From Wynkoop to the Capitol: An interview with Governor Hickelooper

Guest content from Maya Silver, Editor at DiningOut Magazine

DiningOut offers an insider’s look at dining in U.S. cities–from behind-the-scenes chef interviews, to exclusive recipes, to restaurant guides in your city and beyond.

Photo Credit: Mike Johnston

Photo Credit: Mike Johnston

We chatted with Governor Hickenlooper about his brewing past, his drinking present, and his thoughts on the future of craft beer in Colorado.

DiningOut: What drove you and your partners to establish Wynkoop Brewing in 1988?

Governor Hickenlooper: As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Basically, I had come out to Colorado as a geologist in 1981, and in 1986, the company I worked at was sold and we were all laid off. After being out of work for a year, a geophysicist friend and I decided it was a good idea to open a brewery. It took a year and a half to raise the money and convince people to do it.

I loved the idea of going back to a historic way of making beer. And I loved historic buildings, and the idea of using a brewpub as a vehicle to fix up a historic building. Back then, the state of Colorado was in a bad recession. Our rent was one dollar per square foot per year. Tumbleweeds were drifting through LoDo.

When you founded Wynkoop, did you have any idea that it would be the advent of such a successful industry?

No, it’s funny—after I got laid off, I bought a bright red ‘76 Malibu convertible and drove out to visit my brother in Berkeley, California. He took me to Triple Rock—the third or fourth brewpub in North America. It was a Wednesday night and they had a line out the door. They only had two beers: light and dark. But both had more body, less carbonation, and more character than any beers I’d tried.

I said to myself: I’d go 20 minutes out of the way to have a beer like this. We should do this in Denver. I tried to convince my friends to do it but they weren’t interested. So we took out a library book on writing a business plan, wrote a business plan, raised $400,000, and got a $120,000 loan from the state’s economic development agency.

Were you homebrewing at the time?

I dropped out of school for a year in 1971, and was living in Washington County—the third poorest county in America—on the northern coast of Maine. People were so poor that everyone homebrewed because it was much less expensive. It didn’t taste very good back then. We brewed a beer called the Hickenlooper Lager. We had a bar-side sobriety taste: if you couldn’t say the name of the beer, we wouldn’t serve you another.

Why do you think Colorado is at the vanguard of microbrewing in the country? What fuels the state’s passion for craft beer brewing and consumption?

Without question, we are the vanguard. Nowhere else does microbrewing infect the culture the same way it does in Colorado. By July, we’ll have 250 federally licensed breweries in the State of Colorado. When you look at gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival, we were second last year on a per-capita basis. Colorado has become a beer haven.

Part of it is the old three-tier laws. When Prohibition was repealed, each state made its own laws regulating alcohol. In Colorado, supermarkets can’t sell liquor and only 3.2-percent ABV beer. Convenience stores can’t sell at all. As a result, we have hundreds of small neighborhood liquor stores. If you’re a small brewery getting started, you can go in there and convince the owner to take some of your beer.

It’s also the climate. Look across the nation. The places that have done the best have the most pronounced seasons. You need a good strong winter to make people appreciate a stout or porter.

Also, if you look at the past three or four years, Denver has had the highest migration of Millennials than any other city in America. The craft beer trend originated with young people—back when I started, I was one of those young people.

And then there’s the outdoor recreation component—skiing, hiking, rock climbing. After a hard day, there’s nothing like a craft beer.

Do you have any predictions for the microbrewing industry statewide and nationally in the next decade?

There’s still a fairly low percentage of people that drink craft beer. Ninety-percent of beer is brewed in a few of the largest manufacturing brewing facilities. There’s a lot of room for growth. Is it going to grow as fast as it has in last five to six years? I don’t know, but that’s what I said five to six years ago and I was wrong.

What’s your favorite brewery of the moment (besides Wynkoop), and go-to beer?

That’s like asking what my favorite flower is. I have so many favorite beers. Great Divide Brewing has a Denver Pale Ale I really like; I like the Avalanche Ale from Breckenridge; 90 Schilling from Odell’s is delicious; and Ska’s True Blonde Ale. My favorite beer is always the local beer, so I like to get it as close as I can. In the winter, I like stouts and porters more often. In the summer, I’ll lean toward pilsners or kölsch. In the fall, an ESB, a pale ale—something with more munch.

Do you ever hold business meetings in breweries?

When I ran for governor, we’d go around the state for fundraisers, and also hold an event to meet people who can’t afford to write checks, but are interested in politics. We always tried to do those events in microbreweries and brewpubs. My goal is to go to every brewery in Colorado. By the way, we just became the first Governor’s Mansion with a draft beer system.

What’s on tap?

One of the Wynkoop beers (for old times’ sake), and a beer created by eight to 10 of the top breweries in the state, who all collaborated on a recipe. It’s called Centennial, and it’s only available at the mansion.

Note: The Colorado Craft Brewers Guild, in partnership with the Governor’s Mansion Preservation Fund, funded the installation of the draft beer system at the Governor’s Mansion to use during special events to highlight local breweries and craft beer. The system was installed in 2014 to kick off Craft Beer Week. The initial taps include beers from Steamworks Brewing Co. in Durango, Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, and Wynkoop Brewing Co., and will change seasonally. The Governor does not live at the Mansion.

For our article on the state of craft spirits and beer in Colorado, see our article Manifest Brewski.

About PJ Hoberman

PJ likes beer. A lot. And whiskey. Gin. Wine. Cocktails. Um.. what were we talking about?