America's Biggest Little Town Is Finally Waking Up to Craft Beer
A mere 100 miles from Denver—host of America’s biggest beer fest—and 45 miles north of Fort Collins—which produces the majority of craft beer in hop-crazed Colorado—sits Cheyenne, Wyoming, population 62,448, the "northern anchor" of the Front Range. Considering its proximity to brewing Shangri-La, one might assume the town would be bursting with local beer; its horse-trodden streets flooded with sudsy nectar that threatens to drown its prized buffalo.
But this is not quite the case.
The most populated city in the least populated American state has largely avoided the craft beer boom. Cheyenne seems to lack the critical mass of beer nerds that lead similarly sized municipalities to produce some of the country’s best beer. Most residents just seem comfortable with a pitcher of Bud Light.
But perhaps Cheyenne's greatest challenge as a beer-producing city is Wyoming's archaic and bizarre alcohol laws: Though drive-through liquor stores are quite common, grocery stores cannot sell beer, wine, or spirits. Until this past February, microbrewery production had long been limited to 15,000 barrels per year (it has since been raised to 50,000). And most frustratingly, bar and liquor licenses are limited by a town’s population, preventing new businesses from opening until older ones have closed.
Fortunately, the American craft beer movement has picked up too much steam for Cheyenne to remain in the Dark Age of Macrobrew much longer. As cultural influence from Denver and Fort Collins creeps north, locals and outsiders alike are trying to accelerate the enlightenment with a fervent homebrew scene. Yes, the only homebrew shop in town is open for a mere 90 minutes each Tuesday through Friday (and five hours on Saturday) – but dammit, at least it's open!
Around the corner from this shop, not far from the city's central Plaza Depot, is the longest standing of two breweries in Cheyenne: Three-and-a-half-year-old Freedom's Edge Brewing has already made a massive impact on the community producing a mere 600 barrels a year. Co-owners / head brewers Adam Niebling and Shane O'Keefe have done phenomenally well since opening, but not without meeting some resistance. "[During] our first six months, a lot of people would come in asking, 'Do you have anything domestic?'" recalls O'Keefe. "We're as domestic as we can get," finishes Niebling, with a smirk.
Adam Niebling and Shane O'Keefe
How do two men convert an entire city into craft beer fans? "People who love our beer do it for us," responds O'Keefe. They keep a wide spectrum of styles on tap at all times, pouring something for everyone who walks through the doors. Often, with guidance from a more experienced customer, a newcomer walks out having seen the craft beer light.
While Freedom's Edge has been spreading its beer gospel, Cheyenne Brewing Co. (CBC) opened last month in a gorgeous space nearby, previously occupied by a brewpub called Shadows. Mention the latter name around town, and local craft beer fans will involuntarily react with contempt for the business that "didn't have the drive or the passion for the beer," as O'Keefe describes it.
CBC comes to town with a different approach, hoping to earn the trust of Cheyenne's beer-drinking public. Brittany Fertig, who co-owns the brewery with her husband and two other family members, had to repair about 90 percent of the brewing equipment when they arrived. Unlike Shadows – a maligned restaurant that also "happened" to make beer – CBC has made beer its number one priority, aiming to eventually replace the guest taps of Odells and New Belgium with nothing but house brew.
Admittedly, the brewers still have to work out some kinks: their recent iteration of Black Beard Chocolate Stout, for example, came in at a liver-shuddering 15 percent ABV, due to inefficiencies with less-than-fine-tuned equipment (for the record, it was still quite tasty). But they welcome the arrival of more Cheyenne breweries to drive them to work harder. "I think it would be great to have more here…. People could go brewery hopping and try everybody's stuff," says Fertig. Craft brewing is one of very few capitalist industries in which friendly competition is not only welcome – it's crucial to the survival of the industry.
Interestingly enough, the ingredient unique to the single most popular beer at both Cheyenne breweries is chili pepper. My hypothesis is that such a flavor is more accessible to the vast number of "old school" beer drinkers that populate the city. After all "spicy Budweiser" makes more sense than "dank, piney hops," or "nutty, toasty malt" to those unfamiliar with more complex beer styles.
I witnessed this theory put to the test at Cheyenne's 21st Annual Wyoming Brewer's Festival last month, when a brewer from Wiley Roots Brewing of nearby Greeley, CO, handed a local attendee a gose: a sour, salty German style. "You've gotta think of it as lemonade," said the brewer. Closing his eyes, the man drank it with great trepidation. Upon swallowing, an utterly confounded expression washed over his face, which slowly gave way to acceptance. "Lemonade," he repeated. He opened his eyes. "Okay," he said. "Not bad." Hardly a full-throated endorsement, but in the nascent world of Wyoming craft beer that counts as another successful conversion.
"Yeah, we've had to have that conversation quite a few times," says Wiley Roots Head Brewer Kyle Carbaugh, "but we like a challenge."
It seems that Cheyenne is now up for the challenge, too – at least, judging by the 1597 attendees of the Wyoming Brewer's Fest, a 23 percent increase in paid attendance from last year. Brittany Fertig even claims that a few inspired people have come into Cheyenne Brewing Co. asking for serious advice on launching a brewery.
But that's not to say Cheyenne doesn't still have some work to do. As I'm leaving CBC I overhear a tank-topped man addressing his inebriated girlfriend, who is within an arm's length of a tap serving fresh, delicious, local beer: "Hey babe—vodka shot real quick?"