Beer Man

The Thirty Most Important Beers in Colorado History

The Thirty Most Important Beers in Colorado History
Photos by Getty Images; photo illustration by Westword
Dave Thibodeau has a story for almost every legendary beer in Colorado. The co-founder of Ska Brewing in Durango, he’s been enjoying malted beverages for more than three decades, back to the days when eighteen-year-olds were allowed to drink 3.2 beer.

“The importance of some to Colorado, like La Folie or Juicy Bits, is pretty obvious, but there are a few that some of our newer Coloradans might not understand the overall significance of,” he says.

Tabernash Weiss, which hasn’t been brewed since the late 1990s, is one of those.

“Eric Warner started Tabernash Brewing after graduating from [German brewing school] Weihenstephan and cemented his Colorado legacy with Tabernash Weiss at his brewery, in what is now RiNo. A good friend of mine was the brewer and slipped us some of the yeast in our early Ska days. We thought we were going to create a similar beer and blow everybody’s minds in Durango,” remembers Thibodeau, who grew up in the Denver area drinking Coors. “But we learned a lesson: We sure as shit weren’t Eric Warner. The beer wasn’t even close.

“Years later, Adam Avery and I decided to try again with a special collaboration to commemorate an annual brewers’ bike ride we do [from Durango to Boulder]. We could recall everything about that delicious beer, how it tasted and how it made us feel, but we failed on the re-creation. Wheelsucker Wheat was our attempt — not bad, but not even close to Tabernash.”

Colorado wasn’t the first state with its own craft brewery, but it was certainly the cozy cradle where many of the nation’s most storied small and independently owned breweries were nursed into existence. Boulder Beer, founded in 1979, was granted the country’s 43rd brewery license (after Prohibition), while Wynkoop Brewing Co. co-founder John Hickenlooper went on to become Denver’s mayor, Colorado’s governor, a onetime presidential contender and today a candidate for U.S. Senate. New Belgium Brewing, founded in Fort Collins in 1991, is now the fourth-largest craft brewery in the nation. And, of course, there is Coors, a company run by a uniquely focused family in Golden since 1873 — one that now needs no introduction anywhere in the world.

Colorado is also home to Charlie Papazian, who created the Brewers Association and the Great American Beer Festival, which swoops into Denver this week for its 38th iteration. In 2010, there were fewer than ten craft breweries within Denver’s city limits; today there are around 75. Statewide, Colorado boasts between 400 and 420 breweries, depending on how you count them, contributing $3.3 billion to the state’s economy.

To honor Colorado’s brewing legacy, we’re spilling our list of the thirty most important beers in Colorado history. These aren’t necessarily beers with the most longevity or popularity, nor is this a collection of the best beers, or the best-selling beers, or the trendiest beers. Rather, it is a rundown of beers (sorted roughly by date) that changed the game, beers that other brewers imitated, and beers that people sought out with an unquenchable thirst.

These are Colorado’s most liquid assets.
Photos by Getty Images; photo illustration by Westword


click to enlarge Coors has changed its label many times over the years, but the beer has always been Colorado-brewed. - MILLERCOORS
Coors has changed its label many times over the years, but the beer has always been Colorado-brewed.
Coors Banquet
Let’s face it: Almost every Colorado teen gained their beer legs on Coors Banquet. That yellow label, that fizzy flavor, that local connection. Over the decades, the beer has gone in and out of style, but it has never lost its mass popularity. In the ’80s, it was old-school, whereas Coors Light — the Silver Bullet — was the star, and Coors Extra Gold had a newcomer’s appeal. Fast-forward thirty-some years, and Coors Banquet is a hipster’s dream. It has cachet. It has history. And despite Coors’s current position as part of a multibillion-dollar worldwide conglomerate, Coors Banquet is still brewed only in Golden. That’s a fitting tradition for a 146-year-old brewery that dates back three years further than Colorado’s own statehood. Maybe there really is something in that Rocky Mountain spring water.

click to enlarge MOLSONCOORS
Coors Light
Love it or hate it, Coors Light is a force to be reckoned with. The second-highest-grossing beer in the United States and one of the top sellers worldwide, Coors Light is known for being low in calories, alcohol and flavor — and big on advertising budgets. Coors launched it in 1978 to keep up with competitors like Miller and Schlitz, which were battling it out for supremacy in the light-beer market. The beer is said to have gotten its nickname from college kids who called the shiny silver cans “Silver Bullets”; the name stuck, and Coors incorporated it into the brand. Today, low-alcohol, low-calorie beers are back in style, and Coors Light seems to have once again struck an advertising nerve with its recent “Made to Chill” ads — a far cry from the Coors Light Twins promos of the early 2000s.

click to enlarge JONATHAN SHIKES
Jonathan Shikes
Denver Beer
Tivoli Brewing
Tivoli Brewing was officially founded in 1900 by John Good, but its roots go all the way back to 1859, a year after Denver was born around what is now Confluence Park. That’s when Good invested in Rocky Mountain Brewery, which was built near the site of the current Tivoli Student Union. By the turn of the last century, the brewery had become a major player in Denver, and by the time Prohibition hit Colorado in 1916 (three years before it took effect nationally), Tivoli was shipping its lagers all over the West. Prohibition, however, brought the company to its knees — as it did the majority of U.S. beer makers at the time — but Tivoli managed to survive, one of just three Colorado breweries to do so. By the 1950s, it was again going strong, and its brands, mostly German-style lagers, were a favorite in Denver. In 1965, the Good family sold the brewery to another local family, but a flood and a labor strike took a serious toll. Although Tivoli continued to turn out top-selling beers, it closed in 1969. Denver drinkers kept a soft spot in their hearts for Tivoli, though, and for Denver Beer in particular — the last of its much-loved brands. So much so that Tivoli was resurrected in 2012 by the grandson of a Tivoli stalwart and is now a thriving brewery.

click to enlarge NEW BELGIUM BREWING
New Belgium Brewing

The late 1980s and ’90s

Fat Tire
New Belgium Brewing
Aside from Coors, there is no beer more iconic to Colorado than Fat Tire. Reddish in color and malty in taste, it is the result of a cycling trip that company co-founder Jeff Lebesch took through Belgium in the late 1980s. Although its brother, Abbey Ale, won New Belgium a multitude of awards, Fat Tire is the one that caught on with consumers in the ’90s — and almost every other brewery at the time took notice, producing their own version of red or amber ales. Today, many people refer to Fat Tire, sometimes derisively, as a “gateway beer,” meaning it is the most basic thing you can drink as a bridge between industrial light lagers and fuller-flavored craft beers. But there is no denying how important that bridge has been or how many people decided to stop and stay on that comfortable connector. At one point not too long ago, bars in trendy East Coast cities where Fat Tire wasn’t yet distributed were buying it and serving it illegally to meet demand for the Colorado treat. But Fat Tire is now distributed in all fifty states, and so ubiquitous that drinkers often mistake the name of the beer for the name of the company.

click to enlarge ODELL BREWING
Odell Brewing
90 Shilling
Odell Brewing
Like Fat Tire, Odell’s 90 Shilling is amber in color and approachable in flavor. But most of the similarities stop there. Instead of being inspired by Belgian beers, it takes its cues from the English and Scottish ales that brewery co-founder Doug Odell preferred. In fact, 90 Shilling began life as one of his first home-brewing recipes. Introduced at the brewery’s opening in 1989, it was a bold twist for most beer drinkers, and although it’s timid by today’s standards, it set the pace in Colorado and is still a regular go-to for many people, as well as a reminder of why craft beers were needed in the first place.

click to enlarge WYNKOOP BREWING
Wynkoop Brewing
Rail Yard Ale
Wynkoop Brewing
Denver’s first brewpub started out making English-style cask ales, but it was an American amber ale inspired by a German Marzen that became its flagship: Rail Yard Ale. First brewed by early Wynkoop stalwart Tom Dargen to celebrate his wedding, the beer was named for the run-down train station across the street. But Rail Yard got plenty of people on board with its easy-going combination of malty sweetness and fruity esters. The Wynkoop and Rail Yard would change Denver, change craft brewing and change the state’s fortunes over the ensuing decades in ways that no one could have imagined in 1988, when it opened.

click to enlarge BRISTOL BREWING
Bristol Brewing
Laughing Lab Scottish Ale
Bristol Brewing
Laughing Lab Scottish Ale probably wasn’t the first beer named for man’s best friend, and it won’t be the last, but it embodied a certain (and now somewhat diminished) Colorado feel — dogs, Jeeps, the outdoors, independence, community — in a way that many other beers didn’t. Hailing from Colorado Springs, Bristol’s beers were at one time a must-have for bars and liquor stores across the state; Laughing Lab, for its part, won nine GABF medals over sixteen years. These days, the unassuming former star has faded into the background, but there is no denying the easy-sipping appeal of this malty beer, and it is as approachably delicious now as it was exotically delicious in 1994.

