Does this state have a distinct brand? What does it mean to provide Colorado-style hospitality, or to be part of the Colorado production industry? To discuss those questions, last week the Colorado Bartenders’ Guild convened a panel with out-going 5280 food editor Amanda Faison; New Belgium specialty brand manager and wood cellar blender Lauren Woods Salazar; Star Bar owner Justin Lloyd; Leopold Bros. distiller and owner Todd Leopold; Left Hand field quality manager Josh Breckel; and Great Divide beer baron and salesman Bryan Baltzell to address an audience of hospitality professionals. I moderated the conversation, which included plenty of contributions from that audience; what follows is a condensed transcript of our conversation, in which we address Colorado’s pioneering spirit, where the industry is going amid rapid growth, and why the word “craft” doesn’t mean anything anymore.
Laura Shunk: Let’s start with a lightning round. Give me about three words to describe the Colorado hospitality and production industry.
Bryan Baltzell: Local, education and quality.
Josh Breckel: Innovative. Wild growth. And the pushing that we do of each other to make each other better.
Justin Lloyd: The. Rising. Tide. All of us understand that we all work together, that we’re all partners, that we’re all part of a much bigger scene.
Todd Leopold: Independent: The independent businesses are what’s driving the bus. Humble: That’s my favorite thing — I don’t want to hang out with a bunch of wankers. Giving: Being a part of the community is a cornerstone of all the businesses here.
Lauren Woods Salazar: Family or friends. I feel incredibly lucky that everywhere I go, you walk in and meet people, and they immediately become friends. And love personifies all of our craft.
Amanda Faison: Friendly and encouraging: Denver is a big city with a small-town attitude. Hardworking and earnest, and I think that’s very Western. Pioneering. Thought-provoking. Looking at where we can be different and not just jumping on the bandwagon.
Is it important to have a distinct Colorado brand? Why or why not?
Salazar: I remember one time when I was in Buffalo, New York, and this woman walked up to me and asked, “Are you from Colorado?” I was like, “What? Yes.” And she ran back to her group and whispered, “They’re from Colorado!” What does that mean? What do we look like? It’s happened four times now. I take it as a compliment. It must just exude out of us. I think we’re nice, kind, hospitable, excited and helpful.
Breckel: When it comes to beer, we don’t tend to make one thing here. For instance, what beer do you associate with the Northwest? IPA. But I was in Detroit a couple of months ago, and someone said, “Colorado beers are really good.” We don’t have just one thing. They all have this assumption that the beer from here is good, so you have a leg up on other states. You should use that to your advantage. There’s an identity there that’s positive.
Baltzell: With this question, I thought about in-state versus out of state. Out of state, I’ve heard in Ohio, “Man, I wish you guys would say Continental Divide, because Breckenridge really captures the mood of the mountains, and I don’t know that people know you’re from Colorado. But if you told them, it would help us sell beer.” In-state, it’s great to brand yourself as Denver, Colorado, local. But out of state, some of those brand words we talked about earlier are dynamic and perpetually relevant — pioneering, entrepreneurship, community, hunter. We’re trying new things, we’re not passive, we’re looking to grow. It’s a cool zeitgeist to be swept up in.
The beer industry is so integral to the way outsiders think about our state — it’s truly world-class. What can we glean from breweries to promote Colorado’s hospitality in general?
Breckel: We’ve been able to ride the coattails of what New Belgium did forever. It opened up the doors for Colorado craft in general, because there was an assumption that if that was great, everything else from Colorado would be great, too.
Leopold: I think people associate Colorado with beer, and that’s done a lot of the heavy lifting. They look at the overall quality of beverage and just assume that we’re good.
Lloyd: The region has been known across the nation for craft beer. As that landscape is shifting, with more and more people opening up, it’s important to maintain the quality of that product. Quality is going to be the benchmark that continues our growth and the conversion of drinkers. As the caretakers of that, we want to make sure that what you’re putting in the glass is a quality product.
Audience Question: Everyone is talking about craft. What is craft, where do you draw the line, and how do you protect that from being inundated?
