Colorado Beercation Part 1 – Fort Collins

Have you ever gone on a beercation?  I’m not talking about working a few brewery visits into your normal vacation, but a trip where the itinerary revolves around seeking out and drinking the most delicious beer you can find. Learn about the intricacies of decoction mashing instead of wasting time at the art museum.  Visit nondescript industrial parks instead of national parks.  Trade in high price big city hotels for more affordable options in exotic locales like Grand Rapids, Michigan and Munster, Indiana.

On the pages of this blog I’ve chronicled beercations to San Diego, Asheville, and Bend. On all of these trips the hard core beercation part of the journey lasted about two days.  So when my friend Ralph asked if I would like to join him for a Colorado beercation that extended over 4-5 days I wondered if we might be biting off more than we could chew.   After all there’s a reason why the weekend only lasts two days. Despite my apprehension I couldn’t help but accept Ralph’s offer, and I’m happy to report that we lived to tell about it. This is an account of our journey, which spanned four and a half days and led us to fifteen breweries and two of the best beer bars in the country.  I hope it may be of use to anyone planning a similar trip.

A good beercation starts with planning.  Thinking through the details of transportation, food, and lodging in advance can make all of the difference.  I relied primarily on two sources of information to plan this trip—Dan Rabin’s comprehensive and well written guidebook entitled “Colorado Breweries” and the Boulder/Denver/Fort Collins map on the beermapping project. To supplement these useful sources of information, I’ve included some details on how we got from brewery A to brewery B, their operating hours, my pick for the best beer(s) to try at each stop, and a few ideas for non-brewery activities to break up the trip.

For the sake of readability I’ve broken the story up into three parts based on the geographic locations of the breweries we visited.  This first post describes our stops in Fort Collins, tomorrow’s post focuses on breweries in Boulder and the surrounding communities, and final installment covers the Denver metropolitan area.

Colorado Craft Beer

Fort Collins

I landed at the Denver Airport around 10:30 am on a sunny Wednesday morning in mid-July.   Ralph, who had already been in Colorado for nearly a week, met me outside and we set off on our journey.  After a noontime stop at Aurora’s Dry Dock Brewing, which I will describe in more detail in part 3, we headed for Fort Collins.

With a population of roughly 150,000 and an elevation just over 5000 feet, Fort Collins is the northernmost city on Colorado’s Front Range.  It is home to Colorado State University and no less than a dozen breweries and brewpubs, including a Budweiser plant and Colorado’s largest craft brewery, New Belgium.  The old town contains about two dozen historic buildings and has somewhat of a small town vibe to it.

We stayed at a Marriot on Horsetooth Road, south of the university. A handy feature about Fort Collins is the Max Bus line, a north-south bus route that runs along Mason Street from the old town through the CSU campus to points further south, including one stop on Horsetooth Road within walking distance of our hotel.  A day pass will cost you $3 or you can pay $1.25 per ride (you buy the tickets from machines located at each stop not from the driver).  Taking advantage of the Max Line and a few strategic über car rides we were able to hit all of the stops in Fort Collins without any need for our rental car.  The same cannot be said for the Boulder and Denver legs of the tirp.

The stops on the Fort Collins leg of our trip. As a sense of scale the distance from Equinox to Funkwerks is just over 2 miles.
The stops on the Fort Collins leg of our trip. As a sense of scale the distance from Equinox to Funkwerks is just over 2 miles.

Equinox

  • Address: 133 Remington Street, Fort Collins, CO 80524
  • Website: http://www.equinoxbrewing.com
  • Hours: Mon-Wed 12-8; Thur-Fri 12-9; Sat 11-9; Sun 12-7
  • Pats Pints Pick: The Details Belgian Golden Strong

Upon arriving in Fort Collins we checked into our hotel.  It was getting onto 5 pm now, which was a little late for visiting some of the bigger name Fort Collins breweries.  Instead we parked the car, jumped on the MAX bus line and headed to Equinox Brewing in old town Fort Collins.  Equinox has a welcoming, laid back atmosphere, with a clientele that spans multiple generations.  The inside is divided into three separate rooms and there is an enclosed outdoor beer garden in the back.  When we visited there were only 10-20 patrons in residence, but given its location I can imagine it gets busy on weekend night.

The taplist is extensive, with 19 house beers that cover a lot of ground in terms of style.  It’s not every place that offers a hefeweizen, an imperial hefeweizen, a dunkelweizen, four different IPAs, and two cask conditioned ales poured from beer engines.  One appealing aspect is the option to get your beer in one of three different sizes for a fair price—$3 for a 10 ounce pour, $4.50 for a 16 ounce pint, and $5.50 for a 20 ounce imperial pint.  Ralph and I both ordered one of the $8 flights. The weizen beers were nicely done and the Nothing But Flowers IPA, made with hibiscus and rose petals, had a delicate floral nose and a crisp finish.  However, the standout was a Belgian Golden Strong called The Details, an excellent example of the style that hides its 9.2% abv extremely well.

