No need for an inferiority complex

A brief history of Longmont brewing

Eric Wallace and Dick Doore of Left Hand Brewing Co.

Home to 11 operating breweries — including one with roots in Lyons, and another stretching down to Niwot — and a dozen-plus dedicated tap houses, Longmont is beer country.

And yet, it’s Fort Collins, 30 miles north, that English beer scribe Michael Jackson dubbed, “the Napa Valley of beer.” And it’s Boulder, 22 miles southwest, that boasts the headquarters of the Brewers Association, the American Homebrewers Association and Brewers Publication; the birth of the Great American Beer Festival; and the first post-Prohibition craft brewery in the state.

Sort of: That brewery, the Boulder Brewing Company, may have been conceived by a couple of CU-Boulder engineers, but when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms issued the permit, the address read: 15555 N. 83rd St., Longmont, Colo. 80501.

That’s right, the beginning of Colorado’s craft beer revolution began in Longmont.

Boulder Brewing moved south to its namesake in 1984. It would be another decade before Longmont started producing beer again, but one brewery would give way to many. And, by 2011, two of those would be among the most influential in the entire craft beer movement.

‘Now is the time.’

Like most brewing communities, Longmont’s beer scene was initially conceived overseas before taking root in American soil.

Eric Wallace and Dick Doore were the first to plant in the town of 51,000.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Wallace was the son of an Air Force officer and grew up all over the world, notably going to high school in Germany before returning to the States, “confused and flabbergasted that the wealthiest country on Earth had such a monochromatic view of the beer world.”

Following in his father’s footsteps, Wallace joined the Air Force Academy, then tech school, and spent the remainder of the 1980s overseas. It was at the Academy, in ‘82, that he crossed paths with Doore: born in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, raised in a rural New Hampshire farm town.

Life overseas — in Germany, Italy, Turkey and England — contributed significantly to their sense of beer-drinking culture. When the two returned to the States in the early ‘90s, they settled in Niwot and decided to partner. Wallace was invigorated by a recent cross-country trip of every major craft brewery at that time — “All the way to Homer, Alaska, and back.” — and Doore had been homebrewing since his brother gave him a homebrew kit in ‘90. Enthusiasm collided with experience.

“Dude, what are we going to do?” Wallace recounts. “This beer thing is going to happen. Now is the time. It is the time.”

According to Doore, the first beer they brewed together was a stout.

“We brewed it once. And started drinking that first batch,” Doore told Theresa McCulla, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution. “I think by the end of that evening, we had decided to start a brewery.”

They began visiting every brewery they could drive to, talk to any brewer who would give them time, and broke down any beer they could drink for inspiration.

They also needed a place to brew, and a 5,300-square-foot former meatpacking plant on Boston Avenue proved to be ideal — even if the previous owner lost his right arm in a sausage grinder.

Oddly enough, that’s not where Left Hand got its name. Wallace and Doore originally wanted to call their brewery Indian Peak Brewing Company, but there was a naming conflict. Instead, they looked to their home of Niwot — the Southern Arapaho word for “left hand” — and drew inspiration there.

Wallace and Doore incorporated Left Hand in September 1993, started building out the brewery in October, and brewed their first batch of beer, Sawtooth Amber Ale, on Jan. 2, 1994. That same year, Sawtooth netted the two a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

•  •  •  •

Wallace and Doore were far from the only ones who thought opening a brewery in the ‘90s was a good idea. At a nearby aerospace company, Craig Taylor was trying to recruit Dennis Coombs to do the same thing. Like most professional brewers, Taylor was a homebrewer tipsy on his tipple and saw a future in it. Coombs was game, as was Dave D’Epagnier, who overheard Taylor and Coombs talking shop. He, too, was a homebrewer and wanted in. Soon Tom Charles was on board, and the foursome had momentum.

“We just jumped into it,” Taylor told author Dan Rabin.

Located on the northeast corner of Main Street and Sixth Avenue, Pumphouse Brewery resides in the “William Lugg Building,” named after a prominent Longmont businessman from the early 1900s. The building had been host to a wide array of businesses — from wood and coal storage to a roller rink — but never a fire station. That didn’t matter to Taylor and company; you need a theme to stand out, and a firehouse theme was as good as any.

