True Grist: A Brief History of Denver’s Beer Scene

This week, Erstwhile editor Sam Bock chimes in with a light-hearted summary of the history of beer in Denver.  

No matter which side of the political divide you may be on, odds are good that the phrase “I need a beer” has passed your lips at some point in the last five weeks. But for those of us living on Colorado’s Front Range – smack dab in the heart of what journalist Josh Noel called “The Napa Valley of Beer” – choosing where and what to imbibe is nearly impossible. Boasting the third-largest number of craft breweries per-capita and ranking as the state in which craft beer has the largest impact on the economy, Colorado has become one of the best places in the country to get a pint.

But why? How is it that Colorado became a hub of brewing innovation? What is it about Denver that allows it to reside comfortably next to cities like Munich and Prague on the list of best places in the world to get a beer? As it turns out, Denver has always been a beer town. From the city’s frontier saloons, to the founding of the Coors Brewery in nearby Golden, through the recent surge in craft beer, Denver has long been at the epicenter of beer culture in the West.

Denver’s love affair with suds dates back to the city’s formative years as a mining support town. Gold deposits were discovered in the nearby foothills in 1859, drawing a sudden and steady stream of hopeful men to the ramshackle town at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. However, Colorado gold was more difficult to access and less concentrated than the precious metal found ten years earlier in California. Realizing that the chances of hitting the motherlode in Colorado were slim, some of the men who came across the plains to Denver started businesses to serve the ever-growing population of miners. Though merchants were unlikely to get rich overnight, selling the necessities of life to the miners heading into the foothills was a more reliable source of income.

Alcohol, being one of those critical goods miners just couldn’t get along without, was always in supply for the very first Denverites. But what booze there was almost invariably came in the form of cider and whisky. Though beer had always been popular in the United States, for a variety of reasons, most beer in America prior to the mid-nineteenth century was imported from Europe. The few brews that were from the U.S.A. were consumed in the eastern cities where they were made.

In short, the lesson for Denverites (and other westerners before the advent of refrigeration) was that if they wanted to drink beer, they would have to make it themselves. Frederick Z. Salomon and John Good were, by all accounts, the first to recognize that they could change this situation by starting up a commercial brewery in Denver. Salomon hailed from Poland, and Good had immigrated to the United States from the German-speaking region of Alsace-Lorraine. Both men were familiar with the brewing process, having learned the trade in their homelands. Enlisting the help of another man by the name of Charles Tascher, the brewing partners began looking for a way to obtain the four critical ingredients for beer: hops, barley, yeast, and water. Barley was easy to find as it was a staple crop that was easy to grow and transport. Water was equally easy to acquire, as the trio had set up their brewery across Cherry Creek from Denver’s downtown on what is today the site of the University of Colorado’s Auraria campus.

But yeast and hops proved far trickier to find. Yeast could be purchased in a dormant state from brewers in the eastern United States, and it was simply a matter of bringing the fine, white, powdery microorganisms to Denver in a jar. Hops, though, only grow in certain climatic conditions, and the American hop industry was only barely coming onto the scene in 1859. The historical record is spotty on what happened next, so it’s unclear where Salomon, Good, and Tascher obtained the hops for their first batch of beer. Whether it’s true that Good brought the first hops to Denver from St. Louis in his oxcart, or the hops were purchased from a merchant, it is clear that Colorado’s first beer finished fermenting in November 1859 when the editor of the Rocky Mountain News thanked the men for a “huge bottle of this teutonic beverage, the first ever brewed in the Territory of Jefferson.”

Once Denver had its own brewery, it was only a matter of time before beer made its way into the town’s many saloons. The late-nineteenth-century population of Denver was predominantly male, owing to its location on the edge of the prairie and its status as a hub for miners and laborers. What’s more, the city was a magnet for the West’s rapidly growing population of Irish and German immigrants. Coming, as they had, from countries with deep-seated beer cultures, these immigrants flocked to the male-dominated saloon scene where, after 1873, they found Coors lager on tap alongside the local offering from Salomon, Good, and Tascher. These pre-Prohibition saloons had a reputation for being dingy and dangerous, and for breeding labor unrest. In part, this reputation was a result of male-dominated saloon culture and stereotypes about immigrant saloon patrons. Upper-class Denverites avoided the seemingly endless rows of saloons that popped up along Larimer, Market, and Blake streets between 1858, and by 1900, Denver’s middle-class social scene was so oriented towards beer-serving saloon culture in 1890 that it supported over 300 saloons, as compared to only 81 churches and 41 schools.

Yet as the city entered the twentieth century, the end of the Front Range gold rush and the growing importance of Denver as a metropolis where families could settle brought in many more Americans with Progressive-Era sensibilities. Growing intolerance for immigrants, combined with general anti-German sentiment in the midst of the First World War, created a powerful temperance movement in Colorado. Saloon culture and the production of beer came crashing to the ground in 1916 when voters backed a statewide initiative to outlaw the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Though Denver’s bars would make a small resurgence after 1933, other centers for social gatherings and community building such as movie theaters and museums supplanted the saloon, and all but eliminated the nation’s taste for the cheap but flavorful beer immigrant saloon owners had served before prohibition.

