How Wynkoop Brewing almost wasn't the oldest brewpub in Colorado
John Hickenlooper, Jerry Williams, Mark Shifler and Russell Scherer in 1988, the year they opened the Wynkoop Brewing Company.
The Wynkoop Brewing Company is Colorado's oldest brewpub. But it almost wasn't.
In the spring of 1988, John Hickenlooper and his business partners took out an ad in a homebrewer publication promising the public that "Colorado's first brewpub," as they were calling it, would open for business on August 4 of that year.
But August dragged into September, which became October.
In the meantime, two other groups were also trying to open Colorado's first brewpub -- 1988 was the year it became legal in Colorado to produce and sell beer to retail customers on the same premises. And one was even planned for Denver.
"We were terrified," says Hickenlooper, who now spends his time governing the state. "It was some wealthy investors from Chicago and their brewpub was going to be across the street from My Brother's Bar," in the building that is now a Vitamin Cottage.
The second group was Carver Brewing, an adjunct to Carver's Bakery/Café in Durango. But brothers Jim and Bill Carver weren't in a real hurry.
Bill and Jim Carver in 1983.
Bill had bought brewing equipment the previous spring from a brewpub that had gone out of business after an arson fire in Milwaukee. But it took the brothers a while to get around to brewing because they had other matters to attend to. "We were off having fun, kayaking the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon," Bill says.
"Governor Hickenlooper always likes to point out that we were the second brewpub to open," adds Bill, who has now known Hickenlooper for 24 years. "It's a running joke between us. He worked harder that summer than we did. He always rubs it in."
The Wynkoop finally opened on October 18, 1988, (and sold 6,000 cups of beer after then-Denver Post columnist Dick Kreck mentioned that beers would only cost 25 cents that day), while Carver started selling beer about two months later, in December. (The other Denver project never got off the ground.)
Occasionally there is confusion about which brewpub was the state's first (including in my July 3 story, "Breckenridge Brewery hopes to expand the law and its business," in which I originally called Wynkoop the "second-oldest" brewpub in the state). "Maybe the confusion comes from the fact that we actually opened our restaurant in 1986, so you will see those references," Carver says. "Wynkoop opened a few months before we did."
Today, Hickenlooper brooks no dissent about who opened first -- but he says he's not sure who won the real battle.
"Both Bill and Jim have lived balanced lives. They are the exemplars of how to work hard but not too long," he says with a laugh. "They have cross-country skied on every continent and hiked and trekked and climbed. But they also built a healthy business and put their kids through college. If anything, they make me feel guilty because I just worked and worked, and they were the true Coloradans in that they embraced their work but also understood that whitewater rafting and kayaking and trekking" are important.
But Hickenlooper and his partners, who were $40,000 in debt, didn't have much choice at the time, the now-governor points out. "[The Carvers] had an existing business. So if it took them a few more months, they still had revenue and income. There were not horrendous consequences. We were all living on savings until we got opened. That was a huge burden."
The one thing Carver might have on Wynkoop when it comes to "firsts," Bill says, is the purchase of the brewing equipment itself. He'd traveled to Milwaukee in April 1988 to look at dairy equipment, which is what many small breweries used back then. While he was there, a fire set by an arsonist and a subsequent explosion destroyed a building that housed the brand-new Century Hall Brewery. "I was in town when the thing blew up and I followed the salvage agent in, and said 'I want that brewery,'" Carver says.
Hickenlooper laughs at the notion that the Carvers were first there, though. "Of course he would say that," he says. "Probably their check cleared before ours did. I will give them that." But he also says he has "tremendous respect" for the Carvers and their business.
And Carver points out that history could have been written differently, anyway.
"Technically, there was a brewpub that opened before any of us in Paonia," he says. "But he went out of business not long after he opened." A version of this story originally appeared in Cafe Bites, our weekly e-mail newsletter that arrives in in-boxes every Wednesday. Find out how to subscribe here.
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