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—Still life photography by Aaron Colussi

The Food Lover’s Guide

Denver's food scene is rich with artisans and their stories.

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There was a time when, for many, food was just food. Crops or livestock were raised and harvested and eaten. They provided fuel, nourishment, a means to an end. But the local food movement, here and everywhere else in this country, has worked to champion the craft, the artistry, and the people standing behind much of that sustenance. The local products, ingredients, and stories on the following pages highlight Colorado’s richly populated and deeply integrated food scene.


Silver Lining

There’s a quiet resurgence happening in Silver Plume—and Shae Whitney, founder of Dram Apothecary, is leading the charge, one bottle of handcrafted, wild-foraged artisanal bitters at a time. —Callie Sumlin

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Shae whitney, the whiz behind Dram Apothecary, a small-batch bitters company, crouches to snip a cluster of wild chives; her petite frame is dwarfed by the rugged face of Sunrise Peak. She holds the scapes to my nose, allowing me to appreciate their oniony perfume. I nod as she tells me about a chive mustard recipe (made with wild mustard seeds she’s gathered), but I’m distracted by just how ridiculously idyllic this moment is. I’m not sure if it’s the way Whitney greets hidden growths of rhubarb and Western blue flax as warmly as old friends, or if it’s just how enviably cool she is, with her perfectly winged eyeliner, suspenders, and round sunglasses—her effect is intoxicating. Spending a few hours in her Instagram-ready reality is like stepping into a Rocky Mountain fairy tale.


—Shae Whitney collecting wild mountain sage


Though we’ve been walking around Silver Plume for nearly an hour, we’ve crossed paths with exactly one person and one dog (both of whom Whitney greets by name). As we make our way back down Main Street to tour Dram’s tasting room and recently acquired production facility, it’s so quiet you could mistake Silver Plume for a ghost town—a fate it has only narrowly escaped. Though home to a population of 1,500 (and nine saloons) during the height of the 1800s silver boom, almost all of the inhabitants left when the silver dried up. Today, there’s nary a business open year-round.

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—A bloom of goldenrod

It might seem like a strange place for Whitney, a 29-year-old Parker native and former bartender, to anchor a business hawking the sort of handcrafted bitters, teas, and syrups that seem more at home in a Brooklyn artisans’ collective. Silver Plume doesn’t even have a grocery store, let alone locavore restaurants or hipster speak-easies. But when Whitney moved Dram from Denver to Silver Plume in January 2012, she wasn’t concerned about being close to her customers. She wanted to be closer to her ingredients.

Whitney made her first batch of wild mountain sage bitters in 2011 from an antiquated recipe in an M.F.K. Fisher novel. Though she’s since refined the process—and expanded her line to encompass flavors like the aromatic Hair of the Dog and soothing Honey Chamomile—she still combs Colorado’s mountainsides for the vast majority of her ingredients. Foraging is such a central part of Dram’s ethos that Whitney and her partner, Brady Becker, have created a detailed map charting their secret troves of alpine strawberries and juniper.

Employing a mixed background in herbal medicine, agriculture, and food science, Whitney transforms these wild botanicals into raw bitters that retain their healing properties. Free of artificial coloring, flavoring, and, most notably, sugar, they’re good enough to sip neat. Whitney is quick to recommend bitters not only in a Manhattan cocktail but also as a digestive tonic—exactly what the miners who lived here more than a century ago might have used them for. This is the elusive beauty of Dram, which manages to satisfy both mixologists and herbalists alike.

Incidentally, through its success, Dram has brought new life to Silver Plume. The weekend tasting room has given the town a gathering space. She’s recently hired a bartender and a barback, added two full-time employees at her production facility, and is in the process of converting the upstairs into five Airbnb rentals so visitors have a place to stay. Despite the innate challenges of Dram’s foraging model and location, the growth doesn’t show any signs of drying up. Silver Plume may never return to its silver rush glory, but Whitney has found that the mountains still offer plenty of riches—you just have to know where to find them.

