Picking a best beer state is pretty easy. It’s California. That’s not taking anything away from Oregon, Colorado, Washington or any other state with a rich and varied brewing tradition. It’s just…there are a LOT more breweries in California than there are elsewhere. More than double the #2 state (Oregon). And we’re not talking about a vast ocean of mediocrity either. With Alesmith, Russian River, Alpine, Kern River, Port, Green Flash, etc…some of the leading lights of the craft beer world make their home in the Golden State.
OK…so what about the best beer city? That’s a little more debatable, but picking anywhere other than Portland is pretty futile. San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Seattle, Asheville…even Philly and Boston can boast a little. But Portland is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of depth and breadth of local breweries…not to mention the tremendous local support for the industry. I’ve been to all of the big beer towns in the US and there’s just something special about Portland’s love affair with beer.
So California is the best beer state (in my opinion). And Portland is the best beer city (again, in my opinion). But what’s the best beer “region”? I’m talking about an area you could reasonably traverse in a few hours while stopping at a wide variety of breweries along the way. Is it the greater Portland metro area encompassing Bend and Eugene? Maybe. Is it the gorgeous fertile crescent running from San Francisco to Fort Bragg? Possibly. Is it the beautiful stretch of I-15 running from Ogden to Brigham City, Utah? No. Not at all. Not even a little.
In truth, I don’t have an answer. There are MANY corners of the country that could reasonably boast to being the best craft brewing regions in the US. But after spending a few days touring the ale factories along the 60+ mile stretch between Fort Collins and Denver, I’d say you’d be hard-pressed to find a superior region than the area one local friend calls the “Napa of Beer”.
Doc, the Cap’n and I spent a weekend trying to drink essentially every beer brewed from Fort Collins through Loveland, Longmont, Boulder and Denver. If we missed a brewery, we made sure to sample any draught offerings they had at nearby taphouses. Even with our noble goal, we failed miserably. There’s just so MUCH! And the quality is outrageous. Sure, there were beers I wasn’t crazy about because I didn’t love the style or the particular ingredients. But I can honestly say I didn’t have a single beer that was poorly executed or sloppily brewed. There were no “off” flavors. No tell-tale band-aid, butterscotch or sulfur aromas or flavors. Everything was top-notch. You could taste the care that went into the beer.*
*Steve Jones at Pateros Creek Brewing in Fort Collins told us that it’s “in the water”. The water that filters down from the Rockies is legendary for its clean, soft nature. That lack of minerals and neutral flavor makes the water located on the front range of the Rockies about as good for brewing as any water in the world. As Steve noted, Coors may make some horrendously bad beer, but there’s a reason they chose Golden, CO as their headquarters. They knew a good water source when they saw one.
Now, Doc and I did make a valiant attempt to document our trip via half-assed posts sent from our smartphones. Unfortunately, the combination of our clumsy, drunken fingers, 3.5-inch touch-screens, overzealous auto-correct, and our burning desire to never rest for more than 30 seconds between brewery stops led to some of the least compelling posts in Aleheads history (and that’s saying something). We did our best to detail our enjoyment of the trip and certainly there’s something to be said for the “immediacy” of on-site posting. But really, our readers deserve a rambling, 5,000-word recap. I’ve received literally zeroes of e-mails from Alehead Nation begging for a more in-depth description of the Napa of Beer. Well, you asked for it.*
*”You” being the theoretical construct of a reader that I created in my head but who does not actually exist in real space.
The drive from Denver to Fort Collins surprised me in its brevity. On a map, it looks like a bit of a hike, but in reality, the 66-mile drive flies by. The lack of traffic and 75-mph “suggested” speed limit helps. Not to mention the fact that even the surface roads are essentially four-lane highways.*
*I was born and bred in the Boston metro area, so when I see a 60-mile stretch on a map, I immediately assume it’s a 2-hour drive. I currently live in Alabama which has significantly less traffic than Boston but significantly more drivers who think 30-mph is a perfectly reasonable speed to be driving in the passing lane of a highway. So you can understand how shocked I was when I was drinking a beer in Fort Collins less than an hour after hopping in the rental car.
Our first stop was the Fort Collins Brewery for no other reason than we were hungry and it’s the only local brewery with a reasonably well-reviewed kitchen. FCB is a fairly large brewing operation located in a gorgeous facility on East Lincoln Avenue…just a stone’s throw from New Belgium, Odell and Funkwerks (Fort Collins is a pretty spectacular beer town). Inside the facility, you’ll find a small, but well-appointed taproom and a “modern tavern” called Gravity 1020. The food was outstanding and focuses on upscale versions of pub grub (like a pork tenderloin French dip and a grass-fed buffalo cheesesteak…yeah, we tried both of those).
