Colorado’s beer industry is one of the nation’s strongest. Its explosive growth illuminates the state’s most significant changes since the Gold Rush.
This article is another in our series exploring Colorado history over a glass of beer. Portions of it originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Journal of the West.
Boulder in the 1970s wasn’t exactly a button-down kind of town. So it raised eyebrows when a man in a dress shirt and tie signed up for Charlie Papazian’s homebrewing class. “I was forewarned that a suspicious-looking character had registered for my class,” Papazian recalled decades later. “And, sure enough, he showed up, in the mid-’70s, to my class wearing a white button-down shirt with black tie—the only guy in Boulder, probably, in a white shirt and a black tie!”
Papazian figured the man was an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the agency charged with enforcing the federal prohibition against homebrewing. But he went ahead with the class anyway, recalling:
I introduced the people in the class and gave them my normal spiel that [homebrewing is] illegal but don’t sell it and you probably won’t get hassled. He rolled up his sleeves and helped with a few batches of beer that we made. I think he came to two or three classes and then I never heard from him again.
Whether the dapper gent was a federal agent or just a curious citizen with a formal sense of fashion, Papazian continued teaching the homebrewing course for a decade—on the wrong side of state and federal law all the while.
The easygoing atmosphere that had a well-dressed dude looking out of place in Boulder came in part from the city’s growing counterculture ethos. In Boulder, as in other “crunchy” granola-loving hippie towns at the time, a reaction against the mass-produced culture of the previous generation was taking hold. Chefs like Alice Waters at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California praised locally sourced seasonal vegetables over their canned counterparts. Lifestyle purveyors like Stewart Brand assembled the Whole Earth Catalog, offering items made by small-scale producers that would be impossible to find at Sears. Down in southern Colorado, Gene and JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kalweitt, and Clark Richert were building geodesic dome homes from abandoned car roofs at the art colony they called “Drop City.”
Homebrewed beer paired well with this emerging do-it-yourself vibe across the countercultural West, offering not only the chance to subvert the big corporate brewers dominating the market with industrially brewed American lagers, but also the experience of enjoying novel flavors in the bargain. From Berkeley to Boulder to Drop City, homebrewing was an expression of a larger cultural shift towards valuing local things made in your own home or community, and many took to homebrewing believing that mass-produced American beers reflected the blandness of large-scale industrial brewing.
Charlie Papazian in his Boulder kitchen—wooden beer spoon in hand, watching over the contents of a brew kettle—embodied the era’s DIY culture. Over hundreds of batches of homebrew, he explored a new world of styles and flavors that most American beer drinkers had long forgotten thanks to Prohibition. Homebrewing, at first simply a hobby and a way to make quality beer, became a lifetime career. Today, more than fifty years after he moved to Colorado, his beer spoon is at the Smithsonian and he’s known around the world as a brewing guru. A household name for any beer nerd worth their carboy, Charlie Papazian might just be the most celebrated American homebrewer since George Washington jotted down his recipe for “small beer” around 1757.
And for good reason. Papazian’s long list of accomplishments contains notable highlights: cofounder of the American Homebrewers Association; driving force behind the Great American Beer Festival (turning forty this year); author of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, arguably the most influential homebrewing manual ever; and cofounder of the Brewers Association, today’s craft brewing industry trade group. His infectious love of good friends, good times, and good beer brought about a homebrew revolution that launched Colorado’s craft beer industry.
Boulder and similar locales were not alone in having growing economies and appealingly progressive cultures. Charlie and other footloose homeseekers could have chosen anywhere to live. But the lifestyle was the key, and it’s tough to beat Colorado for close proximity to natural amenities and ample opportunities to play in the Rockies.
Since the 1859 Gold Rush, American settlers have set course for Colorado hoping to seize the economic opportunities created by extractive industries like mining, ranching, agriculture, and logging. For most of that time, Coloradans came to labor and then made their homes where they worked. The homebrewers who sparked Colorado’s craft beer industry in the 1970s flipped that model on its head: They came for the lifestyle and figured out how to support themselves once they arrived.
Throughout the West, and certainly in Colorado, this shift totally reconfigured the social, economic, and natural landscapes of the region. The effects of the transformation were so impactful that they begged historians to come up with a name to describe them. The term they landed on was the “New West.”
Rocky Mountain High
Shorthand for the transition from an economy that relied on extractive industries to one supported equally by tourism and outdoor recreation, the “New West” has been as much a process as a place. It was an economic revolution that happened all across the western United States, but here’s how it happened in the Centennial State: In the decades following World War II, Cold War spending, a cultural shift promoting a mythologized Western past, and Colorado’s emerging outdoor industry combined to drive a sustained economic boom in the Rocky Mountains. But in contrast to the mineral and grazing bonanzas that characterized other rushes, this one wasn’t aimed at extracting and selling natural resources. Instead, it generated wealth from homeseekers and tourists eager to get outside and into nature. New Westerners—most of whom were white and thus not held back by racially discriminatory policies like redlining and the GI Bill—started paying top dollar for homes in and near the mountains in the mythic Rocky Mountain West.
