Long famous for mining and ranching, Boulder and its neighbouring Front Range towns have successfully tapped a more fluid natural resource in recent decades. Few could have predicted the seismic impact that Colorado craft beer would have on our contemporary drinking habits when Boulder Brewing Company threw open its doors in 1979. But even if Colorado has slipped out of the top three in the U.S. in terms of breweries per capita and absolute number of craft breweries, you could still make a convincing case that the Front Range region of Colorado remains the epicenter of North American craft beer. Nearly 50,000 craft beer enthusiasts make the pilgrimage to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver each October. And two of the most influential organizations that advocate on behalf of craft beer and craft breweries, the Brewers’ Association and the American Homebrewers’ Association, are headquartered in Boulder.
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Morning had come and gone when I began to weave my way along the interstates and highways leading from Denver to Boulder. Eternal sunshine and strip malls for miles. And then, in an instant, all that is suburban melts into air. To one side, the plains open up to embrace the northeast and southeast as far as the eye can see. Before me, in the shadow of the sheltering Flatirons watching over Boulder like so many dragons’ teeth, the town spills languidly out into the flatlands. This vibrant college town renowned for its casual mix of yoga practitioners, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and outdoors enthusiasts is so close to Denver it could easily have been swallowed up like so many Austin exurbs. Why all this open space protecting Boulder from the encroachment of Denver? The story dates back to 1898 when a visionary city council took the lead in purchasing land that was slated for gold exploration. Shortly thereafter, and with the help of a public bond, the civic authorities purchased Flagstaff Mountain. These actions set in motion a series of land acquisitions that set the stage for a 1967 voter-approved sales tax geared specifically toward the purchase and maintenance of open space. Not only did the 1967 measure pass with 57% of the popular vote; in 1989, 76% of voters elected to increase the Open Space Tax nearly one-hundredfold.
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I tie up my grey mule at the foot of the mountain and head back in the direction of town along the creek. A block or so beyond the bridge I come across the lively, pedestrian-only Pearl Street Mall, packed with funky cafés without a buck or a star in them, plenty of eateries and brewpubs, and a handful of used bookstores. Used bookstores, a dying breed! I wiled away a few hours plucking this book and that off the stacks before I remembered why I came to Boulder.
And now for some beer …
Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery
When I stepped into the subdued psychedelia of the Mountain Sun, I felt, for a moment, as if I had stepped back in time into a café or eatery on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive. This animated Boulder institution opened in 1993 and attracts a twenty-something standard-issue college crowd with a few hale mountaineering types and understated hipsters thrown in for good measure. 1960s Berkeley and a Westerner’s interpretation of Kathmandu collide in this cheerful space where New Age suns smile benevolently on South Asian wall hangings. The food is cooked slow, and you can pay with cash, cheque, or karma envelope. And not a TV in sight.
I tucked into a healthy meal of vegetarian black bean chili and a spinach salad dressed with a garlic herb dressing and blue cheese while I sipped my way through samples of Mountain Sun’s beer. The FYIPA is a local favourite, and with good reason. Four kettle additions of four hop varieties plus one large dose of dry hops yields a refreshing, citrus-and-pine-inflected beer anchored by richly textured malt.
But it was the Colorado Kind Ale and the Annapurna Amber Ale that really won me over. The Colorado Kind is an amber-copper ESB that combines a floral-citrus Cascade hop presence and caramelized brown sugar malts into a toasty potpourri of ginger and autumn baking spices. Firm bitterness up front shades into an earthy spiciness and toffee-caramel richness cut through by bitter grapefruit near the finish. Slightly darker and reminiscent of chai tea in colour, the Annapurna Amber Ale shines the spotlight on malt aromatics of toasted caramel, milk chocolate, and plum. Creamy and velvety on the palate, maraschino cherry and amaretto mingle with bright cocoa in this rounded, full-flavoured beer that put me in the mind of a mild Scotch ale.
I visited Mountain Sun in autumn, but if you’re in town round about now and are a fan of stouts like I am, you’ll be happy to know that February is Stout Month. Twenty-three different house-brewed stouts and an additional twenty-three guest stouts make me want to brave the winter weather some day for a February journey back to Boulder.