The four had the passion and a location; they just needed direction. Enter Ross Hagen, who brought brewpub experience. The quintet was set, and May 1, 1996, Pumphouse Brewery & Restaurant opened with a firehouse décor and similarly themed beers.

•  •  •  •

At the beginning of the 1990s, Longmont had no breweries. By the turn of the century: three had opened, two remained.

The third, Overland Stage Stop Brewery (located at 526 Main St.), opened in ‘95 with the help of Wallace and Doore. By the time it closed in ‘99, another familiar name was associated with Overland: Dale Katechis.

Born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, Katechis might have been the only homebrewer in The Heart of Dixie. There he met and married his high school sweetheart, and there he read a ‘91 Outside magazine listing Wise River, Montana, as one of the top 10 places in the country to live.

“Saw a picture of Wise River, Montana, and said: ‘That’s my life,’” Katechis recounts.

The two packed up and took off, running out of money in Boulder. They stayed with Katechis’ college roommate’s sister, found odd jobs, and fell in love with the Centennial State. Katechis started bartending at the Old Chicago on Pearl Street — a hub in the Boulder County craft brewing movement — before getting the opportunity to open the Longmont Old Chicago in ‘96. The move brought Katechis closer to his home in Lyons, but his tenure with the famed taphouse was soon to end.

“One day, at Old Chicago, a regional manager threw a calculator at my head, and I was like: ‘Fuck this, I’m done. I’m going to go do it.’”

“It” was a restaurant. Katechis grew up in the business, and it was his dream to open his own. All it took was one airborne calculator — and about $50,000 in advanced checks and credit cards.

“And we opened Oskar Blues, April 25 on a Friday night, 1997, in a four-foot snowstorm,” he says, grinning.

Named after two friends Katechis met on a bike trip — Oskar and “Old Blue” — Oskar Blues Grill & Brews is an unlikely institution to set up in a town of 1,400. The first year was quiet, and the house beer, “Oskar,” was brewed at Left Hand. One of Katechis’ regulars, Craig Engelhorn, started badgering Katechis to brew his own.

“I set about teasing Dale that his new restaurant should have a brewery. After all, it was the ’90s and we were in Colorado,” Engelhorn told Virginia Miller in 2018.

A self-described “mediocre homebrewer,” Katechis called Engelhorn’s bluff. Engelhorn then found a used 6-barrel system built by legendary brewer Jim Schlueter in Santa Clarita, California, for sale.

“We went out to see it, and it was in the guy’s front yard, and his wife was standing in the front door,” Katechis recounts, chuckling. “It was a bitter divorce, and the brewpub was part of it.”

The two brought the brewpub back to Lyons, stuck it in Oskar Blues’ basement, and contacted Brian Lutz, whom Katechis knew from the RedFish Brewery in Boulder.

“[Lutz] was really respected, he loved making big Belgian beers,” Katechis says.

Katechis had a recipe dating back to his college days at Auburn Univeristy. He and Engelhorn also had a shared affection for North Coast Brewing’s Red Seal Ale. Add those to “Brian’s commercial experience,” and Dale’s Pale Ale was born in July 1999.

Michael J. Casey Dale Katechis oversees a canning run of Dale’s Pale Ale at the Tasty Weasel. Photo by Michael J. Casey

‘Not just us crazy rednecks up here.’

Dale’s Pale Ale was just the beginning, and Oskar Blues’ success extended into the following decade with a series of milestones. In 2002, they began canning Dale’s Pale Ale, and expanded to a 20-barrel system procured from Brian Dunn at Great Divide Brewing Company — the 6-barrel Schlueter system moved out to the barn where they still use it for R&D. In 2003, Frontier Airlines began carrying Dale’s Pale Ale on its flights, and in 2005, the New York Times awarded Dale’s Pale Ale “best pale ale in the country” in a blind taste test.

“I was really that moment,” Katechis reflects. “It’s not just us crazy rednecks up here in Lyons. [The win] validated it, and we used it.”

