The U.S. might not be home to an oversaturated beer scene yet, but small pockets of the world’s largest beer market are certainly starting to get crowded. While larger cities like Portland, Chicago, and San Diego might have the headcount to support an ever-greater influx of bars, bottle shops, and breweries, smaller towns are feeling increasingly claustrophobic.
One of those locales is Fort Collins, Colorado, a city I’ve come to know intimately, witnessing its beer culture change dramatically over the past decade. The Front Range town, which has a population of around 165,000, currently has 22 breweries. They’ve also got a hub of excellent beer-focused bars within its Old Town historic district including Choice City, The Tap ‘n’ Handle, and The Mayor of Old Town to name a few. But the boom might be reaching a tipping point. Pateros Creek, which GBH featured in a Fort Collins travel piece last year, recently closed its doors due to market pressures.
Kevin and Barb Bolin—former owners of a real estate business—opened The Mayor of Old Town in July 2011. It presents itself as a fancy bar, one filled with 100 taps of local, national, and international beers. But it’s not a snobby place. Coors Light and Schlitz are nestled alongside the latest New England IPA or dry-hopped Saison. And that means you’re just as likely see some post-grads from the adjacent Colorado State University out to party as you are an older couple out for a meal.
Bolin sat down with GBH over some Fat Tire pints to discuss the nature of running a bar with 100 taps in a town with a relatively small population. We also talk about the challenges presented by brewery taprooms, which are increasingly starting to look like competing bars themselves.
What was the perception here in town when people found out you were opening a bar with 100 taps?
I think there was quite a bit of excitement. At the time, the best thing we had in town that qualified as a beer bar was [pizza chain] Old Chicago. I’ve got nothing against them, they really helped to grow a developing market, but we had a great craft beer culture in town with Odell and New Belgium. Funkwerks was just kinda coming on, so I really think there was a high demand for a bar like ours. We had 500 Facebook fans before we even opened the doors, so we had a soft opening for those people. It kinda blew up.
You said there weren’t many bars like yours in Fort Collins before you opened, so did existing bars welcome the competition?
There wasn’t much direct competition, no. People don’t really like competition in this town, so no, we weren’t particularly well received by some. [laughs]
The Old Town area of Fort Collins must have one of the highest concentrations of handles in the country. How do you ensure that the Mayor stands out?
When we were doing our research, we found that most bars and restaurants could not adapt to change very well. They would rather run out of something and leave the tap down rather than change it up. What we decided to do was to capitalize on that change, so we attacked that through technology, which differentiated us. [The Mayor’s beer list is computerized and projected on a giant screen behind the bar. It even updates Twitter when they change a keg.] Not to mention that we buy a shit load of beer every year and so we tend to get on the top lists when it comes to getting the best beers.
How do you manage beer turnover with 100 taps?
Going to college here, I knew that people didn’t take very good care of their beer. I could go to three different bars within the same block and [New Belgium] Fat Tire, which is made a mile from here, would taste different at each one of those bars. We started to do some research into why that would happen, and obviously it’s because the beer is often old, the bars don’t adequately clean their lines, and it was served in inappropriate glassware.
We knew that if we could come out of the gate addressing each of those three potential objections we would create a following pretty quickly. So we did: we don’t keep a beer on for longer than 30 days, we clean the lines in between each and every keg even if it’s the same beer going back on, and we have appropriate glassware for all the different styles we serve. It makes sure that the beer we serve is at its best.
So if a beer is still on tap after 30 days, what happens?
We “black handle” it. We make it unavailable to the public, we put a little stubby black handle on the tap, and it becomes the staff shift beer until it’s gone. So it doesn’t last long.
Does that happen often, though?
It doesn’t, because we buy kegs conservatively. So while our margins would be better if we were buying by the half barrel, a lot of times we’ll have to buy a quarter barrel or a sixtel of the beer to ensure that we get through it within 30 days.
Your lineup always feels pretty concise to me. It’s a broad range of styles, but you can always bank on a certain amount of Saisons, sours, IPAs. How do you decide what to stock?
We change the wall seasonally. In the winter, the wall “moves left,” as we call it, so we add a lot more Porters, Browns and Imperial Stouts—those bigger beers that you want for the winter. Then, in the summer, it goes the opposite way, so we get more yellow beers in.
We have 19 sections of beer by style that we have to fill, so we do a lot of “just in time” ordering. For example, say a Funkwerks Saison is about to blow. If it’s not something we need to keep on, we put down that we need a Saison and we shop for it on Monday. We’ll order in 25-30 kegs a week, we rotate the beer through like that, and that keeps the beer fresh and avoids beer hanging around for too long. Our walk-in cooler can hold 166 half kegs, but we rarely have more than 140 kegs in there, with a lot of sixtels mixed into that stock.
How do you decide on the style split, and have you seen any trends in new styles becoming more popular?
We decreased the amount of Belgian Singles and have increased our range of Saisons a little bit. Of course, your IPAs and double IPAs are right in the middle of our wall, and they’ve increased.
IPAs are still your best selling beers, I imagine.