West Flanders Brewing Company
Not far down the Pearl Street Mall is a much newer brewpub that serves up a completely different vibe: West Flanders Brewing Company. Iron beams support a corrugated metal awning that shelters outdoor imbibers and welcomes everyone else into a tastefully lit brasserie with cream-coloured walls and polished wooden floors. As the name would suggest, Belgian beer is given pride of place in the tap lineup, but aside from the well-executed Basil-Garlic Moules Frites with Malt Aïoli, I was left wishing for more dining options beyond the standard, if upscale, brewpub menu fare. As I was on my way to meet an acquaintance somewhere else and had just stopped in for a quick bite, I didn’t have time to sample more than a few beers. Of the ones I tasted, the Angry Monk, a Belgian-style Dubbel, had all of the caramel, brown sugar, plum-cherry, rum-raisin, spicy pepper, and honeyed fig aromatic notes you’d expect from a Dubbel, but with a slightly distracting banana twist. I preferred the Woodshed Porter, which bore the pleasant wood-smoked hallmark of Bamberg malts, freshly ground dark-roasted coffee, dark chocolate, and a mixture of dried fruit, leather, and licorice root across the palate and into the aftertaste.
Every road trip coughs up a dud or two, and Walnut Brewery was the clear standout in this category. Not only does the space look like just about any other generic sports bar with a bit of wood slapped onto to the walls to warm up the flat-screen ambience; the frat kid bartender rendered detached service that bordered on surliness. Now, I’ve lived in countries where brusque service is more the norm than the exception, but Walnut’s ho-hum beers don’t compensate for the deficiencies in service and setting. Apparently this old stalwart has a few GABF medals under its belt, but it doesn’t seem to have kept up over the years. You can find much better beer and ambience a stone’s throw or short bike ride away.
Twisted Pine Brewing Co.
With an unwavering focus on experimentation and new beers tapped roughly once per week, Twisted Pine is the kind of place where you’re likely to encounter a beer that has, itself, met with some unlikely ingredient like wasabi. On the Sunday afternoon that I stopped by to catch up with an old friend now teaching at UC Boulder, we took advantage of the 5 X 5-oz pours for $10. Crisply acidic and light in body, the Razzy Raspberry Espresso Stout combined raspberry jam with dark coffee and a roasted accent reminiscent of jalapeno. Heftier was the Rhesus Chocolate Peanut Butter Stout, with its harmonious blend of smoky dark chocolate and restrained nuttiness. You may or may not see all of these beers when you pay a visit to this wood-accented industrial-chic taproom tucked away in an industrial park east of downtown. But if you’re a fan of beers that amp up the heat, Billy’s Chilies beer is, by all accounts, a constant fixture in the ever-rotating lineup. Let’s just say that I didn’t actively dislike this beer. Of the set, the Kölsch-style beer was the only one that pushed the envelope of normality.
Tempest’s series on Colorado’s Northern Front Range rumbles on. Next up: “Boulder Further Afield,” featuring, among others, Avery and Upslope. The compendium of articles I have been and will be rolling out is eons from exhaustive––who among us can conceivably take in the bounty of craft beer in the Denver, Boulder, Longmont, and Fort Collins areas over the course of a few trips? This is a happy conundrum indeed. Feel free to chime in with a comment about your own favourite brewery and taproom gems in the Front Range region.
Related Tempest Articles
For more on how Boulder elected to tax itself, see the sections on Boulder in Nate Cavalieri, Adam Skolnick, and Rowan McKinnon, Lonely Planet: Colorado (Lonely Planet Publications, 2011).
Ed Sealover, Mountain Brew: A Guide to Colorado’s Breweries (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011), provides a comprehensive snapshot of the Colorado craft beer scene. New breweries have opened in the years since, but the book is still an invaluable resource for your explorations of all things Colorado beer.
The City of Boulder’s website includes information on history, cultural events, cycling and hiking trails, industries, and festivals. I hadn’t heard the term used before, but the City of Boulder refers to the area as the Napa Valley of craft brewing. That works.
A crisp fall morning in Boulder, Colorado. 01 November 2010. Eddyl (Wiki Commons).
Photochrome Print of Boulder circa 1900 (Public Domain, Wiki Commons).
The Foot of the Mountain, F.D. Hofer.
Mountain Sun Pub, interior and exterior: www.moutainsunpub.com
West Flanders logo: http://wfbrews.com
Twisted Pine taps: http://twistedpinebrewing.com
© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.