The extensive beer menu at Equinox Brewing
The extensive beer menu at Equinox Brewing

Coopersmith’s Pub and Brewing

  • Address: 5 Old Town Square, Fort Collins, CO 80524
  • Website: http://www.coopersmiths pub.com
  • Hours: Sun-Thur 11-11; Fri-Sat 11-midnight
  • Pats Pints Pick: I didn’t try enough to recommend anything, however they are known for their Sigda’s Green Chile Beer

After leaving Equinox it was time to get some food.  Almost immediately we came across Coopersmith’s Pub and Brewing, so we thought why not get some grub there and check out the beer at the same time.  Coopersmith’s is the oldest brewpub in Fort Collins (est. 1989) and is located in Old Town Square, right in the heart of downtown Fort Collins. It’s a big space, divided into two separate buildings, The Pubside and The Poolside.  We got a table in the latter, which boasts a dozen or more pool tables, a shuffleboard table, and several dartboards.  I’m a sucker for Nelson Sauvin hops so when I saw a beer called Full Nelson IPA I didn’t look any further.  It was drinkable, but a pale shadow of the Nelson IPA by Alpine that I would have three nights later at the Falling Rock Taproom in Denver.  Fort Collins is a town full of exceptional breweries, but this is not one of them.  On the plus side you can get something to eat here, and it seems like a good place to chill out and play some pool or darts if that is what you are looking to do.

Hanging poolside Fort Collins style.
Hanging poolside Fort Collins style.

New Belgium

  • Address: 500 Linden St., Fort Collins, CO 80524
  • Website: http://www.newbelgium.com
  • Hours: Tue-Sun 11-6 (closed on Mondays)
  • Pats Pints Pick: A sour or something from the Lips of Faith Series, the Cocoa Mole was my favorite of those pouring when we visited

Thursday morning we drove up into the mountains to have breakfast and take a look around the resort town of Estes Park, which sits near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.  We delayed going into the park itself for another day to make sure we had enough time for our mission, visiting the big three of Fort Collins brewing scene—New Belgium, Odell, and Funkwerks.

Our first stop of the day was New Belgium.  We took the Max bus to Mountain Avenue and made the half mile or so walk to New Belgium.  As the fourth largest craft brewery in the country, and the first to brew and widely distribute sours, a visit to New Belgium is on the bucket list of more than a few beer geeks.  I’d heard all sorts of good things about the tour, but when we went to book a spot a couple of weeks in advance of our trip we were disappointed to learn that all of the tours for the next 4-5 weeks were fully booked.  So it was a pleasant surprise when we walked up and they were able to slot us into the 2 pm tour that was just starting.

The free tour takes 90 minutes and includes four different stops, each of which comes with a chance to sample a New Belgium beer.  At the first stop, near the gargantuan mash and lauter tuns, you get to pour your own sample, choosing from 10 or so tap handles. I chose a Cocoa Mole from the Lips of Faith series, a spiced porter that nicely captures the spicy-chocolatey flavors of mole sauce.  The next stop, the sour beer hall, was easily my favorite.  The entire space is packed full of giant oak foeders that New Belgium has acquired over the years, 64 in total.  It’s the largest sour beer aging facility in the United States and for all I know the most densely concentrated stand of oak on the Front Range. We learned that most of New Belgium’s sour beers start from one of two base beers—a golden lager called Felix and a dark lager (very similar to New Belgium 1554) called Oscar (those of you old enough to remember the Odd Couple will get the scheme behind the names).  During our tour we got to taste Eric’s Ale, a moderately tart golden ale aged in oak foeders over peaches.

A snifter of the tart, fruity Eric's Ale poses in front of a few of the giant oak foeders in the New Belgium souring center.
A snifter of the tart, fruity Eric’s Ale poses in front of a few of the giant oak foeders in the New Belgium souring center.

The last two stops on the tour take you to the bottling line and the canning line respectively.  The samples at those stops are freshly bottled Ranger IPA and Blue Paddle Pilsner.  To be honest they could probably cut out one of those stops and at least one story about how New Belgium employees are the happiest in the world, but that’s nitpicking.  You end the tour by going down a spiral steel slide into the tasting room.  If you have exposed elbows or knees I’d advise you to keep them tucked in or else you’re likely to leave a little skin behind. Trust me it’s easier said than done.