As for the beer, Fort Collins does some interesting takes on the standards (they’ve got a red, an amber, a smoked lager, a tasty schwarzbier, and a very good chocolate stout). They also had a variety of tasty, higher-gravity brews like a VERY smoky rauchbier (the Bambostic), a Wheat Wine, and an excellent Imperial Rye IPA (the clear winner for our crew). Combine good beer, good food, great service, a very hip atmosphere, and a focus on local ingredients and you’ve got yourself a true gem. Unfortunately, we probably gave FCB short shrift since it was the first stop of our trip and we had so many more places to hit. Next time I’m in Fort Collins, I’ll make sure to spend a little more time at its namesake brewery.
Since Odell is only about a bottle-throw away from FCB (umm…not that we threw any bottles in their direction or anything…that was totally some other guys), it was our obvious next stop. Still a bit full from lunch, we nevertheless thought only of our readers and plowed ahead with three giant flights of beer.
Odell Brewing, like Fort Collins, is housed in a beautiful structure reminiscent of a Vail ski lodge. The spacious taproom serves up a variety of standard and seasonal brews. I love pretty much anything Odell does, but I was particularly taken by the St. Lupulin Extra Pale Ale, Myrcenary Double IPA, and Xocolotl Imperial Stout (the latter was utterly delicious). I picked up a handful of 750s at the taproom as well. On the way out, one of the taproom employees mentioned to Doc that we should buy a bottle of Deconstruction (a barrel-aged Golden Ale which we hadn’t seen for sale in the fridge). A mild argument ensued in which another employee pointed out that the beer hadn’t actually been released yet. The first employee noted that there were three bottles available for show and he thought they were for sale. We pressed the issue and they let me leave with one. Thank god for Doc’s genial manner…you just can’t say no to that guy.
With about 45 minutes to spare before our New Belgium tour (you have to book those things well in advance), we bolted to Funkwerks. Funkwerks is the exact opposite of Fort Collins Brewery (despite being located in the old FCB facility). It’s housed in a slightly ramshackle, industrial building. The taproom is a small, fairly spare space with a tiny bar and one employee. They have a single, stand-up refrigerated unit selling their wares. But despite the humble atmosphere, the beer is anything but plebeian. Funkwerks is a “saison-only” facility and damn do they know their way around the style.
To be honest, I’m not even a saison devotee and I STILL loved everything Funkwerks made. Doc settled in with a big glass of Monarch…a ridiculously tasty, Chardonnay barrel-aged Imperial Saison. The Cap’n opted for a flight which included the standard Funkwerks Saison, the Tropic King (an Imperial), the Bastogne (a hoppy, amber saison), the Belgian IPA, and the Dark Prophet (an oak-aged, dark saison). As for me, I went with the two weirdest options on the menu…a Chai Tea Saison and a Green Tea Saison. Both were delicious, but the Chai flavors (reminiscent of vanilla and nutmeg) clashed a little too much with the Saison spices. The opposite was true for the Green Tea Saison. The pairing of the mild, earthy Green Tea flavor meshed better than I could have imagined with the citrusy, tart flavor of the Saison. In truth, it was the most memorable beer I had on the entire Colorado trip. I absolutely loved it.
Finally, it was time to hit up Fort Collins’s biggest name…the New Belgium Brewing Company. Often called the “Fat Tire Brewery” thanks to the ubiquitous nature of its flagship amber, New Belgium is the big dog in town. The brewery seems to sponsor everything in Fort Collins and has themed bike racks located throughout the city (in fact, it often seems as if Fort Collins’s pervasive bike culture is directly related to New Belgium’s obsession with two-wheeled forms of transportation). We wandered into the brewery (tipsy at this point) and settled in for a 90-minute tour.
In all honesty, the tour is too long. I think 30 minutes is an appropriate tour length and there were far too many stories of New Belgium’s mythical founding and the development of their flagship beers. Nevertheless, the tour guide was very game and maintained her energy and enthusiasm throughout. Plus, it’s a BIG facility so it takes a good chunk of time just walking through the original brewing facility, past the taproom, through the bottling plant, past the barrel-aging room and into the new-ish canning plant. And while the tour drags a bit, they don’t mess around with the free beer. You get a healthy pour of Abbey Ale, a beer of your choice (which you get to pour yourself from the upstairs taps), a Red Hoptober and a Fat Tire. Even the Fat Tire (a beer I generally eschew) was damn tasty straight from the source (and the Red Hoptober we sampled was poured within 20 minutes of being bottled…a neat little gimmick that the tour guide was very proud of).
