What Napa Valley is to wine, Colorado is to craft brews - at least that's the word among beer aficionados and brewers. According to a study by the University of Colorado Boulder's Leeds School of Business released April 24, Colorado craft brewers contribute approximately $446 million to the state economy each year. "Craft brewers are on a double-digit growth trajectory," said John Carlson, Executive Director of the Colorado Brewers Guild, which commissioned the study. "Explosive growth continues to have a huge economic effect on the state, with no sign of slowing down." Among Colorado's 139 licensed craft brewers are Summit County's own Backcountry Brewery, Dillon Dam Brewery, Pug Ryan's Steakhouse & Microbrewery and the Breckenridge Brewery - with High Country demand for craft beer as strong as ever. "We have experienced growth this past year to our current maximum capacity of 2,400 barrels per year as we began distribution of our product throughout Summit County and along the Front Range," said Charles Eazor, owner of the Backcountry Brewery, which now has brews on tap at 28 other bars and restaurants. In fiscal terms, he announced "revenues each month that are solidly above the same period last year." The Backcountry Brewery signed a lease for additional space this month, making it possible to increase output to 6,000 barrels a year and begin bottling product. "The added capacity will also enable us to expand our Front Range presence," he said, calling the move "an interim step to our plans to establish and build a larger scale production brewery within the next two years. ...Bottom line is that we have much more demand for our product than we can accommodate and we are committed to growing to serve that demand."In Dillon, Pug Ryan's is currently putting the final touches on a 2,700-foot expansion that began last September and includes new restaurant seating, renovated restrooms, a west-facing deck with sunset views and a two-story brew facility with five new brew tanks. "We worked through the Dillon Urban Renewal Authority to get land next to the existing brewery to make the expansion possible," said Pug Ryan's president Travis Holton. The new setup will allow for a 300% increase in brewing capacity and expanded distribution of the brewer's signature canned craft beers throughout the Front Range and Colorado. On May 4, the Dillon Dam Brewery took home two medals for the first time from the 2012 World Beer Cup in San Diego, Calif. While their Sweet George's Brown Ale earned a bronze, it was the Art of Science Schwarzbier - a last minute entry that Brewmaster Cory Forster prepared using a recipe by Art Ballah, the grand prize winner of the Dam's homebrew contest last November - that took the gold. "It's a phenomenal beer," brewery spokesperson Barbara Richard said. "It's got magic in it." "There's been a shift," said Dillon Dam co-president George Blincoe. "People are really interested in craft beer. When we first opened in 1997 through about 2007... everybody was trying to make the best pale ale. There's a lot of experimentation right now in craft beer. An explosion of new beer styles are being tasted and tried." Rather than expand distribution, the Dam Brewery is focused on having enough in stock to satisfy local demand. "We run out of our prime beers in the wintertime because we're selling more beer than we can produce," Blincoe said. Eazor attributes the increasing popularity of craft brews to the facts that they are, "brewed on a smaller scale" and "generally fermented longer, with greater attention to flavor, fullness and variety" than mass-produced brews. "Most craft beer is designed to be enjoyed for its flavor and consumed slowly," he said, "not to be pounded down one after the other as a session drinking experience." Because they are local or at the very least regional, craft beers are "brewed by independent business owners that are in tune with their customers on an almost personal basis," he added. "Each beer is a personal representation of the brewery and its brewer(s)." On June 23, Summit County brewers will serve up their craft beers at Marina Park in Dillon with other members of the Colorado Brewers Guild as part of the second annual Summit of Bluegrass and Blues.
There's something unappealing about drinking good wine directly from the bottle, but somehow canned microbrews, a recent and long-awaited phenomenon, are another story, especially if downed while basking on the baffle of a raft or settling into a backcountry hut at the end of a day's adventure. Once seen as a packaging method fit only for lowbrow brews, the canning trend continues to catch on among microbrewers, with reasons ranging from portability, quality and lower transportation costs to environmental stewardship.Cans protect beer from both light and oxygen, thereby preserving quality, explains the Lyons-based Oskar Blues Brewery, which started what they like to call the "Canned Beer Apocalypse" ten years ago when they put their Dale's Pale Ale in a can, becoming the first brewer in the U.S. to brew and can its own beer. Others like to refer to the movement as the "Canned Beer Revolution.""From a carbon footprint and carbon mile standpoint, cans are much lighter and easier to transport," said Travis Holton, president of Pug Ryan's brewery in Dillon. Pug Ryan's started canning its brews in 2004, a decision made in part based on conversations with Oskar Blues. "Cans are easier to recycle, much easier than glass," he added."I personally love canned craft beer," one-time local Shanan Sussman said, because they're "easy to carry and can be crushed to a compact size if, say, you're out on a trail." Still, "the experience is definitely different," admitted Jocelyn Newhouse, another former Breckenridge local. "I usually end up pouring the beer into a glass if the option is available - might have something to do with the correlation between cans and not-so-good beers." Indeed, the perception of canned beer as inferior lingers in some circles. A common misconception is that cans impart a metallic taste to beer. In fact, the water-based coating on modern cans prevents this from happening. The coating "eliminates any perceived aluminum taste from back when consumers drank their dad's PBR," Holton said. Outdoor enthusiasts were among the first to embrace canned microbrews. "In the summer on trips, I tend to reach for cans rather than bottles," said Summit County visitor, Cindy Mar. "They're easier to tote and the metal protects the beer from light, which helps keep its quality intact." Furthermore, "Cans are welcome where glass is not - at the beach, the river and the backcountry," Holton said; "cans go everywhere." More than anything, however, what Pug Ryan's president originally liked was the fact that "the overall presentation was unique, though now it's becoming a regular big deal throughout the industry," he noted. Pug Ryan's currently offers Morningwood Wheat and Pallavicini Pilsner in cans, with Over the Rail Pale Ale slated to hit shelves canned this June. According to CraftCans.com, 183 U.S. craft brewers in 44 states now offer microbrews in cans. In April, Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewery unveiled their new Shift Pale Lager, a lightly hopped session beer available only in 16 ounce cans. The release coincides with a mobile app that can be used to locate New Belgium vendors, share photos and, best of all, to "set your clock-out alarm as a 'work is done' reminder" so that "the post-shift Shift drinking can begin." New Belgium is the third largest craft brewery in the U.S. Other brews in their canned line include Fat Tire, Sunshine and Ranger IPA. "If you went back six or seven years, there was some debate about whether craft beer drinkers would accept beer in cans," said New Belgium Brewery spokesperson Bryan Simpson. "We've passed that point. There's no looking back. More and more craft brewers are doing it and it's an accepted medium for what we do."