Colorado Breweries and the Napa Valley of Beer

The wine barrel aging room at the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, one of the many Colorado breweries. Photo by Katie Christy.
The wine barrel aging room at the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, one of the many Colorado breweries. Photo by Katie Christy.

Over the last couple of years, the craft beer craze has hit the DFW Metroplex, but for over two decades there has been an area of Colorado that has become known as the Napa Valley of Beer. The area stretches from Denver up through Boulder into Fort Collins and is home to over 30 breweries, microbreweries and brew pubs. In addition to being the home of huge breweries like Adolph Coors Co. (which produces over 22 million barrels of beer per year) and Anheuser Busch, the area is home to Colorado breweries such as New Belgium, Breckenridge, Oskar Blue and Left Hand. I recently traveled to the Mile High City and got to experience a number of these Colorado breweries and drink some delicious craft beer from the source.

With the area unofficially dubbed the Napa Valley of Beer, there were plenty of tours that would take you out to many of the Colorado breweries. Each tour is unique so the three I attended were a walking tour through downtown Denver, a small tour by van around the outskirts of Denver and a brew bus tour that took us out to Fort Collins. Each of these tours was unique, but on each tour one brewery managed to stand above the rest.

On the walking tour through downtown Denver, we began our tour at the Rock Bottom Brewery. Like many of the breweries we encountered over the visit, this was a brew pub, which means it was also a restaurant that served good food. We enjoyed our samples and traveled around to a few more Colorado breweries, but the one that really took my breath away was the Wynkoop Brewing Company in the Lower Downtown neighborhood (only a couple of blocks from Coors Field).

Wynkoop was the first brew pub in Denver and opened in 1988. One thing really impressed me was the building itself that held the brewery. The building was over 100 years old and still had original hardwood floors, wooden beams in the ceiling and had beautiful exposed brick. In addition to being a huge space and housing a bevy of pool tables, the beer was also delicious! Of note was a chili beer and the B3K Black Lager that both caught my attention (and my taste buds).

Following the walking tour was our tour by van around Denver to see more Colorado breweries. We stopped in some smaller breweries such as the Strange Brewing Company, but the one that knocked my socks off was the Breckenridge Brewery. This was the third Colorado brewery to open when it first began pouring beers in 1990 and originally was located in Breckenridge, Colo. As the brewery grew, it moved into Denver in 1992 where it is still brewing delicious beers today. You may see some Breckenridge beers on the shelf next time you are at the grocery store or liquor store including the seasonal Christmas Ale, Avalanche and (one of my favorites) Vanilla Porter.

The tour took us behind the scenes through the mash kettles, fermenters and bottling area. It was amazing to see the process of how they create these delicious brews and the fact that I drink the very same beer back home in Texas. The conclusion of the tour included a tasting of six Breckenridge Brewery beers. We were delighted that we also got to sample two more brand new beers including a gingerbread beer called the Cookie Cutter and the new Nitro Vanilla Porter (obviously I was very excited). Breckenridge is certainly a must-see if you are in Denver. They have a brew pub near Coors Field in Lower Downtown and the main brewery is a little further out, but also serves BBQ. I didn’t have any, but I assure you it smelled delicious.

Because my liver hadn’t had enough yet, the final tour was by “brew bus” that took us out to Fort Collins for the day. I was giddy on the hour drive up out of Denver to our final stop of Colorado breweries. We stopped by the Odell Brewing Company and ate at the Fort Collins Brewery among other stops, but the best stop of the entire Napa Valley of Beer trip was the New Belgium Brewery tour. I have always been a fan of New Belgium’s flagship beer, Fat Tire, and since have come to love many of their beers. This was a bucket list brewery tour and the 90-minute adventure did not disappoint.

We learned about the history of the brewery, which was founded in 1991. The founder rode his bike across Belgium to learn secrets of brewing beer before coming back to the states and starting New Belgium in his basement. The brewery now is one of the largest in the U.S. and produces hundreds of thousands of barrels of beer per year. The tour took us through some amazing additions to the brewery, including a huge mash kettle room with its own bar, the giant fermenter tanks and the barrel aging room (shown above). The barrel aging room consisted of over 30 huge wine barrels that had been flown in from France for beer to age and ferment in, giving some New Belgium beers unique flavors and finishes. Our tour guide was extremely helpful, informative and he made sure that everyone had a beer in their hand the entire way. We never had the same beer twice on the tour and probably had around seven or eight different beers on the entire tour.

Overall the Colorado breweries I experienced were extremely fun and very impressive. The Napa Valley of Beer certainly did not disappoint and it will only be a matter of time before I go back to experience more breweries I have yet to try.

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