Ouray is one of the most photographed towns in Colorado, and rightfully so. Ringed by vertical peaks in all directions, the town sits nestled in a bowl with only three roads in or out of it; seen from above and to the south, the sight of the mountains rising seemingly from the town itself is dramatic.
Entering the town from the north is nearly as striking. Coming from the broad valley Ridgway lays in, the terrain alters almost immediately in the 15 minute drive to Ouray. After a couple of turns, the walls of the steep canyon envelop the road on either side, trees clinging more and more tentatively to the rock faces. Then the town springs upon you with only a few structures presaging that you are entering the former mining community. A considerable amount of the town’s original Victorian structures still stand, restored and preserved in their stately glory. Harkening back to the grandeur of when Colorado’s mountains were home to unimaginable wealth from the gold and silver booms.
Because of our timetable, our first destination of the day was Ouray Brewing, one of two breweries currently in the town. The other brewery, Ourayle House, sounded interesting from everything I’d read about it, but unfortunately opened much later than the time we planned to spend there. It’s a shame too, we were looking forward to meeting the owner who everyone affectionately call “Mister Grumpypants.”
The most unique bar seating in the state awaited us when we came in during the early lunch hour. Hanging from thick steel cables attached to the ceiling, the seats recall retro chair lifts, perpetually poised to take one up a mountain. Our bartender for the day, ready to meet our beverage requirements as we sat on the chair lift to nowhere, was the capable Pacie. In a blink she had served up our initial San Juan IPA and Summit Saison and inquired as to needing a menu. She nodded knowingly after we described the large breakfast eaten not more than an hour before at Kate’s Place in Ridgway.
With a piney hop bite, the IPA also has a slight roasty flavor that makes it a novel take on the American IPA. The Wife’s Saison was equally satisfying, a rich, golden body the visible reflection of an easy drinking beer.
As with most breweries that we visit for the first time, we ordered a flight of either what intrigued us, or in the case of smaller places, everything on tap at the time. In the case of Ouray Brewing that day, both filled the criteria. Of the four remaining beers, Alpine Amber, Box Canyon Brown, Camp Bird Blonde, and Silver Shield Stout, the Brown and Amber impressed us most, although not one of the others was shabby. A prominent toasty maltiness forms a good backbone for the Brown, making it very unique, a full bodied alternative to most. The Amber was also robust, being very malty with just enough hoppiness, a good balance that appealed even to the Wife’s hop adverseness, but satisfying my inner hop hound.
With three levels, including a rooftop patio with spectacular views of the canyon, OB has enough space to accommodate a very full house; although since it was early when we arrived, the place was less than a quarter capacity. By the time we finished up and made ready to leave, more patrons, mostly for Lunch had trickled in. Our short visit had endeared Ouray Brewing to us.
If we’re in the region again, we’ll more than likely plan to stay in the town. After leaving the brewery, we explored some of the numerous shops along the main drag, spending a couple of fleeting hours, the clerks and owners very friendly and outgoing.
Even the other travelers were amiable. Which we learned as we had reached our limit of shopping near the southern end of town, and happened upon a biergarten perfectly placed for a roader. The large, yet intimate, outdoor plaza filled with wooden tables and benches, held only another pair of other imbibers as we placed our orders for fresh German beer on tap. Since the place was so empty, we asked if we could join the two and quickly filled the air with our conversations. The gentlemen were down from Montrose for the day, quenching their thirst after an early morning hike. It was a perfect respite before the coming drive of passes and the inevitable Summer road work.
The last time I had driven on the Million Dollar Highway, Route 550, was back in the Eighties on a trip to Durango. But since I was driving a delivery van, focused completely on getting the gutless behemoth up the passes, I had completely missed the scenery. Did I mention this was in the middle of Winter during a snow storm?
With the slow going of construction delays, and it being Summer, I saw much more this time, and I was awed. The view is otherworldly as the road climbs to Red Mountain Pass, crimson topped peaks akin to terrain more appropriate to Mars ringing the horizon. And then, before you know it, you’re descending into the valley where Silverton sits isolated by peaks and passes from the rest of the world.
The streets of Silverton are wider than the boulevards of cities 10 times its size. Due to the need for ore wagons to turn around during the town’s mining heyday, the buildings feel miles away when driving down the thoroughfares. With the recent opening of Avalanche Brewing, Silverton now has two breweries, and with the planned train trip back the next day, we decided to hit one of them on the way to Durango.
