Durango is known for its scenic views, skiing and mountain biking trails, but now it’s also known for another tourism draw: craft brewing.
Walk downtown on any given day, and one might notice the occasional resident wearing a trucker hat with a red, blue and yellow logo that reads “Steamworks Brewing Company,” or a shirt with a checkerboard logo featuring a skeleton or a large turquoise sign reading “Carver Brewing Company.”
It is no surprise to see a plethora of breweries in towns with tourist appeal, but Durango hasn’t always been a beer drinking destination. The craft brewing industry exploded nationwide during the 1990s, but in 1988 one of the first brewpubs in Colorado started in Durango, inspiring a slew of other creative hop-slingers to take up the craft.
Not only did the emergence of these breweries create a fun hospitality experience for visitors and residents, but it provided jobs to the small mountain town.
Owners of some of Durango’s most prominent brewpubs reflected on their history and the impact the movement had.
The story of Durango’s craft brewing industry started with two brothers and a dream to open a bakery.
Bill and Jim Carver’s journey in the food service industry started after Jim graduated from high school in Milwaukee.
Jim had always wanted to live in Colorado and had a desire to spend his life skiing. In 1975, he moved to Aspen, where he took a job at a bakery. Bill would graduate from college five years later and the brothers decided they wanted to open their own bakery.
Later, the brothers opened a bakery called Carver Brothers’ Bakery in Winter Park, but they struggled with the constant fluctuation of income because of the town’s tourist economy.
The brothers became interested in Durango’s warmer climate and year-round economy. They sold Carver Brothers’ Bakery soon after and committed to the Durango location in 1986.
They started Carver Brewing Co. under the name “Carver Bakery,” but the brothers transitioned to a brewery in 1988 when they realized they had space for brewing equipment and wanted to provide a service Durango was lacking at the time.
At the time, it was illegal in Colorado to open a brewpub.
“If you made beer, you had to sell to a wholesaler. And then that wholesaler could sell to a retailer. It’s called a three-tier system,” Bill said.
This led the brothers to hire a lawyer to write up a document, where Bill would be considered the producer and Jim would be the retailer. Bill planned to then sell the beer to Jim in order to sell it to customers as a loophole to Colorado’s three-tier law. However, in August 1988, Colorado changed the law to allow brewpubs to sell directly to customers.
Finding brewing equipment at the time was also a challenge. The brothers originally planned to use tanks from dairy farms to brew their beer. However, Milwaukee’s Century Hall caught fire in April 1988 and burned down the city’s second oldest brewpub.
Growing up in Milwaukee, the brothers had connections to the city and contacted the salvage company after the fire to purchase the brewing equipment. The salvage company put the equipment up for auction the next day, and Bill purchased it for $17,000.
In 1988, the Carver brothers shared a lighthearted rivalry with Denver-based Wynkoop Brewing Co. to see who would be the first craft brewpub to open in Colorado. Wynkoop beat out Carver by two months, opening in October 1988, whereas Carver opened in December the same year.
During this time, Carver was also one of the only places residents and visitors could buy alcohol on Sundays. Colorado law prohibited the sale of liquor on Sundays until 2008. But because of Carver’s federal brewing permit, they were allowed to sell beer.
Durango Brewing Co. was the second brewpub to open in Durango in 1990, making it the third oldest craft brewery in Colorado. Ran mostly by Steve McClaran and his wife, the brewery produced local favorites like the Durango Dark Lager and the Anasazi Wheat.
He said craft brewing was a trend that began gaining popularity in the late 1980s, primarily in California. He had become interested in home brewing and started experimenting with different brews. Because McClaran didn’t have a large facility at 3000 Main Ave., he focused solely on selling beer in wholesale or retail.
However, McClaran grew tired of running the brewpub and sold the company in 1997.
“My wife and I did probably 80% of the work, and at some point, we decided that no matter how much money you have, you can’t buy free time, and that’s what we were looking for,” he said.
Since McClaran left the brewery, it’s been through ups and downs, including closing its Durango location in 2018 and moving to La Junta after firing all of its employees.
Currently, the establishment operates under the name Durango Beer & Ice Co., with High Trestle Brewing as the name of the brewing operation and Durango Beer & Ice being considered the taproom.
However, while Carver Brewing has been often touted as the second brewpub to open in Colorado, Durango Beer & Ice claims that it started in 1887.