After the tour, we lingered in the taproom for awhile cracking into as many Lips of Faith brews as we could (Lips of Faith is New Belgium’s more “experimental” series). We sampled two versions of La Folie (a wonderful sour ale), the Cocoa Mole, Bretta Beer, Billy’s Beer, Super IPA and Tart Lychee. The taproom also had a giant water cooler filled with a palate-cleansing, sparkling pomegranate water. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that we each drank about 20 cups of the stuff. High-altitude + crack-of-dawn flights + 20 beers = some thirsty-ass Aleheads.
While figuring out our next move, I decided to Tweet out to my fellow Aleheads to see where our next stop should be in Fort Collins. We immediately received a response from Napa of Beer Girl (heretofore known as NoB Girl) inviting us to meet up with the Beverage Business Insitute at the Pateros Creek Brewing Company in Old Town. Knowing next to nothing about Pateros Creek, we of course immediately drove straight there.*
*Everything in Fort Collins is within five minutes of everything else. Wherever your next stop is in town, you could probably just crawl there without too much trouble (which is helpful considering how much drinking you’ll be doing). I suspect we repeated the “ain’t this just a geographical oddity” line from O Brother Where Art Thou about 50 times during our stay in town.
Pateros Creek is a newcomer to Fort Collins that has some envelope-pushing brews as well as some great takes on classic styles. We sampled their Kölsch and Porter as well as a seasonal hoppy, dark ale called Drool of the DoG and a one-off Coconut Porter (that was incredible). Steve Jones, the owner/brewer took us around the facility, let us inspect every nook and cranny of the brewhouse and was just generally a great guy. I can’t say enough good things about Pateros Creek.
We also met up with some members of the Beverage Business Institute during our tour of Pateros. The group, connected with Colorado State’s business school, is a management education group that teaches interested students about the beverage industry with a focus on operations, wholesaling and distribution. Considering that many brewmasters and distributors have limited business backgrounds, I think an organization like the Beverage Business Institute could be tremendously beneficial to MANY companies. Nice folks too!
One of the BBI acolytes was NoB Girl herself. A local girl who graduated from Colorado State and never left, NoB Girl is about as tuned in to the Fort Collins (and Colorado) beer scene as anyone you’ll ever meet. We asked her for some advice for where our next stop should be and she immediately decided to be our local guide for the rest of the evening (which, considering our slowly declining collective mental state, was probably a necessity).
NoB Girl led our ragged crew to Equinox Brewing, a funky little brewery in the center of town with some excellent beers. They have eleven standard taps, two beer engines, and a firkin every Thursday. We tried a bunch of their brews including a Belgian strong dark ale, the Mr. Delicious Oatmeal Stout, an Amarillo dry-hopped Zenith IPA, and a Pangaea Imperial IPA. Probably some other stuff as well. We were getting fuzzy…
Around 10pm, Doc was pretty much toast and we realized that we hadn’t actually eaten dinner. So we staggered over to the Tap & Handle (a VERY well-stocked beer bar with some good eats). The Cap’n fired up some bacon mac ‘n’ cheese with chicken fingers on top (because at that point, why the hell not?) while Doc and I picked at some appetizers. Actually, Doc had about one bite of food, then declared that he could no longer function in society and ran off to catch a cab back to the hotel. I can only venture a guess as to what we imbibed at the Tap & Handle. There was at least one Odell beer in the mix…as well as something from Twisted Pine. And I know I had a giant glass of Fort Collins’s Berliner Weisse (which was super tart and tasty). Otherwise, it’s a mystery.
After departing the Tap & Handle, we made one last stop at the Forge Publick House where the Cap’n and I each got a nitro pint of Upslope IPA before sitting on the patio with NoB Girl and her friend and debating about whether we should just stay in Fort Collins all weekend or continue our beer trek down to Denver. At some point, the Cap’n and I both realized that we had somehow hit our beer limits for the evening and we bid adieu to NoB Girl and trekked back to the hotel to crash. We had one amusing moment when the woman at the hotel front counter wouldn’t let us just walk back and enter the room that Doc was already in. I drunkenly explained to her that Doc had left the door open for us so it was OK. She noted that she had seen the open door, but after asking if anyone was in the room, she decided it was vacated and closed it. We laughed heartily and told her that Doc wouldn’t have heard her if she had a megaphone and an air-horn. After one last staring contest, she claimed that the Cap’n and I didn’t look like serial killers, so we were probably OK. The Cap’n and I then began a long string of jokes about all of the serial killing we had done that day (because we apparently don’t know when to just shut our mouths). She took it in stride though and let us into the room where we found Doc lying on the edge of a bed which had a giant cup of water spilled all over it (at least I hope it was water). Then we passed out.