Once word got out about the lifestyle, New Westerners moved here in droves. By the mid-1970s Colorado’s high country was the place to find that “Rocky Mountain high.” John Denver, a New Westerner himself, came to Colorado to revel in the mountains. In fact, he sang about them with such conviction that he topped the charts in 1972 and ’73. These years of popularity for “Rocky Mountain High” correspond to the state’s largest population growth since the 1859 Gold Rush. Former mining towns that had been mired in decades of decline were being transformed into glittering resorts. What had once been tiny outposts on the verge of economic collapse a few decades before—towns like Aspen, Breckenridge, Winter Park, Frisco, and Steamboat Springs—suddenly found themselves transformed by the lure of federally designated public lands and carloads of tourist dollars.
In less than half a century, Colorado grew from a “flyover state” into one of the most desirable places in the country to live and vacation. And, not by coincidence, it became one of the best places in the country to grab a pint. For a particular subset of beer-loving westerners—whether new arrivals drawn by the region’s amenities or Colorado-born residents who cherished the same things—enjoying more flavorful beer was an expression of the higher quality of life that was defining the New Western lifestyle. Sharing a homebrewed and “microbrewed” beer, with its subtle notes of authenticity, status, and quality, was an activity well suited to sitting around a campfire, taking in the vista from a mountain peak, or relaxing après-ski and reveling in the good fortune of calling such a place home. And for one New Westerner in particular, it was just this kind of lifestyle that made Colorado so alluring that he packed up his newly minted nuclear engineering degree and moved across the country.
“Relax. Don’t Worry. Have a Homebrew.”
Charlie Papazian might just be the quintessential New Westerner. Born in New Jersey, he grew up walking rural roads in dairy country. It was an upbringing that instilled a lifelong love of time outdoors. When Charlie was studying nuclear engineering and education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a neighbor introduced him to homebrewing by way of a rough recipe involving a can of malt extract, some sugar, water, and a little bread yeast. The concoction tasted better to Papazian than anything he could buy commercially, and homebrew had the added advantage of being less expensive than the pre-made stuff. Charlie started reading up on homebrewing methods, and by the time he moved to Colorado he was producing (then-illegal) homebrewed beer with his friends.
Arriving in Boulder in 1972, he soon found a job at a local school. While teaching children was his day job, he also taught adults the art of homebrewing in the classes he offered at Boulder’s Community Free School. It was there that he met his friend and future brewing partner, Charlie Matzen. Over the next several years, the Charlies developed a dedicated corps of fellow homebrewers and friends, and in December 1978 they cofounded the American Homebrewers Association (AHA). “We thought about it for an entire year because we realized it would be a pretty good commitment on our time to found an organization like that,” Papazian recollected. “And then we decided to publish our first magazine.”
As they pasted together page proofs with rubber cement, the pair were unaware of the legislative effort to legalize homebrewing being undertaken by Senator Alan Cranston at the same time. “We founded the American Homebrewers Association in complete ignorance that the law was going to be changed. We had no clue. It was something that we were not connected to,” explained Papazian. But their timing couldn’t have been better and couldn’t have seemed more intentional. Papazian and Matzen published the inaugural issue of the homebrewing magazine Zymurgy (a reference to the study of yeast fermentation) just months before President Jimmy Carter signed off on legal homebrewing.
The magazine and the AHA grew quickly as homebrewers all over the United States (and Canada) came out of the legal shadows clamoring for recipes, tips, and tricks to improve their homebrew. Initially stunned by the popularity of their publication, Matzen and Papazian quickly realized that their tiny, Boulder-based AHA was tapping into a deep vein of popular interest. Zymurgy spawned a network of people making their own brews and created a body of knowledge that would ferment a national passion for great-tasting beer. Homebrewers across the country started clamoring for new ingredients and uncovering forgotten styles. A kaleidoscope of flavors Americans had lost touch with flowed out of kitchens across the country, sparking a new awareness of the uniformity that was mass-produced American lager.
Rejecting the bland beers on offer from large breweries, Zymurgy contributor Alan Toby captured the popular sentiment of the times by announcing 1983 that the rise of home and small-scale brewers meant leaving behind the “thin and watery stuff in a carbonated can.” And in her classic work Ambitious Brew, beer historian Maureen Ogle quotes a homebrewer who vehemently expressed the anti-corporate ethos driving some of the more extreme DIY brewers: “[N]ow that growing your own (food, dope, hair, younameit) is hip,” one widely reprinted pamphlet proclaimed in 1971, “it’s time to resurrect the Dope of the Depression—Homebrew.” The author extolled homebrewing as an “exercise of craft” that offered “good vibes from using something you make yourself, plus an improvement in quality” over the products sold by “Augustus [sic] Busch and the other fascist pigs who [were] ripping off the Common Man.”
Not everyone making their own in the 1970s was quite so angry at big beer. Papazian and Matzen’s love for homebrewing grew from a genuine enthusiasm for the art of brewing and a connection to the community they were forging around homemade beer in Boulder. But that enthusiasm, and their knowledge, was infectious, and once people understood the array of flavors homebrew could offer, going back to buying bland beer was just a lot less appealing.
Over the next few years, the duo gathered a dedicated following of fellow homebrewers. Between formally organized homebrewing classes and informal parties, the Charlies were at the epicenter of an ever-growing Colorado movement emanating from Boulder and drawing together like-minded brewers. While interest in homebrewing came from all across the nation, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the largest concentration of carboys—the large, typically glass containers homebrewers use for fermentation—was out West. It was where Papazian and his fellow brewers lived, not necessarily because it was where they had to be for their jobs, but because it was where they wanted to spend their time off.
For Papazian and Matzen, some of those opportunities to play outside came in the form of huge “Beer & Steer” parties the duo threw near Boulder. The first was in 1975 on private land in the foothills of Boulder County. By 1979, it had migrated to a ranch that is now open-space land north of town. The party combined Matzen’s love of good food, Papazian’s brewing expertise, and the pair’s shared love of convivial good times. It featured pit-roasted meat, local music, and lots and lots of homebrewed beer stored in a hand-built ice chest packed with snow lugged down from higher elevations. The 100 or so attendees of the first Beer & Steer were mostly acquaintances of Papazian and Matzen, or were Papazian’s homebrewing students at the Community Free School. Despite a small mishap with an overpowered spit-turner lobbing hunks of meat, Beer & Steer was wildly successful and spawned a yearly tradition. In fact, in 1982, the third Beer & Steer drew more than 400 participants from all over Colorado’s Front Range.
For many early revelers already familiar with the burgeoning craft beer movement through their association with Papazian and Matzen, Beer & Steer parties were more than simply excuses to drink beer with friends in the woods outside of Boulder. When word of the gatherings spread through the community, annual attendance became a marker of insider status. Recounting stories of partying inside the frigid cloud that engulfed Beer & Steer II or talking about the brewers who parachuted into Beer & Steer IV were a powerful means of self-identification that transformed an impromptu gathering of people with shared interests into an extremely popular social event. By the time of Beer & Steer IV, it was such a big deal that one of the organizers overheard a ticketless would-be reveler remark that he was “going to show up anyway,” despite increasing attempts to control attendance.
For Papazian and Matzen, like so many other New Westerners, collective enjoyment of beer paired naturally with outdoor recreation. Beer & Steer parties came to shape beer culture around the country as Zymurgy readers were treated to annual accounts of Beer & Steer hijinks. In this way, Colorado homebrewers not only became accustomed to enjoying their brews against a mountain backdrop, but also began to associate beer drinking with the culture of outdoor recreation that was emerging around this time on the Front Range. They learned what beer drinkers across Colorado know instinctively today: Beer pairs well with playing outside.
Since it was founded within sight of the Flatirons (the striking red sandstone formations that serve so well as a backdrop for Boulder), it’s understandable that a certain appreciation of the great outdoors would permeate the culture at the growing American Homebrewers Association. It was certainly an attitude that seeped into their early publications. In the fall 1979 issue of Zymurgy, Papazian penned a column he called “Traveling with Homebrew.” Full of tongue-in-cheek quips like, “If you plan to backpack, remember that alcohol is lighter than water,” and “Homebrew is also terrific for repelling/forgetting centipedes, scorpions, rattlesnakes, cockroaches, ants, wind, rain, snow and flat tires,” the article was entirely focused on traveling in the wilderness and on foot.
Papazian’s assertion that “it’s not only EASY but practical to take homebrew along—even to remote areas” suggests that Zymurgy readers in the late 1970s were becoming more familiar with outdoor recreation as a means of escaping demanding post-industrial confines like fluorescent-lit offices and gridlocked commutes. Dialing back his witticisms for just a moment, Papazian declares, “Most of us need some time for our nervous systems to leave the working world worries behind.” The addition of homebrew to a backpacking trip would “keep your mind off of those worries until the moment you must return.”
Americans with enough wealth and privilege in the 1970s were increasingly taking to the outdoors to deal with the stress of modern life. With the introduction of the Wilderness Act of 1964, the federal government codified the notion that there are some places with such natural splendor (a fair few in Colorado) that they should be left untouched in perpetuity—“untrammeled by man,” to use the parlance of Congress. Along with major advances in outdoor recreation equipment like the invention of nylon tents, lightweight waterproof clothing, and synthetic insulation in later decades, it was quickly becoming easier, cheaper, and more comfortable to make prolonged trips into the woods. And, thanks to Papazian, homebrewed beer was increasingly coming along for the ride.
The Great American Beer Festival
The Beer & Steer parties cultivated a devoted community of homebrewing enthusiasts who sustained the annual celebration of drinking beer in the woods. But as the community of homebrewers grew into an industry in the 1980s and ’90s, its innovative beermakers needed an accessible, open, and larger event than Beer & Steer to keep pace with the thirst for the new generation of American beers they were brewing. Recognizing the evolving need, Charlie Papazian established the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in 1982 to do just that, and the GABF quickly supplanted Beer & Steer as the premier event in Colorado brewing.
Following a 1982 visit to the Brewers Association of America’s annual gathering where he met brewers and executives from bigger regional breweries, Papazian started to think about what it would take for homebrewers to turn pro. He was determined to expand demand for craft brews and to begin building connections among small-batch brewers. To that end, the AHA decided to aim its annual homebrewing competition at a wider audience, and the Great American Beer Festival was born. Merging their fourth annual homebrewing competition with the GABF, Papazian and Matzen printed announcements in Zymurgy, inviting guests from all over the country to come to Boulder on June 4, 1982. That first year, about 850 people took them up on the invitation.
To bring some consistency to how they discussed the diverse and unfamiliar styles of beer being poured at that first GABF, the program offered instructions on how to taste and talk about various styles of ale and lager. The program for the “American Homebrewers Association’s Fourth Annual National Homebrew/Microbrewery Conference and National Homebrew Competition” offers insight into the still-nascent language of beer connoisseurship.
By 1982, homebrewers and craft beer drinkers were accumulating experience with different kinds of ales and lagers, but they didn’t have a common method of identifying or communicating about the tastes that defined those various styles. Characterizations of beers as light, bitter, or sweet almost fit the bill, but were too broad to convey the special qualities of a truly innovative beer or to adequately differentiate between beers of similar styles. And so, the GABF’s organizers drew on existing beer knowledge and the established language of food and wine tasting to describe the distinct flavors that characterized each beer. They appropriated words like “flowery” to describe the bitter, hoppy scent and flavor of pale ales, and coined “malty” to convey the sweet, earthy flavor of darker brown ales, porters, and stouts. Zymurgy published tasting notes in an effort to expand the community of educated and appreciative beer lovers at a time when the craft brewing industry was struggling to get off the ground and every beer counted.
For many would-be professional brewers, economic capital was front and center. Budding brewers learned fast that the GABF offered a chance to rub elbows with others from around the country. But it was also an opportunity to get help from larger regional breweries like Coors, which welcomed craft brewers to the industry and offered a helping hand (and, occasionally, ingredients in a pinch) to many in those early days. Over the next decade, the GABF would expand to include dozens more breweries, necessitating a move to more spacious accommodations in Denver. But its most important contribution to the rise of craft brewing was in putting homebrewers in touch with beer industry professionals who often generously helped the upstarts work out the issues involved in scaling from small-batch home systems into commercial enterprises. By picking brains and making personal connections, homebrewers at the GABF learned how to make beer in large batches while maintaining quality and freshness.
By the late 1980s, more and more Colorado homebrewers were honing their craft and felt confident in taking the next step: seeking startup capital and making the leap from amateur to professional. By the end of the decade, trailblazing hobbyists were opening microbreweries all across the country. But Colorado was on the leading edge of that burgeoning craft beer movement. Back then, breweries that are now household names across the state—Odell, Wynkoop, Ska, Great Divide, New Belgium, Avery, Oskar Blues—made the same uncertain bet on Colorado’s future as early brewers like Philip Zang and Adolph Coors had made 100 years before. Just like it did in the 1880s, betting on beer paid off, one bottle at a time.
Microbrewed Beer Booms
In the late ’70s, Rudolph Ware and David Hummer were physics PhDs at the University of Colorado’s Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics. Using a hodgepodge of makeshift equipment, Ware and Hummer had been experimenting with the recipes they found in Zymurgy and with their own homebrewed concoctions. As the story goes, after a faculty party featuring Ware and Hummer’s homebrew, a coworker asked the physicists if there was anything left of the beer. When it turned out that the brew was gone, folks started asking when more would be available and whether they could buy it. And thus, in 1979, a brewery was born.
Initially housed in a goat shed outside the town of Hygiene, Colorado, Boulder Brewing Company would gain fame for winning one of the first gold medals in the porter beer category at the 1982 GABF. Ware, Hummer, and their third partner, Al Nelson, certainly were not the first American homebrewers to make the leap into craft brewing, but they were the first to do so in Colorado. And they snapped up just the forty-third brewing license in the United States at the time. More importantly, they were the first microbrewery to take off outside the West Coast. Drawing on ale brewing traditions that were undergoing their own revival across the pond thanks to British brewing pioneer Michael Jackson (think less moonwalk and more beer talk), Boulder Beer introduced many Coloradans to stouts, porters, pale ales, and barleywine—beers that came out of an English beer tradition. Ale, which had been largely erased from America’s brewing industry and beer palate after Prohibition, was suddenly making a return to prominence. Dark, roasty, and handmade with care, Boulder Beer’s porter was a revelation to the small but growing cadre of microbrew enthusiasts.
