Signifiers

Pulling Everything Together — Beer and Community in Fort Collins, CO

Choice City Butcher & Deli is always my suggestion when someone asks me where they should head first in Fort Collins, Colorado. Not for the incredible beer list, though—for the Colorado Reuben. There’s something magical about the stacked layers of lean buffalo meat, the sauerkraut, the swiss, the thousand island dressing, all of it somehow squeezed between marbled rye. I’m salivating just typing this.

Six years ago, after spending most of his life living near his hometown of Lincoln in the East Midlands of the UK, my dad relocated to Fort Collins. I visited in June 2010—my first time in the United States. I’d done little research on the area and didn’t know what to expect. I was mostly there to help my old man acclimate to his new surroundings.

We drove from Denver International Airport, getting into Fort Collins late, where we checked into a Best Western. The hotel sits on College Avenue, a street that runs through the center of town, adjacent to the Colorado State University campus. The next morning I had my first experience of Colorado’s ridiculously blue summer sky. At lunchtime, my first bite of what would be many Choice City reubens in the years since. Back then, it was weird to me that a humble deli had 20 beers on tap. Soon enough, it made perfect sense.

“Try one of the local microbrews,” my Dad told me at the time, so I washed down my sandwich with a bready, bitter pale ale called Five Barrel—made right up the road by Odell Brewing Company. Somewhere between that pint and the pint of IPA I drank later that day in the brewery’s taproom, beer changed for me forever. I’ve been coming back to Fort Collins as often as possible ever since. Partly to see my dad, of course, but also to immerse myself in one of the most excellent beer communities I’ve experienced the world over.

Fast forward to September 2015 and this is my 10th time in Fort Collins. Things have changed a lot over the years. Beer has become one of the cornerstones of my life, for starters. And my Dad is now a green-card-carrying, home-owning, practically-pseudo-American. I’m not sure he’s ever coming back to the UK—at least not for good. 

No complaints from me, though, as this means I continue to have a legitimate excuse to spend time lapping up Fort Collins beer. And I still start—and often finish—every trip at Choice City. Owner Russ Robinson set up this modest little deli, which doubles as a butcher shop, back in February 2004. In 2010, it entered RateBeer’s list of top beer restaurants in the U.S. at an impressive number 12.

Its beer list is varied and eclectic, with the likes of Utah/Colorado’s Epic, Ohio’s Hoppin’ Frog, and California’s Firestone Walker as regular fixtures on the taps. Robinson also has a habit of acquiring some serious whales. On one visit I enjoyed The Bruery’s sublime Smoking Wood Bourbon Barrel Aged while I watched Pliny the Younger tapping party tickets disappear in less than half an hour. Not bad.

Choice City sits just a few feet from College Avenue, at the edge of Old Town, which to me is the epicurean center of Fort Collins. Within spitting distance of Choice City you’ve got the highest concentration of bars, restaurants, and breweries in town. There’s the nearby Town Pump, for example: a tiny dive bar that was the first place to ever tap a keg of New Belgium’s Fat Tire. The Social is a bar that sits below street level, right underneath Old Town square. Head there for a Negroni once you’ve tired of beer.

Fort Collins Choice City 4.jpg

Through Choice City Robinson was also one of the town’s beer and food pairing pioneers. His deli hosts regular beer dinners, and on this trip I experienced Crooked Stave’s Chad Yakobson pairing his accomplished sours with a menu that consisted of delicate charcuterie and cheeses.

Yakobson himself is deeply ingrained in the beer community of Fort Collins. He studied at CSU and formerly brewed at Odell where, unsurprisingly, he headed up its Brett and barrel-aging program. Crooked Stave even began its life at one of the towns most well regarded breweries, Funkwerks, which specializes solely in creating accomplished Saison. It speaks volumes that a beer maker of this pedigree would choose this deli for his event.

