There was a lot of good news for Colorado craft breweries in 2019, including growth, new openings, strategic partnerships, and a continued interest in small-batch, artisan beers. But most of the major stories were more depressing. They included contraction, closures and big buyouts — the biggest of which was the sale of New Belgium Brewing, which has been one of the beating hearts of the industry here, to the Kirin conglomerate.
In addition, the beer world saw a dumbing-down of its products in an effort to appeal to more people. While this seems to be a necessary evil at a time when competition can have devastating effects, the prevalence of low-carb beers and fizzy seltzers just doesn't seem to fit with a craft-beer ethos that has valued individualism.
One thing is indisputable, though: The craft-beer scene changed in 2019 as much, if not more, than in any other year in its forty-year history, and there is more change coming in 2020. Here are the ten biggest stories of the past year:
Hoppy GABF Medals for Comrade, WeldWerks, Cannonball, Westbound & Down
Colorado makes some of the best hoppy beers in the nation, but you might not have known it from the state's medal tally at the Great American Beer Festival in recent years. Not only had the state's breweries rarely taken home hardware in categories like pale ale, IPA and double IPA, but they seemed to be racking up points for German-style lagers and other light beers — not something that Colorado is known for. But the 2019 festival put an end to all that. Not only did Comrade Brewing win gold in the superheated American IPA category for its More Dodge Less Ram, it also won a much-deserved gold medal for Superpower IPA. WeldWerks Brewing, meanwhile, which has surpassed most of the better-known hazy IPA makers from out of state, won gold for Extra Extra Juicy Bits in the Juicy or Hazy Imperial IPA category, cementing its place in the style. It also took a silver for Itsy Bits in Juicy or Hazy Pale Ale. Then there was Westbound & Down, which won silver for Double IPA, and Cannonball Creek, which took home awards for Trump Hands Session IPA and Vladamir Brutin, a brut IPA. These are some of the best hop shops in the state, which made the awards all the sweeter.
Lower-calorie, lower-carb beers and beverages
Lower-calorie, low-carb craft beers aren't new. Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewing debuted one of the first last year, and other craft breweries have been making them on and off for years (and, of course, the industrial breweries have been battling for the low-cal space for decades). But they re-emerged in 2019 as the popularity of hard seltzer grew at an astonishing pace. Not only are seltzers gluten-free, but most only have around 100 calories. In response, three of Colorado's biggest breweries, Oskar Blues, Odell and Avery, introduced new low-calorie IPAs — and just to make things even more trendy, all three are hazy. But other brewers are following up, including Breckenridge Brewery and New Belgium. Even some smaller breweries are working on low-cal beers, including WeldWerks with its Fit Bits. This trend will probably pick up significantly in 2020.
Fate Brewing closes, making way for Ska Street Brewstillery
Fate Brewing closed in May after a series of financial pitfalls led to tax problems and eventual bankruptcy. It was a sad ending for the brewery, which opened in 2013 and built a solid reputation for its beers. The property and equipment were eventually seized and auctioned off by the state — when they were purchased in a surprise move by Durango's Ska Brewing. Although Ska is one of the bigger and better-known breweries in the state, it had been content to keep its operations down south until this opportunity arose. Ska will now team with its sister company, Peach Street Distillers, to open Ska Street Brewstillery, a combination brewery, distillery and Caribbean-themed restaurant inside the former Fate building. That's big news for the Front Range and an indicator of how the Colorado brewery landscape is changing quickly.
A shifting landscape of buyouts, mergers, openings and closings
Colorado's craft-beer landscape changed more in 2019 than in any previous year, and the moves are going to have ripple effects far into the future. Where to start? At least a dozen Colorado breweries opened second locations in 2019 (not including the three new brewery taprooms at Denver International Airport), while a dozen more made plans for splashy new spots in 2020, including heavy hitters like Odell, Ska, Great Divide and WeldWerks. In the meantime, several breweries scaled back on previously announced plans, while others merged and nearly twenty breweries simply shut their doors. New Belgium sold to Kirin; Avery sold more of itself to Mahou San Miguel (retaining about 30 percent); and even little Aspen Brewing sold to an investment group that owns Seattle's Ninkasi Brewing. How can there be so much growth at the same time that other breweries are contracting? Because craft brewing is still a dynamic industry. But there is much more change ahead.
