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Roll out the barrel of craft brew

By Joe Hanel Herald staff writer

DENVER – Here’s something to chew on with your Sunday breakfast beer: When the Great American Beer Festival got its start in Denver in 1982, there were fewer craft breweries at the festival than there are today in Durango.

Just four craft breweries participated in that first festival, which was dominated by industrial-brewed lagers like Budweiser, said Charlie Papazian, the festival’s founder.

This year, 624 breweries brought more than 3,100 beers to the festival’s 32nd incarnation. For $75, GABF participants can taste all the one-ounce pours they can handle in the cavernous hall of the Colorado Convention Center. Tickets sold out in a matter of minutes.

The festival’s explosive growth mirrors that of the craft-brewing industry.

It seems no town is too small to have its own brewery. Durango now has five, and Pagosa Springs has two.

But brewers at the festival say there is room to grow.

Two Southwest Colorado newcomers got into the festival this year, despite a first-ever waitlist for brewers to enter the competition.

Jason Cox is betting that the craft-brew craze still has room to ferment. He and his partners opened Riff Raff Brewing Co. in Pagosa Springs in May, making it the second brewery in town.

“I think it’s harkening back to the old public-house days, where people have a local gathering place,” Cox said.

Cox said he thinks his economic competition isn’t so much other little breweries, like Pagosa Brewing Co., which claimed a gold medal this year. Instead, it’s the industrial lager breweries that still dominate more than 90 percent of the U.S. beer market.

“Once you get people into craft beer, they have a hard time going back to Coors Light, Bud Light,” Cox said.

Austin Lashley, owner of Avalanche Brewing Co. in Silverton, said the brewery had a great first summer, and he’s hoping for a good winter season. But he doesn’t worry that Colorado might be reaching a point where it is too soaked in breweries.

“I don’t think in this state we’ve hit the cap yet. I think there’s always room for good brewers making quality products,” Lashley said.

He brought his entire line of brews – an India pale ale, a porter, a pale ale and a Belgian wheat.

The IPA competition is intense, with more than 200 entries. Lashley was hoping that his porter and Belgian wheat would have a better chance in the competition.

A medal from the nation’s premier beer festival can put a young brewery over the top.

“It does a lot. It definitely puts you on the map,” said Chris Fish, brewmaster at Telluride Brewing Co.

His Facedown Brown ale was the only beer from Southwest Colorado to take home a medal – a gold – last year. Within a week, Facedown became his best seller on tap, and Front Range distributors soon were clamoring for six-packs.

This year, he had hopes for some recognition for his “pride and joy,” Fishwater Double IPA.

“It’s the first beer that I thought deserved to have my name on it,” said Fish, who has been brewing beer for 15 years.

There was still a place at Saturday’s awards ceremony for those mass-produced lagers that dominated the first beer festival 32 years ago. The gold medal for American-style light lager went to Budweiser Select, bringing a mix of cheers and guffaws from the crowd of craft brewers.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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