Beer Man

Old Chicago drinks from the mug of craft beer relevance

Fifteen years ago, Old Chicago was the place to go in Denver if you wanted to try unusual beers.

Known for its World Beer Tour, the restaurant -- a part of what is now the Colorado-based Rock Bottom empire -- offered unusual and international brews. And while the craft-beer scene hadn't really developed back then, you could always find a few brews by such early microbrewers as Breckenridge, Boulder Beer and Tommyknocker.

Today there are more than 120 breweries in Colorado, including thirty-plus in the Denver-Boulder area alone, along with a host of restaurants, pubs and bars with great craft-beer lineups.

Although Old Chicago's parent company owns the Rock Bottom Brewing chain and Boulder Beer Company, it has fought to stay relevant in the craft-beer scene.

But a new strategy may change that.

Over the summer, Breckenridge Brewery teamed up with Old Chicago to make a limited-edition beer: Buddha's Hand, which is only available at the chain's 27 Colorado locations. Each store got five kegs, and the beer ran out after about five weeks. A wheat beer, Buddha's Hand was made with the tropical fruit of the same name. "It went over huge," says Tracy Finklang, who creates and maintains the 127-item beer menus at all 102 Old Chicago restaurants across the country. "People loved it."

So last week, Old Chicago debuted a new limited-edition beer, Colorado IPA Nouveau, from Tommyknocker Brewing in Idaho Springs. A fresh-hopped beer, Colorado Nouveau is part of Old Chicago's Halloween Mini-Tour and will last about four weeks.

Next up is a Chocolate Porter made by Boulder Beer, which will be available December 1 as part of Old Chicago's Winter Mini Tour.

And after that, anything could happen.

"We're ready to play," says Finklang. "We want to partner with other breweries, but I don't just want a pale ale or an amber. We want something different, something that is exciting. We want to serve something unique, something people can't get elsewhere."

In return, the breweries will get a strong account -- about 130 kegs -- and some exposure of their own. "They can use us as a testing ground," she adds. "That's what we told Breckenridge. Buddha's Hand could be their next summer seasonal."

Old Chicago has also developed its own beer brand with Boulder Beer, a line that includes Old Chicago American Red Ale and Old Chicago Festival Lager. "It's a double thing," Finklang says. "We are contracting with local brews to do special beers, and we are building our own beer for ourselves.

"It's about the craft-brew scene," she adds. "It's not just about us."

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