Much of the town’s businesses set their hours to coincide with the arrivals and departures of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which has two trips in most days. Avalanche had just closed for the afternoon when we arrived, making Silverton Brewing the default choice.
Situated on Greene Street, which runs through the middle of the community, the brewery and the buildings of its neighbors are straight out of a Western. A smattering of remaining tourists and locals sparsely dotted the barroom as we sat at the bar and ordered.
Steve the bartender amiably served up our initial Ice Pick Ale and Kendall Mountain Kolsch,beginning our ongoing chat about where we’d been and who we had met. As with many of our stops in the region, our server knew several of our previous bartenders or brewers. The craft beer brother(and sister)hood continually remind us of why we go out of our way to visit the breweries. Other than the obvious appeal of the beers, the sense of community and cooperation is unequaled.
The Ice Pick was typical of a traditional IPA, not bad, but nothing exceptional, while the Kolsch appealed to me, but disappointed the Wife with its more than average hoppiness for the style. We were both impressed with the Mellow Mountain Brown though, a light mild that nonetheless had a very aromatic and unique flavor; Steve was mum to what the mystery ingredient was, being sworn to secrecy by the brewers.
The talk of the brewing operation was vague as well. Silverton Brewing suffered a fire in April of 2011, shutting down operations for a time. Both before and after our visit I had heard that its beers have been brewed offsite since the disaster, although Steve said they were somewhat in operation when we visited. Whatever the case, hopefully they can get up to full production sometime soon.
We cut short our session, already a little behind schedule, to head to Durango and check in at our hotel, the Rochester.
One of many renovated, historic lodgings in Durango, the Rochester Hotel and its sister the Leland House is a quaint establishment. A step up from the chain accommodations ubiquitous everywhere, its understated elegance served well the two nights we stayed. The complimentary, gourmet breakfasts enriched us for our adventures, impressing us with the quality, it was far and above much of the free morning meals we’ve had over the years.
On the drive in, both of us were anticipating the tacos of Zia Taqueria and the beers of Ska Brewing once we got to Durango. Unfortunately, by the time we pulled in to the brewery, Zia had closed for the night and Ska was winding down. But we did have time for a beer or two.
Amazingly, our bartender was Kish who had served us well back on our previous visit in 2009. She related to us that she had just started working at Ska back then, not knowing that it would become a stable job, and that she would become a welcome fixture of the taproom.
Ska’s ‘World Headquarters’ were less than a year old that first time, and much of the landscaping was still in flux. The scenery had changed dramatically before our third visit that early June evening. Arbors, grass, and a new addition now graced the outdoor space on the south end of the building. It was a great improvement since the space was a little rough around the edges prior to then. We look forward to enjoying it in all its glory when we go down for the anniversary party in September.
While I had to order my mainstay, Modus Hopperandi, the Wife had what we both agree is the most exceptional coffee stout ever: Best Part of Waking Up Stout on nitro. The blend of the malt and coffee was balanced so perfectly that you’d think you never had a coffee stout before tasting this one. So many versions of this style are either heavy on one ingredient or other, never achieving the alchemy of Ska’s.
After buying my quota of brewery apparel for the year, we headed back into town to find something to eat, our stomachs rumbling monstrously. Luckily, Steamworks Brewing was practically across the street from the hotel.
The brewery was considerably more packed than when we had stopped in during our Durango trip during the Fall of three years before. The majority of the clientele that night being more interested in the NBA championship game than the beer, the atmosphere was boisterous and raucous. We somehow managed to grab the last two stools at the bar to order dinner and brews, more interested in the fare rather than the game since neither of us are into basketball. A hockey game would have suited us better, but since the Avs didn’t make it to the postseason that year, there probably wasn’t too many in the house wanting to see the Stanley Cup Finals also being played that night.
The Wife was in heaven regardless of the programming though, she was drinking one of her favorite beers fresh off the tap; Steamworks’ Colorado Kolsch. Cans of the Kolsch are ever present residents in our fridge during the summer months, it was love at first sip when she first had it the previous visit years ago. Love is the complete opposite of what we thought of the specialty beer on tap that night. The Lime Infused Cask Conditioned Kolsch was like the worst Kamikaze ever whipped up at a college drink fest. But my Third Eye Pale Ale hit the spot, just like it always does with just enough hoppiness.
Bleary eyed and tired from the marathon journey of the day, we made the walk back across the street to the hotel. We turned in with the promise of a train adventure and two new breweries in store for the next day.
Up next: Avalanche and Durango Brewing, and a trip on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
2012 Western Slope Brew Trek
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