Brewing up the Snowdown sauce
Ska Brewing Co. releases its ninth official beer

The full collection of Ska Snowdown beer bottles gets a dusting at the Animas Museum recently./Photo by Todd Newcomer

Nine years and nine beers ago, Snowdown revelers got a tasty treat to enhance the annual celebration. Ska Brewing Co., a small microbrewery just entering the local beer scene, decided to jump feet first into the winter festival. Before it had even secured its own regular lineup of retail microbrews, Ska concocted a special beer that would be made and sold only during the five days of festivities.

Ska owner Bill Graham says he and his partners made a batch of special beer and took it to the Snowdown committee. They pitched the idea that the beer be the official brew of the festival, complete with a one-time recipe, professionally designed label and limited distribution. Instantly, Snowdown organizers signed on.

An uncapped bottle travels through the bottling line at the Ska Brewery on Tuesday. Ska bottles between 130 and 150 cases of its special Snowdown beer each year./Photo Todd Newcomer

Since then, Ska has come out every year at this time with a special beer. And each year, locals lap up the brew like salivating dogs. Not that locals are dogs. But people here take to the Ska brew with such vigorous enthusiasm that the couple of kegs filled with the beer get snapped up immediately. And, typically, within weeks the 130 to 150 cases of 22-ounce bottles fly off liquor store shelves.

Indeed, last week as Graham met this reporter at the Ska Tasting Room, a loyal Ska drinker entered in a near panic, looking for a couple of bottles of this year’s official Snowdown beer – Thick Brau. He claimed that all liquor stores in town were out of the brew. Raising his own thick brow, Graham gets the guy a couple of bottles and sends him on his way. It was, seemingly, tragedy narrowly averted (though, really, the loyalist hadn’t visited every single store).

Graham and all those who drink the Snowdown beer take it seriously. At least as serious as Snowdown can be. Graham explains that even though the winter festival eschews formalities and regulations, Ska brewers pour their heart and soul into each year’s special beer. When Ska hears about the next year’s Snowdown theme, employees begin brainstorming about the recipe and name of the beer. The name matches the festival theme.

“It’s pretty easy to come up with names because there are so many creative minds that work here,” Graham says.

This year names such as Bedrock Bock, Pterodactale and Two-Feet Wheat, didn’t make the cut, along with many others. For Ska employees, coming up with names is as fun as brewing the beer.

Snowdown beers

over the years:

1996: Snowdown Ale

1997: Alien Ale

1998: Ale Capone

1999: Elektric Kool Ale

2000: Too Grand Ale

2001: Happy Trails Ale

2002: Et Tu Brew

2003: CarnavAle

2004: Thick Brau

The recipe also tries to mimic the theme. But that is a harder task. Mostly, Graham says, the brewers stick to various styles of extra special bitters and pale ales.

“They have a little bit of malt flavor ,and that often comes through with a nutty taste,” he says. “We like that because we think that Snowdown is nutty.”

Graham adds that these types of beers are “hoppier,” meaning that the hops – dried ripe cones of the plant – tend to have a stronger taste and pack a bigger punch. The result is a euphoric beer buzz. And Snowdown is nothing, if not euphoric, he says.

This year’s beer presents something Ska has never done. Graham explains that the Thick Brau is a “citrusy, lively” beer that was brewed with dry hops. Instead of boiling the hops before adding them to the fermenter, the hops went in dry. Ultimately, this creates a more aromatic flavor with the bitterness of the hops balancing the flavor of the malt.

Graham says that this is the first dry-hopped beer that Ska has created. He and the brewers are pleased with the outcome, and they are sure that consumers will be too.

Throughout the past nine years, the Snowdown beer recipe has been handled carefully. The brewers pretty much have to get the batch right the first time. Since the brewing process takes time, Ska can little afford to open a Snowdown beer only days before the festival to find out that it stinks. But, Graham assures, Ska beer never stinks. In fact, each year the Snowdown beer has been deemed a success by everyone’s standards. The brewers continually receive positive feedback from consumers, he said.

“The brewers take it seriously,” adds Graham. “They stress about it so hard. They really knock themselves out.”

Once a Snowdown beer is brewed, bottled and sold, the recipe goes into the annals of, well, wherever and however Ska files such things. Most importantly, Graham says, the recipe is never used again so that the beer remains a one-time deal.

“We do that to help create the uniqueness of Snowdown. It’s something special for Durango only.”

Ska Brew Master Jeff Ogden boxes up Buster Nut Brown Ale at the end of the bottling line. Once a
Snowdown beer is brewed, the recipies never used again so that the beer remains a one-time deal./Photo
by Todd Newcomer

Ska also helps financially support Snowdown. He explains that 10 percent of the gross sales of the Snowdown beer is donated to the nonprofit organization. However, he won’t reveal how much money that ultimately is. That’s too much of a formality, Graham says, and he doesn’t like to break the Snowdown tradition of informality.

Since the brew hit the stores Jan. 2, sales have been swift. If the popularity continues, the beers may one day be a collector’s item. The Animas Museum has one of each of the nine beers, which it is keeping as part of the museum’s permanent collection. The beer bottles join the scads of other Snowdown paraphernalia from years past.

For now, that’s the only public place anyone interested in seeing all nine uniquely designed bottles can see them. Ska owners didn’t manage to save any over the years for historical purposes.

“We’d have the whole collection, but we’re just too drunk,” Graham deadpans.







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