Soak up the suds in Colorado’s ‘Napa Valley of Beer’

By Rich Grant

Colorado Governor Hickenlooper kicks off a beer fest.Dotted by a whopping 56 breweries, the rolling high plains running from Denver north to Boulder, Longmont and Fort Collins are called the “Napa Valley of Beer” (a takeoff on California's wine country). Ranging from Coors, the largest single brewing site on earth, to breweries built in backyard garages, this region has produced some of the most famous and award-winning craft beers in America.

Even politicians get into the act. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is the first former brewer to be elected to that post since Sam Adams. Hickenlooper opened Denver’s first brewpub in 1988 and served as the the city's mayor for eight years before becoming governor in 2011. He often states: “Beer is Denver’s DNA.”

Denver: The perfect place for a pint

T-shirts in Denver – the Mile High City -- proclaim, “Hey dude, I think everyone in this city is high!” No doubt, and they also love good beer. Two downtown bars, Falling Rock and the Yard House, each offer more than 140 draft beers, and even the smallest restaurant has a sophisticated craft beer list. Not to miss:

Wynkoop Brewing Co.:Started by Hickenlooper, this is the oldest and largest brewpub in the state. Try Patty’s Chili Beer (made with actual Colorado green chili) or sip a Railyard Ale while gazing out at Denver’s historic Union Station.

Great Divide Brewing:The go-to locale for Denver's beer aficionados is the Great Divide's Tap Room, where you'll see them sampling brews like Denver Pale Aleand Yeti ImperialStout, as well as the occasional Tap Room-only special. Bartenders in the downtown brewery will take you on free tours tracking every step in the creation process of craft beers to write home about.

Rock Bottom Brewery:All 40,000 barrels of beer are handcrafted onsite by brewmasters with a reverence for the traditions of brewing. Stretch out in the Rock Bottom patio on downtown Denver's 16th Street pedestrian mall and enjoy Molly's TitanicBrownAle (so named for Denver's famed "unsinkable Molly Brown”).

The Rackhouse Pub:Not only is beer booming in Colorado, but so are distilled spirits. The state now has 24 distilleries producing whiskey, rum, vodka, gin and brandy. The two worlds meet at the Rackhouse Pub, known for its Colorado beers as well as microdistilled spirits. You'll find it nestled in Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey Distillery, through which tours explain that whiskey is just distilled beer. Even better, the tour ends with a free sample.

Photo courtesy of Coors Brewery.

Coors Brewery:The legendary Coors Brewery in Golden on the outskirts of Denver produces 22 million barrels annually, making it the biggest single-site brewery in the world. Take a free 30-minute tour of the brewhouse, malthouse and packaging complex to see how 100 work teams turn Rocky Mountain spring water into pure gold. And don’t forget to stay for your free samples.

Get a belt in Boulder

In 2010, a Gallup Index named Boulder the happiest city in America, based on local residents' assessments of their jobs, health and emotional state of mind. At the same time, GQ Magazine called Boulder the worst dressed city in the country. They softened the blow slightly, pointing out that because everyone in Boulder is in great shape, it’s the best city in the country to see everyone naked (at certain festivals). Well, either way, Boulder, just 27 miles northwest of Denver, is another big player in Colorado's “Napa Valley of Beer.” Look for:

A beer bust in Boulder. Photo by Rich Grant.Boulder Beer Co.:Colorado’s first microbrewery, Boulder Beer opened in 1979 and celebrates the era with time-warped, groovy, tie-dye inspired labels and beers like Hazed & Infused American Pale Ale andMojo IPA.

Avery Brewing Co.:Avery blends Old World beer tradition and expertise with just a touch of eccentricity. Check out the wonderful labels on the bottles and visit the brewery on Friday at 5 p.m. when they usually tap an exclusive beer.

Upslope Brewing:The newest addition to Boulder’s microbrew scene, Upslope follows Colorado’s active lifestyle by offering handcrafted ales in cans for the on-the-go beer enthusiast. The no-frills brewery has already won raves for its IPA and Brown Ale.

Welcome to the Upslope.Longmont: A 'Gub'na' for the governor

Longmont, about 14 miles northeast of Boulder, greets motorists entering the city with a giant-size can of beer – a sure tip-off that great suds await them here at spots like:

Oskar Blues Brewery:These brewers started thecanned craft beer craze in 2002 with Dale’s Pale Ale. Why cans instead of bottles? Cans keep beer fresh by protecting it from light and oxygen. Visit the brewery’s Homemade Liquids & Solids restaurant/brewery/music venue (home of the aforementioned oversize beer can) or the nearby Tasty Weasel brewing facility and try a Gub’na ImperialIPA, brewed in honor of Governor Hickenlooper.

Left Hand Brewing Co.:Located on the banks of the St. Vrain River, Left Hand has a patio that's perfect for relaxation and appreciating award-winning brews like Milk Stoutand Sawtooth Ale. (They've racked up 15 medals and one honorable mention at top beer festivals since Left Hand's founding in 1993.)

Fort Collins: Home of the 'Fat Tire'

They may be happier in Boulder, but Forbes, Money and CNN consistently pick Fort Collins as one of the Top 10 places to live in America. Home to Colorado State University (the arch rival of Boulder’s University of Colorado), Fort Collins is a laid-back college community with great bike paths, bookstores – and beer. For instance:

New Belgium: Founded in 1991, this craft institution – the most successful of the Colorado craft brewers – specializes in Belgian-style beers. Now a behemoth of the industry, New Belgium's flagship beer Fat Tire, is available in 28 states.

A tip: Tours of the company are de rigueur for visitors to this neck of the beer valley. Considered the best brewery tour in the state, the 90-minute adventure includes free sampling of up to six beers, including rare and expensive sour beers (try it, you’ll like it!). The eco-friendly brewery is 100 percent wind-powered. Register at www.newbelgium.comfor a tour long before coming.

The author checks out a “Fat Tire” bike at the New Belgium.Odell Brewing Co.:  Just around the corner from New Belgium, Odell offers tours at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday on a first-come basis (a great option if New Belgium is full). Odell’s has been brewing for 20 years and excels in experimental brews, available exclusively in their gorgeous and huge tap room.

Fort Collins Brewery: Also in the neighborhood and just steps from the Cache Le Poudre River, this brewery turns out acclaimed beers such as the 1900Amber Lager and the Chocolate Stout.

Anheuser Busch Brewing Co.:  Located a few miles north of Fort Collins, Anheuser Busch offers complimentary tours showing how the “king of beers” is made. Be sure to visit the Clydesdale Hamlet, home to more than a dozen of the the brewers' iconic (and very lucky) horses.  What could be better than living on a brewery?

Cover image of Denver skyline by Ron Ruscio.

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