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Primitive Beer in Longmont is gaining new fans and attention for its spontaneous beers. (Stacey McMahan, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The 2019 year in beer is one to remember in Colorado.

The entire landscape shifted with the sale of the state’s largest brewery, New Belgium, to a Japanese beverage company. It came as another veteran, Avery Brewing, sold all but 10% of the company to a Spanish beer maker and the state’s first microbrewery, Boulder Beer Co., needed a bailout to keep distributing. 

In their wake, stalwarts like Ska and Left Hand are reinventing themselves and a new generation of Colorado breweries is getting noticed. This is evident in The Colorado Sun’s 2019 survey of the best breweries and beer in the state. 

The annual poll reached more than 75 brewers, industry experts and beer enthusiasts who shared their favorites in the past year and offered a preview of what to watch in 2020. Here are this year’s winners.

Colorado Brewery of the Year

Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Denver’s River North neighborhood makes classic German lagers and ranks as one of the best breweries in Colorado. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Bierstadt Lagerhaus

A year ago, Bierstadt Lagerhaus finished as a finalist in two different categories, so it’s no surprise to see it rise to the top in 2019. 

The brewery in Denver’s River North neighborhood makes German lagers in the Reinheitsgebot purity law tradition in an 87-year-old copper brew kettle. And the brewery’s Slow Pour Pils is one of the best beers in the state but too often overlooked by the hordes who want the latest, craziest IPA or stout on the market. 

The predicted trend toward lagers and pilsners from our 2018 survey sure proved true, but few — if any — could match the stylistic perfection that pours from Bierstadt taps.

The finalists in this category include WeldWerks in Greeley, which tied for the win a year ago, Denver Beer Co., New Image in Arvada, Cerebral in Denver and Cannonball Creek in Golden.

Editor’s pick: Wiley Roots Brewing. The Greeley brewer epitomizes the future of beer, a little bit of everything for everyone, from beer slushies and seltzers to boozy pastry porters and barrel-aged sours.

Colorado Beer of the Year 

Comrade Brewing in Denver is known for its hop-forward IPAs, including the award-winning Superpower. (Provided by Comrade Brewing)

Comrade Brewing’s Superpower

Comrade Brewing’s Superpower IPA is no stranger to accolades.

The beer won a gold medal in 2019 at the Great American Beer Festival in the American-style strong pale ale category. And its extra dry-hopped variant, More Dodge Less Ram, also took gold in the uber-competitive American-style IPA category. 

The combined wins helped make Comrade’s David Lin and Marks Lanham the Small Brewers of the Year at GABF. The fresh-hopped version of the beer, now known as Superdamp, even took home back-to-back medals in 2014 and 2015.

The combined votes for all the Superpower editions gave the beer the win this year — proving  that flavor, not appearance or extra ingredients, matter most when it comes to making a good IPAs.

The finalists in this category include Bierstadt’s Slow Pour Pils and WeldWerks’ Juicy Bits variants.

Editor’s pick: Odell Mountain Standard. The revamped edition of this “Mountain-style IPA” is a new go-to. It’s drinkable at 6.5% and packs an aromatic punch with a triple dry-hop.

Best Up-and-Coming Colorado Brewery

Primitive Beer in Longmont is gaining new fans and attention for its spontaneous beers. (Stacey McMahan, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Primitive Beer

A year ago, Primitive Beer tied for the top spot in this category, and this year, it easily won on its own. The Longmont brewer specializes in spontaneous beers — fermented with wild microbes in the air — that are barrel-fermented with fruit and hops. 

The liquid — whether it comes in boxes or sexy bottles — is so different that the brewery stood out from the start. But a GABF silver medal in the experimental beer category and a growing hype easily made 2019 the brewery’s breakthrough year.

The finalists in this category include a couple newcomers — Knotted Root in Nederland, Raices in Denver — and three brewers who are gaining more recognition with each year, Wiley Roots in Greeley, Goat Patch in Colorado Springs and Burns Family Artisan Ales in Denver.

Editor’s pick: Holidaily Brewing. This Golden brewer is spreading the word that gluten-free beers can still taste like beer. The beer styles listed on the menu are growing and so is the distribution.

Colorado Brewery to Watch

Emily and Lee Cleghorn, the owners of Outer Range Brewing, pose at the bar inside the Frisco brewery. Outer Range is preparing for a big expansion in 2020. (Provided by Outer Range Brewing)

Outer Range Brewing

Outer Range Brewing landed on the Colorado beer map a couple years ago with its pillowy hazy IPAs and its great post-adventure location (which features a yurt in the winter months). 

This year, the Frisco brewery refined its craft and gained recognition for barrel-aged stouts and big-name collaborations. And now it’s poised for big moves in 2020 with a massive expansion and restaurant that will transform its intimate taproom into a mainstay beer destination.

How Outer Range manages its expansion and increasing popularity makes it the brewery to watch in 2020.

The finalists in this category include three breweries that continue to push the limits and plan to expand their beer in the next year: New Image, WeldWerks and Knotted Root.

Editor’s pick: New Belgium. How the purchase by Japanese beverage giant Kirin will change the state’s most iconic brewery is one development the state is watching with optimism — and trepidation.

Beer Trend to Watch in 2020

Oh Hi Beverages, from one of the founders of Ska Brewing in Durango, makes seltzers infused with THC and CBD. (Provided by Oh Hi Beverages)

The name of the game is diversification

The responses in the survey each sounded a little different, but the overarching theme focused on the need for the Colorado beer industry to diversify in 2020.

This applies on two levels. In one sense, the industry needs to diversify its business models in order to survive a more competitive market. This means expanding to other revenues sources, whether new tastings rooms or new products, such as CBD-infused drinks, low-calorie beers or hard seltzers.

And in the other sense, it means a more diverse list of beers on the menu. The market is becoming more complicated with beer fans demanding everything at once. One segment wants traditional beers that are familiar to their palate, while others want the adjunct-heavy funky beers with flavor combinations that are new and fresh.

It’ll be harder than ever for breweries to remain relevant in an era of flat or declining sales and it comes as drinkers are getting pickier about what they buy.

The finalists for trend to watch included a return to “beer that tastes like beer,” Norwegian Kveik beers and recreations of the almighty IPA.

Editor’s pick: Low-calorie IPAs. The most popular style in the nation doesn’t need to hit 10% alcohol by volume or include 1,000 ingredients to taste good. An easy-drinking, yet intensely flavorful IPA near 100 calories and less than 5% ABV is where it’s at in 2020.

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