Another year, another few announcements of the giant macrobrew beer companies getting bigger. On the heels of this though, I spent a few days in Colorado, where it was startlingly clear that the U.S. beer market has become the most diverse and healthy on the planet. Who would have thought?
First the bad news from the big boys. AB InBev, already the world’s biggest beer company, just got even bigger. The company, which owns a slew of similar-tasting lagers and pilsners (including Budweiser, Stella Artois, Labatt, and St. Pauli Girl), just bought out the rest of Grupo Modelo in Mexico. Since Mexico only has two breweries, this means Anheiser-Busch essentially controls more than half the market. They’re the home of Corona, Pacifico, and other light lagers, but also the good Negra Modelo. There are a few microbreweries in Mexico, but their products are very hard to find. The duopoly doesn’t make it easy for anyone else.
Back in April, Molson Coors bought the Czech Republic’s StarBev for $3.4 billion. That got them 20 brands you’ve probably never heard of unless you’ve been to Eastern Europe—and you probably had no idea they were part of this large conglomerate, now part of an even larger one still. In Asia, the maker of Tiger Beer is considering a big $6 billion offer to sell out to Heineken. The big keep getting bigger.
The Brighter Microbrew Story
In much of Asia and Latin America, the choice of beers is abysmal, much like it was for far too long in the United States. If your last visit to the U.S. was when I was a kid, you could be forgiven for thinking that U.S. beer is bland and devoid of body. Much of the mass-market stuff still is: Budweiser and Coors Light are more thirst quenchers than something to be enjoyed for the taste.
Thankfully, the little guys have made serious inroads over the years and it’s hard to find a sizable city that doesn’t have at least one successful microbrewery. Even in St. Louis, the home of Bud, there are a variety of good ones and Schafly keeps expanding and selling more great beer each year. When I pedaled across Missouri on the Katy Trail, I found brewpubs in towns of 30,000 people. My old home town of Nashville had Yazoo and four brewpubs. My current home of Tampa Bay has the great Cigar City Brewery and excellent brewpubs like Dunedin Brewery. A new one just opened this month after their beer took off at retail.
Craft Beer Paradise: Colorado
Apart from Oregon, no state can challenge Colorado when it comes to the sheer number and variety of craft brewers. I was out there recently to speak at the TBEX blogger conference and did my best to sample as many as possible. I barely made a dent. According to the Colorado Brewers Guild, Colorado is “the number one state in the nation in terms of craft breweries per capita, number one in the nation in beer volume, number two in absolute number of craft breweries by state, and number two in the nation in sheer craft beer volume.” Not too shabby considering their population size.
I went on a beer road rally with some other bloggers from Denver to Keystone, but first up was a party upon arrival in Denver where we sampled brews from the likes of Great Divide at the legendary Wynkoop Brewpub and pool hall. Wynkoop bottles a wicked German-style black lager called B3K. Thankfully, Denver has a handy free shuttle in that part of downtown so we could all easily ride back to our hotels.
The beer drinking part of our tour started out at the world’s largest brewery, Coors, which I’ll get to in a minute.
First though we hit the Denver Zoo (very environmentally conscious and progressive) and picked up a six-pack holder with one can already in it. Then later when we got to Red Rocks amphitheater we met up with the guys from Oskar Blues. This is a unique company that only puts out beer in cans, making it a favorite of outdoor types packing brews for tubing, biking, or hiking. This is no plain yellow fizzy stuff though. Their Dave’s Pale Ale is rightfully well known across the country and their Deviant Dale’s IPA is a hefty 8% alcohol. I personally dug their Old Chubb Scotch Ale, but all were good.
When we got to the picture-perfect Colorado town of Idaho Springs, we stopped in at Tommyknocker Brewery to sample their brews and get an idea of how different ones paired with food. This brewer is aiming to do good “session beers,” which means ones you can drink three or four of without feeling bloated or wasted. Their summer Saison one was quite nice with lighter food and the Imperial Nut Brown was heavenly with bacon and cheese. Director of brewing Steve Indrehus provided the quote of the day though about the glamour of his job: “Brewing beer is 90% janatorial,” he said.
(Oh, and in case you were wondering, a Tommyknocker is an elf-like creature who lives in the mines. You want him to stay happy, so you leave him treats and you don’t whistle. Sometimes he steals your tools, just for fun.)
Our last beer sampling was at the highest pass in the Rocky Mountains between Denver and Keystone. This was not to be a mere popping of the can though. Beers were poured into ski boot shaped shot glasses and four people downed them in unison while they were attached to the ski. Quite a sobriety test, actually. This was Breckenridge Brewery’s Avalanche Ale. Drinking that in mid-winter would seem to be asking for trouble at the top of a mountain, but this was June, so no fear of danger.
So back to that first stop, Coors. I was all ready to be snarky and dismissive, expecting to drink nothing but crappy beer from the big conglomerate. But no, even the big guys have joined the craft brewing party. Coors has a separate unit called Tenth & Blake. I sampled not one, not two, but three fantastic beers from this unlikely spot. Check out this sign from the tap room—would you have expected that?
You can only get the Colorado Native beer if you’re in state and it’s made from all Colorado grown ingredients, including the hops. Tasty. Next up was Batch 19, which is supposedly made the way lager beer was before prohibition. One taste of this and you go, “How did we go from that to Coors?” It’s full-bodied, complex, downright yummy. My last sample was Killian’s Stout. This too was a surprise. Killian’s Red is clearly a mass-market beer from the first sip, but this was a different story. It was a full-bodied stout that could hold its own with a lot of ones that come out of brewpubs or cross the Atlantic. If I see this or the Batch 19 in a store, I’m buying. (A bit of trivia: that Tenth & Blake division is also responsible for keeping Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic pure, despite its Miller/Coors ownership.)
If you like good beer, the future is bright in the USA. If you’re headed to Colorado, you’re in for a treat.