A light bulb went off in Eugene Salaz’s head three months ago.
The Carver Brewing Co. bartender was listening to the lament of an addled tourist at his bar.
“He wanted to see all our breweries, but he was worried about getting a DUI,” Salaz said.
So Salaz and his wife, Cristin, purchased and restored a blue-and-white 1979 Volkswagen microbus and started Tour de Brews, a venture intended to show off Durango’s craft breweries. The aim is to replicate tours of wine country, and keep customers from leaving their vehicles overnight at, say, Ska’s Bodo Industrial Park location – a frequent move made by local beer drinkers.
But the point isn’t to guzzle the most suds, Salaz said. It’s about appreciating the city’s four award-winning breweries on the merits of their craft.
Ska Brewing Co., Carver Brewing Co., Durango Brewing Co. and Steamworks Brewing Co. are all medal winners at the Great American Beer Festival, held each year in September.
“It’s more about tasting than about getting drunk,” Salaz said, adding, “but you will catch a decent buzz.”
Recently, the Salazes took the tour themselves, joining their driver, Dusty Grannis, two friends and a Herald reporter. Playing the role of paying customers, they met with owners and brewers and took notes on how to best accommodate future passengers.
Currently, a $65 local-resident ticket on the bus – dubbed “The Dude” – includes a flight of 4-ounce tasters at each of the breweries, appetizers along the way and a sober ride home. Nonlocal customers pay $80.
Riders sign release forms stipulating they didn’t overconsume before the tour, and will not during.
“We’re trying to do something tasteful,” Eugene Salaz said.
After curbside pickup from Grannis and the Dude, the tour starts with Ska Brewing Co., a rapidly expanding manufacturer and distributor started by Fort Lewis College students who got into homebrewing because they weren’t old enough to drink.
Co-owner Bill Graham said he supports Tour de Brews and other efforts that cut driving to and from Ska’s Bodo Park “World Headquarters.”
“For the most part, this is not the place to rock out late at night,” Graham said. “Nobody lives in Bodo; our servers know most of our customers didn’t walk here.”
Founded in 1995, Ska is accustomed to annual growth. But sales this year were 36 percent above last year’s, which Graham said also were good. True Blonde, Pinstripe and the rest of their offerings are now sold as far away as Chicago and North Carolina.
Graham attributed some of Ska’s success to a growing market for craft beer. Sales of microbrews are up 9 percent this year, while domestic sales are down 2 percent, according to the Brewers Association.
After Ska, it’s over to Durango Brewing Co. at 3000 Main Ave., or “just out of walking distance,” said Durango Brewing owner Scott Bickert.
The brewery usually closes after the city’s Main Avenue Trolley stops running, around 7 p.m. in winter. Bickert thanked the Salazes for the extra foot traffic.
Not a cutthroat crowd, Durango’s craft brewers are supportive of each other, Bickert said. The Durango Bootleggers Society, a local brewer’s guild, recently incorporated as a nonprofit. It hosts the annual Home Grown Festival, brews a Spring Tonic and Insider Ale each year and raises money for charitable causes.
Durango-area breweries have found their own market niches to survive, Bickert said.
Durango Brewing found acclaim with its wheat beers, a rotation of popular seasonals and its complete tasting room, Bickert said. The brewery also has what Bickert calls the city’s best growler – a corkable glass stein that’s larger and cheaper to refill than the rest.
Next up is Carver Brewing Co., “your community watering hole,” said galoshes-sporting brewmaster Erik Maxson.
“It’s the community hangout,” Maxson said. “They call this the ‘Cheers’ of Durango. This is the place where everybody gets along.”
Carver’s is also where riders said the buzz starts to set in.
The downtown brewpub is Durango’s first microbrewery, and Colorado’s second. It doesn’t bottle or can, instead focusing on providing patrons a quality complement to a quality meal, Maxson said.
With coffee, chocolate and raspberry blends, Carver’s takes risks with its beers, Maxson said. Not everything is a home run, he said, but taking risks is how Carver’s created its catalog of more than 30 ales, including its assertive Cascade Canyon Cask IPA, memorable three tasters later.
The tour ends at Steamworks Brewing Co., an in-town brewpub that’s become a hit with out-of-towners, said manager Chip Hosfeld, sleeves rolled up and covered in kitchen grime. Steamworks specializes in lager beers, and keeps about a dozen on tap.
Founded in 1996, the restaurant can handle large parties – hence the visiting sports teams there – and sees regular rushes of train passengers after they disembark.
“There’s something about our name; it’s linked to the railroad,” Hosfeld said, adding that he could be wrong.
Steamworks’ air-light Colorado Kolsch was a silver medalist at the 2010 Great American Brew Festival, one of three medals the brewpub picked up there. But it’s the food that has developed a following among tourists. People drive hundreds of miles for their Cajun boil, Hosfeld said.
Handshakes to hugs
All of the breweries on the tour offer the ales of their local competitors. Hosfeld said he has no problem recommending them to his guests.
“We’re all craft brewers,” Hosfeld said. “There’s something about a craft, a trade; there’s not a lot of ego. We can all learn something from each other.”
The tour winds down, and the party takes the evening to the streets. A tour that began with handshakes ends with hugs.
But not before one last playful needling of the driver.
“More water, Dusty?”