This article first appeared in Boulder Weekly‘s 25th anniversary special edition.
Back 25 years ago, covering the beer scene wouldn’t have taken too long. Boulder Beer was well-established on Wilderness Place, Walnut Brewery and Oasis Brewer Pub were ideal downtown watering holes, but that was pretty much it for craft beer.
“It was new,” Adam Avery of Avery Brewing Co. recounts. “It was a lot of people helping out each other. I remember vividly walking into Kevin [Daly’s] place, Mountain Sun, in the backdoor and introducing myself while they were setting up their brewhouse.”
That was fall 1993, and both Avery and Daly were on their way to opening their respective breweries, incidentally, using identical seven-barrel brewhouse systems purchased from California.
Meanwhile, 14 miles northeast, Eric Wallace was also setting up shop in Longmont, making Left Hand Brewing Company the city’s first brewery. Within four months, the County’s beer scene doubled.
It was an explosion, a craft beer revolution happening across the U.S. For Wallace — who attended high school in Germany in the 1970s — it was a long time coming.
“It made no sense to me,” Wallace recounts. “I was confused and flabbergasted that the wealthiest [nation] on Earth had such a monochromatic view of the beer world.”
But a cross-country trip opened Wallace’s eyes; beer was booming in the most unlikely of places.
“It’s finally happening! My sense of outrage is finally being addressed,” Wallace remembers thinking. “I guess I have a karmic obligation to get involved with this because I bitched and moaned about it for so long.”
And Wallace did — incorporating Left Hand with obsessive homebrewer Dick Doore in September ’93. On Jan. 2, 1994, Left Hand brewed its first batch of beer.
For Daly, opening a brewery was an escape.
“I was really unhappy at law school and didn’t want to be an attorney,” Daly says. “I was trying to figure out what I was doing while sitting in these McMenamins Pubs.” McMenamins, a family-owned brewpub chain in Portland, Oregon, provided the inspiration: good food, good atmosphere and, of course, good beer variety.
“Every other brewpub you went into had five beers: amber, golden, stout, porter and a seasonal,” Daly explains. “[Our idea] was to feature our five or six beers and then have a bunch of guest beers from California.”
It worked. Daly and business partner Ian Blackford opened Mountain Sun on Oct. 5, 1993, giving curious craft drinkers a chance to explore the many varieties of full-flavor beer while ushering in a whole new generation of macro-lager and non-beer drinkers.
Daly wasn’t the only disenfranchised law student who hopped behind the bar. Avery credits his 25 years in the beer industry to some well-meaning friends in law school.
“They were like, ‘Man, there is no way you’re going to enjoy this,’” Avery recounts with a chuckle. “Your homebrew’s pretty good. You might want to think about that.”
Not one to turn down good advice, Avery enlisted his father Larry as a partner and set up shop in September ’93. His first beers were Ellie’s Brown Ale, Red Point Ale and Out of Bounds Stout. And though Out of Bounds netted a gold medal at the ’94 Great American Beer Festival, business was anything but smooth sailing.
Left Hand also scored gold at the ’94 GABF with Sawtooth Ale, but money wasn’t any better for them.
“We were broke,” Wallace says. “We had 20-something dollars in our bank account.”
For Avery, the beer that turned everything around was Hog Heaven: an intensely hoppy imperial red ale that signaled a line of beers to come.
At Left Hand, creating a distribution network with Tabernash Brewing, Ska Brewing, Bristol Brewing Company and Avery changed the game.
“Colorado was a good beer market,” Wallace says. “It was independent liquor stores, and it was super competitive and super open. We just started growing until we had more than two dozen suppliers.”
Over the next seven years, the distribution was “nominally profitable” while the brewing industry stayed flat. Then, in 2006, Left Hand sold the distribution company and focused on a homegrown sales force.
For Daly, Mountain Sun was a different beast.
“The brewery is one-fourth of what we do,” Daly explains. “I didn’t love beer as much as I loved the food and service part. I love the atmosphere.
“We’re always trying to evolve our menu while staying true to our mission,” Daly says.
Avery and Wallace could say the same.
“Initially, it was like, ‘Man, the beer scene is broken,’” Wallace says. “Then, once we started fixing the beer scene: ‘Aw man, everyone’s community is falling apart, and everything’s being homogenized and standardized.’”
“Beer is just a part of this artisanal movement,” Avery says. “And now it’s moved all the way from just artisanal to location, and that local kind of feel.”
And it’s that local feel that keeps Avery’s taprooms packed with drinkers exploring envelope-pushing ales, fills Left Hand’s festival tent every November for Nitro Fest and turns Mountain Sun into a madhouse every February for Stout Month. Here’s to another 25 years. Cheers.