It was the spring of 1996, the sun was shining, and the car was on cruise control as we rolled west on Interstate 84 from Massachusetts into Connecticut.
Even if you saw somebody with a craft beer bumper sticker on the car, you knew you still belonged to a not-so-big club.
Suddenly, a driver in a rental truck began to pass us, first blasting on his horn, then making drinking motions with his arm. Startled, we weren’t sure if we should roll down the window on the driver side or just pull over to see if something was wrong with the car.
“You were at the convention?” he yelled, apparently referring to the recently completed Craft Brewers Conference in Boston. Yes, we nodded.
“The bumper sticker gave it away,” he said, motioning toward the back and our “Real Women Don’t Drink Light Beer” sticker from New Glarus Brewing Co. Turns out, he too was at CBC, doing something involving giant screens.
This was pretty much at the height of craft beer mania. Sales grew more than 50 percent in both 1994 and 1995, which is why more than 3,000 people attended the conference and nearly 200 vendors packed the trade show. On the one hand, someone predicted that eventually brewpubs would be as common as McDonald’s. On the other, even if you saw somebody with a craft beer bumper sticker on the car, you knew you still belonged to a not-so-big club.
He Liked to Make Beer
In the six-plus years since then, specialty beer sales have grown, but not at the silly rates predicted in the mid-1990s. Craft beers certainly play a larger role in our popular culture. Spend a little time watching what beers are in drinkers’ hands on popular television shows and in movies, and you will see that. But this summer, one of those news items that takes away your breath and makes you mumble an obscenity reminded us that the best brewers in America remain more accomplished than they are famous.
The Boulder Daily Camera reported that Gordon Knight, age 52, died after his helicopter crashed while he was fighting a fire near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. He was trying to drop water on hot spots in a 4,400-acre blaze. Knight, flying a 32-year-old French helicopter, radioed in about 6:30 p.m. and calmly reported, “I’m going down,” a Forest Service spokeswoman, Ellen Hodges, said.
You probably never heard of Gordon Knight, but if you drank beer along Colorado’s Front Range in the 1990s and had some of his beers, you likely remember them well.
Knight won Great American Beer Festival gold medals at three breweries: High Country Brewery in 1993, Twisted Pine Brewing Co. in 1996, and Wolf Tongue Brewery in 1998. Each of the champion beers was very different from the others, but they shared one thing in common—all were made on the same 5-hectoliter (about 4-1/2 barrels) system that followed Knight from brewery to brewery. He first acquired it from Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan, who used it themselves to found New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins.
Knight bought the system in 1993 to start High Country in Boulder. In 1994, High Country moved to Estes Park and became a brewpub called Estes Park Brewery, when Knight went into business with a local restaurateur. When Estes Park expanded, the brew house was sold to Peak to Peak Brewing.