Breckenridge Brewery battle with its founder
Breckenridge Brewery founder Richard Squire had kept a fairly low profile in the beer world since stepping away from the company in the 1990s, but he was back with a vengeance in 2019. In June, the brewery, which was purchased by Anheuser Busch InBev in 2015, revealed that Squire, whose real estate firm still owns the building where the original brewpub is located in the ski town, didn't want to renew its lease. That led to lawsuits, a war of words (Squire said he wanted to put an independent brewery back in that location), and an eventual settlement that will allow the pub to stay put in its longtime home for another two years. The battle would be Squire's last, however: He passed away from cancer in November.
Coors shuts down its Denver headquarters
Coors is not a craft brewery, but it's safe to say that everything Coors does affects Colorado's other 400-plus breweries in many ways and on a daily basis. The company isn't immune to struggles, though — quite the opposite. In 2019, its parent company, Molson Coors, announced that it would close down Coors's headquarters in Denver and lay off more than 300 people; those operations are now being moved to Milwaukee and to Chicago, which will serve as the official headquarters for the company. The move shocked Colorado, as Coors has had corporate offices here since it was founded in 1873, but it may have also riled up the Coors family, which has been silent about the change. The move is a tough one to swallow.
Boulder Beer's downsizing and change
Colorado's oldest craft brewery has gone through many ups and downs since it was founded in a goat shed outside of Boulder in 1979, but the latest one was particularly heart-wrenching. In October, the brewery said that because of tough competition, it would have to lay off a third of its staff and stop packaging and distributing all of its beers, including hits and classics like Shake Chocolate Porter, Buffalo Gold and Mojo IPA. About a month later, the brewery was able to work out a deal with Sleeping Giant Brewing, which will now brew and package those beers, but it's still hard to watch the brewery and its staffers go through tough times.
Grocery stores begin selling craft beer
January 2019 came in with a bang for Colorado breweries, as a law allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer at all of their locations took effect. Before that, only one outlet of each chain store had been permitted to sell full-strength beer, a rule that had been in place since Prohibition ended and one that was often credited with helping Colorado's craft-beer industry become so successful. While the chains professed a desire to keep numerous local options on their shelves, that appeared to shift about halfway through the year as the bigger, best-selling craft brands (both local and out-of-state) began to take up more space. The change has meant significant trouble for independent liquor stores — something that could also lead to problems for craft breweries, which rely on those independent stores to sell their small-batch products.
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The bubbly rise of hard seltzer
Seltzer, seltzer and more seltzer. It was hard to get away from the fizzy flavorings of White Claw, Truly and other hard seltzer offerings in 2019 — which was downright disorienting, considering how quickly the demand for them grew. And sales are expected to double again in 2020. While all other alcoholic beverages had to make room for the new kid, often to their financial dismay, many local breweries adapted quickly, cooking up their own local versions. Some (like Oskar Blues, Upslope, Denver Beer Co. and Ska) began canning them, while many others simply kept them on draft both as a gluten-free alternative and to sate the thirst of the seltzer-curious. How will things go in 2020? Probably pretty well. Still, though I'm not quite as negative as Stone Brewing founder Greg Koch, I predict that hard seltzer eventually ends up somewhere between wine coolers and New Coke in the cannon of trendy beverages.
New Belgium Brewing sells to Kirin
Colorado's biggest, most well-known and most-speculated-about breweries crumbled under the pressure of outside forces in November, when Kim Jordan, New Belgium Brewing co-founder and chair of the board, announced that the employee-owned company planned to sell to Japanese beer conglomerate Kirin. Although it was no secret that the Fort Collins-based brewery had considered selling out in the past, it appeared to many on the outside that New Belgium had moved beyond that phase, so it came as a surprise when the inevitable happened. Although Jordan couched the sale as a good thing — and it certainly is to many longtime employees, who will reap the financial rewards of it — it also means that New Belgium, founded in 1991, has lost its independence, and that the ultimate authority over Fat Tire and all of its other brands now lies overseas.