Colorado's craft-beer industry found itself not just at one crossroads in 2018, but at a series of them — or maybe it was like a traffic circle with a thousand exits. Either way, there was a lot going on. While sales were slowing for some breweries, leading to closures in a few cases, they grew at others. And through it all, the state's beer makers never stopped innovating, whether it was with the food in their taprooms, intriguing new beer styles, or crazy ideas that set some of them apart. The year wrapped up with the impending change that will allow grocery and convenience stores to carry full-strength beer at all of their locations, something that will cause major industry changes in 2019. Whatever happens, though, the community of craft brewers followed a path that remained strong and grew more diverse over the past year — a path that was definitely sprinkled with glitter. Here are Colorado's top ten craft-beer stories from 2018, as picked by Westword's Beer Man:
Breweries Add Food Service
The majority of Colorado's 400 or so breweries are beer-only taprooms, which means that most rely on food trucks to help their customers lay a drinking base. But a growing number of breweries have decided to build their own kitchens or bring the food trucks in-house, financially or permanently — and in some cases, literally. Some of this has to do with their frustration with food trucks, while some of it is simply a way for the breweries to distinguish themselves from the competition or to provide additional revenue. Examples include Black Shirt Brewing in Denver and Wonderland Brewing in Broomfield, which both added kitchens; Station 26 Brewing, which now operates its own food truck; and Denver Beer Co.'s Arvada location, which teamed up with a restaurant operator to open a food truck inside the brewery. Others include Big Choice Brewing in Brighton and Downhill Brewing in Parker, which are both adding pizza kitchens, and Thirsty Monk, which offers customized boxed snacks that range from cheese and chicken salad to meatballs, pulled pork and smoked trout dip.
Diversity Among Brewery Owners
Quietly (in most cases), slowly, and hopefully, steadily, Colorado's brewery owners and managers are becoming more diverse. Of course, "diversity" can mean different things to different people. This year in particular, however, saw an increase in the number of Latino owners — as well as what may be the first brewery with black ownership. Novel Strand Brewing, which includes both, opened in July. It was joined by Atrevida Brewing in Colorado Springs and Coal Mine Avenue Brewing in Littleton. These two Latino-owned businesses joined
Cheluna Brewing in Aurora, Lady Justice Brewing in Denver and Boggy Draw Brewing in Sheridan. Next year, Raices Brewing, near Mile High Stadium, and Jade Mountain Brewing will add to the group. "We want to make young Latinos and Latinas feel welcome," Jose Beteta of Raices Brewing told Westword in June. "We think it's something that will help the whole industry. This demographic that's not feeling included — they'll find out what craft is all about. Then they'll want to try more beers and visit other breweries.”
Bruts, Slushes, Milkshake IPAs, Oenobeers and Glitter...Lots of Glitter
In the wake of the New England-style IPA phenomenon that has swept the craft-beer industry over the past two years, breweries and beer fans have been keeping a close eye on other trends as they arise. One of the biggest from 2018 was brut IPA, which incorporates enzymes and different yeasts to create a dry finish and a light, bubbly carbonation with an effervescent mouthfeel like champagne. Fermaentra, Platt Park, Fiction and Verboten produced the first brut IPAs back in May, and by December, some much larger Colorado breweries, including New Belgium, Avery and Ska, had jumped on board with packaged versions of the style. But bruts weren't alone. Milkshake IPAs also hit Colorado in full force last year, as did sour slushes, sour rosés, glitter beers and wine-beer hybrids. That last style is championed by Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers, which opened in November serving gorgeous Italian food and palate-defying blends of beer and wine that owner Alex LIberati calls oenobeers. He's hoping to see more breweries try them.
Oskar Blues and the Growth of Canarchy
Colorado can lay claim to the birth of Oskar Blues and the beginning of the canned craft movement, but we're going to have to share Canarchy. That's the name that Oskar Blues and its financial backers at Fireman Capital Partners gave to the syndicate — or "collective," as they call it — that now includes not just the Longmont-based brewery and its locations in North Carolina and Texas, but six other breweries under its umbrella: Cigar City, Deep Ellum, Perrin Brewing, Three Weavers, Wasatch and Squatters. The goal of the group is to weather financial storms while maintaining a craft-beer mentality, though other breweries have expressed a wariness about Canarchy's rapid rise to become the ninth-largest brewery in the nation. Along the way last year, the group introduced a mixed twelve-pack with beers from multiple breweries, shared a large space at GABF, added an experimental brewpub in North Carolina, and, most recently, revealed that it would launch a new hard seltzer brand called Wild Basin Boozy Sparkling Water. Expect more, much more, from Canarchy in 2019.