The taproom, dubbed the liquid refreshment center, is smaller than you would expect for such a massive and popular brewery.  Finding an empty seat is not guaranteed, but the turnover is pretty fast so most everyone does get a seat within a few minutes.  When we visited they were pouring all of the standard New Belgium offerings (Fat Tire, Ranger, Blue Paddle, Shift, …), a couple of sours (not La Folie though), two Lips of Faith beers, and a similar number of taproom only beers brewed on the pilot system.  I had a small pour of the Mosaic Blonde, a bright, easy drinking blonde ale that showcased the melon, blueberry, and tropical fruit flavors of Mosaic hops.

Every New Belgium employee gets a bike after 1 year, a trip to Belgium after 5 years, and a sabbatical after 10 years service.
Every New Belgium employee gets a bike after 1 year, a trip to Belgium after 5 years, and a sabbatical after 10 years service.

Odell Brewing

  • Address: 800 East Lincoln Ave., Fort Collins, CO 80524
  • Website: http://www.odellbrewing.com
  • Hours: Sun-Tue 11-6; Wed-Sat 11-7
  • Pats Pints Pick: St. Lupulin Extra Pale Ale

We left New Belgium around 4 pm and made the half mile journey to Odell on foot. In contrast to New Belgium the taproom at Odell is expansive. There are multiple rooms, a large terraced outdoor patio full of tables shaded by umbrellas, and a merchandise area that is quite possibly the largest one we encountered on the entire trip.  The taproom is decorated with large prints of the attractive labels that adorn Odell beers.  In the back part of the taproom enticing smells of seeping malts were wafting through the air. They give tours every hour between 1 and 4 pm, but we showed up too late for the last tour.  Unlike New Belgium reservations are not required as spots are given out on a first come first serve basis.

The serving system at Odell is unusual, but efficient.  There are two people manning cash registers who take your order and money, you then walk around the corner of the L shaped bar where a the servers are pouring beers and bringing them  up to the counter.  It resembles the serving line at a fast food restaurant.  Not the most personable system but it keeps the waits short in a busy taproom.  They offer multiple types of pre-selected flights or you can order beers individually. All of the standard Odell beers were available, as well as 6-7 taproom only beers.

Happiness is dispensed four ounces at a time at Odell Brewing.
Happiness is dispensed four ounces at a time at Odell Brewing.

All of the proceeds from the Odell taproom go to charity. So I did my part to make the world a better place, by drinking some beer.  In my opinion Odell does hoppy ales as well as anyone in Colorado, so I went for a five beer flight that contained St. Lupulin Pale Ale, Odell IPA, and Myrcenary DIPA.  They did not disappoint.  The St. Lupulin was my favorite of the bunch.  It wows you with floral hop aroma and follows through with a clean, crisp finish.  The Myrcenary was not far behind with dank fruity hops at the fore in every phase of the drink, an oily mouthfeel befitting the name, all wrapped around a 9.3% abv that is artfully hidden.

I couldn’t leave without trying a couple of the specialty beers.  In the spirit of keeping things light I had a glass of Brombeer, a very respectable blackberry gose.  Ralph and I finished by splitting a glass of Don’t Hazel the Hoff.  The name might elicit a snicker, but this hazelnut, coconut porter was the real deal.  Delicious and one of the more interesting beers I tried during the trip.  I don’t know how well the tour at Odell matches up to the one at New Belgium, but the Odell beers are every bit a match for New Belgium’s and then some.

Odell_St Lupulin

Funkwerks

  • Address: 1900 East Lincoln Ave., Fort Collins, CO 80524
  • Website: http://www.funkwerks.com
  • Hours: Sun-Thur 12-8; Fri-Sat 12-9
  • Pats Pints Pick: Funkwerks Saison

After leaving Odell we set off for our third and most distant stop of the day, Funkwerks. This leg of the journey is a little bit more of a haul, just over a mile on Lincoln Avenue which is not the most pedestrian friendly of streets.  The walk took us past Fort Collins Brewery, but we were on a mission and did not waver from our path.  After what seemed like an endless journey (but in actuality was only 30 minutes) jumping over irrigation ditches and walking through parking lots in the hot Colorado sun we finally spotted a sign bearing the distinctive Funkwerks logo.

A sure sign that fabulous saisons are near at hand.

