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A new exhibit about the state's brewing legacy opens May 18 at the History Colorado Center in Denver. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The pinnacle of Colorado’s beer culture didn’t arrive in 1979 when the state’s first craft brewery opened in Boulder, nor in 1988 when the first brewpub began pouring pints in Denver.

The moment actually came generations earlier in the late 19th century — a forgotten era when lagers like Walter’s Gold Label Triple Brew and Neef Brothers’ Bohemian Girl Special Brew were the beer of choice.

Back then, Pueblo and Trinidad ranked as beer hubs, along with Denver and Golden, and small breweries dotted the Colorado mountains.

“People think that the craft beer industry is such a new thing, a recent development,” says Dick Kreck, who began chronicling the state’s beer industry more than 40 years ago. “But when you go back and look in the 1860s and 1870s, there were a lot of breweries in Colorado. Some of them centered in mining towns, some in Denver. In Colorado, people have always been drinking beer.”

The state’s rich brewing legacy — which marks 160 years in 2019 — is part of a new exhibit that opens Saturday at the History Colorado Center in Denver.

“Beer Here!” showcases the beverage’s role in the Colorado cultural and economic story. But the most interesting part is the look at the past and the parallels to the state’s contemporary beer industry.

“The pint you had last night is really a portal into understanding how things got to be the way they are in Colorado,” says Jason Hanson, chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research at History Colorado.

Saloon owners accepted gold dust as payment for a drink in the 19th century. The scale is part of the part of the “Beer Here!” exhibit that opens May 18, 2019, at the History Colorado Center in Denver. (Photo courtesy of History Colorado)

The gold rush started the beer rush in Colorado

The foundation for Colorado’s modern beer industry was built during the mid-19th century gold rush by Eastern European migrants who arrived with knowledge of brewing.

Rocky Mountain Brewing became the first brewery when it opened in Denver in 1859 and soon dozens more began to make beer in mining towns like Silver Plume, Idaho Springs and Empire. One historical record suggests as many as 129 breweries — most of them short lived — opened in Colorado in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The museum exhibit even features a scale that sat in a saloon, allowing barkeepers to accept pinches of gold dust in exchange for a drink.

“Most things going on with the gold rush were mythologized in real time, but the brewing industry seemed mundane enough that it wasn’t really,” Hanson said. “So you don’t get that heroic story of a brewer riding in on a bunch of Clydesdales and proclaiming the water perfect for brewing beer. It was businessmen who saw an opportunity and made some money doing it selling it to thirsty miners.”

For the most part, German lagers or pilsners were the beer of choice. The ingredients were largely imported from outside the state at the time and the limited supply of barley led brewers to use rice or corn, which are now considered inferior adjuncts used only by the big brewers.

The limited technology of the day meant the beer needed to be consumed quickly, or it would go bad, which made it an intensely local product. Much of the drinking would take place in pubs, halls or saloons, rather than the brewery itself.

“It was a lot of bearded white men,” jokes Jonathan Shikes, the author of a forthcoming book on Denver’s brewing history and a beer writer at Westword, referring to the industry’s current reputation. “It was definitely a huge part of the culture for certain demographics, especially for German and Eastern European immigrants.”

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By the 1890s, major breweries set up shop in Colorado. Walter’s in Pueblo and Ph. Schneider Brewing in Trinidad were major players. Brewers like Tivoli, Neef Bros., Ph. Zang and Adolph Coors dominated the scene closer to Denver.

Philip Zang located his operation on the banks of the Platte River, near the current site of the Denver Aquarium. By 1910, as the exhibit describes, the brewery produced 100,000 barrels of beer a year, which by today’s standards would rank it among Colorado’s top five largest.

A display of old beer bottles is part of the “Beer Here!” exhibit that opens May 18, 2019, at the History Colorado Center in Denver. (Photo courtesy of History Colorado)

An era of consolidation, and then the taps go dry

The advancements in bottling with sealed caps as well as refrigerated train cars — all part of the industrial era — fueled the growth but also the competition.

Anheuser-Busch and other large brewers soon began to ship beer to the area and a British syndicate bought Zang Brewing. At the time, Adolph Coors and other still independent brewers went to great lengths to market their beer as local — a refrain that sounds familiar today.

“Most of them were started as small breweries, family-owned breweries,” Shikes says. “But once the big breweries started bottling beer, and were able to cap it with crown caps, they started sending beer up into the mountains to compete with little guys.”

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A number of mid-size breweries faced competition pressures or consolidated in this period, similar to what is happening today for craft brewers in Colorado and across the nation. Some brewers would sign exclusive rights to serve their beer at particular saloons or pubs, akin to how  some distributors linked to breweries operate now.

Paul Rahne’s grandfather was the chief engineer at Tivoli brewing in Denver from 1910 to 1925, and his father later delivered beer in Colorado. A handful of the historic beer bottles from his collection of 4,200 are on display as part of the exhibit.

“I’m sure times were tough in those breweries and the competition was tough — sort of like the craft brewers today, you get one new one and three close,” the 75-year-old who lives in Colorado Springs said.

But the death knell for so many breweries came in 1916, when Colorado approved Prohibition. Four years later, the entire nation went dry. Coors survived by diversifying its offerings into making ceramics and malted milk, but Zang Brewing and others closed for good.

“Prohibition just absolutely ruined America’s taste for beer,” said Sam Bock, the public historian at History Colorado.

Beer of the Year: A look at the best Colorado breweries from 2018

The first golden era of Colorado beer lasted little more than a half century. And the beginnings of craft beer wouldn’t come until decades later in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Like back then, it took time for the industry to build momentum to today, where Colorado counts more than 360 breweries. And this time, it looks like the beer renaissance is here to stay.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.