Even before the COVID-19 pandemic blew a hole through all of our worlds, the vibrant craft-beer industry in Colorado was beginning to show some wear and tear. Grocery and convenience store full-strength beer sales, which became legal at the beginning of 2019, were creating an environment of haves and have-nots, while the number of brewery openings had slowed down to a pace that was on par with brewery closings.
But the virus and resulting quarantines, followed by ever-changing restrictions on breweries, bars and restaurants, upended the norms, forcing every beer maker from the largest to the smallest to rethink how it was doing business and what it needed to change — quickly — in order to continue doing business. Westword's readers followed along, watching, sometimes in horror, at the changes, particularly the closures.
Here are our ten most-read beer and brewery stories of 2020:
"Aluminum Shortage Forces Clever Solutions at Oskar Blues and Ska"
Americans stopped heading to their favorite breweries, bars and restaurants in 2020, and instead started buying their booze to go. As a result, the demand for aluminum cans went through the roof, creating a massive capacity shortage. Breweries — which were now relying on cans as a lifeline to stay in business — scrambled to keep them in stock. One of the most creative ways was simply to wrap unused cans in new labels, something that a few of the state's bigger breweries, including Oskar Blues and Ska, began doing right way. Talk about re-gifting! A few others followed, creating a strange-looking but brilliant way of making do in a pandemic economy.
"Leap Day Weekend Shakeup: Three Breweries Open and Three Close"
Colorado's stunning craft-brewery boom of the past decade began to slow in 2019, particularly in the Denver metro area, where every newly opened brewery was counterbalanced by a brewery closure. This one-in-one-out pattern was particularly noticeable over the Leap Day weekend, when three breweries — Pilothouse Brewing in Aurora, Peak to Peak Tap & Brew's Colfax location, and Liberati Brewery and Restaurant — closed, while two new beer makers, Barquentine Brewing in Edgewater and Outworld Brewing in Longmont, opened. A third new brewery, Lady Justice, also announced that it would take over the Peak to Peak space that week.
"One of Colorado's Most Important Brewpubs Never Even Opened"
John Hickenlooper's rise from unemployed geologist to brewpub owner, real estate mogul, mayor, governor and presidential candidate turned a new page in 2020 when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. But back in 1988, Hick was almost beaten to the punch when two other would-be brewpub owners tried to open up before the Wynkoop — and would have become the first microbrewery owners in Denver if they had. Joe Benetka and Bart Bonsall never managed to bring their Denver Brewery to fruition, but they did help change the laws to allow for brewpubs, a contribution that made their forgotten part of Colorado brewing history worth telling.
"Brewers Association Lays Off Julia Herz, the Face of Craft Beer"
This one is still a stunner. In June, the Boulder-based Brewers Association, host of the Great American Beer Festival and the primary trade group of the nation's craft breweries, finished laying off 24 people — 35 percent of its staff — including Julia Herz, who had been the face, the voice and the fire behind American craft beer for more than a decade. The BA, reeling from the cancellation of GABF and other significant events, said it had been forced to reorganize its priorities. Herz has since started her own brewery consulting business. The BA, meanwhile, will have a difficult fight to regain its relevance in 2021 as the pandemic, coupled with rapidly changing brewery priorities, is threatening to leave the organization behind.
"C.B. & Potts Brewery Permanently Closes Four Locations, Sells the Fifth"
C.B. & Potts, which served beer and burgers to generations of Coloradans, stopped brewing and permanently closed the doors to four of its five Colorado locations in July, a victim of the pandemic. Founded in 1974 by the Washington-based RAM Restaurant Group, the mini-chain was a breeding ground for brewers and award-winning beers, and a stalwart for Colorado State University students in Fort Collins, in particular. The fifth location, on the Collindale Golf Course, was sold, but has retained the C.B. & Potts name for now.
"Liberati Will Close Its Outstanding Brewery and Italian Eatery"
Liberati Restaurant & Brewery dazzled the beer scene when Roman brewer/restaurateur Alex Liberati opened it in 2018. Not only were the beers — beer-wine hybrids that captured the best of both grape and grain — completely new and baffling, but the cuisine delved into regional Italian specialties seldom found in Denver's Italian-American eateries. But Denver may not have been ready for either concept, and Liberati was quickly forced to simplify both its beer and food menus. The changes wouldn't prove to be enough, however. Left Hand Brewing announced that it planned to take over the space in March, but that deal fell through several months later. Alex Liberati continues to list the site for lease — but his beers and food are truly missed by many who appreciated them.
"Denver Beer Co. Will Take Over Maddie's Spot Near DU"
Denver Beer Co. owners Patrick Crawford and Charlie Berger added to their mile-high beer empire last January when they bought two buildings in south Denver's Rosedale neighborhood. Construction is now under way on a 2,563-square-foot brewery and taproom that will be similar to DBC's locations in LoHi and Olde Town Arvada, along with a 10,000-square-foot patio with a tiki bar, fire pits and yard games. Crawford and Berger plan to have a permanent food setup and may even open their own ice cream shop in a small building on the property.
"Tired of Modern Craft-Beer Trends, Jason Yester Sells Trinity Brewing"
Jason Yester, who for thirteen years was one of the most enigmatic and unusual characters in Colorado’s craft-brewing scene, sold Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs in July, saying he no longer recognized the industry that he once loved. Yester, who specialized in Belgian-style saisons, broke new ground over the years with his wild ales, IPAs and sours. But he found frustration with new trends, including hazy IPAs and fruit-heavy smoothie-style sours. The new owner, Colorado Springs restaurateur Matthew Dettmann, later brought on Colorado native Jonathan Taylor as brewmaster; he plans to take the brewery in a new direction.
"Boulder Beer Company Will Close on January 18, Ending Forty Years of History"
Just six days into 2020, Colorado got a taste of a rough year to come. That's when Boulder Beer Company, the state's oldest and one of its most loved craft breweries, announced that it would close the doors to its pub and brewery and auction off its equipment. Although Sleeping Giant Brewing, a Denver contract brewery, continued to produce some of Boulder Beer's brands, the closure capped an agonizing death spiral that had begun the year before, when the brewery began rapidly downsizing and laying off employees. Sleeping Giant is now working on a redesign of the Boulder Beer brand, however, so hopefully the beers will remain in the market in 2021.
"Old Chicago, Rock Bottom Parent Company Terminates 18,000 Employees"
Craftworks Holdings, the parent company of the Colorado-founded Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery and Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom chains, was already in trouble before the pandemic hit. It filed for bankruptcy on March 3 and closed several locations nationwide, including the Westminster Rock Bottom and the Old Chicago in Longmont. But the pepperoni really hit the pan in March as pandemic-induced closure orders swept the country: Craftwerks closed all 300-plus stores that day and then laid off its entire workforce on March 31, letting all 18,000 employees know that they were out of a job. In June, the company was sold to a new investment group, Nashville's SPB Hospitality, which slowly began reopening many of its restaurants.