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—Inset photos courtesy of Amy Tremper 


Happy Together

A Denver-based soda company finds happiness in slow growth and collaboration. —AMF

Rocky Mountain Soda Company, a Denver-based small-batch soda business, is never going to be big—and that’s just fine with co-founder Moose Koons. “Coke and Pepsi spill more soda than we make,” he says. “We’re a small, craft soda company that controls our soda from start to finish.” That hands-on approach means that when concerns over GMO sugar beets arose, RMSC had the ability to rework its recipes to incorporate all-natural evaporated cane sugar instead. (The happy bonus is that the switch gave each of the existing 12 varieties more rounded flavors.)


Above: Dram Apothecary | bitters; wild rhubarb and dried herbs


In addition to reformulating its soda, RMSC has been busy purchasing Oogavé, Colorado’s first organic soda company. Now the focus is on fostering relationships with innovative companies like Dram Apothecary. Koons and Dram’s Shae Whitney are testing a seasonal soda made with Dram’s foraged pine syrup. Then there’s the line of bar sodas (such as custom ginger beer) for Williams & Graham and work with Tocabe to develop a Native American–style brewed tea for the masses. “So much of soda is about manufacturing,” Koons says. “This is about craft, about getting back to brewing.”

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Grain of Truth

As food has become more local, flour and better grains have frequently been overlooked. That is changing—right here, right now. —AMF

The Farmer

When Eric and Jill Skokan opened Black Cat Farm Table Bistro in Boulder in 2006, they drew up a lengthy to-do list. “Ultimately, the goal is to grow everything we possibly can,” Eric says. The couple has since crossed off high-priority items, such as buying a farm, growing carrots and lettuce, and raising pigs. One of the many items that lingered was growing corn for cornmeal to make polenta and cornbread. “I’m from Virginia where cornbread is staff of life,” Eric says. “It’s also a step along the way to sustaining the restaurant.”

Two years ago, Eric planted a test plot of corn; then, last year, he farmed about two acres and harvested roughly 1,500 pounds. “I thought growing it was going to be the hard part and everything else would be easy,” Eric says. “It turns out that’s not the case.”

Making cornmeal is arduous: The corn has to dry twice—once on the stalk, and again after being shucked. Then it has to be shelled, and the kernels need to be milled, sifted, and cleaned before Eric finally holds the golden grain in his hands. “When it comes out, it smells like sweet corn and milk—it’s amazing.” It’s an aroma that reminds Eric of his grandmother’s freshly baked cornbread.

At the restaurant, Eric turns the grain into polenta, corn soufflé, and—of course—cornbread. He also sells cornmeal by the one- and five-pound bag at the Boulder County Farmers Market. Luckily for all of us, another four acres of corn are already growing, and as the stalks inch their ways to the sky, the promise of freshly made cornbread again becomes a delicious reality.

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The Baker

This past spring, Jeff Cleary, founder of Grateful Bread Company, purchased a handcrafted East Tyrolean grain mill from Austria. The wooden behemoth—it’s six feet tall, seven feet long, and 4.5 feet wide—can mill about 200 pounds an hour. Although Grateful Bread’s volume (the bakery makes bread for dozens of high-end restaurants around town) requires that Cleary continue to use a large portion of high-quality, commercial-grade flour, he has spent the last several months attempting to source locally grown grains to mill into specialty flour blends. “We are hoping to get local farmers on board with planting grains for us,” Cleary says.

Chefs are already clamoring for the flours: Max Mackissock of Bar Dough, expected to open this month, is asking for 00 (finely ground flour used for wood-fired pizzas); John DePierro at Bones wants cornmeal; and Alex Seidel of Fruition Restaurant and Mercantile Dining & Provision is looking for red quinoa. Chefs and restaurant-goers aren’t the only ones who will benefit from Cleary’s new project: Look for Grateful Bread to begin selling limited quantities of its specialty blends in its retail store.

(Video: 5 Questions with Jeff Cleary, Founder of Grateful Bread)


BY THE NUMBERS

6,000 Pounds of pork Polidori Sausage uses to make Italian sausage each day.

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50 Gallons of booze (whiskey, gin, beer, etc.) Puff’s Preserves stirs into its jams each year.

0 The amount of refined sugar in a jar of Jojo’s Sriracha. (Note: Owner Jolene Collins does use a tiny bit of palm sugar to balance flavor.)

