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Rocky Mountain High Part Two

I explored a lot of the West this past May, visiting Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. As I said in last month’s article, my trip was, in a sense, somewhat life changing and the awe I experienced both in the landscapes and with nature was extraordinary. I visited two more areas of Colorado post-Denver: Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins. 

Just south of Denver, by approximately 1 hour, is the city of Colorado Springs. The city sits closer to the mountains than does Denver and it’s the second largest of all the cities in the state with around 470k residents. My friend Brian, from my college days at Le Moyne, had settled out there and he was set on showing me around town.

I checked into my historic hotel The Mining Exchange by Wyndham, which operated from 1894-1925 as a stock exchange for local mining companies, complete with a giant gold vault that one can still view in the main lobby of the hotel. (There’s actually a total of 17 vaults on the premises!) I then proceeded to spend an evening on the town with Brian and his friends playing TopGolf – which was SO much fun! (Really wish we had one in this area). 

The next day we headed to Pikes Peak, the highest summit of the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. We opted to use the Cog Railroad to climb to the peak which sits at 14,115 feet. (Pikes Peak also happens to be one of 54 peaks in Colorado above 14,000 feet.) The Pikes Peak Cog Railroad is only one of 3 such types of railroads in the US. Construction on this line began in 1889 and finished in completion in 1891. Initially the locomotives were run by steam engine, but today, the train is powered by diesel-fueled engines with self-propelled railcars. Between October 2017 and May 2021, the railroad was closed and underwent a complete refurbishment, replacement of track infrastructure and rebuilding and purchasing new railcars and other elements of the rail system. 

The 9-mile trek up the mountain took approximately 3.5 hours round trip, which included approximately a 30-minute allotment to spend time at the peak. Both the trip up and down was a great way to experience the views of the surrounding mountains and visualize the different flora and fauna with the elevation changes. The beautiful Aspens gave way to all pine, and then after some time, no further trees grew and the landscape was essentially a tundra! Birds and marmots are able to be seen even at the highest of elevations and I was even lucky enough to experience the split-second swoop of a Golden Eagle snatching a Marmot with his talons and carrying him off for an early dinner! 

At the peak, the wind and the temperature difference were unbelievably different – when we left at the base of the mountain, it was a warm 70 degrees or so, up at the peak? SIX DEGREES. It was FREEZING!! Thankfully, I had dressed in layers, but I was not prepared for the intensity of the wind. It literally took my breath away, leaving me gasping at moments and was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. There were snow packs present that were 5-6’ in height. In addition, the altitude difference made me feel like I was drunk – my head was slightly spinning, a dizziness ensued. The oxygen at the top of Pikes Peak contains only about 60% partial pressure as it does at sea level. People can become very sick sometimes – altitude sickness being a very real thing – thankfully only being a bit dizzy was the extent of my reaction. And I wouldn’t have traded it for ANYTHING. The views at the top of the mountain were incredible. I literally felt like I was standing at the top of the world!

After our jaunt, it was time for some beer! (That’s the whole point of this column, is it not?) Brian brought me to two places in Colorado Springs: Cerberus Brewing Company and the very aptly named, Pikes Peak Brewing Company. 

Cerberus Brewing Company has been open for about 5-years and has a full kitchen and a very dog-friendly patio and beer-garden. While I did not feel like they had great customer service, (IMO, their staff could have very much used a lesson in being friendly from the lovely dogs that visit the brewery) the beer was decent. I tried the Motivational Speaker, a double IPA with loads of piney hop notes and Mango Thug Passion a very tasty, tropical-fruited, tart, easy-drinking sour. 

Pikes Peak Brewing Company, on the other hand, had very friendly folks – and therefore saved my view of the Colorado Springs beer scene! They have two locations, the one in downtown Colorado Springs has a rooftop patio, which is where we visited, and sampled a flight of beer. 

• Cherry Lime Sour – You guessed it, this gose is made with real cherries and limes! It certainly made your mouth pucker, and I was able to taste the lime, but the cherries I had a more difficult time noting. Regardless, it was a refreshing beer on a warm spring day. 