Tickets to the Great American Beer Festival sold out in 67 minutes in 2016 and in four hours and fifteen minutes in 2017. But they didn't sell out in 2018 until the day the festival started. For anyone who's been following craft beer since at least 2012, that's an unheard-of, almost shocking fact. The Brewers Association said the slower sales were a result of better online anti-scalping measures, 2,000 extra tickets on the market this year and media coverage of previous sellouts. But there may be something else at play: festival fatigue. As the craft-beer scene has grown exponentially over the past eight years, the number of festivals, invitationals, special events and tap takeovers has grown with it — to the point where beer lovers have to choose. Other examples included
Great Divide, which chose not to host an anniversary party last year; Avery Brewing, which got rid of two longtime festivals (Strong Ale and Sour) in favor of the Avery Invitational; and the All Colorado Beer Festival, which recently announced that it is shutting down: "With the proliferation of beer festivals over the past five years or so, our attendance has softened, and without a growing attendance, we cannot meet the primary goal of the event: large donations to our beneficiaries. Thus, we will move forward with a series of specialized events."
Lagers and More Lagers
I suppose it was inevitable. America fell in love with lagers in the 1950s when a wave of German immigrants fled their homeland for political reasons and brought bottom-fermenting lager yeast with them. The lighter, crisper beer almost immediately supplanted heavier, English-style ales and gave birth to the famous brand names and beer companies that produce today's light lagers. Craft beer was born, in part, to get away from flavorless beer, but now we've come back to where we started. Big and small brewers alike began producing more lagers in 2018, including packaged offerings from Odell (Colorado Lager), Avery (Avery Lager), and Station 26 (303 Lager), among others. And more are on the way (New Belgium Mountain Time). In addition, Colorado scored two big medals at GABF for lagers this year; Cannonball Creek Brewing, known for its powerful, hoppy beers, won gold for Netflix and Pils, a German-style pilsner, and the Post Brewing Co. won bronze for Howdy Beer Western Pilsner, an American-style lager. This trend is going to really explode in 2019 as craft breweries begin competing with the big boys for supermarket shelf space and America's tastes shift downward.
Supermarket Sales Preparation
The legislature pulled a fast one on Colorado liquor stores in 2018, devising legislation that will allow grocery and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer at every one of their locations. While the new law is likely to spell the demise of many small businesses, it has been a long time coming, since Colorado was one of the last states that still maintained a Prohibition-era 3.2 beer code. But the details of what this new world will look like — and how it will affect craft breweries — is anyone's guess. Many beer makers spent the last half of 2018 scrambling to figure out how to prepare to sell in supermarkets, whether this model will work for them, reimagining their product offerings, and what the meaning of life after 3.2 could be. More than forty are now ready to jump into this game, while others have decided to sit it out — or to watch and wait.
Hazy IPAs Get Style Guidelines
After two long years, the Brewers Association finally added several style categories in March for what had become one of the most sought-after, most controversial beer styles in the country: New England-style IPAs. And just like that, the beers took over the festival. The total number of entries in the three new categories (Juicy or Hazy Pale Ale, Juicy or Hazy IPA and Juicy or Hazy Double IPA) reached 706, with the middle one totaling 414 entries in itself. It marked the first time in more than fifteen years that American IPAs weren't the top category at the annual fest. Oddly, no actual New England breweries won awards for the hazy beers, in part because most didn't show up to the festival, but Denver's Fiction Brewing took home bronze for Madame Psychosis. The new guidelines will probably be tinkered with somewhat, but the style, which features tropical flavors, very low bitterness and a hazy appearance, is here to stay.
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Small Brewery Closings and Sell-Offs
Although people in the industry have been warning about a "craft-beer bubble" for a few years now, 2018 was the first year that Colorado saw any real corrections in the industry. Large and medium-sized breweries were forced to scale back operations and expectations, while a number of smaller breweries either closed or sold off their leases and equipment to other would-be brewery operators. Among the casualties were Beryl's Beer, Caution Brewing and FanDraught, which all closed and were sold to other brewers; Goldspot, which was sold; Fate Brewing, which closed one of two locations and filed for bankruptcy; Crazy Mountain Brewing, which closed its original Edwards brewery along with two small taprooms; and Powder Keg, Vindication, Three Four, Skeye, Open Door and Nighthawk Brewing, which all closed their doors for good.
WeldWerks, WeldWerks, WeldWerks
It would be hard to overstate the year that WeldWerks Brewing had. The Greeley beer maker, which is both phenomenal and a phenomenon, had capped 2017 by winning a gold medal for its barrel-aged Medianoche at GABF — and then went on to completely tear down its marketing strategy and build a new one in the beginning of 2018. The goal: to brew one hundred beers over the course of the year. Weldwerks accomplished that task, and then some, ending up at around 130 beers, each with a buzz that drove frenzied fans to Greeley or to liquor stores on a weekly basis. But that was just the beginning. WeldWerks also won a medal for its Peach Climacteric at the World Beer Cup and then drew the longest lines in the house at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival. It also hosted a July festival of its own, the WeldWerks Invitational, which was widely hailed as one of the best of the year. Later, it became one of just six Colorado breweries to be invited to the Shelton Brothers Festival, which took place in Denver. And finally, the brewery's success — its flagships Juicy Bits and Double Dry Hopped Juicy Bits are rated as the top two Colorado IPAs on BeerAdvocate.com, and there are lines outside the brewery's doors almost every weekend — allowed WeldWerks to buy its building and almost the entire city block surrounding it in November. By the end of the year, other breweries had begun to chafe a bit at the perception that WeldWerks can simply do no wrong, but what's not to like about a brewery that continues to be lovable and accessible through it all?