Exploring Colorado's Craft-Beer Scene

With a rich history in hyper-locality, the state has a more vibrant brewing industry than ever
Exploring Colorado's Craft-Beer Scene
These Colorado brews from New Belgium and Great Divide are some of the few available nationwide. (Emma Balter)
Jan 5, 2017

This past fall, I hit the road and headed to Colorado. The Centennial State has a healthy wine industry, mostly located in the Grand Valley AVA to the west, but I discovered that the local beverage culture wasn’t primarily of the wine-swirling kind. Between hikes, I found myself reaching for another libation altogether: craft beer.

Colorado has a long history with beer, going back to the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of the late 19th century. When news of a gold strike spread, an estimated 100,000 aspiring miners flocked to the Rocky Mountains, creating communities in the wilderness. Beer was difficult to import—bulky to transport and subject to spoilage—so merchants seized on the opportunity to serve local brews to the thirsty mining folk.

The territory's first brewery, Rocky Mountain Brewery, was established in Denver in 1859. By the time Colorado became the 38th state in 1876, 36 breweries were operating within its borders—the precursor to today's craft-beer concept: local beer for local people.

The state now has around 300 licensed brewers. This abundance was kick-started by 1996 state legislation that created a brewpub license, allowing any restaurant or hotel operating a licensed brewery to legally sell its products on-premise. If you travel around Colorado today, you'll find a brewpub on almost every corner.

I happily indulged. Must-try brews are bottled by companies such as Odell, Asher, Boulder Beer, Elevation Beer, Wit's End, Wynkoop and Grimm Brothers, just to mention a fraction of what there is to sample.

After my road trip, I came back to New York thirsty and eager to find the brews that I so enjoyed during my travels. Bouncing from one specialty craft-beer store to the next, I quickly found that little of what I had tried in Colorado was available outside the state. This is a testament to the industry's emphasis on locality, explains Corey Gargiulo, who is in charge of the beer program at Marta, a New York City restaurant with a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its wine list. "Beer is a perishable product and is really meant to be consumed as soon as it's ready,” Gargiulo notes. “Having a hyper-local focus allows brewers to produce and serve beers exactly how they want and allows for brewers to experiment with and rotate their offerings more frequently."

Some bigger Colorado breweries have wide distribution and are relatively easy to find, however: Look out for New Belgium (Rampant Imperial IPA, Fat Tire Amber Ale), Great Divide (Titan IPA, Whitewater Hoppy Wheat Ale, Colette Farmhouse Ale), Breckenridge (Breck IPA, Agave Wheat) and Left Hand's milk stouts.

These quality brews are a good start, but if you're thirsty for more, head out to the hub of America's craft-beer movement. Try to fit in a hike, too, and maybe bring me back a six-pack of Odell Drumroll APA!

You can follow Emma Balter on Twitter, at twitter.com/emmabalter, and Instagram, at instagram.com/emmacbalter.

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