The next morning, we woke up feeling alive, sparkling and refreshed. Also, hungover, smelly and old. Before departing Fort Collins, we took one last piece of advice from NoB Girl and went to get brunch at the Choice City Butcher & Deli. The restaurant has an incredible beer selection, but we opted for water and coffee to try to revive our aching livers. Doc and the Cap’n fired up some ridiculously tasty looking Benedict/Biscuit things while I opted for a grass-fed buffalo Reuben (mmm!). With full stomachs and reasonably recovered brains, we hit the open road and made our way down to Boulder…
…or at least we would have if we didn’t have a few stops to make along the way. We took the scenic route down College Ave. in Fort Collins and made our way South to Loveland, CO. We arrived in front of the Grimm Brothers Brewhouse just as the sign in the front door flipped from “Closed” to “Open”. We grabbed a full flight of all 11 Grimm Brothers beers and settled in for some tasting. Doc was still a little beat-up, but he managed to rally a bit by sipping on a Kölsch while the Cap’n and I once again got back to work.
Grimm’s beers were all spot on and their taproom manager was incredibly informative and welcoming. They had some interestingly subdued versions of great styles like a toned-down Berliner Weisse (with just a hint of sour in the finish), a very mild rauchbier (far less smoky than the one we had the day before at Fort Collins Brewery), and a frighteningly drinkable barleywine. My personal favorites were an outstanding Foreign Export Stout called the Grandfather Grimm and the Master Thief, a “German”-style porter (made with German hops and Alt yeast).*
*I like dark beer, OK?!
After snagging some swag (Grimm Brothers has some of the best label art in the business and their t-shirts are equally awesome), we bid a fond farewall to Loveland. But not before the taproom manager gave us each a free bomber of their Big Bad Wolf (a Sticke Alt). They had a few “short-fills” that they couldn’t sell at retail so they figured we looked like just the men to drink them. Which we did.
We then hit the road until we wound up at Left Hand Brewing in Longmont. Located on the banks of the mighty St. Vrain, Left Hand is a large brewery with fairly wide distribution (we get most of their brews in ‘Bama). Nevertheless, they make good stuff so we stopped in for a quick pint. I cracked into a nitro Milk Stout while Doc sampled a casked IPA and the Cap’n went with the Wake up Dead Imperial Stout. Just a quick stop at Left Hand before making the very brief drive to Oskar Blues’ Tasty Weasel Taproom.
After entering the Tasty Weasel (a massive industrial facility with a well-appointed and large taproom in the front), our first order of business was loading up on the free peanuts located in barrels around the bar. Next, we ordered beer. Doc went with the One Nut Brown ale (probably our first disappointment of the trip…it was fine, but nowhere near as good as you’d expect from Oskar Blues) while I grabbed a Dave’s Pale Ale (a session-strength version of OB’s classic Dale’s…not bad). The Cap’n was the clear winner with a nitro pint of Deviant Dale’s. The Deviant is good enough by itself, but fresh from the nitro tap it was outstanding. Rich, creamy, and hopped beyond belief, that beer alone was worth a trip to Longmont.
The day was running out on us so we loaded up and made the last leg of the trip to Boulder where we went straight to the Avery Brewing Company. We tried a bunch of their excellent standard beers, plus a cask-conditioned Cascade/Centennial IPA (delicious). When the “Special Tappings” bell rang, we ordered up some tasters of Eremita IV (a blueberry and juniper sour) and a super-tart one-off called Ross’s Mom (she must be one sour woman).
With the evening upon us, we finally checked into our fleabag motel and wandered up the hill to The Sink…a complete dive and an institution for all University of Colorado students. We loaded up on cheeseburgers and Avery IPAs and then realized how goddamn exhausted we all were after 40 straight hours of drinking. Rather than trying to make it to Upslope Brewing or the Twisted Pine Brewery, we opted for a jaunt along Pearl Street to check out the sights and sounds of Boulder. After making our way through the central mall, we met up with some of the Cap’n’s cousins and then ended up in front of the Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery. With a grim acceptance of our fate, we wandered in, grabbed a table, and ordered up a bunch of beer. We enjoyed the Illusion Dweller IPA, Isadore Java Porter, Belgian Dip Chocolate Stout, and something farmhousy/saisony which I don’t really recall (it was good though).
