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Beer by the book: In Colorado’s shifting landscape of breweries and bars, the author discovers an expanding universe

The Sun’s politics and beer reporter set out to chronicle the best of the best, and learned a lot about the direction of a quickly evolving industry along the way

"Beer Lover's Colorado" is a new guidebook to the best breweries and beer in the state. The author is John Frank, The Colorado Sun's politics and beer writer (Dustin Hall, Special to The Colorado Sun)

John Frank spends his days and a lot of his nights covering politics for The Colorado Sun. Somehow, in the time he’s not doing that, he’s completed a mission to catalog the best the state has to offer on a topic that really reaches across the aisle — beer.

The result of his tireless effort and untold 8-ounce curls is the second edition of “Beer Lover’s Colorado: Best Breweries, Brew Pubs and Beer Bars,” a handbook for the novice and expert alike. And while Frank passes along a lot of knowledge to the rest of us, he learned quite a bit himself about the shifting beer landscape over the past decade.

The Sun caught up to him with the release of the book this week to pick his brain on what he learned, what he loved and where Colorado beer goes from here. 

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

John Frank is the author of “Beer Lover’s Colorado.” He covers politics and beer for The Colorado Sun. (Dustin Hall, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Sun: It seems a little silly to ask what your inspiration for this book was — you love beer on many levels — but was it really more than that?

John Frank: What I really wanted to capture is the massive growth and maturity of the Colorado beer scene. What it looks like now is night and day compared to when the first edition of this book was published in 2012. There are hundreds of new breweries and beer bars in Colorado, and a couple dozen have closed, too. Some of the best known names in the book only emerged recently, folks like Casey, WeldWerks and Black Project. And likewise, with 370-some breweries, it’s harder and harder to know where to go to find a great beer. 

I wanted to provide a guidebook for an assortment of tastes, and explain to readers why these breweries stand out. So people who know Colorado beer well will still find new places and new beers in the book. For those just starting to discover Colorado beer, it provides years’ worth of discovery across the entire state.

So you were kind of rebuilding this guide from the ground up after Lee Williams’ first edition — or at least shifting gears in an industry that has morphed into something much different.

I picked up essentially where he left off. But so much has changed. Much of the first book featured brown ales, ambers and barleywines. Hazy IPAs weren’t even around back then, and now it’s one of the top beer trends. Sour beer has emerged with a massive following, and none of that was reflected in the book. So it’s not just new breweries, it’s new beers and new flavors that have seen wholesale change from a decade ago.

To be clear, this book isn’t a narrative account of what’s changed so much as a reference tool that can be skimmed for sheer enjoyment or pulled out for guidance in beer emergencies. How did you organize it?

It’s a guidebook to the best beer in Colorado, to put it simply. No one’s written a guidebook like this in roughly five years, so it kind of stands as a landmark for the new Colorado scene. There are sections about the best breweries, brew pubs and beer bars. I have sections about the best beer festivals, and a handful of brewery crawls that folks can do. And I even added a new section about the best new bottle shops where you can buy great Colorado beer. With the change in Colorado liquor law in January, grocery stores can sell beer now. But the best beer is still found in the small specialty shops. I wanted to provide a list for folks to find it. There are also recipes for cooking with beer and even homebrewing recipes for folks who want to try out great classic Colorado beers at home.

Let’s say I’m a newbie on the Colorado beer scene. How does this book help me?

It’s hard to know where to start with all the great beer. I’d just pick a geographical place to go and essentially open to that page and figure out where the best beer is in that town. I stop at breweries on the way back from hikes and skiing, so I’m always researching what breweries are near there. If you’re on the way back from skiing at Breckenridge, you can stop at Outer Range in Frisco, tucked in a shopping center that most people don’t know is there. And then you can also stop in Idaho Springs and visit Westbound & Down Brewing on the way back. The book covers the whole state, and there’s even more beer than I could capture in this book. 

The cover image of “Beer Lover’s Colorado,” the new guidebook by John Frank, The Colorado Sun’s politics and beer writer (Courtesy of Globe Pequot)

That’s a lot of choices.

That was probably the biggest challenge, just picking which breweries to feature. I featured 86 and named a handful of others in other sections, but that’s less than 25% of the breweries in the state. To pick the best ones, I approached it much like I would as a political reporter — I interviewed dozens of beer experts and industry observers and compiled a list of their favorites, and really put aside my personal preferences. In fact, some of my personal favorites didn’t make the book — folks like Strange Craft Beer Company in Denver, and Wibby in Longmont. And a handful of new ones came too late.

You organized the book geographically — beer hubs like major cities, then divided the state into sections. Where’s the farthest you traveled to taste beer?

The brewery farthest from Denver is probably Dolores River Brewery in Dolores. The brewer there just makes great beer on a small system, at a great pizza joint that always has live music. It’s one of the hidden gems in the craft beer world in Colorado.

I spent a good bit of time in Steamboat Springs, which has a thriving beer scene. In the first edition of the book, there wasn’t a single brewery in Steamboat mentioned. Now there are too many for me to mention them all.

