‘It got crazy’

An excerpt from the forthcoming book ‘Boulder County Beer: A Refreshing History’

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Charlie Papazian

Editor’s note: Longtime Boulder Weekly contributor Michael J. Casey has written a definitive history of the local craft beer scene, Boulder County Beer: A Refreshing History. Packed with firsthand accounts from adventurous brewers, Casey recounts the tale of those who turned Boulder County into ground zero for craft beer in the Centennial State, and supplements those stories with notes on beer styles, traditions and techniques. The book, published by Arcadia Publishing, drops on Feb. 22, but you can preorder your copy at arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467144759. Casey’s planning a book tour whenever such things are safe to do again. 

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Boulder’s brewpub scene was jamming: Walnut, Oasis, Mountain Sun, RedFish and BJ’s — all within a one-mile radius.

“Those were neat times,” Alex Puchner [of BJ’s Brewhouse] said.

“It got crazy,” Goerge Hanna [of Oasis Brewing] said. “Boulder responded very well to Oasis. And drinking.”

“A lot of serious beer drinkers there,” Puchner said. “It’s one of the best craft beer markets in the country, if not the world.”

And the scene was exploding. 

“One year, I think it was ’95, just as we were trying to open the new facility, the brewpub hit 5,000 barrels — the second-largest production in the nation at that time for a brewpub,” Hanna said. “And it was all done on a seven-barrel system.”

Hanna needed a second brewery, one dedicated to production and packaging. The Oasis Brewery Annex, located two miles east on Walnut Street, would be it — 12,000 square feet, enough to produce beer for Boulder and beyond.

“Around ’94, ’95, we were really selling a lot of beer,” he continued. “We started packaging, hand-bottling and everything at that point, but we were seeing a demand for our kegs, and we started distributing with a local distributor, state distributor. And it started going really quickly.”

According to Hanna’s estimates, Oasis brewed about 10,000 barrels a year at its peak — an enormous sum for the time.

“If you really had something, you caught a little traction. You get some investors and people willing to put some money into equipment, especially back then because there wasn’t much,” Hanna said.

Brewing is a capital-intensive proposition: Before you can sell beer, you have to produce it. And production doesn’t just involve raw materials but also physical space. Be it kegs (a half-barrel of beer) or large tanks for brewing, fermenting, conditioning and storage, real estate is required. And real estate is always limited and always expensive. For Hanna, the Annex was the answer. For Puchner, the brewpub on Pearl Street is all he had to work with.

“I’ll be the first to admit, it was a terrible design,” Puchner says of BJ’s layout, which incorporated tanks behind the bar and two floors of production.

“Having the mill up those stairs, and having no silo or auger and having to haul those 50-pound sacks [of grain] up two flights was just ridiculous,” he said. “But the other ridiculous thing was the brewhouse right behind the bar.”

The restaurant business was changing. Whether you went to Spago on the Sunset Strip or to a Subway sandwich shop anywhere in America, you could watch your food being cooked and assembled. Brewpubs followed suit when it came to beer. “It’s how we designed them,” Puchner said. “The idea is that the brewer would be very social and talk to the guests at the bar.”

At first, when business was steady, it might have helped break down customers’ hesitations to try something different, something new. But the brewing business in Boulder was anything but steady. It was busy as hell.

“You got bartenders tripping over your hoses,” Puchner said. “And it’s dangerous because you’re dealing with chemicals—that was the last time I ever designed a brewery like that.” Nowadays, most brewpub breweries are behind glass or isolated in some capacity for safety reasons. But back then, “it was pretty common,” Puchner said.

Imitation and inspiration were also common. When Puchner scouted Pearl Street in 1995, he stopped in Mountain Sun, Oasis and Walnut for inspiration. He found that inspiration, particularly Walnut’s beer logos, on the wall. 

“We basically stole that from them,” Puchner said. “We loved that look. So, when we started brewing beer, first in our Brea location, then Boulder, then Portland and elsewhere, we modeled a lot of the interior of our restaurants after that look,” he said. “That brewpub statement.”