Boulder Beer’s ascent to prominence and the rapid expansion of its brewing capacity paved the way for the hundreds of breweries that would follow in its sudsy footsteps. Within the next two decades, a proliferation of new breweries offered thirsty Coloradans a chance to identify with a local product and distinguish themselves as members of what was then an exclusive club. Boulder Brewing Company’s success was obviously the result of a variety of factors, but in this case, the factors that made for a successful brewing operation converged at a specific place and time in western history. In other words, the fact that the Denver metro area became home to some of the vanguards of craft brewing was due in part to the area’s qualities as a hub of the New West, and in part to the culture of connoisseurism that Papazian and the AHA had helped launch at the GABF.
But as appealing as beer bottled in a goat shed might have been to Colorado quaffers, some early GABF attendees realized that professional-scale bottling and distributing were capital-intensive operations that required a great deal of specialized knowledge. So some would-be bottlers shied away from packaging altogether when they discovered that brewpubs could be another means of getting beer into consumers’ hands and stomachs.
America’s first brewpubs opened on the West Coast, and it wasn’t long before Denver and the rest of the state caught on. Brewpubs were still illegal in Colorado in the early 1980s thanks to the convoluted laws Prohibition left behind. But small-batch beer’s growing statewide popularity drew the attention of restaurateurs eager to cash in on the phenomenon. Lobbying did its job, and by the late 1980s the law was changed and the race was on to open Colorado’s first brewpub.
Jim and Bill Carver—brothers who grew up working in Milwaukee bakeries—weren’t strangers to hard work or the science of fermentation. Like so many others, the pair moved out to Colorado in the ’80s to take advantage of the high-country lifestyle. Their Winter Park bakery kept itself afloat selling massive cinnamon rolls and scratch-made meals to tourists visiting the ever-expanding ski resort cut into the national forest just a few miles up US-40. But Winter Park sits in a high-mountain valley that gets frigidly cold in the winter, and their tourist-dependent business dried up in the summer months. So the Carvers went looking for warmer weather and a more year-round economy. After selling their namesake bakery in 1986, the two moved southward to a sleepy college community tucked beneath the San Juan Mountains.
In the midst of a nationwide recession, Durango was a different kind of town back then. The brothers recall boarded-up shops in a community that had yet to experience the population influx and economic benefits of Colorado’s outdoor recreation boom. Luckily for Durango, Carver Brothers Bakery was an instant hit. Fresh bread baked daily and handmade preserves imparted an air of local authenticity, but it was the quality of the food that made the place a must-stop breakfast and lunch spot for visitors and Durangans alike. Because they built their success on homemade offerings, when the brothers contemplated expanding into dinner service in 1988 they knew that having a handmade product on the menu was essential. Homemade burger buns wouldn’t be enough, but small-batch beers might just fit the bill.
Buying some old brewing equipment from a burned-out Milwaukee brewery, the Carvers’ crew started experimenting with new recipes. They had some expertise with bread yeast, but buying brewer’s yeast wasn’t easy yet in Durango. So the brothers had to culture their own. With microbrew on the menu, Carver’s cemented its status as a local hub as well as a critical stop for the ever-growing numbers of outdoor enthusiasts. Durango became a preferred destination for hiking, skiing, fishing, and mountain biking in the storied San Juans, and even famed outdoor adventure writer Edward Abbey stopped by Carver’s in 1988. He’d never heard of small-batch beer, but when the brothers gave him some samples of their still-fermenting brew, Abbey apparently loved them all and said that he thought brewing beer that way was a “damn-fine idea.”
At the same time that the Carver brothers were helping revitalize downtown Durango, another group of entrepreneurs was looking to do the same for a neglected neighborhood in downtown Denver. Lower Downtown in the ’80s—before “LoDo” was part of every Denverite’s vocabulary—wasn’t a popular destination on a Friday or Saturday night. A two-decade trend of white flight and corresponding discriminatory lending practices meant that most of Colorado’s white middle class stuck to the suburbs while opportunities for people living in Denver’s urban core were severely limited. The term “inner city” was a kind of code for the problems that came with a lack of public or private investment in racially segregated neighborhoods.
John Hickenlooper recalls the effects of these policies, noting that in 1988 you could see tumbleweeds blowing down Wynkoop Street on a Friday evening. The famously unemployed-geologist-turned-entrepreneur-turned-mayor-turned-governor-turned-senator, Hickenlooper had visited what was then the handful of brewpubs around the country (mostly concentrated in the West) and figured that Colorado’s emerging microbrewed beer scene would help support a new restaurant pouring its own beer. After scraping together as many dollars as they could, Hickenlooper and his partners Jerry Williams, Mark Schiffler, and Russell Schehrer opened the state’s first brewpub. They beat the Carvers in Durango by only about two months, thanks to a suddenly available rafting permit that allowed the Carvers a long-sought-after chance to boat the Grand Canyon.
