With a bevy of craft breweries operating across the state, beer has woven itself into the fabric of Colorado. But how did the beverage become so popular here?
History Colorado Center aims to answer that question in “Beer Here! Brewing in the New West,” which opens May 18. Five years in the making, the exhibit explores the state’s 160-year beer history, from its early days in mining town saloons all the way to the more recent explosion of craft beer.
“Some of the country’s most storied and innovative breweries are headquartered in Colorado,” History Colorado chief creative director officer Jason Hanson said in a news release, “and we’ve always been leaders in brewing and beverage packaging innovation, including inventing the aluminum can.”
But beyond the realm of ales and lagers, “Beer Here!” is an examination of how brews have shadowed Colorado’s growth over the years, said Sam Bock, lead developer of the exhibit.
“It’s not really about beer,” Bock said. “It’s really about the social and economic changes that have come through Colorado in the last 160 years, but done through the lens of beer because it’s a fun thing you can trace. It’s sort of a marker for the rise of the New West.”
“Beer Here!” is separated into five distinct sections, leading off with the days of the mining frontier. Entering the exhibit, patrons are greeted by the sounds of yesteryear — the hustle and bustle of a saloon, the early days of settlement in the state amid the Gold Rush. It was a time when the beer served was “innocent of hops,” Bock said.
As the state grew, so did the demand for beer, taking the exhibit into its second chapter. Here, there’s a look at the growth of the beer industry at the turn of the 20th century.
From a massive boom to the low point of the state of beer, “Beer Here!” moves into Prohibition in the third chapter, exploring the reasons that Colorado went dry four years prior to the nationwide ban on alcohol.
“Really what it comes down to is drinking — particularly in Denver, but all across the state — was out of control,” Bock said. “Denver had more than 400 saloons in 1910 and in the downtown area alone there were 90 saloons in a four-block radius.”
After Prohibition ended in 1933, just four breweries survived. Among them was Coors, which grew significantly in the following decades. The fourth section focuses on the beer giant’s rise and, with it, Colorado’s stature.
“Coors marketing goes out all across the country,” Bock said. “We say nothing has done more than Coors and John Denver to brand modern Colorado. ‘Rocky Mountain High’ and have a nice glass of Coors — it goes pretty well together.”
The final section delves into the rise of craft beer, complete with a replica of Great American Beer Festival founder Charlie Papazian’s kitchen (where he taught others the art of homebrewing in the 1970s) and New Belgium’s original brewing equipment. The exhibit closes with mountains of pint glasses from every brewery in Colorado, a representation of “how big this industry has become,” Bock said.
In addition to the exhibit, History Colorado also will host the Historic Styles Brewfest on July 20 in the museum’s atrium, featuring 25 Colorado breweries showcasing a variety of recipes inspired by beers from the past.
“(This) was our way of making this idea of the New West understandable and fun for people,” Bock said. “I think people who have lived in Colorado for a long time have seen the state change a lot. Newcomers to Colorado understand that there’s sort of a cultural and economic shift going on here.”
While drinking beer is not allowed in the exhibit, History Colorado is selling flights of four 4-ounce tasters for patrons in its Rendezvous Café. Bock said: “We chose four beers that we feel represent the four eras of Colorado’s beer history.”
The lineup includes:
- Great Divide’s Yeti imperial stout: “A lot of the early American brewers were British, and the styles they were making were dark stouts and porters,” Bock said.
- AC Golden’s Batch 19: “It’s a pre-Prohibition-style lager. … Lager became the beer of choice in the middle of the 19th century in America,” he said.
- Coors Banquet: “That’s Colorado’s beer … it’s what made our state famous,” he said.
- Oskar Blues’ Dale’s Pale Ale: “An example of early IPAs,” according to Bock.
If you go …
What: Beer Here! Brewing in the New West
Opens: May 18 through Aug. 9, 2020
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
Price: Included in general admission: $14 for adults, $12 seniors, $10 students (with ID), $8 children aged 5-15; free for children 4 and under
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