Beer Into Thin Air Amid Three Great Mountain Towns
Is it a coincidence that some of the best brewing regions are set in or near the Rocky Mountains? Whichever side of the Continental Divide you find yourself on, from Wyoming down through Colorado and over into Arizona, there truly is something in the water.
If you’re looking to get high off good beer, you would formerly be advised to visit the town of Leadville, CO, the highest city in the U.S. at an elevation of 10,430 feet. Alack, its brewpub, Rosie’s, evaporated into thin air. (Sorry.) Nevertheless, there are several bucolic settings to experience the Great Outdoors and quaff local beers brewed with Rocky Mountain waters. Mountain resorts are never cheap, but when you take into consideration that low level of oxygen up in those altitudes will have you feeling those couple of pints that much faster, you still get your money’s worth. Here are three such settings where the scenery alone is value added.
Set in the Teton Mountains’ Jackson Hole valley, the town of Jackson (elevation: 6,200 feet) is a magnet for ski bums, where a fair amount of the population are those who came simply to do a season and just haven’t left (yet). It’s proximity to two National Parks―Grand Teton and Yellowstone―and its grade A outdoor sportiness make it a ritzy playground with touches of its Wild West past. When the snow melts of the Tetons, it melts into the Snake River and then the mountain bikers and fisherman fill in any ground not stuffed with families of tourists. If you’re going to Yellowstone―and if you haven’t been yet, the 55-mile drive is a must since its flora, fauna and geothermic wonderments are more astounding than words can express―avoid its nearby motels and stay here.
Perhaps the most popular bar is the Mangy Moose (3285 W. McCollister Drive) by virtue of its après ski allure at the base of Jackson Hole Resort, but there is a bona fide brewpub, Snake River Brewing(265 South Millward St.), where you can get a buffalo burger and wash it down with their award-winning Zonker Stout or any of the numerous draft-only selections.
Having said that, there is another brewpub in town, of sorts. Thai Me Up (75 E. Pearl Ave.) is the brainchild of Jeremy Tofte, a Bellingham, WA native who is the portrait of the aforementioned ski bum. Time spent in beerific cities such as Portland and San Diego also turned him into a beer geek and, wanting to see Jackson home to five breweries, not to mention some decent Thai food, took the DIY approach and opened his own Thai place in 2000. Starting in 2009 he now commercially sells the output of his 20-gallon (yes, gallon) system.
Tofte has big aspirations for growing the beer community and one of his vehicles is blogging for Planet Jackson Hole about beer. As a lover of big, hoppy beers, he says it wasn’t until his IPA found many a fan in town that Snake River finally brewed one of their own. His giddy goal is to brew a Teton Springs IPA using water carried down from high atop the Grand Teton with an altitude over 13,000 feet.
As for the food, Tofte’s favorite dish is the spicy fish―local Idaho trout in red curry. Tofte is a pescatarian and took beef off his menu a while back. “Boy were people pissed,” he says.
But these were not the first breweries in town. A short seven miles west on state highway 22 in Wilson, Otto Brothers Brewing was Wyoming’s first microbrewery. For real estate purposes it moved across the border into eastern Idaho and later turned into Grand Teton Brewing. Everything from their six-packs of mostly sessionable beers (the flagship Teton Ale and one of the best ESBs made in America, Bitch Creek ESB) to their impressively bold Cellar Reserves bottled in 750s, this production brewery set the tone for Northern Rockies breweries. Incidentally, founder Charlie Otto also deserves credit for reintroducing the growler, altering it from a refillable pail into the half-gallon glass jug virtually every brewery uses today.
Also in Victor, former Grand Teton Brewing employee Ric Harmon established Wildlife Brewing & Pizza (145 S Main St.). Tofte praises the pizza, beer and vibe, professing, “Sit down there and you’ve got a best friend sitting next to you in 20 minutes.”
Back in Jackson, Tofte unsurprisingly points hungry visitors toward the organic Lotus Café (145 N. Glenwood St.). They offer fresh, global cuisine spanning from bison tacos to kimchi noodle soup to a macrobiotic bowl.
As for lodging in town, Tofte has a few creative ideas. Satisfying the where-to-hike/where-to-drink/where-to-stay quandary, both Signal Mountain Lodge and Doran’s fit the bill. Signal Mountain Lodge (1 Inner Park Road, Moran) is directly on Jackson Lake, so the views from every which direction are spectacular. Single bed cabins start at $132 with deluxe accommodations asking up to $300 per night. And their Deadman’s Bar, named after a sandbar on the Snake River, has “an awesome selection of beers on tap.”