• Elephant Rock IPA – This American IPA was very enjoyable – a little bit of pine there, a little bit of citrus here, and a whole lot of hoppy-goodness throughout! The beer itself is named after a popular local sandstone rock formation. 

• Tropical IPA – A West Coast American IPA, this exuded more bitterness throughout, but still had some bright citrus notes. 

• Grand Peak Porter – An oak-aged Imperial Porter, this was my favorite of the flight. Roasty, flavorful, and richly malted. Easy drinking and super smooth! 

Next up: Fort Collins, CO. But not before visiting Garden of the Gods, just on the edge of Colorado Springs. Beautiful sandstone rock formations jutting up from the ground, these wonders are worth the trip to see.

Fort Collins is approximately 1 hour north of Denver and home to Colorado State University. Slightly bigger than Syracuse with a population of approximately 170,000 it has over 20 breweries to wet your whistle! It is basically Colorado’s beer mecca and one I had been looking forward to ever since the trip planning gained ground. In addition, Haley, my friend whom I met in a women’s beer group online, and whom I had done a couple of beer trades with over the last couple of years, lived there, and we were finally going to meet in person!! 

We planned to meet at New Belgium Brewing Co., which is headquartered in Fort Collins and has a big and beautiful campus! I was super psyched to visit this brewery, as I am a huge fan of their beers, and they had just re-started their brewery tours since Covid! (Does anyone else out there miss brewery tours as much as me?? BRING THEM BACK!!) I arrived first and when Haley arrived, it was like we had never missed a beat, like we had been old friends who just hadn’t seen each other in a while – our meeting couldn’t have gone any better! We grabbed a drink, sat outside for a bit, and then circled up with our group to start our tour. 

The thing I love about New Belgium, isn’t just that they brew some fantastical beer, it’s that they foster a culture that’s people-forward. One example of this, is that they don’t garner any tips from patrons at the brewery. They pay their employees a fair and living wage and then they provide profit-sharing at the end of the year that they extend to all their employees. There’s a whole outline on their website dedicated to this people-centric philosophy and thought, and it’s extremely refreshing to see a very successful company opt to put their employees first. It certainly, as a conscious consumer, makes me want to support their endeavors and purchase their products because I know that they’re providing a pretty damn good life for their employees. In addition, when their employees pass milestone anniversaries they’re rewarded handsomely (not like a key chain, for 5 years of employment at the hospital I work at as an RN *groan*) – at the first anniversary, each employee receives a custom red bike (for reference, see their logo, notably on their Fat Tire amber ale), and then at 10 and 20 years of service, they provide an all-expenses paid sabbatical. How cool is that? They’re also dedicated to environmental advocacy and change. Which is also something I can totally get behind.

The tour was so much fun, to say the least! We toured the entire facility, from brewing, to barreling, to bottling, and sampled several beers along the way! We were given Fat Tire bottles of beer to drink that had come off the line that morning, and then, in a special surprise, we were invited down onto the canning and distribution floor where we got to hand-select our own Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPAs tall-boys right off the line to take home. At the very end of the tour, they have a corkscrew shaped slide that all the adults in the tour can take to get back down to the main floor. I mean, how awesome is that!? After all that beer, it was just too much fun to pass up!! So, one by one, amid all sorts of laughter and videos being taken, like big kiddos, we tumbled down that slide. A perfect end to, in all seriousness, the best brewery tour I have EVER been on. 

Haley then showed me to one of her favorite local watering holes, Tap & Handle, a top-100 beer bar in the US with 74 rotating taps, not to mention the great menu they have to accompany all those fabulous beer options. I decided to try some of the local beers on tap – namely from WeldWerks Brewing Company, based in Greeley, CO. The first was The Nerdy Professor, a sour ale created with strawberry and grape “crunchy candies,” grape syrup and strawberry puree. I don’t know how, and I’m pretty sure it’s by some voodoo wizardry and magic, but that beer straight-up tasted EXACTLY like dumping a Halloween fun-sized box of Nerds into your mouth and crunching it up as a kid. (or maybe as an adult, don’t judge me) It was sweet, and sour, and just full of candy-flavor. 