At this point in the story I digress to describe my wardrobe choice for the day—a pair of dark gray shorts and a t-shirt from Fatheads Brewing in Cleveland.  The relevance of that piece of trivia only became apparent when I walked into Funkwerks.  Before I had time to take two steps into the cozy taproom, two men sitting at the bar raised their glasses and gave a hearty “Fatheads” cheer.  Shirts bearing the logo of a faraway brewery are often a good conversation starter when visiting a brewery, but this level of enthusiasm was unprecedented for me.  After recovering the shock of my welcome I realized that both men were also wearing Fatheads t-shirts.  Shortly thereafter I learned that they were not just Fatheads fan boys (no shame in that title though) but none other than Mike Zoscak, brewer at Fatheads in Cleveland and his friend who acts as Fathead’s unofficial Colorado ambassador (Editors Note: I had a great conversation with Mr. Ambassador and wrote his name down in my tasting notebook, but unfortunately the notebook was a casualty of war and didn’t make it back to the hotel room at the end of the night.)  We joined the Fatheads crew at the bar and proceeded to have a great conversation while drinking some of the best saisons in the country.  It turns out Mike was there for a beer-food pairing competition the night before, one that featured Head Hunter IPA and a hot fried chicken dish if I’m not mistaken.

Posing with my new friends from Fatheads, brewer Mike Zoscak is on the right.
Posing with my new friends from Fatheads, brewer Mike Zoscak is on the right.

My ability to describe the nuances of the Funkwerks slate of beers was compromised by three factors: (1) the aforementioned loss of my notebook, (2) the accumulation of beers I had already enjoyed at New Belgium and Odell, compounded by those I would down at Funkwerks, (3) our conversations with the Fatheads delegation.  What I can tell you is that they pour some damn tasty Belgian style beer.  The one beer that stood out for me was the Funkwerks Saison, a 2012 GABF Gold Medalist.  After finishing the Funkwerks flight (they serve the their flight in full size tulip glasses which is so much better than a small tasting glass filled to the rim), I couldn’t resist a half pour of the barrel aged quad.  My memory assures me it was lovely with a big bouquet of dark fruits accented masterfully with notes of vanilla, oak, and a hint of bourbon, but I’d take those notes with a grain of salt.  Imperfect memory aside, I can assure you that Funkwerks is the real deal.  If you are the least bit into farmhouse ales and other Belgian-styles this is a stop not to be missed.

The menu board at Funkwerks.
The menu board at Funkwerks.

The Mayor of Old Town

  • Address: 632 South Mason St., Fort Collins, CO 80524
  • Website: themayorofoldtown.com
  • Hours: Mon-Sun 11-midnight
  • Pats Pints Pick: With 100 beers on tap there’s something for everyone and the servers are knowledgeable.

Funkwerks closes at 8 pm on a Thursday so there was still an hour or so of daylight remaining when we closed the place down.  Although we had made the journey out there on foot we were in no mood or shape to make the 2 mile walk back to downtown, so we ordered up an über cab to take us back to old town Fort Collins. Working from plans made earlier in the day we had planned to finish with beer and food at one of two bars in Fort Collins that were on Draft Magazine’s list of the top 100 beer bars in the country.  Based on proximity more than anything else we had the car drop us off at the Tap and Handle.  We took a seat, got some menus and water from our server, and then waited for him to return.  After 10+ minutes of waiting to place an order we decided to duck out and head for Fort Collins other highly regarded beer bar, The Mayor of Old Town.

Our experience at the Mayor of Old Town was the exact opposite of the Tap and Handle, prompt service with an engaging, knowledgeable waitress. With 100 beers on tap it’s so hard to choose, but it helps somewhat that you can get flights.  I opted for a flight that had a mix of local beers (Horse and Dragon’s Sad Panda Coffee Stout, and a beer from Verboten Brewery aged in absinthe barrels) and heavy hitters from the west coast that don’t make it out to Ohio (Half Hitch DIPA from Crux Fermentation Project, Firestone Walker 18th Anniversary Ale, and Pliny the Elder).  I learned that I don’t care for absinthe flavored beer, and my admiration for Crux beers was confirmed.  Pliny was Pliny, always good but difficult to live up to the unrealistic expectations that one tends to impose on this iconic beer. The crab cakes were excellent, but then again at that point in the night they could have served me a microwave burrito and it would have tasted superb.

Like a kid in a candy store, so many choices at The Mayor of Old Town.
Like a kid in a candy store, so many choices at The Mayor of Old Town.

That wraps up the first part of our adventure.  Come back tomorrow to read about the second leg of our journey that features tops at Oskar Blues, Avery and Left Hand among others.

One thought on “Colorado Beercation Part 1 – Fort Collins

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  1. As the owner of Tap and Handle, I would like to express that the service (or lack of) is not representative of our usual operation. I assure you that I will look into this matter so that it does not happen again. I’m glad you had an otherwise pleasant trip in Fort Collins!

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