Gallons of soda Rocky Mountain Soda Company produces each minute when the machines are running.

—Illustration by Cheryl Chalmers; courtesy Rachel Nobrega; courtesy of Dram Apothecary (2)


The Colorado Pantry

Open our cabinets and peek into the fridge, and you’ll find these locally made favorites. —Kiran Herbert and Callie Sumlin

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1. Love Hard Inc.’s Jojo’s Sriracha

The small-batch fiery sauces (O.G. is our favorite, but Love Hard Inc. owner Jolene Collins also dreams up unique blends) contain no refined sugar—only chiles, garlic, vinegar, palm sugar, and sea salt go in.

2. Susie Hojel’s Chile Crunch  

We’re so obsessed with Susie Hojel’s Chile Crunch that we order it by the case. Try a spoonful of the Mexican-inspired crunchy, spicy sauce on scrambled eggs, tacos, pasta, or meat, and you’ll purchase it in bulk too.

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3. Life of Riley Foods’ Walnut Butter

With its $16 price tag, this walnut butter is a splurge, but you’ll find plenty of reasons to justify the purchase. Packed with healthy fats, the creamy spread’s deep flavor comes from raw walnuts, walnut oil, maple sugar, and sea salt.

4. Haiku Foods’ Spicy Curtido

This tangle of fermented cabbage, carrots, garlic, onions, chiles, oregano, and sea salt adds crunch and pep to anything savory—pile it on sandwiches, avocado toast, or fish tacos. When we first discovered this probiotic-rich snack, we ate a jar’s worth in two days.

5. Sisters’ Pantry Frozen Dumplings and Sauces

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Dumplings that once were only available at events like the Boulder County Farmers Market or the Telluride Bluegrass Festival can now be found in the frozen aisle. Sisters’ chicken and basil dumplings are the most popular, the classic pork are the most traditional, and the spicy red curry chicken are the most addictive.

6. Saso’s Hot Sauces and Salsas

Matthew Brennan founded Saso in 2011 using an 85-year-old family recipe. His sauces highlight rare combinations of peppers, which are hand-roasted to produce complex flavor profiles. The Chile Pequin is the best-seller, but don’t neglect the fresh-tasting red and green salsas.

7. Jackson’s Honest Chips

Fried in coconut oil, these chips are not only better for you, but they also have a distinct taste that’s rich and creamy without being overly tropical. The classic salt and vinegar variety is hands down the office favorite.

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8. The Real Dill’s Pickles

Perhaps the best thing about the Real Dill (other than the fantastic pickles, of course) is co-founders Justin Park and Tyler DuBois’ commitment to creative local partnerships. Take their latest collaboration with Odell Brewing Co. for the Briners & Brewers series. The Myrcenary pickles aren’t just brined with Odell’s double IPA; they start with the same raw ingredients that go into the beer itself.

9. Zaza Raw’s Desserts

When our sweet tooth flares up, we reach for Zaza’s vegan and gluten-free “sweet nut-things.” These dessert-in-a-tub concoctions offer satisfying flavors like rich chocolate ganache and tangy key lime pie that will leave you feeling light on your feet.

10. Black Squirrel’s Deluxe Granola

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We like Black Squirrel’s simple ethos: Granola should be mostly fruits and nuts, maple syrup tastes better than sugar, and extra-virgin coconut oil is healthier than refined vegetable oils. Try the Maple Almond Pecan for a treat packed with pecans, slivered almonds, and shredded coconut.

11. Noosa’s Yoghurt

Since its launch in 2009, Noosa’s ultra-creamy, Australian-style yogurt has been making our breakfasts (and lunches, dinners, and snacks) all the more delicious. Our recent obsession? The dessertlike coconut.

12. Fruition Farms Dairy & Creamery’s Sheep’s Milk Ricotta

This dreamy, mild cheese initially appeared only at Fruition Restaurant, but then it gained cult status (and won awards). Now the seasonal cheese can be found at restaurants around town and purchased at the likes of Marczyk Fine Foods and the Truffle Cheese Shop.