Denver’s beer culture lived on through prohibition in the form of the Coors Brewing Company. Banned from brewing alcoholic beverages, Coors turned its production lines to making malted milk and created a ceramics production company that helped keep the former brewer afloat. After the repeal of national prohibition laws in 1933, only a handful of brewing companies still had access to the equipment and knowledge necessary to produce beer. The Coors Brewing Company, as the only major brewery in the West after prohibition, dominated the beer market in Colorado and the surrounding states, and thus stood in the mid-twentieth century alongside national brewing giants like Miller and Budweiser.

Coors’s location in the picturesque canyons of Golden, Colorado, did more than allow the brewer to dominate the western beer market. It gave the company the chance to trade on Colorado’s Rocky Mountain allure, forever associating Coors with its home state’s famous beauty with the slogan “Brewed with Rocky Mountain Spring Water.” From the 1950s through the 1980s, Coors was the beer of choice for Denverites. The beer’s association with Colorado’s rugged mountains meshed with the Mile-High City’s emerging image as a place where people who loved the environment could go and enjoy some of America’s last remaining wilderness. This image, popularized most by the soothing tunes of John Denver, drew a new kind of immigrant to Colorado: the New Westerner. These mostly white upper-class Americans moved to Colorado to take advantage of the region’s booming economy and emerging outdoor recreation infrastructure. With ski resorts and hiking trails all just a few hours’ drive from Denver, it seemed like the perfect place to live if you wanted to live an active, amenity-focused outdoor lifestyle.

And yet, as New Westerners began to discover upon their arrival, the Coors beer of 1980 was much less flavorful than the Coors beer of 1965. Coors, along with many other large national brewers in the mid-twentieth century, had realized that beer was no longer just a man’s drink. In fact, in the 1950s and 1960s, brewers feared that the specter of prohibition would again rear its ugly head, and, in response, began an unprecedented campaign marketing beer to women. After all, it was American women who, earlier in the century, turned their moral outrage on drinking as the source of the nation’s sin. But in their effort to make beer palatable to women, brewers assumed they would need to tone down their beer’s flavor and alcohol content. Coors and other large-scale brewers pulled back on the bitterness by reducing the hop content of their beers, and even started marketing 7oz cans to women who, so the sexist thinking of the time went, could not finish a whole 16oz can of beer before it got warm and flat.

Dialing back the bitterness in beer and introducing new lines of “lite” beer in smaller cans did help big brewers appeal to women, but for New Westerners who came to the region in search of authentic expressions of community-oriented culture, the flavorless lagers on offer from the brewing giants simply weren’t good enough. A burgeoning homebrewing scene on the Front Range introduced New Westerners to an older tradition of flavorful ales, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, homebrew was the only thing those beer connoisseurs who were “in the know” wanted to drink after a full day in the Colorado high country. Brewing beer at home wasn’t a legal pastime until 1978 when Jimmy Carter legalized the private production of beer for home consumption. Though few at the time realized it, Carter had just released nearly a decade’s worth of pent-up demand in Colorado for more flavorful beer.

Over the next twenty-two years, between 1978 and 2000, Colorado responded to the steady demand for flavorful beer with a re-emergence of its once-thriving saloon scene. Homebrewers from across the Front Range made the leap from brewing beer in their basements into commercial-grade brewing. What were once saloons where immigrants and laborers would gather to share a few pints became, by the middle of the 1990s, the thriving hub of a new kind of nightlife. Chic downtown taverns like Wynkoop Brewing Company served up uniquely flavorful ales alongside high-quality pub food. Despite the rather steep price-per-pint, these craft breweries attracted a new kind of clientele to beer drinking while re-establishing Denver as one of the nation’s premiere places to imbibe. Alongside homebrewing and microbrewing industries that continued to thrive in downtown Denver’s amenity focused economy, brewpubs reversed the narrative surrounding beer, taking it from something that was once associated with low-class immigrants to a beverage consumed by a new kind of elite.

California Route.jpg

In 2015, outdoor equipment purveyor Patagonia teamed up with New Belgium Brewing Company to produce “California Route,” a limited-release organic lager. This collaboration beer was snapped up quickly by New Westerners eager to flaunt their wealth and their discerning taste in beer and gear.

As of 2015, Colorado had 283 breweries – just shy of the 300 saloons the city boasted 100 years earlier. The number of breweries that seem to pop up and stay open in Denver alone is staggering. Every neighborhood has a local watering hole where, at any time, there may be a dozen or more uniquely flavorful ales and lagers on tap. But while Denverites may have unprecedented choice in what they drink, they still haven’t quite reached the same level of choice their nineteenth-century predecessors enjoyed when it comes to where the drinking happens. And on that note, we must all raise our glasses to Salomon, Good, Tascher, and even Adolph Coors, for we owe them at least one round on us.

See the following publications for more information on beer history:

Bock, Sam. “Crafting the Can: What the Aluminum Beer Can Teaches Us About the Twenty-First-Century West.” Journal of the West. Vol 55, No 2. Spring 2016.

Conny, Beth Mende. Coors, a Catalyst for Change: The Pioneering of the Aluminum Can Golden, Colorado: Adolph Coors Co., 1990

Hanson, Jason. “‘Innocent of Hops:’ The Case of Colorado’s First Craft Beer.’ Colorado Public Radio News, 2015.

Hanson, Jason. “Brewers Want the Best: Growing an Industry in the Centennial State.” Colorado Heritage. Fall, 2015.

Kopp, Peter A. Hoptopia: A World of Agriculture and Beer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016.

Noel, Thomas. The City and the Saloon: Denver 1858 – 1916. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1996.

Ogle, Maureen. Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer Orlando: Harcourt, 2006.

 

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