Dornan’s (Dornan Road) up in the town of Moose is a homestead run by three generations of the Dornan family (including the third through fifth). Their Spur Ranch Cabins fetch $175 to $250 in the summer and are $50 cheaper in the fall and spring. There is on-premise dining, grocery and shops, and Tofte says you won’t find a better place to sip a beer than on their deck where the Tetons jut up 6,000 feet right in front of you and your pint.
But for a great lodging recommendation, Tofte raves about the Alpine House (North Glenwood St.), a “cool little spot with gourmet breakfasts that’s reasonably priced.” Owned and operated by Hans and Nancy Johnstone, who are both former Olympians (in the Nordic combined and biathlon, respectively), this taste of the Swiss Alps fills up far in advance so book your room immediately.
Failing staying with the Johnstones, Tofte singles out Café Genevieve (E. Broadway) as the new breakfast spot. Reports of killer Belgian waffles or, better yet, fried chicken and waffles fill the bill but for vegetarians like Tofte, the Eggs Benedict (sans ham) is very satisfying.
Think Arizona, and most people think of scorching desert. And while it’s just 30 scenic miles from the red rocks of Sedona, Flagstaff is a beautiful 75-mile drive from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon which, down at the floor, has an elevation of 2,600 feet. As you’re leaving the national park, it’s a thousand-foot decent to Flagstaff at 7,000 feet, next to the San Francisco Peaks.
Flagstaff, or Flag for short, is also just a few miles from Humphreys Peak, the highest in Arizona, home to the Snowbowl Resort, perfect for skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer. And while not all beer people are Frisbee people, the reverse is quite common, so it’s good to know that there’s an 18-hole disc golf course set right on the ski slopes.
On a recent trip to Flagstaff, I checked into the Shooting Star Inn with my girlfriend and checked out with my fiancé (now wife). It’s a solar-powered B&B a good 20 miles north of Flag on the road to the Grand Canyon and the owner, Tom Taylor, is also an astronomer who gives guests a tour of the cosmos on his Ritchey-Chrétien telescope. Not only is he a great cook, he’s a homebrewer, so if you’re one too and decide to stay there (again, it’s in a rural area surrounded by aspen and ponderosa pine, not a town), let him know you’d like to share.
As a beer lover, Taylor suggests one brewery in town (Beaver Street Brewing, 11 S. Beaver St.) over the other two―Flagstaff Brewing on historic Route 66 (16 E. Route 66) and the Green Room (15 N Agassiz St.), formerly Mogollon Brewing, and I can’t disagree. Beaver Street won a gold medal at last year’s Great American Beer Festival for their Big Rapid Red and silver for Hopshot IPA, which I have tried alongside the Brewer’s Platter (two brats, a spicy sausage, red cabbage, grilled onions and garlic mashed potatoes). If any of the brewpubs in town were to expand based on the quality of the beer and food, it’s a good thing Beaver Street did.
Taylor popped into their new Lumberyard Brewing (5 S. San Francisco St.) a mere block away from Beaver Street, which shares the same owners, brewers and love of pub grub. Try the Irish Spring Rolls. Think corned beef Reuben sandwich deep-fried into finger food eggrolls.
For a slightly more upscale but still casual dining, the first two of Taylor’s picks are Brix (413 N. San Francisco St.) and The Cottage Place (126 W. Cottage Ave.). Both offer fresh cuisine that runs the gamut from surf to turf to vegetarian offerings and put more emphasis on their wine lists than beer. But don’t miss Josephine’s (503 N. Humphreys St.), a modern American bistro with an eclectic menu sure to sate the heartiest of mountain appetites. Start with the queso fundido (warm goat cheese with tomatillo chutney) with house-made chorizo. Among the savory Southwestern specialties, check out the Wedding Chili Relleno that may require a bib.
Then for late night, The Green Room often has live touring bands but Taylor suggests popping into a couple of “very active hot spots” starting with Rendezvous set in the Hotel Monte Vista (100 N. San Francisco St.). It’s a coffee bar by day and martini bar by night. Charly’s Pub in the Weatherford Hotel (23 N. Leroux St.) sports a younger crowd with a great bar and better beer selection. But most people prefer to get said beers in a plastic cup to take upstairs to dance in the Zane Grey Ballroom. This is, Taylor points out, a college town, too.
The benefit of these bars is that if you get a room in either of these hotels, which are among the most popular in town, you don’t have to worry about the hike back to your room. Therein lies the only downside to booking a room at the Shooting Star Inn (but Taylor’s optional dinner followed by a private concert―yes, he’s a musician, too―and his breakfast more than make it worthwhile.)
