dry Classic Mead – a rich, earthy and floral sipper, to the lighter, easy drinking Summer Solstice that’s best served chilled. These tastings also allow visitors a sip of exotics like Stinging Rose Mead infused with local rose petals. A tour of the bee yard and production area is included. Bonus: Free espresso is available along with mead, fine chocolate truffles and beeswax for sale at the end of the tour.
Medovina, Niwot; 303-845-3090; medovina.com
Whiskey and whisky
Besides pouring many excellent ales, Pint’s Pub boasts one of the largest collections of single-malt whiskies in the U.S. The more than 275 bottles on the walls range from the Lowlands to the Highlands including Lagavulin, Pittyvaich, Glenugie and Oban plus “whisky” from Ireland, India and the U.S.
Pints Pub, 221 W. 13th Ave., Denver; 303-534-7543; pintspub.com
John Lehndorff once tasted and rated 50 kinds of kombucha for an industry report and once judged 40 pies in four hours. After an unfortunate habanero incident he no longer judges salsa competitions. He hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, kgnu.org).