“Best pale ale in the country” pushed Oskar Blues to the next level.

“Years and years of triple-digit growth” followed, and in 2008, Oskar Blues expanded to Longmont with a 35,000-square-foot production brewery, affectionately dubbed: the Tasty Weasel.

•  •  •  •

Left Hand’s trajectory was similar. Though years ’94 through ’98 saw rapid growth, the capital-intensive nature of brewing also made for lean times at the brewery. Then, in April 1998, Left Hand bought Tabernash Brewing, a struggling brewery in Denver’s River North district.

“After buying Tabernash, we were cash-strapped,” Wallace explains. We were managing two different wholesalers, and that wasn’t working.

“And then Left Hand’s wholesaler tried to put us out,” Wallace continues. “They closed down their division and left us hanging.”

That was in June, three days before Left Hand planned to ship its first 12-ounce six-packs. Wallace, who is still a little bitter about the endeavor, resolved not to be put in those straights again.

“After a bunch of gyrations, we started our own distribution company,” he explains. “We’d been self-distributing in Boulder County the whole time, so using that as the base, as the skeleton, we built on to that and started distributing on a more widespread basis, going all the way down to Denver and into the mountains.”

Formed in November, Indian Peaks Distribution Company (never let a good name go unused) partnered with High Point Brewing Corp. in Eagle, Bristol Brewing Company in Colorado Springs, Ska Brewing in Durango and Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder to create a distribution network among independent, like-minded breweries. And as they expanded, so did their reach: North Coast Brewing Company, Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Dogfish Head Brewery, Stone Brewing Co., Allagash Brewing Company, Hair of the Dog Brewing Company, Two Brothers Artisan Brewing…

“We started bringing all of these brands into Colorado because Colorado was a good beer market — it was independent liquor stores and super competitive and super open,” Wallace says. “We got nominally profitable, over about seven years, while the brewery stayed flat [the norm in the industry at that time].

“In January 2006, we sold our distribution company to C.R. Goodman,” Wallace continues. “That allowed us to be debt-free and really focus on building a sales force and trying to grow. And that was the first of 10 years of double-digit growth.”

It also opened the door for Left Hand’s next milestone: Milk stout.

Left Hand’s iconic beer was first brewed in ’99, inspired by a trip to Tanzania where Doore discovered Castle Stout (a stout dosed with unfermentable milk sugar, i.e., lactose). The beer features a creamy mouth and a dollop of sweetness between dark roasted malts and bitter hops. It’s like dropping cream in your coffee.

“Milk Stout had basically gone extinct in the U.S., there were some oatmeal stouts around, but no milk stouts,” Wallace says. “We did it once, and then we did it again. We put it into bombers; it was popular, made a couple of batches. And then a year later, we started putting it into six-packs, with the intent that it would be the winter seasonal. It just started going.”

Milk Stout quickly became one of Left Hand’s most popular beers. But when they started packaging it nitrogenized in 2011, it became their number-one seller — rare for a dark beer. Wallace describes it as a “disturbance in the force.”

“People go: ‘I didn’t know beer could taste like this,’” Wallace says.

Leslie and Steve Kaczeus. Photo by Michael J. Casey

Your friendly neighborhood brewery

Despite strong showings from Left Hand and Oskar Blues, not to mention consistent business from Pumphouse, the 2000s were quiet for Longmont’s brewing scene.

But things began to change following the Great Recession.

Down in Niwot, Leslie and Steve Kaczeus decided to get in on the brewing scene.

“I fell in love going to Bavaria and seeing people walk down the street with the growlers in their hands,” Leslie says. “And they go to the local brewery and fill them up.”

If they were going to open a brewery, Leslie wanted it to have that communal quality.

Lucky for them, a small commercial space — 1,200 square feet — was available not too far from where they lived. Even better, the landlord was an avid beer drinker.

Leslie and Steve hail from Boulder County: He from Boulder, she from Erie. The high-tech industry both took them to California for 13 years and brought them back. But, it was a homebrew kit Leslie gifted Steve for Christmas that changed everything.