Come morning, when it’s time to revive and attack the day, if you’re looking for a quick perk and nibble, I love Macy’s European Coffee House (14 S. Beaver St.) across from the brewery. They roast their own coffee and the bakery is sinfully right on target. But for the full on greasy spoon experience, Taylor will point you to a quaint spot a block away, MartAnne’s (10 N. San Francisco St.) and in fact, grab your coffee from Macy’s anyway because when they serve it at MartAnne’s, it’s weak. The Mexican breakfasts are “to die for,” and Taylor usually gets the green chili plate with eggs and tortillas. “A mountain of food for a reasonable price.”
In Colorado’s southwest corner, also known as part of the Four Corners area, Durango is a true outdoorsman’s paradise where you can ride just about everything with plenty of vertical. Situated in the Animas River Valley within the San Juan Mountains, itﾕs a beautiful place to visit even for the non-adventurers. Just don’t miss out on the nearby Mesa Verde National Park which has guided hikes of jaw-dropping cliff drawings carved into the mountainsides by the Pueblos roughly 800 years ago. No wonder itﾕs an UNESCO World Heritage Site. For a lark, ask the guide where the craft brewery was located.
In modern times, Durango has amassed four craft breweries (not counting the half a dozen in neighboring towns such as Cortez, Dolores and Silverton), starting with Ska Brewing (545 Turner Drive). Formed in 1995 and today producing around 12,000 barrels annually, it was built on the love of two concepts: homebrewing and ska music. The themes permeate the character of the beer to this day, often releasing beers in their Local Series that are created by area homebrewers or tied into their hometown spirit.
Chuck Slothower, who blogs at Beer at 6512 (beerat6512.blogspot.com, which refers to Durango’s base elevation), praises their Modus Hoperandi IPA. “one year of existence it has become their best-selling beer. It’s very aggressively hopped,” says Slothower. He’s also a big fan of the Local Series. “Now, it’s Saison Du’Rango. I loved the Orange Cream Stout. It was based on Ska’s Steel Toe Stout, with a little orange peel added.” Steel Toe is just one of Ska’s many GABF medalists.
At Steamworks (801 E. 2ndAve.), locals have noticed a vast improvement in the deliciousness of the food―available to enjoy al fresco on their deck. Slothower likes their Colorado Kolsch “the pizza topped by local Sunnyside Meats ain’t bad either.”
Durango Brewing (3000 Main Ave.) is the third production brewery with a tap room that serves nothing but their beers and maybe some pretzels. Their Dark Lager session beer was just adorned with World Beer Cup silver.
And last but not least, Carver Brewpub (1022 Main Ave.) is the oldest (1988) and smallest (1,000 barrels) in town. But it has a kitchen so mean, even carnivores devour their vegetarian chili. Slothower credits Erik Maxson and his frequently rotating beers that include a coffee or oatmeal stout, an imperial pilsner, or raspberry wheat, which, according to manager Aaron Seitz, is brewed with $800 worth of berries per seven-barrel batch. Can you say tart?!
In case you’re traveling with kids or simply don’t want to drink too much at high altitude, a fun stop is Zuberfizz (742½ Main Ave.), a craft soda company started by Banden Zuber. It’s located behind a parking lot, above a hair salon and the entrance is in a back alley, but once inside, the chance to see a craft soda company that looks and feels like a craft brewery is a tasty treat where, instead of a chocolate stout, you can get a Coco Fizz pop.
For lunch or dinner to go with your beer, visitors cannot miss Lady Falconburgh’s (640 Main Ave.). Serving hearty mountain meals befitting their 38 taps, the list is heavy on southern Colorado brewers but the northern ones get some love, too. Slothower points out that “Lady Falc’s has two-dollar pint nights Mondays and Thursdays, but it gets incredibly packed with college students at those times. Go in the afternoon if you want to avoid the crowds.”
Speaking of avoiding crowds, when it comes to lodging, the biggest name in town is the grand, Western-style Strater Hotel (699 Main Ave.) for those who like a little more elegance, but if you’re super low-maintenance and don’t want anybody crowding you―not even somebody behind the reception desk―book one of the four rooms at cozy Nobody’s Inn (920 Main Ave.). You literally won’t encounter a single employee, meaning no valet or bell hop to tip, no housekeeping and no beating the prices (as low as $119 in the winter and only up to $199 for a large room in the summer). And the owner also owns the Irish Embassy Pub next door.
When you wake up, fill up at Oscar’s (18 Town Plaza) that offers comfort food galore including hash browns and eggs smothered in chili verde. After all, whether you work up a thirst hiking or river rafting near downtown or cruise the Million Dollar Highway up to Silverton and Ouray (both home to great small breweries), this is one mountain town that requires exerting lots of energy.
Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. He homebrews in San Francisco and if you have an intact bottle of Ring of Fire, beer mail him at byaeger on the communal sites or at firstname.lastname@example.org.