Fans of Colorado's craft breweries got angry when the state was left off the craft brewing vacation itinerary, and with good reason.
The state's 118 breweries last year not only made up the fourth-largest collection of craft breweries in America behind Oregon (121), Washington (123) and California (245), but gave the state the fourth-most breweries per capita in the U.S. A craft beer fan who doesn't vacation in Colorado is like a baseball fan who never visits Wrigley Field: They can live happy, contented lives, but will be much better off for making the trip.
Aside from hitting the Great American Beer Festival in Denver in September, there's almost no way to get to every brewery in this state without living there. For most, it has to come down to the highlights. Left Hand Brewery in Longmont is as good of a place to start as any, with a tasting room teeming with taps of its signature Milk Stout, BlackJack Porter and Wake Up Dead Stout, as well as more seasonally appropriate suds such as Polestar Pilsner and 400 Pound Monkey IPA. The tastings and weekend tours work out just fine during the colder months but are best appreciated out on the patios once the weather warms up.From there, it's a quick skip to Longmont's Pump House Brewery and Restaurant for some pre-Rockies or Broncos brews, but the 16-year-old brewery and its Flashpoint IPA and Shockwave Scottish Ale are more of a pit stop en route to the main event. Back in 2002, Oskar Blues became the first craft brewer to can its beers when it started sealing up its Dale's Pale Ale and Old Chub Scottish ale at its brewery in nearby Lyons. Since then, the operations have expanded to include a 50-acre farm, a brewpub and music venue called Oskar Blues Home Made Liquids and Solids (with a giant replica can out front and Tasty Weasel Tap Room with live music, skee ball, small-batch brews and brewery tours). Lyons hasn't been left out, as the Oskar Blues Grill & Brew brewpub and live music venue still calls it home and the Old Chubway quick-serve eatery adds some fast-food flavor to the slow-drinking enjoyment of its beers. Oskar Blues combines the best of all its worlds by starting tours in Lyons at the original restaurant with about 30 vintage arcade games in the bottom floor, where the first brewery used to be, a blues bar on the second floor and a brewpub with a patio and a restaurant for tastings up top. The tour then loads onto a 1959 hippie blues bus and heads to the Longmont Brewery's 40,000-square-foot production facility for a look at the fermentation cellars, can line and other production elements before heading to Homemade Liquids and Solids for a final tasting. "A big part of the reason we canned beer was to help promote our brewpub that we opened in 1997 and help drive people into the Rocky Mountains and our small little town," Oskar Blues founder Dale Katechis says. "That marketing device worked, because restaurant sales have been up 30% to 60% since that time." From Longmont, it's decision time. Do beer lovers head south to Boulder for a one-city circuit of breweries including Asher Brewing, Boulder Beer, Mountain Sun, Upslope and heavy hitter Avery Brewing for its cans of White Rascal Witbier or Joe's American Pilsner? Do they head even farther down Interstate 25 to Denver for a Hercules Double IPA at Great Divide Brewing? It's a tough call, but if given the choice a true craft beer fan should head north to Fort Collins. Home to brewers as benign as the CB & Potts chain and as bold as the Belgian-inspired Funkwerks and its Saison or the prolific Odell Brewing and its Woodcut oak-aged ales and sublime 90 Shilling Scottish ale, there's one brewer here that turns Fort Collins into a beer-and-bike nirvana for visitors in love with both: New Belgium Brewing has been cranking out tasty brews such as its Fat Tire Amber Ale and Ranger IPA for 20 years, but its tastings and tours pale in comparison with the Tour de Fat bike festival, Bike-In Cinema summer film series for cyclists and its Urban Assault Ride bicycle scavenger hunts. The beer has built a big fan base all its own, judging from the 661,000 barrels produced last year that topped the Anheuser-Busch (BUD)-backed Craft Brewers Alliance's (HOOK) 590,000, but New Belgium's culture in Fort Collins trickles well beyond what's bubbling in its fermenters.