In 1995, Dave Thibodeau and Bill Graham shared a common interest in beer and ska music. Both grew up in Denver and went to the same high school. Because they were not old enough to drink, they decided to brew their own beer learning from a book Thibodeau’s father used to log his own homebrew called the “Beer Book.”
“We started flipping through it and realize that we could make beer with stuff we could buy at the grocery store,” Thibodeau said.
During that time, they had two rules: they had to drink their batch of beer when finished and could only listen to ska music while brewing.
Inspired by the sounds of bands like The Toasters, Bad Manners and Fishbone, the two knew they wanted to open their own brewery. This would help the brewery carve out a niche in the Durango beer scene with the emergence of “third-wave” ska bands like Reel Big Fish, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Goldfinger, who were popular during the 1990s.
They even named the brewery’s grapefruit lager after Rancid’s 1995 song “Ruby Soho.”
After Thibodeau graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver and Graham from University of Colorado Boulder, the two were determined to open their own brewery.
Originally, Thibodeau was going to take a job in Steamboat Springs, but a fly fishing trip with Graham led them to Durango. Thibodeau applied for a job at Purgatory Resort as a courier and decided to stay in Durango in 1993.
After two years of research, Graham and Thibodeau found brewing equipment for sale from the Birkebeiner Brewery in Spokane, Washington, in early 1995.
At the time, both Graham and Thibodeau couldn’t afford a hotel room and decided to sleep on the floor at Spokane International Airport, which was no problem for Thibodeau, who had been living in his Volkswagen bus for most of his initial years in Durango.
After receiving the equipment, the founders set up shop at 545 Turner Drive, Suite A, where Ska Fabricating is currently located.
The first beer brewed was Ska’s notorious True Blonde, and the brewery opened in September 1995 with the kegs poured at the Telluride Brewer’s Festival.
The two founders wanted to differentiate Ska from other historical Durango breweries like Carver and Durango Brewing. Carver’s focus was on hospitality, while Durango Brewing sought to distribute its beer in local restaurants. But Thibodeau and Graham decided they wanted to enter the wholesale and distribution business on a larger scale.
“Durango Brewing wasn’t canning or bottling yet. They were just selling on draft around town,” Thibodeau said. “But ultimately, we knew we had to start bottling our beer and distributing it more widely.”
The brewery currently distributes to thousands of locations all over the United States.
In 2008, the owners bought the Valley Sheet Metal building, which became the brewery’s current location. For a few years, the owners allowed a Zia food truck to operate out of that space instead of serving their own food. In 2013, they opened a brewpub inside the brewery.
However, Ska wasn’t the only brewpub coming along in the mid-1990s. In 1996, Durango welcomed Steamworks Brewing Co., which would later turn into one Durango’s most notable restaurants.
The idea for Steamworks started after co-founder Kris Oyler graduated from MSU Denver in 1992. After studying exercise science, he decided to follow his entrepreneurial instinct and wanted to start a brewery. The brewery’s name is a tribute to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Durango’s industrial history and the brewing equipment used in the brewpub.
He had previously become interested in home-brewing, and in 1994 started working on a business plan. Initially, Oyler didn’t know where to put the brewery and thought the Denver market was oversaturated.
Oyler’s uncle had bought franchise rights to the Kentucky Fried Chicken location in Durango and when the two met up at a wedding, his uncle invited him to Durango.
In summer 1994, Oyler visited Durango and became enamored with the town, solidifying his decision to open a brewery here.
After searching for a brewery location, Oyler decided to build the brewery out of an old car dealership where Pat Murphy Motors had previously been at 801 East Second Ave. The building’s origin dates back to the 1920s when it was Pittman Motor Works.
Because of the building’s strong infrastructure and large space, it was the perfect spot for Oyler to set up shop.
Oyler admitted that residents weren’t always fond of the brewery because it wasn’t founded by Durango natives, but he committed to community outreach which created friction with some of his initial investment partners.
“They didn’t really understand what we were trying to do in a small town to endear the community,” Oyler said.
Some of the initial investment partners thought Oyler was wasting too much money on local causes and nonprofits. The investment group removed Oyler as the brewpub general manager and replaced him, causing a staff revolt in 1999. Four days later, Oyler was hired back as the general manager after the investors decided to part ways with Steamworks.
While many might think more breweries would create greater competition among the founders, it actually created collaboration. Nothing reflected this better than when young up-and-comers Thibodeau and Graham met with Bill Carver in 1995 to see whether Carver would consider putting Ska beer on tap.
