Article by Ed Quillen
Local Brewing History – August 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine
As a member in good standing of the Western Rural Curmudgeon Association (dues $5 a year to General Delivery, Backwater, Wyo.), I can find much to bemoan in the current transformations of our communities.
Life proceeds at a congenial pace for in a sleepy little mountain town, and then suddenly we must face the very monster that we were hiding from, Modern America: cellular telephones, cash machines, fax lines, grocery lines, bank lines, parking hassles, mountain bikes, coffee bars, Lycra lemmings, stratospheric rents, alternative construction, and brew-pubs.
However, some of these developments represent not mere novelty, but the continuation of tradition. Last month, this magazine published a long story about “alternative” building in Saguache County, which follows American tradition by allowing its citizens to build sensibly without imposing codes upon them.
Strawbales, adobe, old tires, and the like may seem rather exotic in a homogenized land of balloon-frame houses, but I grew up in a house my dad built from recycled logs, doors, and windows.
My Grandpa Wollen homesteaded in central Wyoming in 1919, and his ranch house was assembled from whatever he could scrounge — slab walls, license-plate patches, fieldstone foundation. Some neighbors built soddies (at least a cousin to “new age” rammed-earth), others burrowed into dug-outs (earth-bermed shelter constructed of indigenous materials) or erected stone houses. Had there been a supply of old boxcars, bald tires, or straw, Wyoming ranchers would have used them.
The idea of importing fabricated materials to meet uniform national standards — that’s the real novelty, and yet we often think of the expensive modern way as the norm and of the traditional ways of our ancestors as bizarre or perhaps even “New Age.”
In the informal Index of Cultural Change Indicators, the arrival of a brew-pub signifies Emergent Yupscale Gentrification, and the People of Money must be poised to strike.
Will the downtown hardware store turn into a crystal boutique? When do they eliminate smoking at the neighborhood tavern? Will you be able to order a real burger, or will a local ordinance require seafood, pasta, and tofu while banning red meat, white sugar, and blue collars?
The small local brewery, at least, continues a tradition in central Colorado. Almost a dozen towns — Fairplay, Florence, Granite, Gunnison, Leadville, Malta, Rosita, Saguache, Salida, Silver Cliff, Westcliffe — boasted one or more breweries at various times. Bonanza, the mining camp above Villa Grove, probably had one, too. The records are silent, but why else would Brewery Creek, like Slaughterhouse Creek, flow into Kerber Creek?
[Since this story was published, the author learned that the suspected Bonanza brewery was actually in Exchequerville, a nearby suburb.]
In the two peak years, 1882 and 1889, at least seven breweries operated in the region.
Why so many? In those days, transportation. Mining camps were known for their thirst. A distant distillery could supply bourbon and rye, since red-eye doesn’t suffer in transit and has a high value relative to its bulk. Shipping, even on a burro’s back, will pay.
But beer is bulky, perishable, and needful of careful transit, and it is possible to make beer in any kitchen. So exorbitant shipping costs usually translated into more brewers, not richer teamsters.
Like bread-making, though, brewing requires more dedication and patience than most consumers want to invest. For those who would brew it locally, beer was an ideal product: cheap to produce and popular to a fault.
The ingredients of traditional beer are water, available even in the arid West; barley, as cheap and easy as wheat or corn to grow and ship; and hops, which grow wild almost everywhere. Breweries were thus among the first food-processing industries in the West.
No sooner had land speculators, prostitutes, and gamblers founded Denver than the Rocky Mountain Brewery sprouted at Seventh and Platte streets in 1859. It survived as the Zang Brewery until 1915 when Colorado, by then under control of do-gooders bent on purifying society, adopted prohibition four years before all of America went dry.
In Central Colorado, brewing arrived in 1866, when Charles and Leonard Summer tapped the first keg of South Park Lager Beer from their Fairplay brewery. They held on through fire and depression until 1891, and ironically, the region’s oldest brewing operation is the only brewhouse, to my knowledge, that still stands.
At the South Park City museum on the edge of Fairplay, the handsome stone main museum building is the Summer brewhouse, built in 1873 after a fire leveled Fairplay.
The Summer Brothers Brewery now holds dioramas and artifacts rather than mash tuns and brew kettles. A few yards downhill is the Summer Saloon, complete with a faro layout below an immense painting of a voluptuous nude.
The Summer complex of brewery and adjacent tavern was essentially a brew-pub, and it was built 121 years ago.
WHEN LEADVILLE BOOMED in the late 1870s, the Summer brothers hauled South Park lager over the Weston Pass wagon road — it was doubtless rather foamy upon arrival. They couldn’t begin to meet the demands of the 113 saloons listed in the 1880 Leadville city directory.
Combine the beer halls with various gin mills and opium dens, and it appears that our forebears had some serious substance-abuse problems.
They did, and the horrified reaction by mainstream society at the turn of the century was to pass restrictive laws — Prohibition was only one facet of a virtue crusade that also took the cocaine out of Coca-Cola and the heroin out of cough drops.