click to enlarge MOUNTAIN SUN BREWPUB
Mountain Sun Brewpub
Isadore Java Porter
Mountain Sun Brewpub
As with music, tastes in beer have changed over time. Much of what blew people’s minds in the ’80s, ’90s or 2000s is considered quaint or boring today. But a few things continue to amaze, decade after decade. That’s why college kids keep discovering Led Zeppelin but not Men Without Hats, and that’s why Mountain Sun’s Isadore Java Porter has been a mainstay on this brewpub’s menu for 25 years. Concocted shortly after Mountain Sun opened in Boulder in 1993, Isadore was made by soaking huge amounts of coffee in wort (unfermented beer) — and it has sometimes come with a warning not to drink too much at the risk staying up all night. Rich, smooth and dark like coffee itself, the beer was a hit from the beginning, exploding people’s definitions of what a beer could be in a delightful way. And it continues to delight today.

Tabernash Weiss
Tabernash Brewing
When they close their eyes, beer drinkers who were around during the brief but very bright existence of Tabernash Brewing (1993-1997) can still taste its flagship weissbier. For many, it was the first flavorful beer they’d tried. For others, it was a perfect representation of an old style in a new place. Eric Warner, who developed and brewed the beer, would go on to write German Wheat Beer, a definitive style manual for the Brewers Association. A graduate of the famed Weihenstephan brewing-science school in Germany, he imbued Weiss with classic clove and banana notes and a foamy white head. Although many other breweries made hefeweizens at the time, none moved people the way that Tabernash’s did.

click to enlarge BLUE MOON BREWING
Blue Moon Brewing
Blue Moon Belgian White
Coors Brewing
First conceived by Keith Villa, Coors’s promising young Ph.D., and first brewed in 1995 as Bellyslide Belgian White by Wayne Waananen inside the Sandlot at Coors Field, Blue Moon began its life as the beer giant’s ugly stepchild. A passion project of Villa’s, it was a beer that had more flavor (coriander, orange peel and Belgian yeast), more class (those tall glasses and orange slices) and a boundary-pushing hazy look (everything old is new again). But Blue Moon eventually caught on, and when it did, it couldn’t be stopped. The beer is now one of the top twenty bestsellers in the nation and can be found in more than thirty other countries. It is also often credited with helping to wake up America’s palate on a much larger scale than what the small microbreweries of the time were achieving. It has inspired many imitators, plenty of jokes and a raft of other flavored Blue Moon beers, not to mention its own brewpub in River North. But the beer has left a legacy that is uniquely tied to the heart of Denver.

click to enlarge FLYING DOG BREWING
Flying Dog Brewing
Doggie Style Classic Pale Ale
Flying Dog Brewing
Developed in 1991 as one of Flying Dog’s first beers, Doggie Style got immediate attention when it won a gold medal at GABF — and the brewery moved from Aspen to Denver to expand. But the quality of Flying Dog’s beer took a back seat to the company’s marketing later in the 1990s when the Colorado State Liquor Board forbade the brewery from using the motto “Good Beer, No Shit,” on its bottle labels — labels that were designed by Hunter S. Thompson’s friend and colleague, Ralph Steadman. The case landed in the national spotlight as it wound its way through the courts; in 2001, the Colorado Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of the brewery and its First Amendment rights. Flying Dog left Colorado in 2008 for Maryland, angering many of its local fans, and went on to face many more freedom-of-speech battles in other states for labels and names like Raging Bitch. But Doggie Style, hoppier than most pale ales and good enough to win a second GABF medal in 1999, retains its frisky reputation for taste as well as iconoclastic marketing.

Avery Brewing
Hog Heaven Barleywine
Avery Brewing
The story goes like this: In 1998, Adam Avery’s four-year-old brewery wasn’t doing very well. Although other breweries’ fruit beers, wheat beers and pale ales were flying off the shelves, Avery’s weren’t catching on. So Avery decided to make a brew that really moved him, a beer that had so much alcohol and was so hoppy that the Brewers Association had no way to classify it at the time. That’s how the 10 percent ABV, 102 IBU Hog Heaven Barleywine was born, and it would change everything for Avery. The brewery followed up with a series of boundary-pushing, style-defying, high-alcohol beers that earned it a reputation far outside of Colorado. Avery, now owned by Mahou San Miguel, has mostly left those beers behind, but it will always be remembered for having changed the palates and mindsets of beer drinkers in Colorado. Hog Heaven is still made, though it’s now classified as an imperial red IPA.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes