Uncle Slim, the Fornicators and the Birth of Boulder Brewing
For Randolph “Stick” Ware, it all started in his junior year of high school when Uncle Slim blew into South Pasadena, CA. The new arrival, the brother of a mother of one of Ware’s friends, was fleeing legal entanglements back east and he knew some things.
One of those things was how to make what passed for beer from bread yeast and cans of Blue Ribbon malt extract. Under his tutelage, Ware and his buddies tried their hand. The results were terrible.
Still, the bug had bitten. Ware continued homebrewing through college and graduate school, and right into his postdoctorate at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
The institute’s chairman was David Hummer, a theoretical astrophysicist who himself was a veritable MacGyver when it came to homebrewing. Hummer would, for instance, crush his own malts with a rolling pin and use a bridal veil to dip them into a 5-gallon cooler. He and Ware started homebrewing together and shared their increasingly tasty creations with colleagues, who, in turn, began making special requests for the beers.
After one such request in the institute’s cafeteria, Ware looked at Hummer. “Hey,” he said, “we ought to start a brewery.”
The year was 1979, and the idea of a new brewery, especially one started by amateurs, seemed absurd. The trend in the wider American brewing industry was in the exact opposite direction: toward fewer breweries through consolidations, takeovers and operations simply going out of business.
And, yet, after the necessary paperwork, Ware, Hummer and a third partner, an engineer named Al Nelson, found themselves in September 1979 holding the nation’s 43rd brewery license.
Their Boulder Brewing Co. (now Boulder Beer) was the first new small-batch brewery east of the West Coast since Prohibition, and the unwitting spawn of a movement that has seen the Centennial State become one of the union’s most fertile for beer aficionados—a reputation accentuated by the annual Colorado Craft Beer Week, which kicks off March 21.
The brewery license, though, was only the first piece of the puzzle. Ware, Hummer and Nelson sought expertise and material from wherever they could find it. Ware visited the New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma County, CA, seeking advice from that 3-year-old startup’s founder, Jack McAuliffe.
He also talked to Jeff Coors of the eponymous family operation that was then busting out of the Rockies to a nationwide audience. Coors’ grandfather and Ware’s grandmother had dated—plus Jeff Coors thought it would be good for legislative lobbying purposes to have a second brewery in Colorado.
Finally, the trio found their brewhouse in a goat shed on land Nelson owned near Hygiene, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. There, in a stainless-steel food-processing kettle, Otto Zavatone, a former chef and fisherman serving as Boulder Brewing’s brewmaster, cooked up a stout. (Zavatone and Ware played piano and sax, respectively, in a local band called the Fornicators.)
The stout won a blue ribbon in a competition held at the American Homebrewers Association’s first-ever national conference in 1979. The conference was held in … where else? … Boulder.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.