The first to 40

The early days of Boulder Beer

The first tasting of Boulder Beer at the goat shed
Boulder Beer Co.

“What are these hippies doing up here in Boulder?” Randolph Ware, co-founder of Boulder Brewing Company, remembers Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) inspector Lou Krivitzsky saying when he visited Colorado’s first craft brewery in the late 1970s.

“He was not happy,” Ware elaborates. “He had a gray suit and a thin, black acetate tie, and he was a big guy.

“At that time, the brewmaster was a guy by the name of Otto Zavatone,” Ware continues. “And Otto was a real character: storyteller, fisherman from Cape Cod, musician — he was the piano player in a band named The Fornicators (Ware played saxophone in the band.)”

Zavatone, who died in 2015 at the age of 75, is one of those colorful characters that permeate the craft-brewing world. He played the B3 Hammond Organ on Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” keyboard on Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and a slew of others. He was also Boulder Brewing’s first hire at Alvin Nelson’s goat shed in Hygiene and a raconteur of the highest accord.

“So, Otto and Lou go into the goat shed, to show him what’s going on, and they were in there about an hour,” Ware says. “When they came out, Lou was grinning from ear-to-ear. And the next time he showed up, [Lou] was on his Harley, in his leathers.

“That was another one of those windows of things not being set-up for success,” Ware chuckles.

Not set-up for success, but it was too important to fail. It didn’t, and on Saturday, July 20, Boulder Beer will celebrate its 40th anniversary at the Pub on Wilderness, Boulder Beer’s home for over 35 years. Getting to 40 was no easy task, but it certainly was colorful.

Goats on Al Nelson's farm were equipped with bottle openers on their collars. Courtesy Boulder Beer Co.

The story of Boulder Beer begins in California, at a high school in South Pasadena to be precise, where a skinny young Ware — or Stick, as his older brother teased him — learned to make homebrew from a friend’s older brother, a Louisianan on the lam and hiding out in Cali.

“He took [us] down to East L.A. and bought a bunch of brewing equipment,” Ware says. “A crock, hydrometer and Blue Ribbon malt (an extract syrup that provides beer’s fermentable sugars) and the rest, and showed us how to make homebrew. … We were using bread yeast and canned malt, and it was pretty hard to drink the stuff, but it was all we could get.”

It was enough, and Ware kept brewing. Fast forward a few years and Ware, a post-doc student at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), crosses paths with JILA chair David Hummer. Hummer had studied at University College, England, where he developed a taste for flavorful English ales, a far cry from the mass-market lagers available in the post-Prohibition U.S. Hummer also homebrewed, but with malted grains, a technique that far surpassed Ware’s extract methods.

“So we started conspiring,” Ware says.

Looking back, Boulder Beer’s director of sales, Dan Weitz, puts it simply:“They were making beer because they wanted to drink better beer.”

And they weren’t alone. Friends, family members and fellow faculty all wanted better beer — enough that Ware had an epiphany: “I just, off the top of my head, spouted, ‘Shoot, we ought to start a brewery.’”

Let’s back up. There is nothing unusual about saying, “We ought to start a brewery,” in 2019, 2009 or even 1999, for that matter. But in the late ’70s, the notion of opening a brewery would be equivalent to trying to start your own car company. Or manufacture freeze-dried coffee. Beer in the 1970s was controlled by the big three — Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors — a few regional macros, like Pabst Brewing Co. and Olympia Brewing Co., and two small breweries out in California: Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and New Albion Brewing in Sonoma; 42 in all and they were beginning to consolidate. Starting a brewery was simply not something one did.

“You know, my mom had always cautioned me against spouting off things, saying things you weren’t going to do,” Ware recounts. “So, I kind of called myself on it.” Further recalling that Hummer, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 82, would regularly claim, “I had talked him into doing the most irresponsible thing he’d ever done in his life, which was starting the brewery.”

David Hummer, Randolph "Stick" Ware and Alvin Nelson during the early days of Boulder Brewing Co. Photo courtesy of Boulder Beer Co.

Irresponsible or not, on Sept. 25, 1979, Ware, Hummer and Nelson — an engineer Ware met at CU — were issued the 43rd brewing license. The Boulder Brewing Co. was open for business. On July 4, 1980, they delivered their first case of Boulder Beer to the Gold Hill Inn.

For the first few years, Boulder Brewing operated out of a goat shed on Nelson’s farm — not exactly an ideal place to brew beer. The obstacles were numerous; from re-purposing dairy and restaurant equipment into a brewhouse to dealing with county health inspectors, building inspectors and the ATF — none of which had any experience working with small brewers.

“If we go into Boulder County and say, ‘We want to build a brewery,’ they’re going to say: ‘No. You can’t do that. Nobody’s ever done that,’” Ware recalls.

But leaning on gut instinct, ingenuity and an unwillingness to give up, Boulder Beer stayed the course. In 1984, they relocated from Hygiene to their current facility on Wilderness Place — they were the first business to set up shop in the now developed Transit Village — and survived myriad ups and downs while the craft beer revolution exploded, imploded and recovered.

Boulder Brewing circa 1984. Photo courtesy of Boulder Beer Co.

“It’s not as easy to be around for 40 years as some people might think,” Jeff Brown, president of Boulder Beer from 2002–2019 says. “[You] always have to be re-thinking what it is that you’re doing.”

Brown, who joined the company in 1990 when Gina Day purchased the struggling brewery, adds that “the ’90s were really about small brewers inserting themselves into something that had been, predominantly, players of large commercial operations.”

Also joining the team in 1990 was brewmaster David Zuckerman of BridgePort Brewing Company. He cleaned up the beers and introduced Buffalo Gold, an easy-drinking golden ale that’s been a staple ever since.

Meanwhile, the craft beer industry was going bananas — from less than 300 U.S. breweries at the beginning of the ’90s to over 1,500 breweries by the end. This sudden expansion caused a healthy amount of industry fallout, but Boulder Beer remained intact and weathered craft beer’s first major shakeup.

President Jeff Brown and brewmaster David Zuckerman in 2013. Photo courtesy of Boulder Beer Co.

How? As Brown is quick to point out, craft beer has always been “more than just beer.”

“When we started at the goat shed, we had no idea of starting a business,” Ware remembers. “It was, ‘Hey, we want to brew beer.’ And then in order to brew beer, we found out: We got to get a license, we gotta do this, we gotta do that. All the rest of it.”

That, “all the rest of it,” is an entire economic system that didn’t exist 40 years ago, but is now an integral component of industries, communities and entrepreneurs.

“Everything from manufacturing of wearables to books being written,” Brown adds, “to hop farmers out in Paonia, supplying local products to local breweries. … Brewers are influencing more than just people’s palates.”

And it all started with two homebrewers, an engineer and a goat shed 40 years ago.

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