According to Hickenlooper, Wynkoop Brewing Company’s opening night was almost a fiasco as hundreds of thirsty patrons rushed to the bar to buy pints for only twenty-five cents. The new brewery ran out of beer before eleven o’clock, selling more than 6,000 plastic cups of fine English-inspired ales. Following hard on the heels of Wynkoop’s success, dozens of other brewpubs popped up in growing Colorado towns over the next five years. Some still-familiar names include the likes of Boulder’s Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery, Fort Collins’ Coopersmith’s Pub & Brewing, and Breckenridge Brewery. But even among these fast-evolving towns, the transformation of Denver’s LoDo neighborhood was notable.
Wynkoop’s opening came at the onset of a gentrifying transformation that reconfigured downtown Denver into one of the most desirable and expensive places in the country to live. The brewpub’s ales, named for iconic places and industries from Colorado history, evoked a sense of place for the new influx of homeseekers pushing out longtime residents in Denver’s glitzy new urban core. Wynkoop’s success compounded growing investment from other entrepreneurs, and business surged through the early 1990s as wealthy investors capitalized on “Imagine a Great City” programs launched by Mayor Federico Peña and continued by the Wellington Webb administration that followed. Beer was already leading the way in LoDo, but its status as the liquid hallmark of the times was confirmed with the arrival of the Colorado Rockies baseball franchise and their home field bearing the Coors name. Alongside trendy restaurants, ball games, and revitalized nightlife, taprooms were vital amenities popping up for urbanites in the 1990s. In the span of just a few decades, longstanding demographic trends were turned on their heads as the new, wealthy, and generally speaking, white residents reshaped what had been predominantly Black and Hispano neighborhoods. Breweries, not wanting to miss out on the economic opportunity of a lifetime, opened at a dizzying pace. They helped drive a period of rapid economic growth in the city’s core, as well as the familiar corollary effect of forcing out long-established communities of color.
As downtown kept expanding, so did its beer offerings. Great Divide Brewing Company opened a brewery, taproom, and bottling house just a few blocks away from Coors Field in 1994, joining the ranks of already established brewers like Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Phantom Canyon in Colorado Springs, and Flying Dog in Aspen. Soon, mash tuns were also busy brewing a craft boom in high-alpine recreation hotspots like Breckenridge. By the late 1990s, glass bottles of flavorful microbrews commanding unheard-of prices could be found in liquor stores across Colorado, while craft styles like India pale ale flowed from taps in nearly every corner of the state. Even Coors was getting in on the craft beer game, hiring brewmaster Keith Villa to create the company’s now-famous Blue Moon Belgian White ale in its brewery at Coors Field.
By the time Coloradans started worrying about the Y2K bug, microbrewed local beer had become the go-to adult beverage for New Westerners. The challenging bitter flavors of India Pale Ale or the unique richness of stout were in high demand among those who wanted to demonstrate their sophistication, but who also just wanted something cold, relaxing, and delicious to enjoy after work or after playing outside. What was known in the early 2000s as microbrewed beer was a kind of liquid cachet that paired perfectly with a vision of Colorado as the home of the outdoor-oriented, amenity-rich good life. In other words, a knowledge of microbrewed beer and the palate to appreciate it became, alongside fancy mountain bikes and expensive ski gear, a marker of status and of the lifestyle New Westerners were seeking in Colorado.
Beer and biking, brews and bootlaces: They were all part of a new culture emerging in the West, and they signified one of Colorado’s longest-lasting periods of economic growth.
Crafting the Can
Restaurateur Dale Katechis was struggling to make payroll. Like so many other New Westerners in the late 1990s, Katechis came to Colorado to bike and brew near some of the Rockies’ best trails. Katechis opened Oskar Blues restaurant and pub in 1997 in the small town of Lyons where, like Carver Brewing Company in Durango, it became a staple for locals and tourists alike. In the summertime, Dale managed to sell enough barbeque and beer to keep the doors open and the lights on. But when the snowflakes started to fly in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, the tourists stopped coming. The winter months were lean at the restaurant, and on more than one occasion Katechis was forced to sell his pickup truck on a Friday and then buy it back on a Monday just so he could pay his staff.
Searching for a more stable all-season source of income, Katechis and his colleagues decided to try packaging their beer for sale beyond the restaurant. Tapping into Colorado’s already-competitive craft beer market in 2002 was going to be tough. New Belgium in Fort Collins was, even then, a comparatively giant operation. But Oskar Blues’ decision to eschew the usual bottles and put Dale’s Pale Ale into cans helped set the beer apart. By 2005, Oskar Blues was drawing national attention. In a New York Times taste test, Dale’s Pale Ale won out over several other beers, in part because the can it came in preserved the beer’s freshness.