The second beer I had was Strawberry Cheesecake, a Berliner Weisse-style ale with strawberry puree, cheesecake, and milk sugar. Again…WHAT WAS THIS MYSTICAL POTION?? You know those strawberry crunchies ice cream bars from our grade-school cafeteria days? This tasted EXACTLY like that!! I was beside myself with this creamy, mouth-watering, unique concoction. 

The third beer, (because, hello, I was on a roll and two was not nearly enough) was Marsh Madness, a Milk Stout, made in a three-way collaboration with Odell Brewing Company (Fort Collins, CO) and Little Man Ice Cream (Denver, CO). WeldWerks calls this an “ice cream stout” for obvious reasons, and it did not disappoint with notes of marshmallow and vanilla, and while it was sweet, it was not overly so and once I’m able to come back to Colorado for another visit, WeldWerks will be at the tippy-top of my list of breweries to visit!

The next afternoon with Haley brought a full evening of brewery-hopping. We went to Timnath Beerwerks, Odell Brewing Company, and Jessup Farm Barrel House. 

Timnath Beerwerks, a nano brewery, I have actually written about in a previous article, as they brewed a White Stout named Snow on the Grain that was out-of-this-world, and Haley had included it in one of our beer-trades. Therefore, I was super-stoked to visit. We sampled several beers from IPAs to Sours to Kölsch to a Brown Ale. My favorite happened to be a Pink Boots Society collaboration – Tart Cherry IPL, an India Pale Lager (IPL), that was brewed in honor of International Women’s Day, featuring tart cherries, and a PBS hops blend of Idaho Gem, Talus, HBC630, Triumph and Loral. The resulting beer was quite lovely, subtle, and light. Runner-ups included Timnath’s West Coast IPA in all it’s pine-noted glory and the Catharina Sour with Blackberry with it’s dry, tart hint of blackberries.

Next stop was Jessup Farm Barrel House – a rather unique brewery as they only brew barrel-aged craft beer. It’s also situated in a restored 3,000 square foot, 140-year-old barn! Quite a lovely setting, including the beer-garden on the surrounding property. They also had very LARGE flights, so it was a definite bang for your buck type situation. I sampled several complex and very tasty brews including: 

• Hurry Up & Wait: Cherry Blackberry – An oak barrel-aged quick sour with tart cherry and blackberry purees. 

• Hurry Up & Wait: Mango – A dry-hopped oak barrel-aged quick sour with mango puree.

• Sangriaweizen – A red wine barrel-aged wheat ale with Syrah grape juice, blackberry, strawberry, Cara Cara orange puree, and orange peel. 

• Legal in Europe – A whiskey barrel-aged Imperial Stout with chocolate, cinnamon, and chiles.

Jessup Farm should definitely be on your list if you’re ever out in Fort Collins! 

Odell Brewing Company, closed somewhat early on the day we visited and we only had enough time for a quick drink, so I chose Sippin’ Pretty, the guava kettle sour. It was excellent.

Fort Collins, CO also has the beautiful backdrop of the Rocky Mountains to the west as well. It’s a beautiful college town with a very walkable Old Town main street with lots of unique little stores and local artisans dotting the sidewalks. There are trails, gardens, parks and conservation areas dotting the landscape in and around the city. And most notably, if you want great beer in Colorado, Fort Collins should be on your itinerary! 

I hope you enjoyed reading about my two-part beer and travel article on Colorado as much as I did on my actual trip. Book a trip out west, you won’t regret it, I promise! Cheers! 

Kristin Merritt
Just your average craft-brew loving gal slinging your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope to give a few recommendations for your grocery list, events to attend, and local hotspots to hit-up for shenanigans with friends, ideas for date night, or at the very least enlighten you with a bit of random knowledge to use towards trivia night or simply give you and your teammates a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! Cheers!