At the back end of Old Town, once you pass most of its bars and eateries, sits a couple of industrial units. Behind the adjacent branch of EZ Pawn sits the relatively unassuming entrance to one of my favorite breweries in town, Pateros Creek. This place has a certain something to it that seem to click with me as well as locals—business at the taproom is constant and I often spot its beers on tap in many of the town’s bars.

Pateros Creek is the original name for the Cache la Poudre River, or ‘Poudre’ for short, which flows through the center of town. The river’s name, translated from French, means “hide the gunpowder”—a reminder that Fort Collins was, once upon a time, a true frontier town. Pateros Creek’s branding is a play on the town’s frontier history as is its flagship beer, Cache La Porter.

The foundations of beer in Fort Collins were built on beers like Fat Tire and Odell’s 90 Shilling Scotch Ale, but aggressively bitter IPAs and Pale Ales are arguably its bread and butter. Pateros Creek went against the grain a little in building its business on the back of an English-Style Porter, but this is part of the charm for me. It’s pitch black, and has all the roasted coffee and chocolate notes you’d expect. But it’s also a little sweeter and not quite as dry as you’d get in a UK-brewed example like Fuller’s London Porter.

“We try to create trends, not follow them,” Pateros founder and president Steve Jones tells me when I ask him how his brewery tries to keep pace with a steadily progressing Fort Collins beer scene. “We’re one of the smallest manufacturing breweries in town, but we were in the first wave of new breweries when we opened almost five years ago, so we have some experience behind us now.”

Since Pateros emerged in 2011, the number of breweries in town has doubled to 16. Despite being at the head of this new wave, Jones hasn’t forgotten where the city’s beer culture originated.  “It really starts with the breweries that created this beer town: New Belgium, Odell, and Coopersmith’s,” he says, ticking off the two best-known operations as well as the lesser-known, family-owned brewpub that opened in 1989. “They not only make great beer, but they are mentors and leaders that work hard to help all of us little guys make great beer. It rallies the community behind our industry because our industry is rallied behind our community.”

The fact that Fort Collins, with its modest population just north of 150,000, currently supports 16 breweries is no mean feat. Especially when two of its breweries—New Belgium and Odell—are internationally distributed giants of craft beer. Despite their relative size, they still feel wholly part of the surrounding community and that’s because no one’s forgotten that they helped create it.

Doug Odell founded his brewery along with his wife, Wynne, and sister, Corkie, in 1989. Despite having a couple years’ head start on New Belgium, it’s the latter that has grown to become the fourth largest craft brewery in the U.S. Odell sits a few rows behind them at the not-insubstantial 34, but this doesn’t bother Odell one bit. His business was founded on slow, sustainable growth. These days, Odell The Man is semi-retired, acting mostly as an international ambassador for the brand he helped create. In 2015, the business became employee-owned as the Odell family founders sold the majority of their stake in the business to the people that work for them.

Odell The Brewery lives on Lincoln Avenue, just a few minutes away from Old Town, close enough to New Belgium that you can stand outside and see the 3200HL tanks full of Fat Tire quietly conditioning in the distance. Every time I visit the place something has changed. Either they’ve added new fermentation tanks, or plumbed in a state of the art centrifuge, or installed a gigantic new brewhouse. Doug Odell’s slow business model seems to be working, and the business he’s left to his employees isn’t slowing down.

Production Brewer Scott Dorsch describes Odell’s beers as “hybridized” versions of American and British styles. “Doug enjoyed brewing English styles as a homebrewer and that has carried through the 25 years that Odell has been in business as a craft brewery,” Dorsch says.

Odell has been exporting its beers to the UK for almost five years now, and in Dorsch’s own words it’s “exciting to see the craft beer revolution expanding beyond North America.” I almost never buy Odell back at home in London, because I simply can’t replicate the experience I have when drinking them in Colorado. In fact, I think it was Dorsch who ruined me when he once handed over a fresh IPA right off the bottling line.