“It was kind of an outlet for me to be creative,” Steve says.

An ambitious homebrewer, Steve graduated from extracts to all-grain brewing quickly. And the beer was good. So good, they began wondering if a career in brewing was a viable next step. To test that, Steve attended a two-week seminar at the American Brewers Guild, “to learn how to brew from a technical perspective.” When Steve returned, opening a brewery was inevitable.

The Kaczeus’ opened Bootstrap Brewing Company (the name is a nod to the brewery’s DIY origins) on June 20, 2012, with a 3.5-barrel brewing system in about 400 square feet of brewing space. Cozy, to say the least.

Packaging and distribution was part of the Kaczeus’ game plan from day one, and their first beer out the door was Insane Rush, an amber-hued IPA laced with potent hops and stiff bitterness.

“It became the best-selling IPA along the Front Range,” Steve says.

Their second beer, Stick’s Pale Ale, won gold at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival.

Currently, Bootstrap distributes five core beers in liquor and grocery stores. It’s what took Bootstrap from humble beginnings to wild expansion, and eight years of growth that quickly overwhelmed their Niwot location. As things were getting their tightest, Steve reached out to Katechis (their sons played baseball together at Niwot High School) for space. Katechis agreed to store their cans at the Tasty Weasel.

One night, Steve and Leslie dropped by the Tasty Weasel for a beer. Ever seen where they keep our cans? Steve asks Leslie. No, she says.

“I take her into the back, there’s all our cans, and there’s this guy riding his bike in sandals, and it’s Dale,” Steve says, recounting how a casual conversation swiftly manifested into something more. “‘We’re looking for a building, we gotta go bigger.’ ‘How big?’ ‘I don’t know, 10-15,000 square feet.’

“[Dale] says: ‘I got a building. Wanna go check it out?’” Steve continues. “‘Alright.’ ‘Let’s go do it now.’“

Located at 142 Pratt St., Katechis’ building was what the Kaczeuses needed and more. They moved in 2017, opening a taproom and performance stage next to their dauntingly large production space; space that has quickly filled with Bootstrap beer. They brewed 7,000 barrels of beer in 2019, and Steve expects they’ll brew 9,000 to 10,000 barrels this year. It can handle 25,000 barrels, Leslie says, but they probably won’t hit that number for at least a couple years.

Dan Ditslear of 300 Suns Brewing. Photo by Susan France

After the flood

From Sept. 11-15, 2013, Longmont experienced the most devastating flash flood in its history.

Once-in-a-lifetime natural disasters have ways of destroying budding industries. Yet, Longmont and the surrounding areas bounced back stronger than before. A new wave of industry was coming, and nothing signaled this more than the closing of the Butterball turkey processing plant in 2011.

When the Butterball plant was built in 1950, Longmont’s primary industry was agriculture. Sixty-one years later, Butterball was the last vestige of those days, wiped out by booms in retail as well as housing and residential amenities.

300 Suns Brewing, the first start-up brewery to open in Longmont since the Pumphouse in 1996, planned to open in late 2013 but had to wait because of flooding during construction. Many businesses suffered a similar fate or worse.

On Feb. 21, 2014, 300 Suns Brewing, owned and operated by husband and wife Dan and Jean Ditslear, was the first brewery to open in the shadow of Butterball. Like most craft breweries at the time, their location was somewhat removed from the walkabout portions of the city. But their focus was hyper-local, reliant on damn good beer, and a culture of curious drinkers.

Less than a mile away, Shoes & Brews was another family establishment: Ashlee and Colin Anderson and their friend from college, Dave Zakavec; Colin’s father, Roger; and Ashlee’s friends, Kris and Mike Donohoe. They opened their doors on July 1, 2014 — less than one year after hatching the business plan — along the banks of the St. Vrain Creek in a flooded building.

“Everything you see, we built,” Ashlee says of Shoes & Brews. When they moved in, it was one big room with two bathrooms in the back. Now they have separated the retail store from the bar.

When they opened in 2014, they weren’t sure the concept would catch on. But, they figured, “Shoes will pay for brews.”