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13. Rowdy Mermaid’s Kombucha

Seek out Rowdy Mermaid’s elusive brews for flavors like Flower Grow (with green rooibos, rose petals, chrysanthemums, and holy basil) and Rowdy Belly (a beerlike digestive tonic with fresh turmeric, ginger, fennel, and fenugreek). Less sharply acidic than other kombucha, the refreshing carbonation and intricately layered botanicals make these beverages well worth the hunt.

14. Modern Gingham’s Preserves

The jams coming out of Kathy Lee’s commercial kitchen are astounding. She uses little to no pectin—so the consistency is loose—and very little sugar so the natural flavors sing. (For a more in-depth look at Lee’s Raspberry Violet preserves, see “The $12 Jar of Jam.”)

15. New Beat Foods’ Crackers

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Quinoa is the main ingredient in these tasty (and gluten-free) crackers, which use only organic ingredients and are available at the Boulder County Farmers Market, as well as at Cured and Mondo Market. Of the three varieties, the Trio stands out for its mix of amaranth, poppy, and chia seeds with honey, spices, and olive oil.

16. Helliemae’s Banana Pudding

Helliemae’s quickly won us over with its pleasantly bitter, not-too-sweet caramel chews. And then owner Ellen Daehnick began making Southern-style banana pudding layered with salted caramel sauce. Resistance is futile.

17. Little Secrets’ Candies

Swap M&M’s out for these chocolate candies and you’ll never look back. The sweets are free of artificial ingredients (including nasty dyes like Yellow No. 5), and the colorful shells—tinted with superfoods like beets, spirulina, and pumpkin—are filled with delicious fair-trade chocolate.

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18. Continental’s Sausages

Continental’s bratwursts, frankfurters, and other European-style meats are among the best in the world. They’re so good, in fact, the company fed the Swiss, German, and Austrian teams during the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships at Vail and Beaver Creek.

19. The Honest Stand’s Sauces

Taste these addictive vegan cheese sauces and you won’t believe the ingredient list contains primarily potatoes, carrots, cashews, and onions. Heat up the Smoked to use as a pasta sauce, or serve it cold on a sandwich or as a dip.

20. Glutino’s English Muffins

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Toasted and slathered with butter and jam, or lightly grilled and used to house a hamburger, Glutino’s gluten-free English muffins will have you forsaking Thomas’ regardless of whether or not you have dietary restrictions.

—Photo by Aaron Colussi; food and prop styling: Erica McNeish


The $12 Jar of Jam

What makes a product like Modern Gingham Preserves worth the price? —Nicole Blanchard

Denver’s three-year-old Modern Gingham Preserves is owner Kathy Lee’s throwback to a simpler time of homemade jams and small-batch spreads. Low in pectin and made from organically grown and often locally sourced fruits, these conserves are not your average jar of Smucker’s—and they don’t cost $4, either. To better understand what makes a jam a little spendy, but a lot scrumptious, we examined the expenses behind Lee’s fruity but floral Raspberry Violet, which costs $12 for eight ounces.

—Illustration by Cheryl Chalmers

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BY THE NUMBERS

2,025  Cucumbers the Real Dill hand-cuts and hand-packs each week.

50,000 Pounds of pinto beans grown by Weld County family farmers that Snack Out Loud will purchase for its Crunchy Bean Snacks in 2015.*

4,000,000 Cases of natural and organic foods shipped annually by Louisville’s Fresca Foods.

15,000 Pounds of King Arthur bread flour Grateful Bread Company goes through every week.

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*Editor’s Note 09-01-2015: This article previously stated that Snack Out Loud will purchase 50,000 pinto beans  for its Crunchy Bean Snacks this year. The correct quantity is 50,000 pounds of pinto beans. We regret the error.

