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It’s not that the city holds more microbreweries than anywhere else — although, per capita, they do — it’s that beer is part of the everyday conversation around here, as commonplace as talking about the weather

Brad Japhe
January 11, 2018

There are now over 5,000 craft breweries in the United States. Just five years ago, the count was less than half that. Nowhere has been spared—the beer boom has officially spilled over every corner of the country. In such a dense thicket of suds, how does any one region support a claim of superiority above the rest? Ask the fine folks of Boulder, Colorado. The mile-high Denver suburb at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains is quietly making its case. It has nothing to do with numbers, and everything to do with know-how. 

Craft beer has been on the minds of locals here long before it captured the national zeitgeist. Boulder Beer, in fact, became Colorado’s first small-time producer all the way back in 1979. Today, the operation has expanded into a tavern offering traditional pub fare and free daily tours. For brewmaster and part owner David Zuckerman, the link between his passion and his hometown couldn’t be clearer. “One only needs to look west to understand what makes Boulder the amazing beer city that it is,” he explains. “The natural beauty of the Rockies attracts and inspires us as brewers and beer drinkers. People are excited to be here and take advantage of the year round activities that are available. And that makes us very thirsty.”

Denise Chambers

It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that so much of the beer produced here comes canned and trail-ready. “I always try to impress my climbing partners at the end of a long day in the backcountry with a six pack of the newest craft brew I had hidden in my pack,” says Asa Firestone, a native outdoor enthusiast and proprietor of the recently renovated Boulder Adventure Lodge on the outskirts of town. “We encourage our guests to exchange their local beers with us here at the A-Lodge. We get beers from all over the country, and it’s always a great ice breaker — getting people talking about their local brewery culture."

Firestone tugs at a larger thread running through the scene here. It’s not that the city holds more microbreweries than anyone else — although, per capita, they do — it’s that beer is part of the everyday conversation around here, as commonplace as talking about the weather. “I think beer and outdoor adventure are embraced by similar types,” he adds. “Maybe thats why Boulder thrives on both beer and adventure.”

Back in downtown, the Pearl Street Mall forms Boulder’s commercial epicenter. It’s a four block-long promenade lined with shops, restaurants and outdoor performers. Since even the cafés here have beer on tap, the high-end eateries have to work hard to demonstrate the superiority of their fermented repertoire. Oak at Fourteenth — a brasserie focusing on wood-fired fare — maintains a stash of limited bottlings from local favorites. Frasca Food and Wine — a multiple James Beard Award-winning Italian outpost — prefaces a lengthy wine list with esoteric suds from Sri Lanka to Belgium.

Fueling the passion further is the presence of many an amateur beermaker. “I moved to Boulder in ’92, as a freshman in college,” recalls Hosea Rosenberg, a Top Chef winner, and the man behind Santo — a New Mexican-themed eatery in Boulder. “Back then, the thing to do was home-brew. My roommates and I fell in love with the craft beer scene and became ‘beer snobs’ way back then. Still to this day, one of my favorite hobbies is to try new beers on offer in town.”

Denise Chambers

One of his favorites is Avery. He is hardly alone. The city’s biggest brewery was launched 25 years ago, and has slowly risen the ranks to become one of the most prominent names in the industry. But even as their output surged, Boulder sensibilities guided that growth. Brewer Travis Rupp, who moonlights as an archaeology professor at Colorado University, is pretty much the Indiana Jones of IPA. He developed the brand’s Ales of Antiquity series as a way to replicate beer recipes of bygone civilizations. The process is arduous — and costly; it could never be pursued by an operation with a more modest brewing budget. And most similarly-scaled breweries would never allocate funds for something so whimsical. But this isn’t any brewery, after all. It’s a Boulder brewery.

As the sheer volume of craft brew continues to swell nationwide, the meaning of the term, itself, is threatened. Quality operations could be watered down or drowned out by the unflinching entrepreneurs, concerned less by the product than the promise of a quick buck. Boulder exists as a bubble, resistant to such cynical endeavors. Even the larger-scale brewers in this small corner of Colorado are investing their profits back into the kettle. You can taste their efforts in every freshly poured pint.

Big city drinkers might scoff at the suggestion of this outsized suburb as a craft beer capital. But the locals would have it no other way. They know what they’ve got, and that’s all that counts. “It's not quantity, it's quality,” Rosenberg contends. “Using the best ingredients to create simple, amazing fare. I love this town!”