When John Hickenlooper lost his geologist job in the 1980s, he gathered a few investors and plenty of nerve and bought an empty warehouse in a seedy part of downtown Denver. Although friends and colleagues were wary, he plunged ahead and transformed a century-old mercantile building into Colorado’s first brew pub, Wynkoop. In the process, he spawned the growth of Denver’s LoDo district and turned his personal bust into a statewide boom for Colorado’s brewing and tourism industry. In a city that brews more beer than any other in America, it’s only fitting that the visionary Hickenlooper was elected mayor of Denver this year and even has an ale crafted in his honor — Mayoral Mild.
The growth of Colorado’s brewery scene, however, is anything but mild. Today it boasts more than 100 breweries, including behemoths Coors and Anheuser-Busch. So if your curiosity is brewing, a tour through Colorado’s “Beer Country” is sure to cure what ales you.
Ironically, the best place to start your tour isn’t even a brewery — it’s the Falling Rock Tap House, nestled discreetly in the LoDo district. Here you’ll find a taste-bud-boggling 77 beers on tap, and even more in bottles. Roughly a third of the taps are Colorado brews, so you can plot your tour de beer from the comfort of your bar stool. Only the best of the best are drawn here, keeping the kegs fresh and their slogan true, “No crap on tap.”
Just down the street you’ll find one of Colorado’s fastest-growing regional breweries, the Flying Dog. Step into the Blake Street Tavern, located on the premises, to sample Flying Dog’s “litter” of ales. The medium-bodied Doggie Style Pale Ale is their bestseller. But if you’re new to handcrafted ales, you might prefer their silky-smooth Old Scratch Amber Lager. Brewed in a “steam-style” tradition, it is a unique ale-lager hybrid. Its slightly sweet essence is balanced by a nutty nuance, subtle malt undertones, and limited hops. Another treat is Flying Dog’s crisp-bodied Tire Bite Golden Ale, a Kölsch-style beer. Elis Owens, director of quality assurance (aka the Blood Hound) proudly dubs it, “the Chardonnay of beers.”
It’s not unusual for members of the brewing industry to compare the complexity of beer to wine. Steve Kurowski, marketing director of the regional Breckenridge Brewery, says, “Beer and food pairings are easier than wine and food pairings because beer has a broader flavor spectrum.”
Breckenridge Brewery’s intimate Kala- math Street location pairs their beers with Oatmeal-Stout-smoked barbecue. Wash down some bodacious bones with their full-bodied signature amber, Avalanche Ale. Breckenridge has a sister location on Blake Street, and their original haunt is in the city for which they’re named. But the barbecue and the brewing are only found at the Kalamath Street spot, so that’s where you’ll want to go.
A few blocks down Kalamath Street resides Heavenly Daze Brewery, home to such original concoctions as Heavenly Hemp Lager. Dude, it’s got like 100 pounds of North American hemp mixed in with the malted grain! But the THC levels are so minute, you’d have better luck smoking a hammock to get that Rocky Mountain high.
If you prefer hops to hemp, toss back a pint of Backpacker, Heavenly Daze’s caramel-colored, hop-intense India pale ale. Or, if you’re a nutrition nut, their vitamin-enriched Power Brew is just the guiltless libation you’ve been seeking.
In the search for the ultimate liquid refreshment, it’s often the quest itself that’s the true source of enjoyment — and in some cases, the source of life-changing inspiration. Just ask Jeff Lebesch, a former electrical engineer and the founder of New Belgium Brewing, the home of Fat Tire Amber Ale. Lebesch discovered his inspiration while riding his fat-tired bike through the countryside of Belgium, which many consider the mecca of flavorful, rich, unique beers. “Belgium puts the flair into their beers that France puts into their wines,” says Bubba Speed, New Belgium’s marketing “beerologist.”
From their humble, home-basement beginnings in 1991, the Lebesch family has grown the brewery into a state-of-the-art facility with more pizazz than Willy Wonka put into his chocolate factory. (Did I mention they give visitors Belgian chocolates?) And New Belgium is not only a destination for beer connoisseurs, but also a marvel for environmental enthusiasts. The first wind-powered brewery in the U.S., it recycles everything from cardboard to sunlight, right down to the energy generated in the brewing process.
When visiting the brewery, look beyond “the tire” and try the Trippel, Abbey, or 1554 ales. For a real kick in your bike seat, taste La Folie, which is corked in a wine bottle and packs a punch so sour it could make a Sweet-Tart blush. This one’s not available in stores — or on TV — only at the brewery.
If you like a beer that bites back, Avery Brewing Company in Boulder is sure to please. President and brewmaster Adam Avery, a self-proclaimed “hop head,” has crafted one of the biggest, hoppiest beers you’ll find, the Avery I.P.A. Distributed to 17 states and found throughout Colorado, Avery beers can be sampled at the small tasting area in their facility tucked in an obscure industrial strip. But be aware that they’re strictly a brewery, not a brew pub, so call first and plan your visit.
For a local feel, drop by Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery, in Boulder’s historic Pearl Street Mall area. This place is truly Boulder-esque, with colored tapestries and celestial paintings adorning the walls. Their lightest, goes-down-easy brew, Quinn’s Golden Ale, is named after the owner’s dog, and the friendly staff takes pride in their anti-corporate work philosophy.
If it’s available, be sure to snag a swig of Mountain Sun’s award-winning Doppelbock, the only lager they brew and a favorite with the regulars. Its light, hoppy esters give a slight bite on the finish, but not too much. For something a little stronger, try their Java Porter, a coffee-infused brew with an effervescent punch o’ joe. Check out, too, their new south-Boulder location called Southern Sun Pub & Brewery.
Before leaving Pearl Street Mall, pop by Redfish New Orleans Brewhouse for its medal-winning Swollen Delta Stout. It’s a full-bodied black beer with a wonderful balance of roasted chocolate flavors, and flaked oats are used in the process to give it a silky texture and sweet finish. Redfish’s dark, ruby-red Pelican Smoked Porter is another prizewinner. The full, robust flavor is fueled by smoked beechwood malt, imported from Germany, giving it a mysterious, smoky character.
The great thing about exploring Colorado’s brewing scene is that the character of the beers extends to the character of the places and the people. Where else but a Colorado brew pub like Wynkoop could you share a stretch of bar with a sharply dressed mortgage broker, an Englishman, and an out-of-work tattoo artist? Perhaps that’s just what John Hickenlooper pictured when he eyed that rundown warehouse some 20 years ago.
jason dewey lives in aspen, colorado, and his work has been featured in conde nast traveler, national geographic traveler, outside, town & country, and elle décor.
cheers to beer
even if regular tours and tastings aren’t scheduled, operators are generally happy to show you around. call first.
avery brewing company
mountain sun pub & brewery
redfish new orleans brewhouse
southern sun pub & brewery
breckenridge brewery & pub
visit the contacts in “information, tours, and more” below for facts about colorado springs’ bustling brewery scene.
blake street tavern
breckenridge brewery & pub
falling rock tap house
flying dog brewery
heavenly daze brewery
new belgium brewing
information, tours, and more
actually quite nice brew tours
colorado beer aficionado and author geoff bruce escorts visitors to breweries and pubs in the denver and boulder area. special arrangements can be made for tours to breckenridge, colorado springs, and fort collins. minimum cost is $250 for four hours.
association of brewers
colorado brewers guild
colorado tourism office