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."
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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."