Blame Charlie Papazian.
Thirty years ago, even twenty years ago, it was damn near impossible to find American beer that wasn’t from one of the major manufacturers (Coors, Miller, Anheuser-Busch). But there was something new cooking under the surface. Jimmy Carter had signed legislation in 1978 making it legal to brew beer at home, and a former student of nuclear engineering named Charlie Papazian started brewing beer at his home in Boulder, Colorado. He organized a new group called the American Homebrewers Association (which later merged with the Brewer’s Association, and is still headquartered in Boulder), and wrote a book called The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, still considered by many to be the bible of homemade beer.
In the same town, a dedicated group of young men started the Boulder Beer Company, Colorado’s first microbrew. More breweries started to pop up. In 1988, a newly unemployed geologist named John Hickenlooper helped start Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver, the first brewpub in the state. In 1991, a couple named Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan started a small brewery in Fort Collins, just north of Denver and Boulder, and named it New Belgium. Today, New Belgium is the eighth largest brewery in the country, Denver is the host city for the annual Great American Beer Festival, and John Hickenlooper is the Governor of Colorado.
Who says beer can’t change the world?
Colorado wasn’t the only place that started producing microbrews after homebrewing became legal, but for a variety of reasons, the culture seemed to sweep the state faster and more intensely than anywhere else. In addition, Colorado has a huge number of independent liquor stores. As a result, brewers have a direct link with their sellers that they wouldn’t have if large corporate chains controlled the market. This means even the smallest breweries can sell their wares in stores if they can convince the store owner of their product’s quality.
You take a beer tour in Colorado the same way you you’d take a wine tour in Napa or Sonoma, California. Beer is sacred here, and the movement toward a smaller, better product has swept the country, producing hundreds of local and regional breweries, much like you would have seen in the country a hundred years ago. But if you had to pick one epicenter for all of this beer culture, it would be this small corridor along the Front Range of the Rockies, connecting Boulder, Denver, and Fort Collins.
My friend John Kofonow has been a passionate homebrewer for as long as I’ve known him. He and his wife Krystal live in Albuquerque, and John just took home a gold medal in the American Ale category in a New Mexico homewbrewers’ competition this year (as well as Best in Show for all ales). They met me in Denver to help give me the lowdown on the beer culture.
John and Krystal sip brewage at Great Divide.
The most popular of all the Colorado breweries, and the most successful, is New Belgium. Since they put their flagship beer, Fat Tire, on the market in 1991, they’ve grown at an astounding rate. So much so that getting a tour of their brewery is damn near impossible. They’re booked up for three months solid beforehand, though you can always hang around and hope somebody drops out. It’s worth it, because if even if you don’t get on a tour, you can always sample the wares of the brewery, including some experimental brews that might be too damn weird to make it into general production (I had a chile mole porter, and it was awesome).
On the other end of the spectrum from New Belgium, though only a mile away, sits Funkwerks. Colorado can boast about having more breweries per capita than any other state in the union, and the truth is that far more of them operate on the scale of Funkwerks than on that of New Belgium’s big time operation. Funkwerks represents the miniscule side of the microbrewing world, and they are very serious about the craft side of craft brewing. Rather than offer a wide variety of styles, they focus almost exclusively on saisons, a Belgian style pale ale traditionally brewed in farmhouses. This makes sense. With so many breweries out there, Funkwerks has decided to be a specialty operation, and they get an impressive number of variations out of one style of beer.
John towers over his beers at Funkwerks.
Both Funkwerks and New Belgium are headquartered in Fort Collins, an hour north of Denver and Boulder. It is this corridor that has become the Bavaria of the United States, as far as brewing goes. Until craft brewing took off, the dominant force in Colorado beer was a little company called Coors. And to be fair, Coors did have a role in helping out craft breweries in the early years, selling them hops and other ingredients. There wasn’t any new equipment designed to handle brewing on a small scale, so old equipment was purchased and refurbished. Oftentimes, dairy equipment acted as a stand-in, which had more than a small effect on the consistency of the beer..
