Fort Collins, craft Beer capital of colorado, is A mecca for BrewCAtioners
Craft beer culture in charming Fort Collins, Colo., is brimming
Tourists hoping to find an actual fort in Fort Collins will be stymied, but those with a passion for excellent craft beer and food will find nirvana.
We’ve been drawn by the craft beer culture in this charming Colorado city of 165,000, a 90-minute drive from Denver, but are pleasantly surprised by Fort Collins’ Disney-esque vibrant 19th-century downtown and a culinary culture that’s major league.
Our base is one of the state’s fantastic historical hotels, the 1920s Armstrong where checkin includes meeting the hotel lobby’s resident cat, Oreo. Thirty years ago, no tourists would stay at the hotel as it had fallen on rough times. But new owners and a yearlong renovation in 2003 brought the Armstrong back to its glory, and the hotel now is a well-located place to stay while exploring the revived Fort Collins downtown, its leafy side streets and, most importantly, more than 20 craft breweries to make it the craft beer capital of Colorado.
Time is of the essence, so with the help of the city’s marketing director Katy Schneider and local Bob Williams — he’s a bicycle mechanic and certified cicerone who leads beer and bike tours internationally in places such as Belgium and Japan, as well as Colorado — we’ve keyed in on three. Two were obvious choices, and one was a brand new Belgian sour sensation.
Purpose Brewing and Cellars is a boutique craft brewery opened by Peter Bouckaert, the former brewmaster at the iconic New Belgium Brewing Co., and Zach Wilson, former brewer at 1933 Brewing Co., also of Fort Collins.
For Bouckaert, it was a switch from one of the biggest craft brewers in the United States to one of the smallest in Fort Collins, although since our visit Purpose is looking to expand its brewhouse and add a coffee bar.
Purpose is a small-batch brewery with a constantly changing board, making it a polar opposite experience for Bouckaert, who spent years at New Belgium where the focus was on consistent quality of large national craft brands such as Fat Tire.
On our visit, with Frezi Bouckaert, Peter’s wife, in charge, Wayne happily tries Smoeltrekker No. 6 and No. 17 (versions of the same sour beer numbered for the barrel used) and Nacht Up, a black ale with hints of coconut and vanilla brewed using amburana wood from Brazil.
During the tasting, Williams observes, “If you like the way the beer tastes, it’s a good beer.” And certainly that was true of the Nacht Up.
Next up, a stop at the lively Odell Brewing Co., one of the twin peaks in Fort Collins’ considerable contribution to American craft beer. Founded in 1989 by Doug, Wynne and Corkie Odell, the company is the 34th largest craft brewery in the United States, and its beers are found in 11 states and the United Kingdom. Odell’s marquee brands are British in style.
Originally located in a converted 1915 grain elevator, today’s brewery is a sprawling modern enterprise featuring a colourful taproom and an expansive patio.
Odell co-owner and taproom manager Kailey Bowser toured us around the brewery where we witnessed robots loading kegs and bottles merrily making their way through an assembly line. It was intriguing to witness a panel of employee tasters rating the product.
Bowser also noted employees can concoct their own brews just as she did for her recent wedding, producing “Loving Cup,” a golden ale named after a Rolling Stones song.
And that’s just one of many employee perks.
“We’re spoiled,” said Bowser, adding after five years employees are taken on a trip to Europe to witness other brewing techniques. She said employee appreciation “is who we are from Day 1.”
Williams and Wayne quickly tuck in with flights beside a fellow brewcationer, a homebrewer from Madison, Wis., who is generous with his praise for what he’s discovered at Odell such as 90 Shilling, an amber ale.
There’s no leaving here without tasting Colorado Lager and, for a walk on the hoppier side, the summer seasonal St. Lupulin extra pale ale.
In any other city, Purpose and Odell would be enough to convince a craft beer lover they were in heaven. But this is Colorado, arguably the mother of the North American craft beer world, and we’re not done yet.
New Belgium Brewing, employee-owned and massive, offers free tours of its brewery every afternoon. The tours are equal parts storytelling, cycling and legal drinking age (21 in the United States) playground.
Early on, we’re introduced to an actual fat tire bicycle. It’s the same type founder Jeff Lebesch, as a 32-year-old, rode around the villages of Belgium before returning to Fort Collins in the early 1990s to start brewing beer in his basement.
Today, New Belgium’s Fat Tire brand of Belgian ale is brewed in both Fort Collins and Asheville, N.C., and is one of the most recognized craft beer brands in the United States.
But New Belgium doesn’t rest entirely on its leading brand. The Fort Collins brewery is home to the world’s biggest wood cellar beer production facility, producing beers such as Oscar, brewed in blackberry whiskey barrels.
The taproom also features such beers as the Voodoo Ranger IPA series, seven versions in total.
New Belgium is big on environmental sustainability and our tour, led by Jesse Claeys, reflects that, pointing out everything from policies regarding sourcing materials to encouragement of cycling culture and fitness. They’ve just added a great lawn perfect for cycle-in movie nights and beer yoga.
For the kid in us all, tours end with a literal slide back to the taproom level.
Of course, there’s more to nourish the soul than craft beer in Fort Collins. There is also some of the best noshing we’ve experienced in America.
A favourite was The Kitchen, a bistro in historic Old Town with a farm-to-fork menu and a motto of “community through food.”
For a hearty breakfast and a fine cup of joe, few can match Silver Grill, which is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Northern Colorado, tracing its history to 1912. No one had to twist arms to sample their muchlauded cinnamon rolls and freshsqueezed orange juice.
And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Silver Grill cinnamon roll beer brewed in the Christmas season by Odell.
That has us smacking our lips in hopes of a return visit.
Frezi Bouckaert pours a variety of craft beers for visitors to sample at Purpose Brewing and Cellars in Fort Collins, the craft beer capital of Colorado.
Odell Brewing Co.’s Kailey Bowser says the brewery’s cool patio is hopping in warm weather.
New Belgium Brewing Co.’s Jesse Claeys is a fountain of information about the popular Fort Collins brewery.
Downtown Fort Collins boasts an impressive array of street art, including Jazz Alley by artist Terry McNerney.