Cider House Rules

Fort Collins’ Branch Out Cider is turning urbanites into orchard owners. —Davina Van Buren

Seven years ago, friends Aaron Fodge and Matt Fater started pressing apples they’d collected from Fort Collins trees into hard cider. As the crisp homebrew was discovered by friends, the pair wondered if its hobby could grow. “We started doing an inventory of trees around Fort Collins,” Fodge says, “and discovered the majority of people who had apple trees in their yards had no idea what to do with them.” Spotting a delicious opportunity, the duo drafted a business plan for a “community orchard” in 2011. A year later, they entered the Monfort College of Business Entrepreneurial Challenge at the University of Northern Colorado. They took second place, secured startup money, and launched Branch Out Cider. Here’s how it works: Fort Collins residents who have apple trees can register on the company’s website. Branch Out harvests the fruit and transforms it into sparkling cider. Participants are invited to a springtime orchard party to taste the first sips and purchase bottles at a discount. “The whole idea is to use this locally available fruit that already exists,” Fater says. Since 2012, the community orchard has doubled in size every year and now has more than 200 members. The team harvested 25,000 pounds of apples last fall and picked up awards like Best Fruit Wine in the Colorado Governor’s Cup Wine Competition. More important, Fodge and Fater want to inspire others to think of urban farming in unexpected and progressive ways. “This model is replicable for other fruits and forms of agriculture,” Fodge says. “It’s just a question of managing relationships instead of managing property.”

Want a sip? Look to Branch Out’s website for Fort Collins and Boulder restaurants and liquor stores that carry the cider.

—iStock

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Meat Of The Matter

When it comes to eating meat, we had two beefy questions for Kate Kavanaugh, butcher extraordinaire and owner of Western Daughter’s Butcher Shop. —AMF

5280: If Coloradans are going to consume meat, is there one type of animal that’s more sustainable than others?

Kate Kavanaugh: I would definitely say grass-fed beef because it works with our ecology. There’s a symbiotic relationship—each thing [the animal and the land] gives something to the other. We only grow a few things really well [on the Plains], and one of those things is native perennial prairie grasses. One thing we can do to help support and even improve the prairie is to graze ruminants in really specific, carefully managed ways. That means rotating through pastures and managing the grass, the length of grass, and the number of cattle grazing. You don’t want the grass eaten down so far that it can’t synthesize and get nutrients down into the root systems. By managing the grazing, you give other grasses a chance to grow and create a diverse ecosystem for other small wildlife, and the grass itself regenerates.

Pictured above, right: Kate Kavanauh of Westen Daughter’s; photo by Jon Rose

What about certain cuts of meat? When we’re shopping or ordering off a menu, is there a more responsible choice?

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In terms of cut, hanger steak is not sustainable. There’s only one hanger steak per animal, and it’s very small. It takes a lot of animal to put out 75 of those a night. I love seeing market-price steak on the menu—the Kitchen occasionally does this, and it means that the steak variety is whatever is available that night.

But more than cuts, I look at sourcing. All cattle eat grass for a portion of their lives, but you want 100 percent grass-fed and finished (which means the animal spent its entire life eating grass or hay). We all associate grass-fed with lean and not marbled, but [Western Daughter’s] shtick is fatty grass-fed beef. We have rib-eyes come in that are close to prime [a superior grade of conventional beef that’s served in the most expensive steak houses] in terms of marbling.

The “It” Factor

Which ingredients do Denver chefs live for? Read on. —KH

Lon Symensma of ChoLon, Cho77, and the Cooper Lounge loves “burn-area” morels from Hunt & Gather. “These are local guys who hand-harvest the excellent mushrooms with a natural smokiness,” Symensma says. “[Plus] it brings a positive result from a natural disaster.”

Troy Guard of TAG Restaurant Group is a big fan of PB Love Co.’s artisan nut butters: “I love the salty peanut. We use it at the restaurants for specials, and I also use it at home for pancakes, bagels, ice cream, shakes, apples, and just by the spoonful.”

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Pictured above right: Foraged oysterm poricini, and chanterelle mushrooms from Hunt & Gather

Alex Seidel of Fruition Restaurant and Mercantile Dining & Provision enjoys hunting for wild mushrooms—especially king boletes, also known as porcini. “I love the foraging aspect and the discovery of such an esteemed product—it’s like finding gold,” Seidel says. “It is also an activity that I can share with my kids at home and the ‘kids’ in the kitchen at the restaurants.”

Jennifer Jasinski of Rioja, Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen, Bistro Vendôme, and Stoic & Genuine loves two Colorado products that she thinks pair beautifully: A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon and Rocky Ford cantaloupes. “Macerate those awesome Rocky Ford melons in Laws whiskey,” Jasinski says. “Muddle the fruit, add a splash of ginger ale, and it makes a great cocktail.”