“I was really intimidated. I didn’t want to tell this hero of mine that’s had a brewery since 1988 and my favorite place in Durango that we were planning on opening a competing brewery,” Thibodeau said.
After Graham and Thibodeau told Bill Carver about their brewery, Carver said he would immediately put Ska’s Pinstripe Ale on tap.
“We ended up being their first account. I would say that was the beginning of kind of the close knit kind of feeling for the breweries,” Bill Carver said. “I think they coined the term ‘Cooper-tition’, where we cooperate and work with our competitors.”
Ska also works with Steamworks to distribute its beer to various retail locations in town and around Southwest Colorado.
“We were competitors but more like brothers as competitors than enemies,” Oyler said. “I think that’s been true of the craft beer industry. It’s much more collaborative and weird when you get a craft brewer that doesn’t play well with others.”
The camaraderie extended to the community as well with the development of “The Bootleggers Society,” which included the big name breweries in town during the mid-1990s.
The Bootleggers Society was a philanthropic group started by Bill Carver. The group would raise money for various nonprofits and host golf tournaments. Members of the Bootleggers Society also received discounts at each of the breweries.
“It was a friendly way for visitors in town to learn about all of the breweries because that was a whole tourist segment,” Carver said.
Whether it’s hospitality, distributing or manufacturing, the craft beer scene had a large impact on Durango’s economy.
Bill Carver said there used to be about 20 vacant storefronts on downtown Main Avenue when they started as a bakery in 1986, and now downtown is full of shops. He credits some of this to the impact brewpubs had on tourism during that time.
When craft breweries started to surge during the 1990s it created a new type of visitor: the brewpub tourist. Carver said people would visit small town breweries just to experience the fruits of their labor.
Steamworks has become a staple of Durango and a prominent force in the restaurant industry, welcoming close to 1,000 customers per day. Not only has Steamworks become one of Durango’s most popular restaurants, but it also built the foundation for Peak Food & Beverage, which employs about 320 employees total, including staff members from El Moro Tavern and the three HomeSlice Pizza locations. During its peak season, Steamworks will employ close to 200 of those employees.
“People told us you’re never going to make it because you’re not on Main,” Oyler said.
Ska Brewing also employs about 70 staff members, excluding those who work at Ska Fabricating.
“Several of them (breweries) provide additional business opportunities for food trucks and musicians and performers. Ska is a good example of a business that is totally integrated into the fabric of Durango through the events it puts on, the events it supports and the way it encourages its employees to take part in volunteer efforts throughout town. Its innovative nature spurs business-to-business collaborations,” said Heather Otter, project manager for Region 9 Economic Development of Southwest Colorado.
Ska Brewing has become one of the bigger craft brewing names in the state, distributing to 10 states across the country and internationally to Sweden.
Ska even branched out into building its own brewing equipment. Co-owner Matt Vincent started Ska Fabricating, which has provided more than 1,000 businesses with depalletizers and packing line equipment in all 50 states, seven Canadian provinces and in 23 countries. However, Vincent sold the company in 2021.
“He had created an automated one (depalletizer) because we were the second craft brewery in the country to can beer,” Thibodeau said. “And so we had to invent all of our own equipment because nothing at that scale existed.”
Ska has also made its mark in the music scene, offering ska bands opportunities to perform and promoting their music in a genre that is not well-known among mainstream listeners.
Data from Region 9 Economic Development of Southwest Colorado shows that there were 19 people employed at brewing jobs in 2001, but that number rose to 80 in 2022. The national average for a city the size of Durango is 11.
Bill Carver helped raise $5 million to save the Powerhouse Science Center from being torn down. He also headed a proposal that eventually led to a 14% allocation of lodgers tax revenue toward Durango arts and cultural events.
The owners agree that brewpubs have made Durango a destination brewery market.
“You might eat at Carver’s one night and Steamworks another night and it becomes part of the experience for the visitors rather than competition,” Bill Carver said. “I think it just helps be another reason to visit Durango in the first place.”
The 1990s laid the foundation for newer breweries like Animas Brewing Co. to open in 2014 and Anarchy Brewing in 2021.
The Carver brothers retired in February 2022 and let Bill’s children, Claire and Colin Carver, take over the business. Oyler remains in charge at Steamworks and the brewery continues to have success.
Thibodeau and Graham are carrying on with Ska, venturing into other endeavors like Peach Street Distillers.
Only time will tell if Durango is big enough to hold more craft breweries, but the brewing community remains on respectable terms with each other.