If you were going to build a Victorian mountain town to add historic charm to the valley below a ski conglomerate of hotels and condominiums, it would probably look just about like Crested Butte, CO.
The fact is that a marketing department didn’t have to invent the village when developers began the Mount Crested Butte ski area in the 1960s. The town, 3 miles below the ski area, was one of scores that sprang up in the Colorado mountains in the 1880s after silver and gold were discovered. Because coal was found in the area a few years later, Crested Butte survived when the precious metals played out and most of the other mining camps and towns were abandoned.
Serendipity entered again with the birth of the ski resort. Otherwise, when coal mining was no longer profitable and ceased in the 1950s, Crested Butte might have become a ghost town. The false storefronts along the main drag, Elk Avenue, and the hodgepodge of original Victorian homes would not have survived many years of neglect.
You certainly wouldn’t have been able to choose from a top-notch range of specialty beers in any of several restaurants or bars.
Instead, now you can order a Red Lady beer—named for the prostitutes who kept miners company at the turn of the century—at Kochevar’s Saloon on Elk Avenue and listen to the stories about how Butch Cassidy once drank beer here. When authorities from Telluride (where he’d just robbed a bank) came in the front door, he supposedly went out the back in such a hurry that he left his gun behind. It’s on display in the town museum.
Jacob Kochevar was patriarch of Crested Butte’s oldest Yugoslavian family, and many buildings are still around that he had a hand in constructing. The saloon was built out of hand-hewn logs in 1896, and Kochevar ran it until just before Prohibition was enacted. It is jammed with old stuff, but even though tourists stop in to hear about Butch, it really belongs to long-time locals and is a popular spot for pool.
Try a Red Lady
Red Lady beer is brewed by Crested Butte Brewing Co. at the Idlespur, a few blocks away on Elk Avenue, and is easy to find around town. For instance, the Slogar Bar & Restaurant offers Red Lady, Odell’s 90 Shilling, New Belgium Fat Tire and Spaten on tap. It is housed in a building that dates to 1882 that was one of 18 taverns in town serving laborers at the Big Mine on the Bench.
The Slogar was renovated in 1976 and redecorated in a Victorian motif from the light fixtures to an artistic stained glass piece hanging behind the ornate bar. Dinner is served family style, and there are but two choices—chicken and steak. The Slogar has been famous for its skillet-fried chicken since 1915. It comes with a relish tray, homemade tomato chutney, sweet and sour cole slaw, mashed potatoes and gravy, powder biscuits, sweet corn in cream sauce, and homemade ice cream.
The Slogar is right around the corner from Just Horsin’ Around, which provides sleigh rides in the winter and carriage rides when the snow is gone. “It seems like everybody has discovered Crested Butte except people from Colorado,” Dave Shaw told us while his horse, Blondie, pulled our sleigh through town.
Part of the reason is logistics. Crested Butte is far from any interstate highway and 30 miles from the airport at Gunnison. The reward for those who take the time to get to Gunnison is a stunning drive through the soaring mountains of Gunnison National Forest and a genuine community at the end of the trip.
Shaw pointed out bits of mining history as Blondie ambled along, never challenging the universal speed limit of 15 miles per hour. We turned in an alley behind the Company Store to see an out-of-the-way bit of town history, the village’s two-story outhouse. Shaw explained that Crested Butte usually gets 27 to 30 feet of snow per year, and in the days before mechanized snow moving equipment, it was tiring for residents to keep digging deeper and deeper to reach the outhouse door.
Even the new homes in town look like they could have been built 100 years ago. Some are Victorian style, often painted in bright colors; others are cabin-like. It’s not unusually to see skis on the front porch, snowshoes and fishing equipment hanging by the front door, and a mountain bike or two out front.
The outdoors is close at hand 12 months a year. When mountain biking started to boom in the 1980s, Crested Butte was one of the first hot spots. Bikers happily zip up and down the old mining roads that run through the valley, while the hardier set out on more demanding rides up and over nearby mountain passes.
Colorado beer has thrived in this setting. Crested Butte’s two brewpubs are virtually across the street from each other and housed in buildings put up after the entire village area was designated a National Historic District in 1974. While they aren’t old, they fit right in.
Crested Butte/Idlespur is built from rough-hewn timber and decorated with animal mounts. A giant mountain lion looms above the massive stone fireplace at one end of the dining area.
The brewpub is a sprawling southwestern lodge, with brewing equipment right behind the bar (no glass walls here) and a music area with couches toward the back. It’s a place for skiers who take a shower and get dressed up before dinner, where you might spend $30-plus for an entrée such as the 12-ounce filet or elk medallions. Starters include game sausage, char-grilled quail and smoked trout.
Crested Butte’s beers, most particularly Red Lady and White Buffalo Peace Ale, have won many awards. When Buffalo Peace Ale captured gold at the 1997 Great American Beer Festival, actor Tom Skerritt (one of the owners) happily collected the medal. Its beers are also contract brewed for bottle distribution by Broadway Brewing Co. in Denver.
The Eldo, which began brewing in 1998, is newer. Although the two-story building looks like it could have been a saloon in the 1800s, it was built as a Mexican restaurant in 1976. The bar is upstairs, with a balcony overlooking Elk Avenue and a music room in back. Teri’s Kitchen, really just a grill area between the bar and a music/pool room in back, serves up a limited menu, but the Eldo is foremost a bar.
It’s rougher around the edges than the Idlespur, attracting plenty of locals and a young crowd for the music. Beer stuff decorates the walls, including a very nice tin sign that looks like a six-pack of Pabst. Oval-shaped copper plates on the front of the bar show the wear of customers’ boots.
The beer on offer reflects the difference between the two brewpubs. Both have excellent choices, but the Eldo’s are more like the rowdy uncle your parents don’t want to you grow up like. In January, the line-up included a substantial imperial stout that doesn’t hide that it is brewed with licorice and an appropriately warming winter warmer. The Eldo also serves a number of Colorado beers in bottles, and has Paulaner Salvator and Pilsner Urquell on tap.
Specialty beer is just as easy to find up at Mount Crested Butte. The restaurant-bars that flank the ski basin all serve a variety of beer on tap, plenty of micros and usually Colorado beers. At the Swiss Chalet a few blocks away, the decorations, food and beer are all German, with five Paulaner beers and Budweiser occupying the six taps on the ceramic Paulaner tower at the bar.
The modern resort area, which even has a Club Med, is not exactly Victorian, but then, we’ve never heard stories about Butch Cassidy skiing.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of The Beer Lovers Guide to the USA (St. Martins Griffin).