Brew Haha

John Hickenlooper isn't the first Colorado mayor to roll out beer-barrel politics.

For Buddy Schmalz, the buzz about John Hickenlooper going from brewpub owner to mayor-elect is old news. Schmalz has been there, done that. The brewer at the Schmalz-family-owned Dostal Alley Brewpub & Casino in Central City, he was sworn in as mayor of that mountain town in January.

Like Hickenlooper, Schmalz had no prior political experience. He ran for office as a way to help the town that his family has called home for three generations. Besides, the 350-person Central City was running out of candidates: Gaming regulations prohibit anyone actively involved in the casino industry from holding office in the three Colorado towns that allow gambling.

Central City "needed someone in business, the gaming business and the retail business," Schmalz says. "Someone who has the inside view. Cities need to be run that way. What's good for business is good for the city."

That sounds like something Hickenlooper might say -- but that's where the similarities between the two new mayors end. For starters, Hickenlooper has vowed to remove himself from the daily operations of his flagship venture, the Wynkoop Brewing Co., as well as his six other restaurants. Schmalz plans to spend more time brewing and serving beer to the friendly, small-town mix of AG and BG (After Gambling and Before Gambling) locals who frequent Dostal Alley. "I guess we don't have that much in common," he says of the state's second brewer turned mayor.

To appease townspeople and state lawmakers, Schmalz handed over his gaming license and removed himself from the family company's gaming activities before taking office. But brewing beer and being mayor? "There's no conflict at all there," he points out. "Probably the best ideas come from sitting around drinking beer, and I want to be involved in that. People know things here before they do at City Hall."

Further separating Schmalz from Hickenlooper are the particulars of his campaign, in which he defeated challenger Edie Riley. "I didn't spend a lot of money on my campaign," Schmalz notes. "I think it was like six bucks or something." And even that figure might be high. "I used some of my dad's old campaign pins," he explains. "They said 'Schmalz for Mayor' and weren't dated."

(Bruce Schmalz was mayor of Central City back when this state's residents voted to allow limited-stakes gaming in Central City, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek. At the time, the building that now holds Dostal Alley was a rock shop and T-shirt emporium.)

And unlike Hickenlooper, Schmalz didn't travel the country to get advice from other mayors and deep thinkers. "I talked to no one," he says. "Well, just my dad."

Schmalz enjoys making light of his homespun quest for the top job in Central City. But his role has become much more important now that the town has secured $42.5 million in funds to build a road that will connect Central City to I-70 at the Hidden Valley exit. That project could be paydirt for a town eager to take back some power -- and cash -- from the more easily accessed Black Hawk just a mile down the road.

When limited-stakes gaming came to Colorado in 1991, Central City and Black Hawk were both flush with excitement about what slot machines and blackjack games could bring. But twelve years later, it's clear which town played the winning hand -- at least financially. While Black Hawk's casino sprawl has gobbled up the city's hillsides (and its rustic charm), Central City's poker face can't hide its economic struggle. Of the eighteen casinos that once lined its Victorian streets, only five remain.

So Schmalz is excited about Central City's renewed opportunities, made possible by a successful bond sale just last month. He's eager to test his belief that it's better to gamble and do something for your town rather than simply grumble about its sorry situation. "I didn't want to just complain about how things were going," he says. "I wanted to partake in how they got there." And he doesn't mind that he's only paid $500 a month for the three or more days a week he spends attending meetings and running his beloved town.

But then, Schmalz had already been doing his bit for Central City's quality of life for a half-dozen years, brewing up small-batch, British-style beers. He installed Dostal Alley's one-room brewery in his family's small, six-year-old pub/casino in 1997, hired a brewer, then took over the beer-making chores when the brewer moved on about a year later. "It was too much fun to give to someone else," he says, as he draws a yeast sample for use in an upcoming batch of beer.

Still, it was a heck of a gamble to try to sell full-flavored beer in a town that holds fewer people than some breweries employ and caters to tourists. "Most gamblers don't drink this kind of beer," Schmalz notes. Those who do can start easy with Schmalz's American City, a clean blond ale perfect for mainstream drinkers. (A Dostal Alley T-shirt sports this public-service message: "Friends Don't Let Friends Drink Budweiser.") Dostal's Pub Ale is a pale, gently carbonated brew with hints of pear in the nose, while Jacob Mack's Mild Ale is an amber session beer with fruity ale aromas and subtle toffee flavors. It's brewed with heirloom hops picked by Dostal regulars off the wild hop vines that cover the hillsides surrounding Central City. (Schmalz reckons the vines were planted in the 1800s by the mining town's original brewers and ale wives.)

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