Lloyd: The most important thing is to understand the products. I don’t call anything craft anymore. If there’s a story behind it that’s akin to craft, it’s good to tell that story, but I’ve made a conscious decision to stay away from the word “craft.”
Salazar: Be really careful with how much one word means. The word “craft” really screwed us, and it’s sad, because it’s a wonderful word. But it’s dead to us. That word is gone. We hung our hats on it way too much. We forgot we’re so awesome because of how inclusive we are, and we walked around with a craft-not craft [judgment], and now it’s impossible to know who is craft and who isn’t.
Audience: To what extent are bartenders stewards of what is good and righteous and beautiful in production? What is the responsibility of the hospitality professional?
Faison: A bartender or server has a huge responsibility. It’s about encouraging someone one direction or another via stories or via knowledge. There’s an opportunity to nudge a customer and say, “Here’s the story behind it.” There’s an opportunity to open a door.
Leopold: When you first move to a new city, you go find your bar. That’s your responsibility as a bartender. That interaction dictates how someone feels about their city as a whole. We’re all in the hospitality business, and we’re all in the business of making people who come to our state feel welcome. That’s why we bust our asses.
Salazar: It’s unbelievable how much power people who work in restaurants or beer shops have, so be nice. Don’t badmouth the products; it’s not inclusive and it’s not fun. I don’t want to be bought and find out someone badmouthed Left Hand to make the sale.
Baltzell: But from the sales side, the onus is on us to make that information available so bartenders can share our stories. That’s super-effective for a beer drinker.
Shunk: Amanda, this year, 5280’s list of the 25 best restaurants was seen as a bit of a shakeup. What does the list reflect about the changing nature of the restaurant and hospitality industry?
Faison: There’s so much change in this city. We had nearly 400 restaurants open in 2015. The growth is frenetic. The ones on that list are of the moment, and some of those have been around for 25 years. All of these spots have a very clear viewpoint, and that’s what I want: I want a restaurant that knows what it is. I want a place that feels really clear. I think Hop Alley, at number one, really shows the change in dining in general. Dining is entertainment: It’s not just dinner, it’s your evening. That list isn’t a shakeup, it’s a snapshot.
You all come from established Colorado brands. Is all of the growth pushing you to evolve? How?
Lloyd: At Star Bar, in Colorado, we’re extremely adaptive and flexible. For instance, changing all the beers all the time. And that was extremely hard for a long time. It’s about sticking to your guns and saying, “This is what we’re going to do, come hell or high water.”
Breckel: For a long time, we got to do what we had to do, and not worry about the day-to-day. But then you get bigger and you hire more employees, and you have to make sure you have enough money, because you have payroll you have to meet. You have to grow within your means. We all struggled really hard. Trying to keep up with the Joneses is a bad idea.
Leopold: We make it a big point to focus on what we’re doing and pay no attention to what other people are doing. We just try to be the best that we can. We’re lucky not to have to get into the volume game. There is no kiddie pool for distilled spirits. We’ve got to compete with some of the biggest brands in the world. What we noticed early on is that the more we injected our worldview and personality in our business, the better we did.
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Audience: With rapid growth and gentrification, are you worried about losing the Colorado spirit?
Faison: From a food perspective, there are so many restaurants that have the exact same thing on the menu. They’re making burrata, octopus, avocado toast. There’s no personality within those spots. But smart chefs and entrepreneurs are going to look at what’s in the middle and go to the margins.
Leopold: I couldn’t get away with making a fernet or a three-chamber whiskey without having that customer base. I have a complete creative freedom that I didn’t have ten years ago. We sell more spirits in one single tour over a weekend than I would have in a month and a half in Ann Arbor. Having a customer base, and people who are curious about where things come from, has completely opened up possibilities for us.
Salazar: If I was opening a brewery now, I wouldn’t even leave the state. I’d be like, this is my neighborhood, this is my block, that’s my hot dog guy. There are so many thirsty people. If you could just get a couple of blocks, you might not have to deal with a distributor — no offense — ever. It’s so exciting for people opening up now, because you can have a business that’s sustainable, you can pay a fair wage, you can give people health insurance — and you don’t have to compromise. You can do something unique that comes out of you.