This is the third in a series of posts on my roadtrip through northern Colorado:
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with beer over the years, mostly erring on hate. I remember stealing sips of my father’s beer when I was little, crinkling my nose at the sour taste. Most people form their relationship with beer in high school, but the few times that I drank in adolescence centered around disgusting mixtures of various hard alcohol that someone had stolen from a parental liquor closet (we would have been far better off with the beer). And in college, the weak foamy crap served at fraternity parties and Big 10 tailgates did nothing to endear the beverage to me.
So instead, I became a wine drinker. Oh, I dabbled occasionally, usually with beers that were on the fruity side (Abita Purple Haze, I’ll always love you). But beer was never my thing, which became a social hindrance once I came to the Pacific Northwest. Suddenly all my friends were talking microbrews and visiting breweries and going to beer festivals. A beer store in my neighborhood became a trendy hang. Awesome restaurants were doing beer pairings. I had to give the suds another chance.
I sampled craft beer in Asheville earlier this year, which has been positioning itself as “Beer City USA” because of its number of breweries per capita. But while it’s a mighty competitor to the beer throne, Asheville has nothing on Colorado. The state has 139 licensed craft breweries, and has the second most breweries in the country. It also has the highest percentage of the draft beer consumed in the U.S. – 20 percent!
Good brew flows from taps all around Colorado. You can grab a Steam Engine Lager in Durango and an India Pale Ale at the Avery Tap Room in Boulder. But Fort Collins, a town of 144,000 on the high plains, has an unusual number of spectacular microbreweries within a square mile – so many that people call it “the Brewmuda Triangle.”
I first visited Fort Collins back in 1992 when I was looking for my first newspaper job. Although it was home to Colorado State University, the town seemed too small for my tastes, a little more cowboy than I was looking for. How things have changed.
During this visit, I was extremely impressed with the quantity and quality of the independently owned restaurants, boutiques, coffee shops and bars in town. The downtown looks the way that Boulder used to be, before a Cheesecake Factory moved into Pearl Street. I loved it, from Ace Gillette, a speakeasy under the Armstrong Hotel where my husband and I enjoyed a jazz-filled date night, to the dive-y Town Pump, the oldest bar in town which was also the first to serve brews from Odell and New Belgium.
Besides beer, Fort Collins has started to make a reputation for biking, thanks in part to the New Belgium Brewery. The company’s Tour de Fat bike event, where people compete for the chance to turn in their keys and pledge to remain car-free for an entire year in exchange for a $2,200 commuter bike, is going to 15 cities this year (sadly, not Seattle). Within Fort Collins, other companies get into the act by encouraging employees to bike to work on summer Wednesdays.
In Old Town, you can check out bikes from The Bike Library for free, from one hour to 7 days. My hotel, the cute and affordable Armstrong Hotel in downtown Fort Collins, also has free bikes for guests.
I didn’t do this during my trip because temperatures were over 100 degrees each day, but in milder weather, biking would be a great way to go from brewery to brewery. There’s even a place called Cranknstein, which is a combination coffee shop/cafe/bar specifically designed for bikers. We stopped here for a breakfast sandwich before we hit the kegs.
New Belguim Brewery
Even as a microbrew newbie, I had heard of Fat Tire Amber Ale, created by New Belgium Brewery. But I didn’t realize exactly HOW big they were. New Belgium is the third largest craft brewery in the US, after Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, and has been around since 1991. I also dig the fact that it’s run by a woman, Kim Jordan (she bought out her ex-husband and co-founder Jeff Lebesch several years ago).
Our tour guide, Sarah, started things off by showing us to effectively taste beer. The first step is to wipe extra condensation from the glass, she said. Then you hold it up to the light. “What does it look like?” she said. The next step is similar to what you’d find in wine tasting: Swirl the beer and smell it. “Aroma is 70 percent of what you taste,” Sarah said.
At least that’s what she tried to teach us. Our tour was hijacked by a group of at least a dozen lawyers, who had gathered together for a friend’s bachelor party. Dressed in sleeveless T-shirts and full of attitude, they had plenty to say at all times, although Sarah did a good job of sassing them back. Watching them carouse their way down the company slide was particularly amusing.
We sampled about five beers during the 90 minute tour. I paid attention to what I liked (wheat beers) and what I didn’t (anything with hops). But my revelatory moment came when I tried Tart Lychee, a sour beer that tasted like Granny Smith apples. Finally, I had a focal point, a beer that I could use as a default when I’m asked what kind of brew I enjoy.
New Belgium runs their 90 minute tours every 30 minutes, starting at 11 a.m. and ending at 4:30 p.m. The tours are free, but make sure you book in advance, as tickets almost always run out.
Incidentally, New Belgium sounds like the ideal place to work if you’re in the beer industry. Employees receive a free cruiser bicycle after their first year, and after five years they are sent to Belgium on a brewery-hopping trip. After 10 years, workers are given a four-week sabbatical and a tree is planted in their name in the campus orchard. There’s also a stock ownership plan; apparently the company’s retention rate is 97 percent. I might look into a career change.
Fort Collins Brewery
While this brewery might not have the national reputation that New Belgium enjoys (their beer isn’t available in Washington State), it marks the second corner of FoCo’s Brewmuda Triangle. The brewery has a tasting room, and offers free guided tours on Saturdays at 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 p.m.
We stopped for dinner at the brewery’s restaurant, Gravity 1020. Here we discovered a dish that I’m surprised I’ve never encountered before: Bacon-wrapped pretzels. Seriously dangerous. My friend Blair and I ordered beer samplers with our meal. My favorite, not surprisingly, was Major Tom’s Pomegranate Wheat
While New Belgium might be more famous nationally, Odell Brewing Company has its fair share of devotees. I had one friend who specifically singled it out as his favorite. Founded in 1989, the brewery has undergone four expansions and yet remains a close-knit place to work (the PR rep we met is married to a co-worker, and as we were there, a group of employees came in from a morning volleyball game). If I was starting out my career, I’d definitely look into the craft beer business. It seems like so much fun.
The Odell taproom is a playground for beer lovers, due to the company’s Pilot System where brewers put their latest creations directly out to consumers. Most of these brews will never be sold elsewhere, and it’s fun to hear the stories behind them. It’s hard not to appreciate that spirit of creativity. I took a growler of Easy Street White to a friend who lives in Lyons.
Odell runs brewery tours Monday through Saturday, at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. If you’re looking for transportation between Fort Collins’ breweries, the Hops and Shops Shuttle costs only $5 from Old Town.
Colorado Brewers Festival
My Colorado beer indoctrination reached its apex at the Brewers Festival. Now in its 23rd year, the Festival brought more than 40 breweries into Fort Collins. Unfortunately, this year’s festival took place on one of the hottest days of the year, and I found that I was way too dehydrated to indulge too much. Most of the beer lovers around me had no such qualms, however.
So did drinking all that beer change my mind about the beverage? Indeed it did. I now have specific preferences, which I can articulate at even the geekiest beer bar. Yesterday, I went to Brouwer’s, one of Seattle’s largest beer bars (60 beers on tap), and held an intelligent conversation with the waiter, a hard-core hop head. Sometimes the more you know about something, the more you like it.