When Kirk Lombardi, regional brewer for Big Horn Brewing based out of Ft. Collins, Colo., began brewing beer 15 years ago, the average beer drinker knew little about the differences between an IPA or an English-style ale. My how times have changed!
Ft. Collins is now one of the cradles of the American Craft Beer revolution, and Lombardi just hired a day-to-day brewer to replace himself at one of the five Front Range breweries where Big Horn makes beer. His main focus is to maintain the quality and taste of the six flagship beers and many seasonals. And on that note, it’s going well.
Big Horn Brewing, part of the RAM/C.B. & Potts Restaurant and Brewery Group, just scored a gold medal at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival® for its outstanding Big Horn Hefeweizen. A long-time favorite among Front Range wheat beer aficionados, the brew gets its banana and clove flavors from a special Bavarian yeast strain. Its unfiltered golden veil sets up so pretty in a glass, it’s almost a shame to drink it.
When asked about what he is most proud of in his long-time tenure at Big Horn Brewing, Lombardi—whose youthful appearance suggests he must have started brewing craft beer at eighteen—doesn’t hesitate with his response, “Big Horn Brewing and C.B. Potts has gone from being a follower to a leader,” Lombardi said. “German beer styles are my passion. Over the years I’ve been given the opportunity to put my own unique twists on the traditional recipes.”
Lombardi reports that on his regular trips to Europe, that other countries are no starting to emulate American craft beer styles. He also speaks of the expansion Big Horn has made into IPAs and porters. Last fall, the brewery added a new fresh hop IPA. The new beer, dubbed Wet Hop Pale Ale, comes on stronger than a regular IPA, but lands with a wonderful citrusy impression and dry finish. Lombardi contracts for his local hops three years in advance as there is not much of a spot market for hops, which are being horded by a growing legion of American craft brewers.
In early fall, the hops for Wet Hop Pale Ale are harvested with a special picker and delivered right from the fields to the Ft. Collins brewery. Lombardi reports that the brewmaster at each of the five breweries is able to craft the seasonals of their choice, allowing for some really good tasting cross-collaboration. “I make what I like to drink and it seems to work out just fine,” Lombardi said.
While I was there visiting, he greeted his first customers of the day in the Ft. Collins tap house by offering him a taste of a dark, aged seasonal test brew in a small snifter glass. The regular sighed contently, as the snifter was accompanied by his favorite flagship beer without him having to ask. It was a craft beer personal moment that smart brewers like Lombardi know is as important to his business as grains and hops.