Boulder County businesses: Waiting it out in the ‘war zone’

Floodplain map benefits Left Hand; Spirit Hound faces months-long closure

The back porch of Spirit Hound
Photo courtesy of Craig Engelhorn

This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.

As water poured into the tasting room at Spirit Hound Distillers, Craig Engelhorn got drunk.

There wasn’t much else to do. Engelhorn had worked all day Wednesday, Sept. 11, at the Lyons distillery, working straight through the weather alerts on his phone. As rain poured down at the end of the day, he learned he’d left the dome light in his truck on all day. The battery was dead. The distillery’s co-founder and distiller would be making full use of the couch that evening.

“It’s late at night,” he says. “I made myself a gin mule, I sat down, farted around on the Internet, hit the couch.”

By early the next morning, he says, he was stranded in Lyons.

“At 5:34, I woke up. That’s one of those things, you know, you look at your phone, that number’s burned in my brain. 5:34 Thursday morning, I hear this gurgling and knocking. I’m thinking, what the fuck is that?”

Engelhorn walked to the edge of the second-floor balcony in the Spirit Hound tasting room.

“The knocking I was hearing was chairs floating around and bumping each other,” he says. “The gurgling, obviously, was water.”

Outside, the super-sized South St. Vrain rushed urgently down U.S. 36, surrounding the distillery. The water topped Engelhorn’s truck’s tires, swept away a Spirit Hound picnic table and lodged a dark blue van against the distillery’s sign.

More than a foot of water filled the Spirit Hound tasting room. In the kitchen, water lifted the rubber mats off the floor; Engelhorn — wearing knee-high rubber brewer’s boots — had to step on the mats to get access to a flooded cooler to grab the only food he felt safe eating: a jar full of pickled eggs.

“We have pretzels,” he says. “The pretzels, they’re in bags still, but they’re floating everywhere. I’m like, I can’t eat those things. Blugh.”

So, pickled eggs and Avery IPA six-pack in hand, Engelhorn headed back upstairs to his couch. It wasn’t easy for the always-active distiller to have nothing to do for more than 24 hours. He spoke to his wife that morning, then his phone’s battery died.

Spirit Hound’s tasting room on Friday, Sept. 13 | Photo courtesy of Craig Engelhorn

“I cried a little,” he says of watching the flood that day. “My biggest fear was what people were thinking about me.” When he finally got to charge his phone, he says, it “exploded” with texts and emails from people worried about him.

Engelhorn says he’s not planning to salvage any full bottles of liquor that were submerged, even if they were sealed from what he calls “poo water.”

A little less than a mile up U.S. 36, they’re hoping kegs are better sealed than bottles. Jason Rogers, chef at the original Oskar Blues restaurant in Lyons, says he and a few other Oskar Blues employees worked out a brief return to Lyons Monday, Sept. 16, to evacuate kegs of beer — while the town was evacuated. Crossing into the town, he says, was like entering another world.

“That whole river valley floodplain is just gone,” Rogers says. “It just wiped out all those houses. The river’s got a new path.

“It’s a war zone. It’s a total war zone,” he adds. “Everything from the police-copter-lookin’-thing to Blackhawks to the double-propeller deals. Every five minutes just flying over.”

While employees had expected to just load kegs into their cars, they ran into some familiar faces.

“The four quote-unquote regulars that sit at our bar are just living on the street,” Rogers says. “Right when we pulled up, started loading up kegs, they’re like, ‘Hey, man, can I get some beers?’”

Rogers says the Oskar Blues Grill & Brew restaurant came through the flood with just minor water damage from roof leakage, although he says he was awake before dawn Sept. 12 to contact employees and coordinate evacuations. He says even though it stayed dry, cleanup will be difficult. Then, unprompted, he cites Spirit Hound as particularly hard-hit.

“Craig and Wayne [Anderson, a co-founder], poor guys. Spirit Hound was doing some cool shit,” he says. “They’ll be back, you know.”

Further down the St. Vrain, one iconic business is already back. Longmont’s Left Hand Brewing Company looked like it was in bad shape from its Facebook posts; an aerial view Sept. 13 shows water completely surrounding the brewery’s buildings.

Turns out Left Hand survived — by an inch, co-founder and President Eric Wallace says.

He’s bounding around the Left Hand taproom Monday, Sept. 16, the day it reopens for business. He’s showing photos on his iPhone of the high water mark, inches from the taproom’s front door and about an inch from cresting over the loading dock and flooding the production room.

And he’s got quite an audience, especially for a Monday night. The crowds came out in force for Left Hand’s reopening, with many sharing flood stories and vindictively ordering Left Hand’s St. Vrain Tripel.

At one point, Wallace enthusiastically takes a phone call from Dick Doore, Left Hand’s other founder, who hadn’t been heard from since the Left Hand crew parted ways Sept. 12.

“Dick Doore is alive and well,” Wallace announces after the call.

The sign outside Left Hand’s taproom when it reopened Monday, Sept. 16 | Photo by Steve Weishampel

That Thursday, Wallace says, was not easy. As the water rose, he and Doore gradually sent home more and more staff, until it was just them and the maintenance crew. By that point, cars were sliding off Boston Avenue in front of the brewery.

“I was completely freaking out,” he says.

From Sept. 12 to 16, the area was evacuated, Wallace says, and information about the state of the brewery was scarce. But he had high praise for Longmont city engineers and the accuracy of the 100-year floodplain map, which he said showed the brewery as staying dry and guided construction. While mud surrounds the brewery, the beer was unaffected.

Left Hand’s PR coordinator, Emily Armstrong, says the brewery’s doing its best to resume production and packaging and get back on schedule. Left Hand missed a deadline to submit samples to the Great American Beer Fest judging, but the Boulder-based Brewers Association, which runs the GABF, says it’s making exceptions for any breweries affected by flooding.

Armstrong says special releases and seasonals are “slightly behind,” but beers in holding tanks are still on schedule.

Cleanup at the Oskar Blues in Lyons will be harder, Rogers says. The restaurant didn’t flood, but the rushed cleanup before evacuation left the place littered with uncleaned food containers.

“My people that were still on the ground there cleaned out the coolers but now it’s just piled-up Lexans,” Rogers says, referring to the clear plastic food bins in the kitchen. “All that stuff’s just sitting there. They dumped it in the garbage, but they couldn’t wash the containers, so it’s covered in flies and smells like shit and it’s just disgusting.”

Compared to Spirit Hound, that’s a breeze, as Rogers admits.

“For businesses, to be honest, I think Wayne Anderson — he owns The Lyons Fork and he’s a partner with Spirit Hound — Wayne probably got it the worst, poor guy. Both his businesses — it ran through the top of town, hit his restaurant. Came all the way through and on the way out of town, hit his distillery.”

Engelhorn says he doesn’t know what the cleanup timeline is — including when they can access the distillery. He predicts a month of cleanup and another two months waiting for water, electricity and other services to be reconnected.

“We have 20 cases of gin ready the day they turn the water on,” he says. Then his team can turn out about five cases a day.

“The holiday season is huge for us,” he says, even though by his calculation they’ll just be resuming production by Christmas.

Engelhorn’s also worried about his employees. He knows the distillery’s bartenders have to go find other jobs while the tasting room’s out of commission. He and his wife are staying with a Spirit Hound bartender in North Boulder who lost both of her bartending jobs, he says, because they were both in Lyons.

“We’re gonna try to get our people as much work as they can,” he says. “My assistant in the distillery, we’re gonna try to get him busy because he’s so essential.

“Your expenses go on,” he says. “That rent payment or mortgage, it’s still coming.”


This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.