‘A stealth history of Colorado over a couple of beers’

Sam Bock on the Museum of Boulder’s sudsy new exhibit

Charlie Papazian

There are a lot of lenses through which to look at Colorado’s history: the gold rush and mining, oil and gas, agriculture. 

But none, Sam Bock and Jason Hanson found, were as interesting or complete as the state’s craft beer industry. 

“Really, its genesis is as a book,” Sam Bock said back in 2020 when Beer Here! Brewing the New West was on exhibit at History Colorado in Denver. “What we wanted to do was write this book that was essentially about how you can understand the social and economic changes in Colorado history over 160 years through the lens of beer.”

At the time, Beer Here was attracting beer geeks and history buffs alike, and Bock, the exhibit’s lead developer, had planned multiple beer dinners, talks and events. But a nasty pandemic put a kibosh on all that. Thankfully, things of value have a habit of sticking around, and Beer Here is enjoying a new residency at the Museum of Boulder through Sept. 3, with both the exhibit and an old-fashioned Western saloon — complete with swinging doors and boot rail at the bar — for you to enjoy.

As Bock mentioned, Beer Here began as a potential book he was working on with Hanson. The two met at CU Boulder’s Center of the American West and were looking for a way to understand Colorado history, but the talks they held through the Center weren’t exactly drawing enthusiasm.

“A few people would come,” Bock said. “And they would be very interested and nice, and then they would fall asleep.”

But once they tried talking about beer, a bigger, more engaged crowd showed up. So when Hansen accepted the chief creative officer job at History Colorado, he took Bock with him, and their idea finally found the form of a museum exhibit. “It’s a stealth history of Colorado over a couple of beers,” Bock said.

That history spans the industrialization of westward expansion to the craft beer revolution. 

“If you look through the exhibit, what you see is five moments in Colorado’s history where beer is particularly illuminating,” Bock explained. “It tells us something special about what’s happening at the time.”

Those five movements — Beer on the Mining Frontier, Brewing an Industry, Prohibition, Coors Country and The Rise of Craft — all expand on what you know, or think you know, about beer in Colorado. Sure, you know Coors is “brewed with pure Rocky Mountain spring water,” but did you know that those commercials became one of the best advertisements for the Colorado lifestyle? And you probably know about the vast intersection of movements that went into passing Prohibition, but did you know the Ku Klux Klan played a role? That’s the sort of history you’ll find at Beer Here, with each section marked by artifacts, advertisements and anecdotes.

Ditto for the connections. Take the German immigrants who brought brewing to the Centennial State: Adolph Coors, Adolph Zang, Henry Schneider — to name three. “They were here to mine the miners,” Bock explained. 

“They’ll tell you it was because of the water, and, really, there is something in the water in Colorado,” Bock continued, “but, as it turns out, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, those were huge beer cities in the 1850s and 1860s. And the market was tapped, for lack of a better word.”

So those German brewers kept moving west until they found a place where the market wasn’t saturated. 

And, as Bock pointed out, a similar thing happened 100 years later with the rise of the craft beer movement. 

“[The] focus on amenities and lifestyle here in Colorado really made people feel like part of the good life is drinking great beer after a day outside,” Bock said.

And so, the great homebrew guru Charlie Papazian left Virginia for Boulder, Adam Avery moved here from Illinois, and Dale Katechis left Alabama and settled at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

It’s all part of “Colorado’s coming of age and growing into its own economy,” Bock said. 

ON TAP: Beer Here! Brewing the New West, on display through Sept. 3 at the Museum of Boulder, 2205 Broadway.