Beer Man

The Ten Biggest Colorado Craft-Beer Stories of Last Year

New Belgium opened a new spot at DIA in 2019, but it also sold to Kirin.
New Belgium opened a new spot at DIA in 2019, but it also sold to Kirin. New Belgium Brewing

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click to enlarge MOLSON COORS
Molson Coors
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.

click to enlarge BOULDER BEER COMPANY
Boulder Beer Company
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.

Supermarkets began making way for craft beer in late 2018. - JONATHAN SHIKES
Supermarkets began making way for craft beer in late 2018.
Jonathan Shikes
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.

click to enlarge Upslope Brewing rolled out Snow Melt in 2019. - UPSLOPE BREWING
Upslope Brewing rolled out Snow Melt in 2019.
Upslope Brewing
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.

click to enlarge NEW BELGIUM BREWING
New Belgium Brewing
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. 
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes