The food's about three times better than it needs to be: Strike it rich. — Laura Shunk

2:15 p.m.

"The Ancient Ones Will Lead You On Great Adventures." That's the tagline on the Coyote Moon penny slot machine in Central City's Dostal Alley Brewpub and Casino, and the slogan is apt, because the founders of this gold-rush town continue to shape the lives of the people who live here. Central City has certainly seen more than its share of adventures over the past 151 years, from booms and busts to fires and fistfights, and while change comes in fits and spurts, history remains. In fact, one of the goals of Central City's most recent boom — casino gaming — was to preserve the history of its first one.

Black Hawk
Anthony Camera
Black Hawk
Fortune Valley Casino
Anthony Camera
Fortune Valley Casino

But things don't always work out as planned.

About a mile outside of the main business district, the new Prospectors Run housing development, where several of the upstart candidates for city council live, looms above the brick ruins of the Mack Brewery. Built in the late 1800s by businessman Jacob Mack, the brewery was one of six that provided beer to miners in Central City, Black Hawk and other nearby towns. While Central City had planned to restore the brewery building, declining casino revenues mean that won't happen anytime soon, if at all.

But another vestige of the brewery remains intact.

Growing like weeds on the hills and rock-retaining walls around town are wild hops that Buddy Schmalz believes were originally planted upwards of 130 years ago. "It's everywhere," says Schmalz, who grew up in Central City. "I think people grew it and sold it to Jacob Mack."

Standing below his Victorian house on High Street, Schmalz points out tangled masses of vines creeping along the hillsides, over fences and around signposts and electrical lines. "The county considers them a noxious weed, because you just can't get rid of them," he says. "You couldn't kill them to save your life."

Buddy's father, Bruce Schmalz, was the mayor of Central City when Colorado voters approved the measure that legalized gaming in Central City. (Buddy's brother-in-law, David Spellman, is the mayor of Black Hawk now.) In 1991, the Schmalz family opened a small casino in the space where they'd run a T-shirt and rock shop for many years. Six years later, Buddy added a pizza parlor and brewery, dedicating one of his first beers — a sweet, slightly bitter amber ale — to Central City's brewing history, naming it Jacob Mack and using wild hops to brew it.

Today, Dostal Alley continues to attract locals who prefer the family-owned atmosphere and the smaller number of slot machines. And the beer.

Although Buddy, who himself served as mayor for six years and is now a Gilpin County commissioner, does most of the brewing himself, he's hired Dave Thomas, who worked down the hill at Coors for more than thirty years, as his right-hand man.

Together, Buddy and Dave brew four regular beers and a couple of seasonals in their seven-barrel system, including a Belgian-style wit beer flavored with orange peel and coriander and a smoked porter. In 2008, Dostal Alley's Shaft House Stout won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

But it's the Jacob Mack that stands out, partly because the brewers have no idea what kind of hops they are using or how those hops will change the beer each year. This past August, Buddy and Dave hit on a particularly good patch of vines. "There were so many, we could have picked for days," says Dave, walking along the hillside where they harvested the hops. The plants are now mostly dormant for the winter, but when he crushes a huge hop cone in his hand, it releases its distinctive, beery aroma. He believes the plants are of the Cluster variety, because that's primarily what brewers used in this country until about thirty years ago. He plans to send a cutting to a friend who works in genetics at Oklahoma State University to find out for sure. "They have the largest cones I've ever seen on feral hops," Dave adds.

Buddy once considered trying to protect the hops vines around town, giving them some sort of historic designation. But politics being what they are in a small town, some people suggested that that might be a conflict of interest — considering that the mayor was also Central City's only brewer.

In the end, the vines didn't need the help. History — beer history, anyway — has preserved itself. — Jonathan Shikes

3 p.m.

After the fares are collected and a dozen riders take their seats, Bonnie Ward goes into her routine: "We're gonna go up about 3,000 feet, and there's an eighteen-mile stretch where I go though about 160 turns," she announces over the sound of what might be Kool & the Gang playing on the radio. "You might see some wildlife, but I can't guarantee that. That's why they call it wildlife.

"My name is Bonnie," she concludes. "Let's boogie."

It's roughly an hour from the corner of 15th and Glenarm to the casinos via Clear Creek Canyon, more than enough time for this motley crew of blue-collar commuters and tourists to settle in. Mae and Jim Valdez, a couple from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who are in town for a convention, chat with an older Mexican woman across from them. "It's too bad you're not going to see the mountains during winter," the woman says in Spanish. "When there's snow, they're white, white, white."

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