In 1982, four years after homebrewing became legal, the Great American Beer Festival kicked off in Boulder, featuring 22 small breweries offering around 40 varieties of beer. Today, due to its size, the event takes place in Denver. It now features hundreds of breweries offering over 2,000 different varieties.
In 1988, it became legal in Colorado to brew and sell beer on the same premises, and John Hickenlooper (now the Governor of Colorado) started the Wynkoop Brewing Company, the first brewpub in the state. When Wynkoop started up in the LoDo section of Denver, it sat on some of the cheapest real estate in the city (one dollar per square foot per year). LoDo is now one of Denver’s busiest districts, and Wynkoop stills sits at the same location. Very little of their beer leaves the premises (what does leaves in cans, rather than bottles). They offer a tour of their facilities, and have a seriously impressive pool hall on the third floor.
Hops, malts, yeast, and cans of Wynkoop beer, as seen on their tour.
But my personal favorite stop came at the Great Divide Brewery. John’s been an admirer of their beers for many years, and a bartender friend in Chicago introduced me to a saison they produce called Colette, which has quickly become my beer of choice (even though I can’t get it in Louisiana—ahem, Great Divide).
Great Divide represents the middle of the road in the state’s brewing culture. They’re a bigger operation than an average brewpub like Wynkoop or a specialty operation like Funkwerks, but with a distribution that stops at around 35 states, they’re not as big or nationally recognized as New Belgium (or Coors, for that matter). It’s a fair question how much bigger they can become. They have huge grain towers on the premises where their parking lot used to be, and these are soon going to be moved to a new location where they will also start a brewpub. How much bigger they can become also likely depends on how much bigger they want to be. They produce a large variety of beers (in addition to the Colette, I’m a big fan of the Yeti Oatmeal Stout) and are very popular in the western states. If they expanded into Louisiana, I certainly wouldn’t complain (ahem, Great Divide).
Great Divide’s bottling racks.
You can argue that craft brewing didn’t start in Colorado, but you’d be hard pressed to launch an argument that the state isn’t now the center of America craft brewing revolution. In a sense, Colorado has been beating the drum that has us marching back to the early 1900’s, when a single city would have a couple dozen breweries, and the only place you could find a particular beer was on the premises where it was brewed. This is certainly not a bad thing, but it clearly has the big guys worried. Coors created Blue Moon, a pseudo-craft brewing line that has become one of their biggest selling items. Budweiser recently launched an ad campaign mocking craftbrew fans as elitists, and the product as something other than “real beer.”
“That’s not about getting people to start drinking Budweiser,” says John. “That’s about making the people who already drink it feel good about their choice.”
It will be interesting to see how the big breweries negotiate the demand for a smaller, tastier product in the coming years. Perhaps they’ll try to join up, acquiring more craft breweries and letting them operate as parts of a larger organism. Or maybe the big breweries will simply attempt to offer their own lines of craft beers. But the beer industry was one of the few in the country that didn’t take a hit during the recent recession. That demand speaks to an industry in the middle of a sweeping change, a change that has seen its epicenter in Colorado.
You can blame those early brewers who saw an opportunity. You can blame the law Jimmy Carter signed. You can blame Charlie Papazian.
Or, you know, you could thank them.
New Belgium Brewery is located at 500 Linden Street in Fort Collins. Tours should be booked way, WAY in advance. More information on their website here.
Funkwerks Brewery is located at 1900 E. Lincoln Avenue in Fort Collins. They have a website right here.
Great Divide Brewery is Located at2201 Arapahoe Street in Denver. Their website is here.
Wynkoop Brewing Company is located at 1634 18th Street in Denver. Website is right here.
The Brewers’ Association has their headquarters at 1327 Sprce Street in Boulder. They have a website here.
More information on the Great American Beer Festival will be held in Denver on September 24-26. More information can be found here.