“It’s its own wonderful thing,” Ashlee says. “If you had to separate the businesses, you could. But, the fun thing is, you don’t have to.”

Shoes & Brews has 20 taps, three to five of them brewed in-house by Roger. He works with a one-barrel system (making Shoes & Brews the smallest commercial brewery in Longmont).

Now married, Ashlee and Colin weren’t when they started their Shoes & Brews journey. Neither were Ryan and Robin Wibby when they opened the doors to Wibby Brewing on Sept. 4, 2015. That changed at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival when Wibby Brewing won silver for their Moondoor Dunkel. While accepting the award on stage, Ryan dropped to one knee and popped the question.

Ryan Wibby of Wibby Brewing. Photo by Susan France

The win and proposal generated headlines, but it was Ryan’s eclectic lagers that has kept the doors open and the tanks full.

Born in Golden, Ryan picked up a love for lager in Central Pennsylvania while working at Iron Hill Brewery in Lancaster. He turned passion into profession with a six-month “Certified Brewmaster Course” at Berlin, Germany’s VLB. There, he settled on a combination: traditional German lagers melded with American ingenuity.

“Technically, it’s more difficult to make a crisp, clean lager that’s good to drink,” Ryan says. “Our goal is: Anything an ale can make, a lager can make better.”

Like 300 Suns, Wibby Brewing also opened near the shuttered Butterball plant, this time on the north side of the facility at 209 Emery St. At the time, both breweries were operating in industrial-like settings. But, in the past five years, the Butterball plant has been leveled, and now the South Main Station apartment complex will bring the neighborhood to both. Across Main Street, Ashlee says a whole, active complex has cropped up around Shoes & Brews.

“Next door to us, this building was just bought, and there’s a gym inside of it. Behind us is the Longmont Climbing Collective, which is a bouldering gym. Connected to them is Warrior Playground,” she says. “This area has really become a center for people who are looking to be more active.”

•  •  •  •

Lisa and Brandon Boldt of Primitive Beer. Photo by Michael J. Casey

Farther south in the pocket neighborhood of Prospect New Town, another husband-and-wife team, Brandon and Lisa Boldt are producing some of the oddest, funkiest, most surprising beer in the area. But, as Brandon points out: “Colorado has one of the most, if not the most, educated beer communities in one consolidated area.”

It would be hard to open up a place like Primitive without that education. The beer they make is locally sourced, spontaneously fermented, barrel-aged (often on fruit), blended and served still (without carbonation). For some drinkers, the tart acid, vinous flavors, funky yeast and occasional tannins will hew closer to wine than beer. But, as the Boldts suspect, a lot has changed in what beer drinkers are looking for.

Back in 1993, beer drinkers gravitated to Left Hand because the Sawtooth Ale Wallace and Doore brewed packed more flavor than all those mass-market light lagers combined. Less than a decade later, Dale’s Pale Ale upped the ante with a face full of hops. Tastes progress, and when Brandon and Lisa Boldt opened the doors to Primitive on April 14, 2018, they simultaneously took those tastes to new heights while also bringing beer back to its roots.

“I think it’s beautiful,” Brandon says. “It gets back to the history of this beverage. … Trying to use that local ingredient and trying to speak to the flavor of your area.”

 ‘Don’t f— it up.’

“Eight, nine years ago, [beer] was the gold rush,” Leslie Kaczeus says.

“‘Oh, my gosh! I’m going to open a brewery and become a millionaire!’” she jokes. “We just laugh hysterically every time someone thinks they’re going to make money brewing beer.”

Some are doing well; others are doing better. Most are breaking even; a few are not. Yes, there is a vast beer community, but business is still cutthroat. Shelf space in liquor and grocery stores is hard to come by, and the competition for tap handles is stiff. Though there has been an explosion in the craft beer market since 2012 — both locally and nationally — it hasn’t been smooth sailing for all.