Writing about the novelty of drinking craft beer from a can, Times journalist Eric Asimov said, “Not long ago, cans represented all that was wrong with the assembly-line American beer industry. No craft brewer worth a copper brew kettle would even consider putting his precious ale in a can. But times have changed, and some brewers say that cans are lighter and easier to recycle than bottles, and offer complete protection against light.” As longtime Oskar Blues Marketing Director Chad Melis said of the article, “It was a well-respected third party with massive reach reinforcing everything we were saying. It fueled our fire to keep loading up the van and going to bike events, kayak events, music festivals, anywhere we could reach people one beer at a time.”
Today, canned beer is anything but a novelty. Most packaged beer is available in cans, and thirty-two-ounce “crowlers”—a portmanteau of can and growler—make tap-fresh brews available for patrons to take home from almost any brewery, thanks to an affordable bartop can sealer invented at Oskar Blues. In short, breweries around the state are discovering what Bill Coors learned when he helped bring the first mass-produced aluminum beer can to market in 1959: Aluminum cans are lighter, cheaper, and more recyclable than any other packaging material for beer. But what made the can really exciting for Colorado’s consumers in the early 2000s was the chance to update Charlie Papazian’s guidelines for enjoying good beer while backpacking by tossing one or two of their favorite flavor-packed pale ales into a backpack to enjoy mid-mountain, an option that glass bottles’ fragility and heft had always made impractical.
Even as Colorado’s craft beer scene blossomed in the late 1990s, Colorado craft brewers stuck with bottles. Glass—the stuff of fine wine and liquor bottles for centuries—imparted an air of permanence and attention to quality. Despite advances in manufacturing that rendered cans inert, some consumers insisted that canned beer tasted like the metal it came in. Still others believed that bottlers cared more about their craft, in contrast to the canned stuff that journalist Mike Royko said “tasted like the secret brewing process involved running it through a horse.” So when Dale Katechis started packaging his beer, he was well aware that aluminum cans carried a lowbrow stigma associated with mass-produced lagers.
For these reasons, in the early years of the new millennium, convincing craft beer consumers to drink out of cans was a hard row to hoe. So Oskar Blues set out to purchase bottling equipment. But before it committed itself, the brewery received what Chad Melis called a “spam fax” from a company offering a one-at-a-time canning line. “At first,” Melis says, “like everybody else we laughed, it was pretty much a joke at that time.”
But a twinge of curiosity kept gnawing at the brewing team, and with Ball Corporation’s can manufacturing plant just down the road, Katechis and his coworkers decided to go see whether cans were a viable packaging option for a small brewery. As things turned out, Ball was willing to manufacture cans for Dale’s Pale Ale in small enough batches to make economic and logistical sense. When the minds behind Oskar Blues realized that cans are better for the brewery’s bottom line while being better for the beer and better for the environment, the decision to put their beer in cans was what Melis called “kind of a no-brainer.”
The can was an obvious point of departure from the ubiquitous bottle, and it eventually helped set the brewery apart by giving it a reputation for commitment to quality and for supporting local businesses. But in 2002, with the stigma against canned beer still firmly entrenched among most craft beer drinkers, the Lyons-based brewery needed to educate its consumers about the can’s potential benefits.
Oskar Blues employees figured they needed to hit the road. Long days and nights of travel took Dale’s Pale Ale and its blue can, emblazoned with an idyllic mountain backdrop, anywhere beer connoisseurs congregated. Most often, this entailed loading up the van and heading out to mountain bike races, kayaking exhibitions, and other outdoor events in order to show people that cans made it possible to play outside while enjoying great beer.
As word about Oskar Blues and its canned craft beer got around, the folks at the brewery saw that cans and the outdoor-oriented culture they promoted were appealing strongly to the same growing market of New Westerners that was buying Boulder Beer’s Singletrack ale or New Belgium’s Fat Tire. Chad Melis says that consumers told the Oskar Blues team how appreciative they were to finally have a craft beer they could take with them when they went biking, skiing, hiking, or camping. Despite Charlie Papazian’s valiant efforts in that 1979 Zymurgy article to convince beerlovers that they could take their favorite brew into the woods, two decades of lugging heavy, clinking backpacks and mourning tragically shattered bottles left recreationists longing for their favorite beer in cans. The new mobility cans offered, along with their eco-friendly recyclability, gave Oskar Blues a competitive advantage with New Westerners whose purchasing habits reflected a commodification of outdoor recreation and a desire for products that minimized environmental impact.
