Colorado's Best Craft Beers

We tasted every commercially distributed craft beer we could track down in Colorado, one of America’s true craft-brewing hot spots. (Yes, it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.) Here, in nine categories, we rank the very best.

September 2010
  1. Dale’s Pale Ale (Oskar Blues)
    Our go-to beer, no matter what the season or activity.
  2. Cutthroat Porter (Odell)
    Will make you rethink what you thought you knew about porters.
  3. India Pale Ale (Odell)
    A balanced IPA that even non-hop-enthusiasts will enjoy.
  4. White Rascal (Avery)
    A laid-back Belgian-style wheat beer; perfect for a warm afternoon.
  5. Milk Stout (Left Hand)
    A smooth, refined, and easy-drinkin’ stout.
  6. Red Ale (Odell)
    The beer that made us love red ales.
  7. Colorado’s craft breweries are furiously fermenting suds.

    When Oskar Blues ran out of beer this summer, it was a nightmare for hops lovers (the horror!), but the shortage actually signaled a positive trend: Consumers, it seems, just can’t get enough of Colorado brews. Thanks in part to the buy-local movement, drinkers are demanding so much Colorado craft beer that to keep up, local breweries are doubling their efforts. Recently, Oskar Blues added new fermenters to fill orders (whew, crisis averted), and during the past year Odell Brewing nearly doubled its plant in size to increase production and add office space. This summer, Great Divide expanded its brewing capacity by 50 percent—and that’s after a similar expansion last year. Even Denver newbie Strange Brewing Company, which opened up earlier this spring with a one-barrel system, is already planning to grow.

    It’s quite a success story, considering that three years ago Colorado craft breweries were in the middle of a perfect storm: Hops were scarce after farmers cashed in on ethanol incentives to plant corn instead of hops, and malt prices spiked 40 to 80 percent because of barley shortages and a weak U.S. dollar. But instead of getting competitive, craft breweries turned to each other for help. They traded ingredients, created new beers, and installed canning lines. Not only did they stay afloat, but sales also increased by 12 percent in 2007, an upward trend that continues to this day.

    Last year, things began to brighten even more as thousands of acres of newly planted hops were on the verge of blooming after three years of germination. This year, local craft-beer sales numbers are likely to be up again, and many breweries credit their continued growth to Colorado drinkers spending their beer dollars closer to home. We’ll drink to that—locally, of course. —Jennie Dorris

    What’s in a Name?

    Colorado’s top wild, wacky (and plain weird) beer monikers.
    • Gubna: Oskar Blues Brewing Company
    • Plaid Bastard: The Grand Lake Brewing Company
    • Pandora’s Bock: Breckenridge Brewery
    • Skinny Dip: New Belgium Brewing Company
    • Wooly Booger Nut Brown Ale: The Grand Lake Brewing Company
    • Ten Fidy: Oskar Blues Brewing Company
    • Hibernation Ale: Great Divide Brewing Company
    • Butt Head Bock: Tommyknocker Brewery
    • Mephistopheles’ Stout: Avery Brewing Company

    The Beer Can Revolution

    • 1959 Coors debuts the United States’ first all-aluminum can. Drinkers get one cent back per can returned to the brewery.
    • 2002 Oskar Blues hand-cans Dale’s Pale Ale one at a time, becoming the first U.S. craft brewer to do so.
    • 2008 New Belgium jumps on the bandwagon by canning Fat Tire and Sunshine Wheat.
    • 2009 Breckenridge Brewery releases its flagship brew, Avalanche, in cans.
    • 2010 The Golden Age of Canning: New Belgium starts canning Ranger IPA; Boulder Beer Company starts canning Hazed & Infused; and Avery introduces Joe’s Premium American Pilsner in cans, along with Avery IPA, White Rascal, and Ellie’s Brown Ale.
    • 2010 In June, Oskar Blues hosts the inaugural “Burning Can” festival, which celebrates canned beer.

    Golden Opportunity

    Coors’ craft-brewing operation uses Colorado as its testing ground.

    Launching a new beer is no joke for gigantic brewing conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors: A minimum of $18 million is lavished on each product launch for research, package design, advertising, sales, and the actual brewing. But that money often goes to waste—more than 90 percent of new beers introduced in the past few decades have failed.

    So, a few years ago, Pete Coors had a smart idea: He wanted to grow a beer’s popularity slowly and locally, like craft brewers do. In 2007, he launched AC Golden Brewing Company, named after his great-grandfather (Adolph Coors), with the hope that the company’s experimental, Colorado-only beers would become incubators for new brands. This is, after all, how Blue Moon became a national success: The Belgian-style witbier was born in the Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field in 1995 before exploding into a national brand.

    AC Golden has launched two beers since its founding: the flagship Colorado Native Lager, an amber lager brewed with all Colorado ingredients that tastes a bit like Sam Adams Boston Lager; and Herman Joseph’s Private Reserve, a sharp, drinkable pilsner. (They also took over the brewing of Winterfest, a seasonal Vienna lager, from MillerCoors.) All three are the kind of beers you’d expect to find at a small brewpub, not from a MillerCoors subsidiary. Even the beer junkies at BeerAdvocate.com—notorious big-brewery haters—have professed their admiration for the AC Golden brews. And at last year’s Great American Beer Festival, the outfit took bronze for a non-commercially released dunkel beer.

    Glenn Knippenberg, AC Golden’s president, brushes off the frequently leveled accusations that the company is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “We invite those people to come see for themselves how small we are,” says Knippenberg, who points out that his four brewers not only brew beer but also clean bottles and package the suds. AC Golden will brew just 5,500 barrels this year, a drop in the beer keg for MillerCoors, which churns out more than 50 million barrels annually. “We out-craft most craft brewers,” Knippenberg boasts.