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.
Knight left Estes Park in 1995 to start Twisted Pine, back in Boulder. “Estes Park got too big; he didn’t want that,” said Jim Parker, who was Knight’s partner at Wolf Tongue, a few years ago. “Gordon likes to make beer; the rest of the stuff he doesn’t really care about. The startup is what really turns him on.”
In 1997, Twisted Pine merged with Peak to Peak, reuniting Knight with his first brew house. He left Twisted Pine to move up Boulder Canyon to Nederland and open Wolf Tongue in June 1997, and bought the brew house from Twisted Pine to get started. Wolf Tongue captured gold in the GABF’s brown porter category for Coffee Porter in 1998, Twisted Pine took gold in American amber for Twisted Amber in 1996, and High Country grabbed gold for Renegade Red, an India pale ale, in 1993.
Knight was a Nebraska native who earned a Purple Heart as an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He moved to Boulder in 1988, and soon turned from homebrewing to professional brewing. He also worked as a professional helicopter pilot, most often in firefighting.
Just a few days before his Wolf Tongue beer won the gold medal in 1998, we visited the brewery and asked him if he’d be at GABF that weekend. “I don’t think so; I’ll be flying,” he said. His voice was matter-of-fact, but that was the norm.
“I’ve got someplace else to be.”
“I fly helicopters into fires.”
“I brew beer.”
Gordon Knight had plenty to brag about, but bragging wasn’t in him.
In informing other brewers about Knight’s death, Brian Lutz—who himself left his brewing job and couldn’t stay away—of the Redfish brewpub in Boulder, wrote:
“Gordon didn’t have jobs, Gordon had passions. Gordon’s job was his passion and vice-versa. That’s a good way to live and I thank him for challenging me to do the same. If you knew Gordon Knight, please take a moment to reflect on his life and his family. I will miss him.”
Passion Still Counts
Wolf Tongue was an immediate favorite for us. Whether you take the Peak-to-Peak drive to Nederland or approach through Boulder Canyon, it’s a wonderful trip to a cozy mountain town. Parker refurbished Wolf Tongue, making it just the place for people who were looking for a brewpub that’s more pub than restaurant. The pub was once an assay office, then a veterans’ Bud bar. It remained very much a “local,” selling 17 cases of Budweiser a week and providing a comfortable place to hang out, play darts, shoot pool, play foosball and video games or grab a controller for NTN (the interactive television service that features trivia and sports games). It was rustic, with a pot-bellied stove, a fine moose head, lots of wood, and furniture that looked like it was made out of logs.
Unfortunately, Wolf Tongue wasn’t Wolf Tongue for long. Parker moved to Oregon to head the Oregon Brewers Guild. As was his habit, Knight sold his interest in the brewpub. New ownership wasn’t interested in brewing and—gloriously—New Belgium bought the brew house, moving it back to Fort Collins, mostly for display purposes though it could be used for pilot batches.
One thing that hasn’t changed since 1996, or since we began keeping our list of good places to drink beer, is that establishments we like can close. In fact, Wolf Tongue has opened and closed since 1996.
While there are more brewpubs now than there were then, and microbreweries sell more beer than in 1996, the Oklahoma land rush clearly ended. Here are our notes about a visit to a Massachusetts brewpub during that 1996 CBC road trip:
“Nice post-industrial design, airy layout, brick walls, big windows looking out onto the street, brewing equipment and brewers on display behind glass. It’s the kind of place we want to see succeed. We arrive on a Friday around lunchtime. It’s busy, so rather than wait for a table in the dining room, we sit at a tall table in the bar.
“Ten minutes for a waiter to spot us. He asks us if we are ready to order, then discovers we don’t have menus. Ask about the sampler policy and order three samples: a Scotch ale, a stock ale and a stout. Another 10 minutes and he returns with three beers, apologizing profusely and saying it’s busy (though it isn’t that busy). None of the beers looks like a stout, so we ask which is the stout. He points to the darkest one, an amber-red colored brew.
“None of them tastes like commercially available examples of the styles they are supposed to be, all are light on malt. Looking at other tables, it appears some drinkers have a stout-colored beer. Not seeing our waiter, Stan visits the bartender and gets ignored for about 5 minutes, finally telling him we ordered a stout sample and didn’t get it.
“‘Haven’t poured a stout all day,’ he says testily, apparently not about to then. ‘I’ll work it out with the server,’ Stan says, starting to walk away. ‘Wait,’ the bartender says, pouring about an ounce for a sample.
“When our food arrives, one dish is fine, but the Cajun chicken is under-spiced and the fries aren’t even routine. The waiter comes back and apologizes several times for his earlier lack of attention and the slow food service (the only thing that wasn’t slow). We’d rather he spend less time apologizing and more time learning about the beer. Overall: Incompetent server, unpleasant bartender, mediocre beer, average food.”
A few days later at CBC, Daria heard one of the brewpub’s employees say they’d been so busy, the owners were planning to open two more places. Our note: “They should concentrate on making the first one matter, while the novelty factor is still in their favor.”
We take no joy in reporting that the brewpub closed within a year, but it is reassuring to know that performance and success are sometimes linked. The fact is that we visited plenty of other brewpubs in 1996 that we figured could go either way. Obviously, we can’t revisit the ones that failed. When we return to those still operating, most often we find it’s not an accident. The beer is technically better than when we were first there, and usually more interesting. The menu may have improved. At least some of the staff is more beer literate.
We’d be happy to put their bumper stickers on our car.