Alexander Figura of Lower48 Kitchen loves Babettes Bakery’s bread: “The sourdough is outstanding,” Figura says. “The bread has a great crust and a creamy and slightly tangy crumb; it’s great on its own, as a sandwich, or for morning toast.”

Paul C. Reilly of Beast & Bottle in Uptown loves the greens and lettuce grown by Peter Volz at Oxford Gardens in Niwot. “His products look like the vegetables you picture in your mind when someone says the words ‘farmers’ market,’?” Reilly says.

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John DePierro of Bones and the newly opened MiJo at Avanti Food & Beverage raves about 7x Beef. “Diners in Colorado have rising standards not only for beef tenderness and taste, but also for ranching methods and environmental sustainability,” DePierro says. “For me, you will find 7x at the top of the list.”

Brandon Foster of Vesta Dipping Grill is a fan of the flavorful tomatoes—Romas, cherries, and heirlooms—from Circle Fresh Farms. “I have toured their greenhouse in Arvada and seen firsthand the time, love, and care put into them,” Foster says.

Max Mackissock of Bar Dough, slated to open this month, praises Fruition Farms Dairy & Creamery’s cheeses. His favorite: the Cacio Pecora. “I love this style of cheese, and it’s a terrific representation,” Mackissock says.

Illustration at right: Max Mackissock

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Life Cycle

The fourth annual Pedal the Plains bike ride rolls through Colorado’s heartland. —AMF

When most of us think of exploring Colorado’s great outdoors, we head west. But to overlook the eastern half of the state is to discount much of our farming culture. Pedal the Plains, an annual bike ride taking place September 18 to 20 this year, seeks to rectify that oversight. Cyclists will pedal a 172-mile route from Julesburg to Holyoke to Sterling and back to Julesburg (there’s also a shortcut course, a century ride, and a family option). Along the way, the spandex-clad crew will see for itself the roles the Eastern Plains play in the state’s agricultural economy. The three-day tour includes educational stops at dairies, farms, and ranches, and evenings are filled with freshly shucked corn, baked goods made with Colorado wheat, and other locally produced food, along with live music and Colorado beer.


BY THE NUMBERS

5,000,000 Popcorn kernels popped during each shift at Open Road Snacks. 

40,000 Heads of organic Colorado cabbage MM Local Foods preserved in 2014.

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350,000 Pounds of Palisade peaches and pears Peach Street Distillers turned into spirits in 2014.

5,752 Largest approximate number of visitors in one day to the Boulder County Farmers Market during the 2014 season.

—Illustration by Cheryl Chalmers; Saron Colussi; courtesy of OnSight Public Affairs; food and prop styling: Erica McNeish


Food Fight: Peaches vs. Cantaloupes

The juicy debate over which Colorado-grown crop deserves to be crowned the official state fruit. —Lindsey B. Koehler

Early last year, a group of students from Denver’s Steck Elementary—under the direction of state Representative Angela Williams—worked on a seemingly innocuous school project: creating and presenting a bill to the state Legislature. HB 14-1304 had what appeared to be the simple goal of declaring the Palisade peach to be Colorado’s state fruit. What Steck students quickly learned is that in politics, everything turns into an argument, even when the subject matter is as seemingly trivial as selecting an official fruit to join the state’s other sanctioned representatives—including the state flower (Rocky Mountain columbine), animal (Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep), bird (lark bunting), and tree (blue spruce). The reason for the brouhaha? There was a viable challenger to the throne: the Rocky Ford cantaloupe. • What Williams and her charges had failed to realize is that there’s not a lot of money or pride on the line when it comes to the state insect (Colorado hairstreak butterfly), but there is a great deal of both when you’re talking about commercially sold produce raised by longtime farming families. After (now former) state Senator Steve King from Grand Junction, state Senator Larry Crowder from Alamosa, and the Rocky Ford Growers Association joined the mostly convivial argument, Williams withdrew the bill in April 2014, ending a produce power struggle that was getting just a little too sticky. We, however, have no problem resurrecting the quarrel. Take a gander at the chart below to determine which team you’re on.

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—Aaron Colussi; food and prop styling: Erica McNeish

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