In the course of everyday life we often lose the spark of excitement we felt as children when anticipating certain days, moments, and events. The drudge of going to work and earning a living, taking care of our families, and generally being responsible adults tempers any pleasure we get out of activities meant to relax us and let us temporarily forgot how adult we really are. But during the weeks leading up to this excursion I felt like a tyke waiting for Christmas, Halloween, and the opening of Star Wars all rolled into one. I was excited not only for prolific amounts of great beer, but because I would be riding on a stretch of railway my grandfather had worked and ridden on.
My grandfather led a storied life, going to sea with the merchant marines in his early teens, coming back to Denver and starting a family while being involved with bootlegging during prohibition, and finally working on the Denver and Rio Grande until he retired in the early 1960s. During his time on the D&RG he traveled to nearly every corner of Colorado, experiencing many of the natural and man-made beauties our state has to offer, tales of which he related to my brother and I growing up. After he passed, I often regretted not taking a rail trip with him when he was alive and seeing the experience through his eyes. The only time we had ridden on a train together was during his visit to Europe while my family and I lived there; since I was a toddler at the time, I don’t remember a bit of it. Being named after him and having lived a fairly colorful life myself, I have always felt a unique bond with him.
We woke early on the day of the event, not solely in anticipation of the beer; the Mexican food we had the previous night was not sitting well. My wife spent the wee hours of the morning hunched over the toilet in various poses.So, it was with bleary eyes that we arrived at the Alamosa station to catch the train. Everyone who bought a ticket promptly got carded, wristbanded, and presented with a commemorative pint glass, and then waited an hour in the old Alamosa rail station.
Once boarded, the anticipation was almost physically palatable among many of the passengers, knowing glances being exchanged between companions of those who had the gleeful look of a beer enthusiast. The 50s era vista dome cars looked a little rough around the edges, but then again you would too, if after 20 some years of service in the lower 48 states you got recommissioned for Alaska before ending up in Alamosa, Colorado for a scenic railroad. I’m not sure how much renovation the interior of the cars received after being purchased, but they were more than adequate and actually very comfortable for the two hour trip to Fir for the festival.
The route mainly followed Highway 160, winding between the Rio Grande river and highway through the San Luis Valley before deviating southeastward as we ascended into the Sangre De Cristo mountains. The diverse terrain seen, immense grasslands, reeded river banks, mountain canyons, and spectacular vistas were worth the cost for the festival alone; if you go next year, definitely fork over the extra $10 for dome seating (the total was $68 per person).
So enthralled by the scenery were we that as we rounded a wooded corner, surprised gasps escaped many of us as we beheld the festival site nestled in the bowled bottom of a valley above us. I gathered from comments made by the performers on the semi-permanent stage that festival site, accompanying rail station, and wind and solar facilities are owned by the railway owner, the station going by the moniker of Fir, Colorado. The booths arrayed on either side of the converted rail car stage, included breweries from Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Unlike a lot of tasting festivals, there was no skimping on portions since the vessel you presented was the commemorative pint glass received when checking in. Most breweries gave approximately a quarter to half of glass, to truly get just a taste you had to reiterate to the servers ‘’just a small portion.’ My wife swears that I have something about me that encourages them to give me fuller portions, since many of the booths we went to gave me nearly full glasses’ worth of tastings, while she and those around us would receive just over a quarter.The breweries represented were CB and Potts, Durango Brewing, 90 Shilling, Del Norte, Avery, Left Hand, Breckenridge, Eske’s, San Luis Valley Brewing, Steamworks, Carver, Moab (Utah), Trinity, Rocky Mountain Brewery (Colorado Springs), and Silverton Brewery.
My favorite beer of the afternoon was an IPA from Moab with had interesting blend of hops, not too aromatic and crisp on the aftertaste. The most surprising beer of the day was an amber lager from Del Norte based in Denver, a self proclaimed “Mexican style” brewery who I conversed with later at Old South Pearl Street’s Blues and Brews.
The whole event was punctuated by performances of Folk artists who ranged from Tom Paxton of Bottle of Wine fame to a quirky Minnesotan couple who sang “cute” songs that ran a little too cutsie by the end of their set.
Overall we were allowed about four hours of imbibing before the train left for the return trip to Alamosa. The trip back was somewhat subdued with the exception of what I call “One in Every Crowd.” The railway actually runs two trips during the day of the Rails and Ales event, the second being just a rail excursion to the same destination just to listen to the music but without the added benefit of beer. The other load had left Alamosa 15-20 minutes earlier than we had, but was supposed to leave after we had. Well two passengers from the other excursion decided that they just had to leave when we did, even though all seats were accounted for, they decided that they were entitled to someone else’s seats. The entire car was up in arms over these interlopers, making their presence known to the ushers and attendants while the rightful owners stood in the aisle uncertain as to what to do. Thankfully, the railway has a team of security guards garbed as western sheriffs ride every trip, who quietly got the situation under control once we got moving.
If you love craft brew, rail journeys, and spectacular mountain views, then I recommend you get your reservations in for next year’s Rails and Ales; we will definitely being making ours once they become available. If you do go, be sure to check out one of Colorado’s gem breweries in Alamosa, San Luis Valley Brewing while you’re there.
Until next time, as always, stay thirsty my friends.