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Originally published October 30, 2010 at 7:04 PM | Page modified November 1, 2010 at 10:11 PM

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Colorado: the Napa Valley of beer

Beer tour: Visiting Colorado's many breweries makes for a tasty road trip.

Chicago Tribune

DENVER — I was about three sips into a boozy four-city, 13-brewery tour of this beer mecca when I got a warning.

Troy Barker, a 31-year-old bartender from Laramie, Wyo., also once had grand, thirsty plans for Colorado's Front Range, the flat land just east of the Rocky Mountains that is home to a bunch of breweries churning out strange and exciting beers.

He and his people were quickly thwarted.

"It was, uh, the alcohol content," Barker said, slugging down a pitch-black stout at Great Divide Brewing Co., a brewery that BeerAdvocate magazine ranked seventh on its 2009 list of "All-Time Top Breweries on Planet Earth."

"We got too drunk," clarified his female friend.

The Napa Valley of beer? The Munich of the West? They like to say both out here. And it could well be true. The state has the second- most breweries in the nation and fifth-most per capita.

How that came to be is an oft-examined question, and the most common answer is this: Many Front Range residents aren't from the area. They converge here in search of the mountains, a laid-back lifestyle and life's finer things — like making and drinking good beer.

Touring the breweries

So with a vague plan of the breweries (and one bar) I wanted to hit, my drinking partner and I began at Great Divide Brewing. Bluegrass played on the speakers, and the warm, grassy smell of hops filled the air. We each tried the allotted four free (and healthy) tastings of what was on draft and in bottles before I settled on a Yeti, the thick, dark stout for which the brewery is best-known.

"Do you want the regular Yeti, the Oak Aged or the Espresso Oak Aged?" the bartender asked.

I went with the Espresso Oak Aged, and it was delicious — thick and rich, with the expected coffee notes.

We journeyed on to Falling Rock Tap House, which is a bar, not a brewery. It was our only digression because, as one beer expert told me: "There are five or 10 great beer bars in the country. That is one of them." Falling Rock was dark, cool and full of wood: the bar, the floors, the tables, the walls.

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The real draw is the regularly rotating 94 taps. We made a quick stop at another downtown place, Wynkoop Brewing Co., which claims to be Denver's oldest brewpub. We slugged down Patty's Chile Beer — a light, low-alcohol beer made with Anaheim chilies and smoked ancho peppers. On we went to Bull & Bush Pub and Brewery, a British-style pub. Open since 1971, Bull & Bush has brewed its own beer since 1997.

I sank my teeth into a beer sampler — six beers for $6. Most breweries offer a sampler, and it is an effective way to survey the landscape. But then our waitress brought only three short glasses.

"We used to bring them out all at once," she said, "but they felt people weren't savoring them and were getting confused about what was what. This way, it slows people down."

Speaking of slowing down, it was time for us to do the same. But first we headed to the nearby suburb of Aurora to sip at Dry Dock Brewing Co., which won national Small Brewing Company of the Year at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival. We tried yet another sampler and walked out with a growler of a beer I never expected to buy: Apricot Blonde. It was maybe the best fruit beer I've ever had.

And if you wondered, yes, Coors is also on the Front Range. But Dry Dock's men's room says all you need to know about how it is regarded in these circles: A Coors tap handle doubles as the flush on the urinal.

A new day of exploring

Day 2 began 30 miles away, in Boulder, land of college kids, Subarus and at least a dozen breweries. Not bad for a town of 100,000. We started at Avery Brewing Co., where the wood-beamed taproom had the feel of an English cottage. It was 12:30 p.m., and we were the only two people in the taproom. We felt like a couple of drunks.

As we sipped through the White Rascal (a Belgian wit), the New World Porter (surprisingly hoppy) and the Salvation Belgian golden (my favorite), the room filled. By 1:30 p.m. about 20 people were there, and in another hour, about 40. Some of them brought their babies, a common sight in Front Range taprooms.

We next headed to Twisted Pine Brewing Co. It was one of the smallest breweries we visited, with distribution in just four states. Tie-dyed shirts for sale hung on the wall, and a bumper sticker on the cooler behind the bar read, "It's not the size of the brewery, it's how you use it."

We tasted a raspberry wheat beer, an espresso stout, something with orange and mead, and our second chili beer. Then the bartender poured a concoction of his own — the chili beer mixed with the stout — and that was the best thing I had there.

We wound up the night at Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery, a revered brew pub on Pearl Street. Mountain Sun had five of its own stouts on tap. We tried them all and settled on the chocolate cherry stout.

The next morning we found hearty breakfasts and headed over to Boulder Beer Co., which, founded in 1979, stakes a claim as the state's oldest microbrewery. Unfortunately the beers had a middling similarity. Or was it us?

I can't lie. On Day 4, we were starting to drag. But after a long drive along the lip of the Rockies, we powered through to Fort Collins.

We started at The Fort Collins Brewery, where the walls are lime green, the beer is nicely balanced, and yet again, people showed up with kids (who drank apple juice). On we went to Odell, where we got 10 samples between us.

It was only appropriate that we ended at New Belgium, a brewery that has set the standard for craft-beer success. It has become the nation's seventh-largest brewery on the strength of its Fat Tire amber ale and more daring offerings, like its Lips of Faith series.

We decided to take New Belgium's tour. They poured us a Belgian double that was a recent seasonal, a wood-aged sour brown ale, some Fat Tire bottled that day, and their Blue Paddle lager.

We lingered in the taproom until we were the last ones there. And after four days, 13 breweries and one bar, we spent the next few days getting reacquainted with another important beverage: water.

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