For these New Westerners, who spent good coin on top-flight equipment for their outdoor exploits, consuming craft beer while playing outside dovetailed with purchases of material markers of economic status on offer from outdoor outfitters like Patagonia or REI. The aluminum can’s infinite recyclability allowed consumers to feel that they were reducing their ecological impact by directing their dollars away from resource-intensive glass. Thus, for Oskar Blues, the choice to put high-quality beer in cans happened at the perfect cultural moment. Riding a wave of outdoor-oriented green consumerism, Oskar Blues was able to make craft beer in cans a prominent icon of the amenity-driven economy of the twenty-first century West. As Melis put it, “we wanted to have a can—a clearly identifiable can—on everything. Whether you see an Oskar Blues tap handle, an Oskar Blues poster, or cans on the shelf at the liquor store, you see a lot of consistency in the cans. For us, that can was a symbol of a couple of different things: of quality craft beer; of environmentalism; and that active lifestyle that brought us all together in Lyons.”
Beer marketing continues to play on this synergy of environmentalism and active outdoor lifestyles despite the fact that neither outdoor recreation nor beer brewing are particularly environmentally friendly industries. Nevertheless, the nature motif on Oskar Blues cans is part of a culture of using mountain scenes to promote sales, and it reflects craft brewing’s roots in eco-oriented amenity towns. This new marketing was an expression of eco-conscious, amenity-driven consumerism, and it grew up around gear and beer in the American West.
Lessons from the Craftsplosion
With roots stretching back to the late ’70s, Colorado’s craft beer boom seems like it was a long time coming. But in reality, the explosion of craft brewing is a fairly recent phenomenon driven by the taproom boom. Brewpubs were popular, but, increasingly, what became known as the “taproom” is rising to prominence. Taprooms like the Copper Club in Fruita started opening around the state in the early 2000s, and tourism is supporting breweries far from the Front Range. In the wake of the hopefully receding Covid-19 pandemic, new breweries are still opening in mountain towns across the state. Even the tiny community of Fraser, population 1,300 in 2020, has three thriving craft breweries. And Ouray, nestled into its box canyon beneath the San Juan peaks, boasts four breweries for its 1,046 residents. For many of these small mountain brewers, their popularity and their marketing is explicitly tied to the idea that they are places for visitors and locals alike to gather with good friends after hiking a fourteener, swishing down the slopes, riding the rapids, or slaying some singletrack. They are anchors of the New Western lifestyle in communities that a generation or two earlier were on the wrong side of the state’s economic boom-and-bust cycles.
All across Colorado, New Western dollars have been a lifeline. Communities long neglected because of racism or simply because they were out of the way saw trendy taprooms boom. But the negative side effects that came with an influx of tourists and urban amenity seekers weren’t borne equally. Gentrification and out-of-reach housing are problems both city and mountain communities are desperate to solve.
In modern Colorado, craft breweries are simultaneously centers of growing community identity and drivers of inequity. And brewing as an industry is still striving to address its exclusion problem, despite years of efforts to be more accessible to brewers and beer-lovers of color. Latino-owned breweries like Raices and Dos Luces in Denver represent welcoming community hubs in an industry that is slowly grappling with its legacy of exclusion. Raices owner Jose Beteta, a champion of getting the word out about Latino beer culture, founded Suave Fest—a festival featuring Latino brewers—in Denver in 2019. Similarly, the industry is opening up to women, and Colorado is a national leader. Woman-owned breweries like Holidaily, helmed by Karen Hertz in Golden, and Lady Justice, founded by a group of bold women in Aurora, are forging a new path for female brewers.
As the state’s brewing industry embraces these advances and continues working toward crafting a community for all Coloradans, beer and outdoor recreation remain world-renowned hallmarks of the Colorado lifestyle. And the story of the state’s brewing industry reflects the change and growth the phenomenon of the New West has entailed.
With more than 400 breweries operating at the end of 2021, and more opening all the time, the craft beer sector contributes more to Colorado’s economy per capita than it does in any other state, according to the Brewers Association. Denver hosts the fortieth anniversary of the Great American Beer Festival in October of 2022, and Golden is still home to (though it’s no longer the headquarters of) the Coors brewery—the largest single-site brewery in North America. Thanks in part to Charlie Papazian and the craft beer revolution he started with his homebrew crew, it’s the rare ski area café or mountain restaurant that has no local ale on offer, and brewery meetups are an integral part of local culture for many communities all across the state. Homebrewing—an activity started as a fringe hobby and a response to a lack of beer options among a select segment of comfortably wealthy and white New Westerners—now includes increasingly diverse communities of brewers and drinkers. From La Junta to Grand Junction, and from Fort Collins to Trinidad, beer is more than a quirky local commodity or a pleasant way to pass an afternoon. It’s an integral part of many people’s Colorado lifestyles.
The story of how Colorado became one of the best places in the world to grab a pint is more than just a tale of ale. It’s also an index for how Colorado has changed in the last half century. It’s an amber (or pale yellow, or malty black) lens through which we can better understand how today’s Colorado came to be.