You understand nuance in politics. How did you develop your affinity and understanding of the beer scene?

Like so many people, I just began experimenting by ordering beers I didn’t know, more than a decade ago. I went to a beer bar in Tallahassee, Florida, of all places, that introduced me to a lot of Belgian beers with flavors that I wasn’t familiar with that pretty much blew my mind. From there, it was a downward slope, at least for my bank account. Because every time I went to the store, I’d buy a new beer, try a new flavor or a new style. 

So is it just a matter of tasting a lot of the innovations and options?

Now that I write about beer, that extends to how it’s made. I will say that learning to homebrew gave me a whole new appreciation for beer — the art of it as well as the creativity and room for innovation. One of the best beers I’ve made is a jalapeño cream ale that has this easy drinking quality, but super dry heat that just surprises you on the back end.

I’m really interested in the science behind the beer, and that comes from homebrewing, too. So much of tasting beer is actually aroma. And so much of whether you like a beer is based on the memories you have. Your brain is constantly analyzing it — is it orange or strawberry or maple syrup or cake batter? It’s fascinating how your brain tries to solve the mystery of what you just tasted and how much that’s influenced by your memory.

Say you don’t like sour beer, for instance. It’s often because you haven’t tried enough sour beer. Like eating as a child and learning what food we like as a toddler, you need to try new flavors multiple times for your brain to begin to understand them. I’m always encouraging people to try new things, even if it’s just a sip. 

Is there crossover in your two beats — politics and beer?

There’s definitely a crossover. Each year at the Capitol during the legislative session, there’s a handful of bills about state liquor laws, about the beer industry and how they’re regulated. So I’m constantly seeing parallels between them. But the best crossover between my beats is that politicians love good beer, too. You wouldn’t believe the number of elected officials and candidates who want to talk beer after we talk politics. More than anything, beer helps the politics go down, which is more true than ever these days.

The way you describe the complexity of beer flavors these days makes it sound like wine. Do you have an equal affinity for the grape?

I love good beer and good wine. My wife probably doesn’t want me to share this, but on our honeymoon, we went to Napa Valley and visited seven wineries and six breweries, so we love both equally. I mention wine because it’s always had a place at the dinner table, it’s seen as this elevated beverage, while beer is seen as the beverage more for the common man. That’s beginning to change as beer becomes more complex, as people understand how it’s made, and the vast potential in terms of flavors and styles and how it can pair with food. I love seeing how beer is emerging as a more elevated beverage and that allows me to write about it in a larger cultural frame than just an alcoholic beverage.

You went all over the state. Were there significant differences in hotbeds of beer culture?

One of the most interesting parts of the book was noticing the trends and how things changed in the last decade. For one thing, Denver is now the beer epicenter, where in the past, Fort Collins held the crown. Odell and New Belgium really put Colorado on the national beer map and people flocked to them in Fort Collins to drink their beer. Now, smaller brewers with experimentation and innovation are stealing the show, and many are located here in Denver. 

Second, great beer is moving beyond the city centers. WeldWerks in Greeley, Odd13 in Lafayette, Outer Range in Frisco. You can travel just about anywhere in the state and find great beer now. And there are new beer places. Colorado Springs and Golden are adding great new breweries and becoming their own hubs.

But one of the main takeaways for me is how much I enjoyed visiting the old favorites, the stalwarts who have made great beer in Colorado for decades. I don’t think we appreciate Great Divide, Left Hand, Bristol and Ska enough, because beer drinkers today so often are chasing new trends. But quality matters, and I find myself gravitating more and more back to these trusted brewers and traditional beer styles. My favorite styles now are pilsners and lagers.

So where does beer go from here?

The scene is going to continue to change constantly. More breweries will open, more may close. But I think we’ll see more emphasis on quality beer and consistency. But at the same time, the runway for innovation in the beer world is endless, and it’s hard to predict what style or flavors are going to be the next trend.

You must’ve seen some unusual innovations on your travels. Can you name a few?

What we’re seeing more and more is a blurring of lines between the old styles, and not adhering to old guidelines. Most interesting beers are the hybrids in the middle. Beer slushies, which is a light, generally fruit-flavored sour beer turned into a slushie is now a huge trend. Brewers are adding lactose to make milkshake IPAs that include fruit and vanilla and add a whole new dimension to the most popular beer style in America. I drank plenty of weird beer, and not all of them were good. But every once in a while you’d find a combination of flavors, or a style that changed how you looked at beer. That’s my favorite part of writing about beer — you never know where it’s going to go next.

Your book just became available Wednesday, so it’s early. But have you had any unusual request to sign copies?

I held a book launch party at Fiction Beer in Denver. One of my favorite parts about why people wanted to buy the book is that they wanted to send it to friends or family out of state. I was asked to sign no less than five books telling people to move to Colorado because the beer is good. Which I was happy to do. Because it’s true.

Buy “Beer Lover’s Colorado: Best Breweries, Brew Pubs and Beer Bars” by John Frank, with photos by Dustin Hall, at BookBar, Tattered Cover or Amazon.com.

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