The abundance of saloons indicated something beyond thirst. In mining camps, men lived in ill heated poorly-lit shacks. They had no parlors for entertaining; they met their friends at the saloon, which was warm and comfortable. In the words of Leadville historian Ned Blair, saloons gave the residents of mountain towns a place to talk about “the day’s work, politics, and the general conditions of the camp, state, and nation.”
In many camps, saloons were the only public buildings. On Sunday mornings. the roulette wheels would stop so Father Dyer could preach. Before there was a courthouse, trials convened in saloons. The first saloons were not just beer outlets; they housed most institutions of community.
Thanks to the size and nature of its population, early-day Leadville attracted many brewers — eight in or near town, and another three at the nearby railroad junction of Malta.
Best-known was Columbine Beer, which the Gaw family produced from the 1878 boom until 1915 prohibition. They had an office in town at 103 Harrison, and the brewery operated in California Gulch across the road from the Lake County Sampling Works.
With California Gulch, one has to wonder about the quality of the water that made Columbine Beer, but at the turn of the century, it outsold Coors. Someone should tell the EPA that “Impure Rocky Mountain Mine-drainage Water” may make better beer than “Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water. ” I’ve heard that you can still find Columbine bottles in Leadville antique stores, but I’ve never seen one.
Another Cloud City thirst-quencher was the Leadville Brewery, opened by Koch and Lichter in 1879. It operated until 1891, and sat north of town under Mt. Zion where Ten-Mile Road (roughly today’s Colo. 91) crossed the Arkansas. A short-lived neighbor, the Feuerstein Brewery, operated in 1879-80.
“Short-lived” also describes Salida’s brewery, Munn & Munn, which opened and closed in 1893.
Nor were any endurance records set by William Bingle’s Saguache Brewery, which opened in 1885 and closed in 1886. Bingle deserves more attention, because he also had a brewery in Alamosa from 1879 to 1882, in Colorado City (now a suburb of Colorado Springs) in 1879, and in Del Norte from 1873 to at least 1891.
ON THE OTHER SIDE of the Sangres, brewing came with the silver rush in 1874, when O.P. Townsend began fermenting in Rosita. The enterprise continued until 1890, and he faced competition nearby from Seidenstecker & Co. in Silver Cliff from 1880 to 1892. In 1893, the Wet Mountain Brewery opened in Westcliffe, staying in business until 1905.
We should also remember that newborn Chaffee County drew its first breath in a brewery.
When Chaffee was carved off from Lake County in 1879, Granite was the county seat. Granite didn’t have a courthouse, but it did have the brewery that John Gaster opened in 1874. Thus the first meeting of the Chaffee County Commissioners was held on the second floor amid the aroma of sweet malt infused with pungent hops.
Many of us who’ve sat through Chaffee County Commission meetings have wished that It were still possible to slip downstairs for a fresh, cold one. But the brewery closed in 1880, about the time the courthouse moved to Buena Vista, which never had a brewery.
STATEWIDE PROHIBITION in 1915 killed many Colorado breweries, but they were survivors of the first assault, the refrigerated railroad car that appeared in the 1880s. Reefer cars meant beer could be shipped without too much damage, and so existing breweries could serve new markets. Contrast Leadville, which boomed in 1878 and boasted 11 breweries, to Cripple Creek, which boomed in 1892, and never had its own brewery because it lay within reach of Coors of Golden, Tivoli and Zang of Denver, and Walter’s of Pueblo — even Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis.
Salida has many well-preserved old buildings, but the beer structure among them is not a brewery. It is the railroad’s “beer depot,” the brick building with the high front porch on the east side of First Street next to the old railroad grade. There kegs and cases were removed from reefer cars and hauled by wagon to the “Front Street Resort District,” today’s Sackett Avenue, and the empties were hauled hack to be returned to the breweries. Salida was so thirsty that the railroad maintained a passenger depot, a freight depot, and a beer depot.
Where was the Salida brewery? The library has no city directories from 1893, and a quick perusal Of old newspapers revealed a regular ad for Zang’s Rocky Mountain Lager and a ~Salida Bottling Works” which may have been related to the Munn & Munn operation. A downtown map from 1893 shows several “female boarding houses” in the “Front Street Resort District” (bordellos on Sackett Avenue), and a “Beer Vault” in the same tenderloin neighborhood.
These days, I can complain mightily about creeping yuppification, but I also know that a local beer is an excellent lubricant when it’s time to practice curmudgeonry.
Also I confess that I like many of the “new” things we’re getting. The real challenge before us is not to repel the new, but to keep what’s good about the old — the relaxed pace that allows stopping in the street to talk to friends, communities that retain a pedestrian scale and serve people rather than cars, corner drugstores and downtown hardware stores where they’ll make the part you need if it’s not in stock, and places where one can meet with friends and discuss “the day’s work, politics, and the general conditions Of the camp, state, and nation.”
When Ed Quillen had a day job as managing editor of the Salida Mountain Mail, he brewed beer as a hobby. But since he quit working in 1983, he hasn’t found time for bottling, let alone a step-infusion mash.