I won’t make excuses…we’re old, we’re all Dads, we had drank entirely too much the night before. After a few rounds at Mountain Sun, we walked back to the hotel and were asleep by 11:30pm. It’s embarrassing, but there you go. I apologize to Boulder for not exploring your ale factories in more depth. Next time, we’ll pace ourselves better.*
*Just kidding. We won’t change a damn thing.
We awoke early in the AM, feeling much better than we had the day before and loaded up on calories at Cafe Aion (which, we were told by the Cap’n’s cousins, had the best coffee and pastries in town…I believe them). We hit the Denver-Boulder turnpike and made the quick trek into the Mile High City to begin our beer consumption anew. With the local breweries still a few hours from opening, we went straight to the legendary Falling Rock Taphouse. We were one of the first ones in the joint, so we bellied up to the bar and proceeded to chat with proprietor Chris (one of those guys who knows everything and everyone in the craft beer industry) for over an hour. We drank some brews from Backcountry, Ska and Crabtree…plus a few Russian River Pliny the Elders and Blind Pigs for good measure. Chris regaled us with tales of Don Younger and Fred Eckhardt and then let us sample a dram from one of his allocated bottles of Russian River’s Toronado 25th Anniversary ale (big, bold, sour and outstanding…like everything Russian River makes).
We probably could have stayed at Falling Rock all day and had a blast, but we had some stops to make. So we bid farewell to Chris and made the quick drive to Strange Brewing on Zuni Ave. Strange makes some fascinating beers…there’s nothing cookie-cutter at the small, humble brewery just outside the city center. We ordered up a flight of everything and loved them all. From their pale ale to their dark farmhouse brew, every brew was innovative and tasty. Our two favorites were an incredible Honey Coffee Stout and a Cherry Kriek which tasted EXACTLY like a cup of apple pie.
We then dropped the car off at the hotel and went to a slightly different brewing scene when we hit up Great Divide. The big boy in town, Great Divide is an Aleheads’ fave that brews up nigh-perfect versions of almost every style. From their Claymore Scotch Ale to their Hercules Imperial IPA to their barrel-aged Yeti Imperial Stouts, there’s nothing that Great Divide doesn’t do well. They didn’t have anything crazy on the menu (other than a nice little small beer called the Baby Yeti made with the runnings from a Yeti batch), but that’s OK. We were more than happy to have a few pints of some old favorites.
It was getting late in the afternoon during our Great Divide session, so we decided to head to the Breckenridge Brewery for lunch after bidding farewell to Doc who had the earliest flight of the group. The Cap’n and I copied each other and grabbed some nitro IPAs (the leitmotif of the weekend) and some delicious turkey sandwiches (the healthiest thing we ate during our brief tenure in Colorado). The bartender also served us up some samples of a bourbon-barrel aged stout which was HEAVY on the bourbon and light on the stout. But hey…I like bourbon, so I didn’t mind.
We were only a stone’s throw from Wynkoop Brewing (founded by former Denver mayor John Hickenlooper) so we trekked over there where the Cap’n tried a chili beer (meh) and I grabbed a very tasty Imperial Red. We enjoyed the old-school tavern vibe of Wynkoop and hung out there for awhile before wandering down to Argonaut Wine & Liquor on East Colfax to stock up for our return trips (hey, I had to get a bottle of Deschutes Black Butte XXIV while I was out West). While walking back to the hotel with a case of bombers in hand, we walked right past the Cheeky Monk Belgian Beer Cafe. Well…we’re not made of stone. We dropped in, had a few rounds of Belgian brews, and then stumbled back to the hotel to drop off our goods.
After a quick, beer-free Vietnamese dinner, we strolled back up to Blake Street to finish our beer trip at the Falling Rock (it was inevitable). Our final beer of the trip was the Super IPA, a hop-bomb collaboration between New Belgium and Alpine Brewing. A perfect beer to end a perfectly absurd weekend. I can’t say we drank every beer brewed in the Napa of Beer…but damn did we try.
Thanks to all of the Colorado brewers, bartenders, taproom managers and Aleheads that we met along the way. You were universally welcoming, thoughtful, friendly and generous. We couldn’t have asked for a better trip and I’m already looking forward to our return.