I wasn’t surprised to learn on this latest visit that three new breweries had opened in the few months since I was last in Fort Collins. One of them, Rally King Brewing, is a short walk away from my dad’s house, about a mile east of Colorado State. The brewery forms part of a compact shopping mall, and is next door to a quirky craft beer bar called Dungeons & Drafts, which is one to check out if your preferred beer pairing is a round of Magic: The Gathering.

On first impression, there’s little to distinguish Rally King from lot of other young breweries I see springing up, not just in Fort Collins, but in Colorado and elsewhere. There’s a nice brand behind the business and there’s the usual shelf of merch by the entrance. The tap list features a familiar list of Pale Ales, Stouts, and Hefeweizens. But there’s also an English-Style Mild on draft, and it doesn’t taste quite like anything I’ve ever had back home.

The beers are all competent and, in some cases, really enjoyable. But how does a place like this plan to survive in a crowded marketplace with limited reach? According to Rally King’s Jason Connor, it once again comes down to that sense of community.

“As part of the brewing community, we've been made welcome by all the established and new breweries in town,” he says. “Everyone is helpful and encouraging, which is nothing short of amazing when most industries are highly competitive, that ours is so highly cooperative.”

Connor’s comments make me pause for a moment and consider how the face of Colorado brewing has changed since outfits like Odell founded in the late ‘80s. In the six years I’ve been visiting Fort Collins, change has been rapid, a second wave of operations like Pateros Creek popping up like so many weeds. Now, third-wave breweries like Rally King have arrived and are vying for their share of the same market, a lot of them using the same tried and tested formulas as their predecessors. As the Colorado brewing industry continues to grow, folks like Rally King are going to have to find new ways to innovate in order to exist.

Connor isn’t oblivious to these challenges. “The local market outside our taproom is saturated with choices and more difficult to break into that we anticipated,” he says. “Even bars and restaurants with dozens of tap handles, lots of them dedicated to local breweries, have many high-quality choices for those handles. We feel like small fish in a big pond.”

If Choice City is where I go to satisfy my belly, and Odell is my happy place, then The Mayor of Old Town is where things get serious. Its 100 taps showcase some of the best beer in the world.

Former real estate agents Kevin and Barb Bolin have built a business that reflects and supports Fort Collins while giving locals a window into the beer communities that exist all over the world. Here is one of the few places in Colorado where you’ll see brands like Russian River—and, recently, Hill Farmstead—on tap. There’s no ego, either, and they won’t turn away the Bud Light or Guinness drinker.

“I feel that we’re a vital part of the second wave here in Northern Colorado,” Kevin says. He’s regularly found in his bar, either talking beer or playing bass on stage. “We were the first local bar that had such an abundance of taps that we could offer any or all of our local/larger craft brewers’ beers and still have room to expose the public to some of the amazing other beers from around the U.S. and abroad.”

But how does a bar with 100 taps, in a town the size of Fort Collins, manage to sell enough beer to maintain regular rotation?

“Believe it or not, we struggle to find room to keep all of our favorite locals on,” Kevin says. “I think that the craft industry is going to need to start to understand that while we had an influx of taps in town for a while, it’s going to start to become more competitive to secure those taps now. The days of dropping off a growler and expecting your beer to be brought in are over. ”

The Mayor is buzzing, and as I sip on a world-class Space Ghost IPA from Old Town’s Equinox Brewing, I turn and ask my dad why he calls this place home.

“There are many benefits to living in Fort Collins,” he says. “The climate, the magnificent scenery, the amazing selection of restaurants, bars and music venues—all of which contribute to the quality of life here. But perhaps the one facet of life here in Fort Collins that pulls everything together, is the beer culture. It's everywhere you go, it's engaging and inclusive. Above all, it’s a lot of fun.”

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis is a British beer writer and photographer based in London, England, giving GBH a unique perspective on the British Craft Beer scene.

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