Tourists hoping to find an actual fort in Fort Collins will be stymied, but those with a passion for excellent craft beer and food will find nirvana.
We’ve been drawn by the craft beer culture in this charming Colorado city of 165,000, a 90-minute drive from Denver, but are pleasantly surprised by Fort Collins’ Disney-esque vibrant 19th century downtown and a culinary culture that’s major league.
Our base is one of the state’s fantastic historical hotels, the 1920s Armstrong where check-in includes meeting the hotel lobby’s resident cat, Oreo. Thirty years ago, no tourists would stay here as it had fallen on rough times. But new owners and a year-long renovation in 2003 brought the Armstrong back to its glory and the hotel now is a well located place to stay while exploring the revived Fort Collins downtown, its leafy side streets, and most importantly, more than 20 craft breweries to make it the craft beer capital of Colorado.
Time is of the essence, so with the help of the city’s marketing director Katy Schneider and local Bob Williams – he’s a bicycle mechanic and certified cicerone who leads beer and bike tours internationally in places such as Belgium and Japan as well as Colorado – we’ve keyed in on three. Two were obvious choices, one was a brand new Belgian sour sensation.
Purpose Brewing and Cellars is a boutique craft brewery opened by Peter Bouckaert, the former brewmaster at the iconic New Belgium Brewing, and Zach Wilson, former brewer at 1933 Brewing, also of Fort Collins.
For Bouckaert, it was a switch from one of the biggest craft brewers in the United States to one of the smallest in Fort Collins, although since our visit Purpose is looking to expand its brewhouse and add a coffee bar.
Purpose is a small-batch brewery with a constantly changing board, making it a polar opposite experience for Bouckaert compared to his years at New Belgium where the focus was on consistent quality of large national craft brands such as Fat Tire.
On our visit, with Frezi Bouckaert, Peter’s wife, in charge, Wayne happily tries Smoeltrekker No. 6 and No. 17 (versions of the same sour beer numbered for the barrel used) and Nacht Up, a black ale with hints of coconut and vanilla brewed using amburrana wood from Brazil.
During the tasting Williams observes, “If you like the way the beer tastes, it’s a good beer.” And, certainly that was true of the Nacht Up.
Next up, a stop at the lively Odell Brewing Co., one of the twin peaks in Fort Collins’ considerable contribution to American craft beer. Founded in 1989 by Doug, Wynne and Corkie Odell, the company is the 34th largest craft brewery in the U.S. and its beers are found in 11 states and the United Kingdom. Odell’s marquee brands are British in style.
Originally located in a converted 1915 grain elevator, today’s brewery is a sprawling modern enterprise featuring a colourful taproom and an expansive patio.
Odell co-owner and taproom manager Kailey Bowser toured us around the brewery where we witnessed robots loading kegs and bottles merrily making their way through an assembly line. It was intriguing to witness a panel of employee tasters rating the product. The “warm-store” test was underway with brews flavour stability in adverse conditions rated on a scale of one to 10.
Bowser also noted employees can concoct their own brews, as she did for her recent wedding, producing “Loving Cup,” a golden ale named after a Rolling Stones song.
And that’s just one of many employee perks.
“We’re spoiled,” said Bowser, adding after five years employees are taken on a trip to Europe to witness other brewery techniques. She said employee appreciation “is who we are from day one.”
Williams and Wayne quickly tuck in with flights beside a fellow brewcationer, a homebrewer from Madison, Wisc., who is generous with his praise for what he’s discovered at Odells such as 90 Shilling, an amber ale. There’s no leaving here without tasting Colorado Lager and, for a walk on the hoppier side, the summer seasonal Lupulin extra pale ale.
In any other city, Purpose and Odell would be enough to convince a craft beer lover they were in heaven. But this is Colorado, arguably the mother of the North American craft beer world, and we-re not done yet.
New Belgium Brewing, employee-owned and massive, offers free tours of its brewery every afternoon. The tours are equal parts storytelling, cycling, and legal drinking age (21 in America) playground.
Early on we’re introduced to an actual fat tire bicycle, It’s the same type founder Jeff Lebesch, as a 32-year-old, rode around the villages of Belgium before returning to Fort Collins in the early 1990s to start brewing beer in his basement.
Today, New Belgium’s Fat Tire brand of Belgian ale is brewed in both Fort Collins and Asheville, N.C., and is one of the most recognized craft beer brands in the U.S.
But New Belgium doesn’t rest entirely on its leading brand, The Fort Collins brewery is home to the world’s biggest wood cellar beer production facility producing beers such as Oscar brewed in blackberry whiskey barrels.
The taproom also features such beers as Voodoo Ranger IPA series, seven versions in total.
New Belgium is big on environmental sustainability and our tour led by Jesse Claeys reflects that, pointing out everything from policies regarding sourcing materials, to encouragement of the cycling culture and fitness. They’ve just added a great lawn perfect for cycle-in movie nights and beer yoga.
For the kid in us all, tours end with a literal slide back to the taproom level.
Of course, there’s more to nourish the soul than craft beer in Fort Collins. There is some of the best noshing we’ve experienced in America.
A favourite was The Kitchen, a bistro in historic Old Town with a farm-to-fork menu and a motto of “community through food.”
For a hearty breakfast and a fine cup-of-joe, few can match Silver Grill, which is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in northern Colorado, tracing its history to 1912. No one had to twist arms to sample their much-lauded cinnamon rolls and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Silver Grill cinnamon roll beer brewed in the Christmas season by Odell.
That has us smacking our lips in hopes of a return visit.
Fort Collins is an hour away from Rocky Mountain National Park, Red Feather Lakes and 30 minutes from Cache la Poudre River Canyon.
Rocky Mountain National Park, which spans the Continental Divide, is a must-see destination for visitors to Colorado in any season.
Near the park eastern entrance is the Banff-like town of Estes Park, home to a row of charming shops and three craft breweries. The key one to visit is Rock Cut, known for its Enos Pilsner and Quickdraw American Pale Ale, Rock Cut is located in a plaza between downtown and the base of Prospect Mountain. Estes Park also has a new craft distillery, Elkins Distilling, located a short drive from the famous Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s novel The Shining.
Air Canada has direct flights to Denver. From there, it’s a 90-minute drive.
Selection of upcoming Fort Collins Events
Free, family-friendly Fort Collins-style Oktoberfest featuring full day of live music, seasonal microbrews, wine, and regional German-themed cuisine
Downtown, the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street USA, is magical with a ceremony of holiday tunes, and hot chocolate.
Downtown restaurants and the community come together to celebrate this town’s enthusiasm for food by enjoying excellent dining specials and making generous donations to the Larimer County Food Bank.
A festival celebrating the Northern Colorado music scene. 300-plus different performers play at 30-plus venues in Downtown Fort Collins.