You could say that 2011 was the year that Denver's men and women matched its mountains when it came to beer culture. Seven new breweries opened in the metro area and stayed so busy that all seven have already expanded -- or are considering it.
But good beer can also be found on the menus of fancy restaurants and, equally important, on the chalkboards at bars that previously focused only on mass-market brews. And as drinkers became more demanding, more sophisticated and more experimental, so did the state's 150-plus breweries. It was a great year for beer in Colorado, and here are the ten biggest reasons why:
10) Sour beers continue to rise The surge of sour beers and wild ales began in Colorado in 2010, but the trend took off in 2011 as breweries big and small began to experiment -- and quickly perfect -- the hundreds-year-old Belgian tradition of using souring agents like brettanomyces and lactobacillus to add odd and funky flavors to some of their beers. Three of these, New Belgium's Le Terroir, Odell's Friek and Crabtree's Berliner Weiss all took home gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival in three major sour-beer categories. In the meantime, a brewery dedicated to sours, the Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, was founded in Fort Collins and plans to move to Denver in 2012, while Avery held its second annual SourFest, an event that sold out in minutes.
9) Influence of the Breckenridge/Wynkoop brewing empire The Breckenridge and Wynkoop breweries combined their financial operations at the end of 2010 in hopes of finding ways to improve both of their companies. But there has been a lot to manage. In 2010, they opened two new craft-beer-heavy restaurants, Ale House at Amato's and Ghost Plate & Tap while closing another, Pearl Street Grill. On the brewing side, the Wynkoop added some brewing space, but the federal government still hasn't approved its application to use Breckenridge's primary facility, meaning that the growth of its canned-beer lineup has had to wait. Still, both companies have big plans for 2012. Breckenridge is adding a new set of tanks and has a few new beers in the works, while the Wynkoop could be on the verge of statewide distribution.
8) Beer legislation fails again For the third consecutive year, state lawmakers killed a bill that would have allowed groceries and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer. Craft brewers fought tooth and nail against the bill, saying it would put many small liquor stores out of business, which would, in turn, hurt sales of craft beer. The supermarkets argued that they would continue to carry craft beer and that the bill would offer consumers more choice and convenience.
7) Barrel-aged beers Barrel aging got a big boost in 2011 as various breweries either ramped up or started new projects in which they aged some of their beers in wooden barrels that had once held bourbon, whiskey, run, wine or other alcohols. Some of the loudest splashes were made by Avery, Odell, Great Divide, Breckenridge and Dry Dock, but Crabtree, Rockyard, Crooked Stave and others also entered the field. The biggest news, though, was a decision by Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, whose barrels are used by many a brewery, to allow only Breckenridge Brewing to print its name on their labels. Breck plans to release a new beer based on the partnership in February.
6) Left Hand's Nitro Milk Stout On the eve of the Great American Beer Festival, Longmont's Left Hand Brewing shocked the world by unveiling the first American-made nitro beer in the bottle from a craft brewer. Okay, maybe the news didn't shock the world, but it was pretty cool. Milk Stout Nitro pours like a draft beer, complete with a thick, billowy head and bubbles that cascade up from the bottom, similar to the way that bars are able to pour Guinness drafts with special taps. But instead of using a device known as a "widget" to recreate that effect in the bottle, Left Hand spent two and half years and hundreds of thousands of dollars figuring out another way to gas its beer with a blend of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. It was worth the effort.
5) More cans, canning lines and tallboys Colorado's canned beer revolution took some big steps forward in 2011 and got ready to make another big leap in 2012, the tenth anniversary of the year Oskar Blues became the first craft brewery in the nation to can its own beers. One of the biggest changes in 2011 was the addition of Wild Goose Engineering in Boulder, which makes full-size but less expensive canning lines, and Mobile Canning of Longmont, which carries its canning line from brewery to brewery at an even bigger discount. The two firms allowed smaller brewers like Eddyline, Aspen Brewing and Crabtree to get into the packaging game with both twelve and sixteen-ounce cans. As for the big boys, both New Belgium and Oskar Blues have purchased massive new, million-dollar-plus lines that will allow them to significantly expand their canning options as well.
4) Food truck/taproom culture With the popularity of beer-only taprooms like Great Divide and Strange Brewing, along with the arrival of a half-dozen new players, Denver's ever-changing food truck scene has found lots of new places to peddle their grub. In fact, the two cultures have risen at the same time and are made for one another since most taprooms don't serve food, and most food trucks need regular stops on their daily routes. You'll find a truck almost every night outside Great Divide, Denver Beer Co, Copper Kettle and Renegade. And Denver's not alone: Food trucks have also found homes at breweries in Boulder and Fort Collins -- and Longmont. In fact, Oskar Blues, which runs three eateries, geared up a food truck of its own last year, the BoneWagon, to service its no-kitchen taproom in Longmont and Boulder.
3) Avery Brewing wants new compound Avery Brewing Company, which has outgrown the spot where it was founded in 1993, submitted plans to the city of Boulder to build a 5.6-acre brewing compound and a high-end restaurant at 4910 and 4920 Nautilus Court. It would be a place where brewery owner Adam Avery could showcase every element of his beers, which have a nationwide following in addition to local loyalists, and the beer-making process in general. Although there has been some neighborhood opposition to the plan, Avery hopes to break ground this year.
2) New Belgium plans East Coast facility Colorado's largest craft brewer -- and the nation's third largest -- revealed this year that it plans to open a second major production facility, this one on the East Coast, possibly in North Carolina. Founded in Fort Collins in 1991, New Belgium -- and its flagship Fat Tire -- is struggling to maintain the balance between its image as an independent upstart and its reality as a big company. But beer lovers don't seem to mind as long as they can get their New Belgium fix.
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1) Metro Denver's small, neighborhood breweries The metro area's craft beer culture changed dramatically in 2011 with the arrival of seven small new breweries, six of them with clubby taprooms, no kitchens, and a neighborhood vibe. This is a significant change from a few years ago, when Denver's breweries primarily consisted of major production facilities with small taprooms and brewpub-style restaurants. And next year promises even more: At least seven neighborhood breweries are currently in the works, from Baker to RiNo and from Highland to Capital Hill. And if Denver's maturing craft beer scene can support multiple bars in every neighborhood, there's a good chance it can handle more breweries as well.