Before the United States, before Colorado, there was beer.
Beer is one of the oldest beverages humans have produced. A slogan from today deftly explains humans’ enduring affection for fermented beverages: BEER … “helping ugly people have sex for centuries”.
But beer, really, is so much more than the perpetuation of our species. So, before we get into the rich history of Colorado craft beer, we’d be remiss if we didn’t remind you that, though beer and Colorado might seem synonymous, beer came into being much, much, much earlier than our fine state.
How much earlier? Well, according to chemical tests conducted on ancient pottery discovered in what is now the country of Iran, scientists have confirmed that beer was brewed as early as 3,500 years BC — when Colorado was still just a home where the buffalo roam.
Keep in mind: That’s only a test on pottery discovered so far. Because any cereal grain containing certain sugars can ferment, and because natural yeasts are in the air all around us, it’s likely that once any thirsty tribe or culture figured out how to grow its own cereal, they figured out how to develop beer-like drinks.
Thanks to myriad archeological discoveries around the world — tablet drawings, poetry, and other relics — we know that beer and beer-like products were brewed several thousand years ago, all around the world: Mesopotamia, China, ancient Egypt, and of course, Europe. Once Germany introduced hops in the 13th century, brewing went gangbusters. It evolved from a small in-home process where one brewed beer for oneself or one’s family, to a larger scale production, generally led by pubs and monasteries, where beer was brewed for consumption by the village masses.
Beer didn’t truly hit its mass consumption status, of course, until the Industrial Revolution, a time when the creation of tools like hydrometers and thermometers ensured more consistent, reliable results, and processes to permit large-scale industrial production came into being.
Beer in the United States
Perhaps not surprisingly, beer didn’t arrive in the United States with the Pilgrims. Much like humans, it was already here. Native American tribes are thought to have been brewing beer long before Europeans showed up. Europeans, however, are recorded as having brewed beer in the New World in the late 1500s. According to Beer Advocate, the first known brewery in the New World was erected in 1612 on the southern tip of New Amsterdam, in what is now Manhattan. Not long after — in 1632 — the Dutch West India Company launched its own brewery, on what was then known as Brewers Street, now Stone Street in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District.
Although beer was undeniably more popular than wine in the ensuing centuries, its heyday didn’t truly come — and spread — until the massive wave of migration in the 19th century. Thousands of immigrants brought the brewing traditions of their homeland with them, but those notable few who married their recipes with a kind of determined entrepreneurship certainly left an indelible mark on the history of brewing in America. No doubt, as a committed student of beer, you’ll recognize many of these names:
The history of beer in America is, in fact, so tightly wound into the fabric of America itself that the Smithsonian National Museum of American History even has a brewing historian on staff: Theresa McCulla. In a captivating 2017 interview, National Public Radio featured McCulla, who posits that the story of beer is the story of America: ”If you want to talk about the history of immigration in America, or urbanization or the expansion of transportation networks, really any subject that you want to explore, you can talk about it through beer," McCulla said. Click here to read — or listen to — the interview with McCulla on NPR’s “The Salt.”
Beer in Colorado
For decades beer remained the domain of large-scale industrial consumer products companies, but there’s a resurgence today of the local, artisanal approach to brewing that dominated the cottage industry prior to prohibition. Much of its production uses processes similar to those employed by the abbeys, monasteries, and local taverns of the Middle Ages.
While the birthplace of American craft beer is a flashpoint of debate (best debated over a pint of beer, of course), there’s no doubt as to where the epicenter of American craft brewing is located today— Colorado.
Perhaps ironically, the story of beer in Colorado begins in Las Vegas, New Mexico. As Jason Hanson, a member of the Research Faculty at the Center of the American West at Colorado University-Boulder tells it, in the late 1850s, New Mexico’s Vegas was home to a 29-year-old Polish immigrant named Frederick Z. Salomon. Salomon, who operated a mercantile store, took a trip to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1859, to stock up on inventory for his trading post. That trip would not only change the course of his life and profession but also would lay the first seeds of what would one day be Colorado’s thriving brewing industry.
To learn about Salomon, his eventual partner, Charles Tascher, and the “quite drinkable” (though “innocent of hops”) beer they crafted at their Rocky Mountain Brewery on the mining frontier, read Hanson’s essay, “'Innocent Of Hops:' The Case Of Colorado’s First Craft Beer,” click here.
