I’ve spent a lot of time researching the history of beer in Colorado, for Westword stories and for the book I'm writing on Denver beer — probably not as much as Sam Bock and Jason Hanson at History Colorado, but a lot, nonetheless. And one of my favorite things is to read old articles for their purple prose and garish headlines.
After all, like many things, the media helped shape public opinion on Gold Rush-era breweries, on Prohibition, on the drinking age, on liquor laws and on modern trends. The media has helped shape public opinion on the History Colorado Center, as well — an institution that has changed a lot in the past decade.
Its newest exhibit, Beer Here! Brewing the New West, which opens May 18, comes at an interesting time, then. In the planning stages for at least four years, it explores the history and impact of brewing in Colorado from the 1850s through the 1980s. (As a beer writer, I got the opportunity to serve on the exhibit’s advisory committee, along with about forty other people; the committee was led by Bock, the lead developer on the exhibit, and Hanson, the museum’s chief creative officer, both of whom have studied brewing history for years.)
It’s a fun topic, and one that is especially relevant now that craft brewing has become a $3 billion industry in this state and a $128 billion industry nationwide. But it has also raised a lot of questions, particularly from Patricia Limerick, the highly respected historian and head of the University of Colorado’s Center for the New West.
Limerick was hired in 2016 as the Colorado State Historian, a job that gave her the power to oversee the museum’s exhibition slate. She was brought on after a major public shakeout there involving money, management, layoffs, questionable communication and general lameness. She only served for two years before leaving, though, and blasted the institution in a Denver Post editorial on her way out.
“The current exhibits, as well as the ones on the near horizon, do little to provide historical understandings of issues that concern Coloradans today. On the contrary, most of them register in a genre we would have to call ‘history lite,’” she wrote. “Rather than making a purposeful effort to advance the cause of civil conversation in these troubled times, this state institution has been forfeiting and bypassing multiple chances to present exhibits and programs that would convene people who hold clashing positions on current issues and mobilize historical perspectives to invite those disputants into productive conversations and even into alliances. Even more important, it is passing up opportunities to provide the majority of citizens with a chance to hear well-moderated discussions that would help them figure out what they think...
“With an exhibit on the history of beer in Colorado in preparation, ‘history lite and effervescent’ seems to be maintaining its central place on the menu. Given that History Colorado’s most consistent visitors are young children on school field trips, there is something mystifying in the decision to create a major exhibit on the history of a beverage with many festive dimensions but also with unmistakable connections to human tragedy. Will some parts of the exhibit feature the miseries of alcoholism? Will touch-screen videos present representatives from Mothers against Drunk Driving telling their stories of loss? At the least, very careful thought will have to go into preparing the script for tour guides and docents to use as they conduct fourth-graders through this complicated dimension of Colorado’s — and humanity’s — history.”
Earlier this week, I got a chance to walk through the exhibit, and I think that the answers to Limerick’s questions — some of which were fair and some of which were not so fair — are apparent.
Beer Here! is indeed a little light on certain aspects of beer history. It glosses over many of the specific names and places, providing excellent imagery but not much context. What it lacks in depth, however, it makes up for in breadth. Bock and Hanson have done a good job of showing how beer cut diagonally across other narratives from the state’s past, intersecting with racism and xenophobia, health crises, politics, poverty and white flight. Brewing has always been a sophisticated business, then and now, and as much fun as it might be to imagine old miners washing away the dirt on their faces by downing mugs of lager in a rowdy saloon, the real story — the one that Beer Here! is able to broach — is brewing's place in international trade, marketing, immigration, scientific advancement, political movements, social ills and economics.
Visitors will learn a little about how brewing brought about a crisis in both health and culture in Colorado, and how the Ku Klux Klan capitalized on that. They will learn a bit about labor unions and why they were so angry at Coors employment policies. They will gain some insight into how the rise of light lagers coincided with the end of World War II, the rush to the suburbs and the rise of television as a medium.
While a real understanding of these issues will require visitors to do some learning on their own after they leave the museum, the exhibit does a good job of providing evocative settings that might get people thinking about things they didn’t know about. (Oh, and as for those-fourth grade classes that Limerick mentioned, Hanson says this exhibit will not be part of school classroom tours.)
Some of my favorite displays were a collection of very old bottles that made me wonder what it would be like to taste beers from the late 1800s and to hear the mostly German-speaking voices of the men who brewed them; a mid-mod couch set up in front of a 1940s-era TV that plays old Coors commercials on a loop; and a re-creation of the kitchen where Brewers Association founder Charlie Papazian made his home brew.
As for craft beer, there’s not much here on that subject. The fifth and final portion of the exhibit does give an overview of the founding of the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver, along with Papazian’s influence; there are also some videos of conversations with four people involved in craft brewing. I think that the curators chose to treat craft brewing as a given, based on the times in which we now live. They do tie craft beer into Colorado’s place as a destination for outdoor lifestyles, though — and its transition from “an economy based on extractive industries, like mining and agriculture, to one equally powered by outdoor recreation and amenities.”
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The overall goal of Beer Here! is to be “relatable,” Hanson says — something that is important for museums, institutions that are trying to walk the line between providing information and competing for dollars in the modern world of cell phones, virtual reality, easy entertainment and mass information at everyone’s fingertips.
“You can do exhibitions on what people ought to know,” Hanson points out. “Or you can ask people what they actually want to know. We're trying to do a little of both.”
It’s a concept that might require some conversation, not to mention a few beers. And as part of the exhibit, you can get a flight of them in the museum’s restaurant; it includes Coors Banquet, Coors’ Batch 19 (the brewery is a sponsor of the exhibit, after all), Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues, and Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide.
Beer Here! opens Saturday, May 18, at the History Colorado Center, 1200 Broadway. The exhibit is included with admission; find out more at historycolorado.org.