It’s been a tough year for backcountry snow sports in Colorado. Eleven people have died in avalanches so far this season, the most since 2012-13 and just one short of a record set in 1992-93. It’s a tragic toll that crossed over into the craft-beer community on February 1, when Bonfire Brewing co-founder Andy Jessen died in an avalanche near Silverton, along with friends and fellow skiers Seth Bossung and Adam Palmer.
Brandon Capps knew about the slide that took their lives long before most of the rest of Colorado. As a backcountry skier himself, Capps says he makes coffee every morning and then checks the daily avalanche report to see if there have been any new incidents. “There have been incredible, powerful and sad stories,” he says. “There are every year.”
It’s why Capps, who owns New Image Brewing in Arvada, had begun working on a collaborative brewing project several months earlier that he hopes will help move avalanche awareness from the purview of dedicated backcountry skiers into a larger population.
“You might not be someone who does backcountry skiing, so you think it won’t affect you. But avalanches happen in other places,” he says, explaining that snowshoers and snowmobilers or even photographers and hikers can get caught in them. “But it’s not in their lexicon at all. They don’t carry beacons and probes and shovels. A lot of people are at risk in avalanche terrain who don’t know it.
"I was that person for a long time," he continues, "until I realized that I needed to have a totally different approach to a whole variety of activities that I love to participate in."
The resulting beer is called is called Pole Whacker West Coast IPA, and it comes with a QR code on the label that takes people directly to the website for a public-service avalanche-awareness resource called Know Before You Go. Pole Whacker is now available to pre-order online for pick-up on Saturday, February 27.
In addition, there are a limited number of handmade knit caps from Neature Caps, a local one-man company that makes ’90s-style ski hats for sale online. The caps, which come in a normal size for human heads and a novelty size to top beer cans, have a design that matches the Pole Whacker labels. They're trapezoid-shaped and have a very A-Basin-beach-party-on-a-gaper-day vibe, Capps says, adding, "The owner of the company wanted to re-create the hats his dad used to wear when he was teaching him and his brother how to ski."
Some of the proceeds from the sale of Pole Whacker will go to support the nonprofit arm of the state-run Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), but raising money isn't the primary goal, Capps explains: "As brewers, I've realized that we really have a platform and that people listen to us. So we can really help bring attention to things that need people's attention. And with the hats, we can do it in a fun way."
Although his Pole Whacker project was already in the works, Capps realized how important breweries are to Colorado after Jessen's death, because the news traveled so quickly and widely — much more widely than the news of other backcountry tragedies, he believes. As a result, Capps says he is committed to brewing more beers that will carry the message of avalanche awareness to people who might not otherwise think about it.
Everyone will be thinking about it in Eagle County this weekend and next week, though, during a series of events commemorating the lives of Jessen, Bossung and Palmer. They include a benefit concert and celebration of life, followed by Gather ’Round Week (named for Bonfire Brewing's slogan), which is an effort by Bonfire Brewing and more than twenty other bars and restaurants in the area to help support the families of the avalanche victims.