On July 12, 2014, the Powder Keg Brewing Company became the second brewery in Niwot. They closed their doors on March 10, 2018. Skeye Brewing Company opened its Hover Street taproom on June 1, 2015, and closed three years later on June 25, 2018. Brewmented, a homebrew supply store with a small taproom in the back, opened a few storefronts down from Skeye on May 14, 2018, but only made it to Aug. 31, 2019, before turning out the lights. Back in Prospect New Town, Open Door Brewing Company beat Primitive Beer to the neighborhood by a year. They were even canning their beer before that, but still ended up closing on June 29, 2018.

Just about everyone gets into this business with the same goal: Make good beer. But the reasons they get out of it are legion. Some have multiple investors with different objectives. Others lack the day-in-day-out business sense it takes to run a brewery. Too many lack backgrounds in hospitality.

And then there’s the beer.

Without a quality product, and without consistency, not only does it jeopardize personal success, it puts the rest of the industry at risk. It’s a point Steve Kaczeus from Bootstrap takes seriously.

Steve: “The last two, three years at the Craft Brewers Conference, that’s one of the first thing the guys at the Brewers Association—“

Leslie: “Paul [Gatz, the director of the Brewers Association] stands up at his keynote and says: ‘Get out.’”

Steve: “‘—All these guys, who’ve been in the business for 20, 30 years, they got us to this point. All you new guys coming in behind: Don’t fuck it up.’”

•  •  •  •

Longmont’s brewers are heeding Gatz’s charge. And they are doing it by following their bliss and incorporating their passions into every beer.

Taylor Wise of Großen Bart Brewery. Photo by Susan France.

Großen Bart Brewery (pronounced “grossen”) opened Nov. 1, 2014, with a 10-barrel system in a cozy but spacious facility on Delaware Avenue behind the Safeway on Ken Pratt Boulevard.

Grossen is German for “big beard,” and owner Taylor Wise sports one alongside a tap list with facial hair-named beers, from Chin Strap IPA to Fu Manchu Foreign Stout to HandBarley Wine.

Out east, Collision Brewing Company is a family-run brewpub restaurant with an automotive theme. One of their beers, aptly named Blinker Fluid, is a Kölsch made with butterfly tea and Blue Juniper berries. In the wrong light, it looks like neon blue mud. In the right light, it pops with cyan, chartreuse, even lavender.

“We like doing some odd beers here,” owner Eric Blythe says.

Eric runs the front of the house while brother Jason brews in the back. They’re currently running a seven-barrel system, but have plenty of room to grow into a 30-barrel system.

Jason and Eric Blythe of Collision Brewing Company. Photo by Michael J. Casey

In a way, Collision is reminiscent of the brewpubs of the late-’90s, early-2000s. The majority of the 10,000-square-foot operation is reserved for dining — their menu is extensive and quite tasty. Beer is a draw, but not the draw. Similar to how Engelhorn goaded Katechis into brewing his own beer, it just makes sense that the Blythes brew their own as well.

Head even farther east, and you’ll find Longmont’s newest brewery, Outworld Brewing, located at 1725 Vista View Drive.

They opened their doors on Feb. 28, 2020, and plan to showcase Belgian and Bavarian styles, with a few juicy IPAs and Mexican lagers tossed in for good measure.

•  •  •  •

History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Spend some time dining and drinking at Collision, and you’ll find whiffs of Oskar Blue’s first restaurant. Wibby’s passion for lagers in an industry of ale matches Wallace’s disgust for monochromatic beer. The Boldts mirror Steve and Leslie Kaczeus, and vice versa. As national beer sales slow and stall, only time will dictate which local brewery will survive the next shakeout and which will not. And which will experience the rocket ride of growth the way Left Hand and Oskar Blues did.

One thing is certain: Longmont brewers need not play second fiddle to their neighboring brethren. They never did in the first place.

“There’s now 11 breweries operating in Longmont? There was zero when we came here,” Wallace from Left Hand says. “We started the first one, and we helped our friends start the second one. … Now there’s a bunch.

“And look what that does to the fabric of the community. All of us are little nodules of community building, linked together. Now people want to live in Longmont. Longmont was always kind of a cow town, and a bit of a butt of a joke,” he continues. “Longmont had an inferiority complex, and I was always confounded by it.”

The days of inferiority complexes are over. In Longmont, the best beer may still be yet to come.