When Kevin Daly opened Boulder's Mountain Sun in October 1993, the brewpub had a small list of ambitious craft beers, an affordable, whole-earthy menu and a Grateful Dead theme. Nine years later, beer fans are very grateful for Mountain Sun, which is doing such a lively business that it's just opened a sister location, Southern Sun, in the Table Mesa Shopping Center.
Mountain Sun's tie-dyed spirit has played a large part in its success. There's a connection, Daly suggests, between improvisational, indie music and like-minded beer. "Maybe it's because it tastes good when you're high on marijuana; I don't know," jokes Daly, who has seen his share of Dead shows. "I think it's because jam-band fans and Deadheads are people who don't like conventional, bland things. We're a little different, a little unique."
Head brewer Mike Altman sees the link, too. "The jam-band fan is a fan of the craft-brewery scene, as well," he says. "They definitely go hand in hand."
The new location has a 150-person seating capacity, a 21-seat bar and a couched, living-room-like nook for mellowing out. Southern Sun is "just like Mountain Sun, only three times as big," Altman says.
That's huge, because Mountain Sun -- despite its meager, 75-seat capacity and modest, six-barrel system -- has consistently been one of the busiest, most ambitious brewpubs in the nation. It somehow cranks out over a dozen full-flavored, no-concessions-to-style beers that keep the place jamming seven nights a week. And while Jerry Garcia fans may be a large part of the audience at this "hippie" establishment, Mountain Sun is a multi-cultural place where all are welcome -- so long as they dig great beer, friendly service and cheap, home-cooked meals. "The most expensive thing on our menu is $7.95," Daly says with pride. "You don't see much of that in Boulder anymore."
The beers themselves are priceless. The Sun's flagship creation is aptly named for its market -- Colorado Kind Ale, one of the state's best. A delicately balanced wonder with almost hallucinatory levels of hops, malt and more hops, it's the resinous, head-spinning equivalent of its namesake weed. The chewy, brass-colored XXX Pale Ale takes the hops quotient even higher, to verdant levels that fill the mouth and satiate the taste buds. Other mind-blowing Sun creations include the popular Java Porter (infused with a cold "tea" of organic coffee during secondary fermentation) and a thirst-quenching Chazz Cat rye beer. Altman's Hogback dopplebock is a world-class, German-style lager that won three consecutive gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival from 1998 through 2000. (Only Alaskan Brewing's revered Smoked Porter can claim a similar streak.) Rounding out the list is a stellar selection of more mainstream, but still heavenly, lighter-flavored beers.
The Sun's original flight of beers was inspired by McMenamins pubs, a chain that eventually spilled across the northwest. Daly attended law school in Portland and lived next door to one of the first McMenamins pubs, which featured a mix of Dead culture and live, unfiltered beers. Daly borrowed the concept -- as well as McMenamins brewer Jack Harris -- to open his Boulder brewpub in partnership with Ian Blackford. In 2001, Daly's father, Tom, joined in. Harris sculpted the first six Mountain Sun recipes, including the Kind and XXX, beers loosely based on those he had brewed in Portland. Altman took over brewing chores in 1996 and has steadily added to Harris's legacy, bolstering beer consistency from batch to batch, increasing the number of in-house beers and tweaking the brews to his liking.
Initially, Daly hoped that opening Southern Sun would ease Mountain Sun's beer-making burden. But the new location's second-floor spot came with weight limitations, which forced Daly and Altman (who designed the new brewing system) to scale back to ten barrels. "I think we're going to be right back where we were at Mountain Sun as far as capacity," Daly says, "but that's not a bad place to be."
Some of Altman's treasured staffers, including brewers Kurt Meyer and David Chichura, will be spending long days at Southern Sun, figuring out ways to keep the customers in beer -- a talent Altman emphasizes at Mountain Sun. "That's my magic," he says, laughing. "We thrive on the Darwinian philosophy of 'adapt and overcome.' That's the cornerstone of our philosophy here. We're producing so much and demand is so high, you have to adapt and overcome."
Mountain Sun also makes sure that no customer pays for beer or meals that don't thrill, Daly says, and the house comps them without hesitation. (Testimonials on Mountain Sun's bulletin board attest to its customers' allegiance.) The brewpub supports various community groups in Boulder with free meals and money, as well. "We take care of the community and the community takes care of us," Altman says. To take care of his employees, Daly offers profit sharing, 401(k) plans and health insurance, and arranges to get free passes from local concert venues.
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Both Suns occasionally offer their own live music, for no cover charge. They also sport a roster of thoughtfully selected local and national guest beers that have set Mountain Sun apart from its less gutsy, less beer-welcoming brewpub peers. That guest-beer practice typifies the Sun's "kind," support-your-neighbor harmony.
But it also hits home with a much broader demographic that's helping expand the Sun's market share. "Boulderites would rather go to a place that's unique to their town," Daly says. "Look at all the businesses that come out of Boulder: Horizon Milk, Alfalfa's, Wild Oats. Boulderites like things that are unique to them, that are organic and holistic, that aren't mass-marketed. They're educated consumers who want something that's a better product."
Let the Sun shine.