While I’ve both lived and had opportunities to reside elsewhere in the world, I still never regret remaining in Colorado. Its natural wonders are perfectly complemented by a rich frontier history and an ever burgeoning craft beer culture. Trips to the Colorado high country in all seasons greatly influenced me growing up; the majesty of peaks intermittently revealed during a snow storm, the golden sparkle in autumn sunlight of aspen-clad slopes, and the piercingly clear blue skies at altitude during hot summers are all interwoven into my being.
I’ve known some who’ve loathed the music of John Denver become converts after hearing Rocky Mountain High or Rocky Mountain Suite while experiencing the mountains firsthand; the massive beauty of the Rockies will do that.
Pairing that majesty with craft beer is as perfect as life gets in my opinion. Whether camping, skiing, or just getting away to the high country, good beer just adds to this heaven on earth. One of the state’s most scenic drives, Trail Ridge Road, offers the grandeur of alpine meadows in an easy day trip from the Denver Metro area. And it has a craft brewery at either end of its scenic route; Estes Park Brewery near the eastern end and Grand Lake Brewing Company at the western terminus.
While the wife and I have spent considerable time in Estes Park over the years, we’ve only visited Estes Park Brewery once, and that was quite a few years ago. Truthfully, I remember the experience more than the beers of EPB on that occasion, the house brews were good, just not earth-shaking.
Located on the west end of town, it’s only a few miles from the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and the eastern segment of Trail Ridge Road. As we pulled up, both of us laughed at the signage that adorns the side of the building indicating that they serve both food and pizza, as if there is a difference between the two. Being a crisp, late fall day, the upstairs bar was surprisingly cozy considering the vast square footage it covers; they must really pack them in during peak tourist season if the amount of seating is any indication. We spent a couple of hours sipping our beers (probably an IPA and Stout, knowing our tastes) while gazing out at the wooded hills from one of the numerous booths that line the windows. This was one instance where the bar to tables ratio went out the window, there were maybe a couple of people sitting at the bar, but the views compelled even the most hardy beer geek to sit and admire the views at a table.
One of the most memorable moments of the visit was actually as we were leaving, visiting the gift shop to buy the obligatory pint glass as we try to do at every brewery we visit. It was here that I discovered what would become the essential item in our future travels: The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Colorado (or as I often abbreviate, the Colorado Beer Map). It was around the time that the first edition came out, and unfortunately it was sold out. It would be months before I would be able to obtain the second edition, but just consulting the example tacked to the wall in the EPB gift shop made me realize not only how many Colorado breweries I had been to, but also the many I had yet to visit!
As I mentioned, the beers didn’t leave a lasting impression on us, but they were good enough for me to pick up a six pack to enjoy at the hotel room later that night. This was before I started keeping copious notes on the breweries we visit, so a repeat visit is definitely in the cards just to refresh my my memory.
On that trip, as well as a previous visit on our honeymoon, we stayed at the Stanley, a grand old resort that is worth the room rates if just for the history both modern and old.
In contrast, our visit to Grand Lake Brewing company happened only last year. On a whim, we decided to get away from the city for a couple of days and spend a night at one of the many lodges, cabins, and motels that line the route outside Estes Park leading into Rocky Mountain National Park. The leisurely Friday drive up gave us the opportunity to stop at the original Oskar Blues in Lyons for lunch and a few beers, prefacing a great weekend. Eventually, after some last minute birthday shopping in town, we arrived at the cabins for a quiet romantic night, enjoying some craft beer on the patio just yards from a babbling brook.
It was on the morning after, while enjoying a cup of coffee on that same patio and considering which of the several ways home to go, that I realized that the wife had never been on Trail Ridge Road before. I had been on the route a couple of times growing up, but it had been decades since the last time. Needless to say, she was delighted with the idea. After consulting a road map to refresh my memory of the drive back, I recalled that there was a brewery in Grand Lake on the other side of the divide. Breaking out the Beer Drinker’s guide confirmed my recollection.
The lower reaches of TRR wind through the wooded terrain most visitors to RMNP are familiar with, but quickly ascend to the stark beauty of alpine glades. Above treeline, you can more readily see the geography of the ice ages that have shaped the Rockies; moraines and debris fields that would be lost under the larger vegetation of lower altitudes stand out as remnants of the glaciers that once reigned here. With many pull-offs to stop and admire the tundra, the photo-ops are numerous. The Alpine Visitor Center, about three-quarters of through the drive, also presents some snapable views, not to mention a chance to relieve oneself.
As you finish the drive, not too far from the western entrance, the turn-off for Grand Lake entices, especially that day with the prospect of a cold one.
Originally a mining and hunting community, Grand Lake became a marine playground for the well to do of Denver in the early 1900s. Today it welcomes in fishermen, water sports morons, I’m sorry, enthusiasts, and families looking to get away from the heat of lower altitudes. In many ways it remains the same sleepy, rough around the edges community that I knew growing up when my grandfather would take us fishing on Grand Lake and the adjacent Granby Lake. But like similar mountain burgs, it’s become a tourist destination, getting much needed revenue wherever possible.
Located on main street, GLB gets more than it’s share of that tourist traffic. The place was crammed to the gills on the early Saturday afternoon when we arrived. We caught the last two seats at the bar, while families filled up the few tables in the bar itself, and the courtyard in back. In addition to ourselves, another two couples who were on their own brew treks were enjoying a pint a two.
We started off with the Stump Jumper IPA, which was good and hoppy, and the Pumphouse Lager that was smooth and full bodied. Our bartender was chatty and efficient, not blinking an eye at filling the drink orders for the hordes out back while answering our questions about the menu and beers. We ended up ordering what has become a staple at many brewpubs: calzones. The portions, as you would expect, were generous, complimented by a slightly sweet marinara sauce. As we sat enjoying a second pint and a taster or two, the late lunch hour morphed into the late, late lunch hour and the hungry masses still kept pouring in. Being sated in both liquids and solids we polished off our beers and gave up our stools to two more thirsty and hungry waiting customers. There’s nothing worse than a seat hog when the lines to get in go out the door.
Business is so good for GLB that they’ve just opened a taphouse in town with greater seating and an expanded menu. Thanks to Beer Drinker’s Guide for this bit of news.
Needing to stretch our legs before the drive back to Denver, we strolled around the town and down to the cooling breezes coming off the lake. Near the shore we ran across a rustic, two story log structure that turned out to be the Kauffman House museum. Originally built as a hotel, the museum offers a quirky look into the gilded age as reflected in Grand Lake. Relics and furniture from the turn of the last century are displayed throughout, giving a slight impression of what it was like during the summer tourist seasons and ice festivals that occurred throughout the Rockies in times past. Ribbons, programs, and other memorabilia from both the regattas and winter galas evoke what it would be like to put on a straw boater or fur great coat, only later putting on coat and tails for dinner and balls.
While the wife and I appreciate both the mining and ranching heritage of Colorado, we are intrigued by the era when our state was a resort destination for the country’s elite. Today’s resorts pale in panache when compared to how things used to be when five and seven course meals were de rigueur.
Luckily for us, and those who are seeking out shadows of an earlier elegant Colorado, you can find destinations scattered throughout the state, and best of all, a good number of them are located near a craft brewery.