Yep. Browns have decreased, Porters are almost non-existent any longer, finding a regular Stout is a lot more difficult because so many breweries are brewing Imperial Stouts. Imperial Stouts have definitely increased, and because of consumer demand, we’ve introduced our wild, fruit and sour beer section, which has gone from around six handles to a constant 10 or 11.
What’s your split between local and national beer?
It’s changed a lot over the last two years. When we first opened, our goal was to due one third [of the lineup] to be local—to be supportive of the local breweries so that somebody could come here and get a good sampling of all that stuff. Then we would do a third U.S. and a third international on top of that. I would say over the past year we’ve moved down to 15 taps of locally produced beer and increased our national and international offering.
What’s triggered that?
The direct competition between taprooms and our bar. It’s a reaction to the aggressiveness of some brewery taprooms. So long as they’re priced competitively with us, and every once in a while they’d push people our way with some social media, I felt that they’re being supportive of us. But I understand that they have to raise capital to grow their breweries. Since then, there’s now food trucks and live music at these breweries and everything on social media is about pushing people to their taprooms so all of a sudden they became a competitor.
Do you think that the Fort Collins beer market is oversaturated, or could it sustain even more bars and breweries?
I think it’s oversaturated. I think we are now on the downhill slide in Fort Collins, you’re going to see closures and you’re going to see shrinkage.
Who do you think is going to be worst affected, the breweries or the bars?
Both. I think we have too many taps in town for the amount of people and I think that’s going to affect both sides. You have to present a whole experience instead of just a product, which is what we try to do here. So we train our staff well so they know about beer, which makes it an interesting experience to come and drink beer here. Customers could probably get that beer at a lot of other places, but they choose to come here for a reason.
How is your relationship with taprooms around town?
With some, it’s really good. There are others that we consider to be pretty hostile, so we won’t stock their beer at all.
What about their behavior is hostile?
They’re matching our hours, they’re providing all of the services we do, including bringing in food and doing live music. Even all of that can be acceptable because I can understand their need to have to raise capital. But when all of their marketing and social media is just geared at getting people to their taproom then, well, that becomes a bar. Taprooms are there so people can drink samples from a brewery that they went to tour, you know. They were never supposed to be bars, but somehow they’ve morphed into that. If they’re going to compete at our level, then I’m not going to carry their product. It’s hard in this industry, because everybody’s all so kumbaya, everybody loves each other all the time, and yet you have this underlying competition that people won’t even acknowledge that’s going on.
How are the breweries you do work with ensuring that there is space for both taprooms and bars?
New Belgium is a prime example. They’ve put a tremendous amount of money into their taproom expansion, they’ve got indoor and outdoor seating, they have bands, they have food trucks. However, they also approach us and work with us. They do special events with us. We’ve brewed collaboration beers, we’ve done beer dinners, and I know for a fact they have people working at their taproom who tell their customers, “When you leave here, you’ve gotta head over to The Mayor of Old Town.” That kind of stuff goes the whole distance for us, so we’ll carry their beer all day long.
I was reading about Senate Bill 253 which, as proposed would allow Colorado breweries to open up to three taprooms within the state without the need to have a physical brewery there. [Editor’s note: SB 253 did not pass.] How would that affect bars in town if out-of-state breweries could open taprooms in town?
Well, you just have to look at what Chris Black at Falling Rock did when Oskar Blues opened down the street from him. He stopped carrying their beer. I agree with Chris and would do the same.
If a brewery could open a second or third taproom in Fort Collins and compete as a bar rather than a dedicated brewery taproom, what implications would that have for existing bars?
I’m all for a free market and competition. But the people who can’t provide an experience, can’t provide fresh beer, don’t do a good job, they’ll go out of business. I feel pretty confident. Our sales are solid and continue to rise every year, and we’re moving forward in spite of the increased competition.
You say you’ve collaborated on beers with local breweries. What advantages does that bring?
I mean, how many bars can say they made a beer with the fourth-largest craft brewery in the country? We made a killer Belgian Quad with New Belgium called Dark Side of the Prune.
When we first opened, there were two other beer bars in town that basically got the exact same beers as us. There were these white whales everyone was chasing—Pliny the Younger, for example. There are two bars in town that get that, Choice City and us. It just kinda got old with these people who weren’t our bar patrons, they were just chasing these white whales.
I thought that if everyone can get the same thing all over town, how could I find something that’s going to differentiate us and make our offering a little more special? That’s where I came up with the idea of collaborations. If we go and brew a beer with a brewery then we’re going to be the only ones that get it, and if it’s a really good beer, then we’re going to reap the rewards of that until it’s all gone. It was just a way to counteract the white whale phenomenon.
We still get those beers, we still sell them through, everything’s cool, and we’ll take anything that’s like that. When we do big tappings like Pliny the Younger we don’t announce them, we just tap it, so that our customer base that’s here and local and loyal to us can have some of these beers instead of people coming down from Wyoming and lining up for them. I have no interest in that.
What do you think of the culture of chasing beers like that and standing in line for hours just a get a few bottles or cans?
We try to pay attention to it. So when we see that kind of huge demand for a brewery, we may seek them out and put them on our tap wall. If they’ve built a brand and product that’s so good and understand the importance of that, shit, I’ll put that on all day long. My goal is to provide the best beer in the world here.