According to VISIT DENVER, the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the city of Denver (denver.org), Denver and beer go back a long way — all the way back to the city's founding in 1859. The miners and pioneers who flocked to the new city after gold was discovered in the Platte River were a thirsty bunch: Denver's downtown was thick with saloons and bar rooms. The hub of most activity was Larimer Square. In fact, the first city government was formed in a Larimer Square saloon called Apollo Hall; the building still stands at 1425 Larimer St.
Denver's early residents might have been a little too thirsty in those days; one of the first laws the city government enacted was an ordinance prohibiting the selling of liquor on the streets, or from wagons or tents.
Coors Conquers Colorado
Beer history of monumental proportions was made in the area when a young German immigrant by the name of Adolph Coors (who came to America as a stowaway aboard a ship) founded the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colorado, in 1873. His amber concoction, brewed with fresh Rocky Mountain water pulled from natural springs surrounding the brewery, became a favorite among locals, earning it the name "Miner's Banquet." Coors Beer didn't remain a local secret for long. Over the years, it became one of the largest manufacturers of beer in the United States and remained family owned until 2006. But some things never change: To brew its beer, Coors still uses water from the 44 natural springs that dot the company property.
If you’re any kind of beer aficionado, a visit to the MillerCoors Brewery, at the corner of 13th and Ford) should be on your bucket list. You’ll be treated to a 30-minute self-paced tour through its malting, brewing, and packaging processes, and be able to sample some fine Coors beverages afterwards (21 and up only).
Denver’s Dry Years
Prohibition first struck Colorado in 1916; the nation followed suit in 1920. Even so, Coors found ways to survive for 18 dry years, including converting the brewery into a malted milk manufacturer. Denver, meanwhile, found ways to keep enjoying beer, albeit in a more discreet fashion. The Miller Building (1401 Larimer St.), was once Gahan's Saloon, a legendary watering hole and poker hall for politicians, policemen, and city hall reporters. During the dry years, Gahan's Saloon became Gahan's Soft Drink Parlor, a cover for Denver's hottest speakeasy, which operated in the parlor’s basement.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Denver's long beer history would give rise to a population filled with beer lovers — including some who would even begin brewing and selling their own beverages. As a result, Denver has become known as the "Napa Valley of Beer.” On any given day, more beer is brewed in Denver than in any other city in the U.S. Today, there are 15 brewpubs and microbreweries in downtown Denver including the two of the largest in the nation: the Wynkoop Brewing Company (1634 18th St.) and the Rock Bottom Brewery (1001 16th St.)
An interesting beer fact: In 2006, Denver elected one of the Wynkoop's founders, John Hickenlooper, mayor. He later became governor of Colorado. Coincidence? With so many unique and tasty brews to try in The Mile High City, it's no wonder Denver has become the go-to metropolis for beer connoisseurs all over the globe.
Great American Beer Festival
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, there is no other place on earth where a beer aficionado can find more beers on tap than the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), held each fall in The Mile High City for more than 30 years. Over the course of three days, close to 50,000 beer-lovers tour America's brewing landscape, one ounce at a time, by sampling more than 3,000 different beers from more than 600 of the nation's finest breweries.
The GABF, which is held annually in Denver’s Colorado Convention Center, gathers practically every type of beer from all of the regions of the country, arranged geographically on the festival floor. Coinciding with GABF is the annual Denver Beer Fest, a citywide celebration of beer, with tastings, parties, rare beer tastings and more. (The content above, from Denver’s early years and early Beers through Great American Beer Festival, is courtesy of VISIT DENVER, the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the city of Denver (denver.org).
The Essential Beer Timeline
You might not remember many important dates in American history beyond the war of 1812, and that’s OK. A proper beer-hound need only to pepper his or her over-pint conversations with a few facts and tales about the beloved beverage to impress friends and family.
Beer Advocate, home to an independent community of beer enthusiasts and professionals, offers one of the best, most dense and intriguing timeline about the dramatic and wild evolution of beer and brewing in the United States.
It captures dozens of key dates and details in the history of beer, starting at the moment the first shipment of beer from England arrived on the shores of the Virginia Colony in 1587.
Among our favorite tidbits, you’ll learn:
• The first non-native born in the New World went on to become America’s first brewer. (Like we said, it’s in America’s blood.)
• Who introduced the first aluminum can.
• When the first ring-top pull tab went into circulation.
• The year the Commonwealth of Massachusetts brewed its last beer — for the first time in its 300-year history of brewing.
• The first microbrewery to get so big it could no longer be legally classified a microbrewery.
Click here for one of our all-time favorite gateways to beer legend.