Beer Edition: Understanding the history of beer in Fort Collins

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Collegian | Ava Kerzic

(Graphic illustration by Ava Kerzic | The Collegian)

Hailee Stegall, Arts and Culture Reporter

Brewing in Fort Collins has a rich history, and the story does not begin where one might think. According to Fort Collins History Connection, the town was “dry” until 1969, meaning alcohol was not allowed to be sold. 

By Fort Collins’ settling in 1872, drinking was strongly discouraged by legislature, as alcohol promoted unseemly behavior. In 1896, the Larimer County Board of County Commissioners signed legal prohibition into law, beating the rest of the country by more than 20 years. Following nationwide Prohibition ending in 1933, the law was relaxed to allow beer only under 3.2% alcohol by volume in certain establishments, which led to the founding of Fort Collins’ beer culture. 

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One of these selected establishments was the Matterhorn, a “dance hall and restaurant” that was able to make the case that beer provided a “better dining experience,” according to Clio. It skyrocketed in popularity due to it being one of the only places to drink within city limits. 

In the late 1960s, University students started and successfully completed a movement to abolish prohibition in Fort Collins entirely, which led to the Matterhorn being able to get an official liquor license. It burned and was closed a few years later, but it effectively established the culture of social beer consumption in what is now one of the most important such places in the country. 

“Craft brewery culture has always been interesting to me in that it fosters cooperation and learning among potential competitors. I can’t imagine a better brewery culture than Fort Collins.” -Chris McCombs, CooperSmith’s Pub & Brewing head brewer

Known best for our cycling and beer culture, one could argue Fort Collins is a quintessential beer location for hopheads to visit in Colorado. According to Visit Fort Collins, the town is currently home to more than 20 craft breweries — two of which are New Belgium Brewing and Odell Brewing Company, some of the highest grossing craft beer companies in the country. 

In previous years, it has also played host to Tour de Fat, one of three nationwide bike promenades that culminates in a New Belgium-sponsored festival. Just outside city limits is Anheuser-Busch, the conglomerate that brews the Budweiser, Michelob ULTRA, Natural Light and Busch beer families. Fort Collins is, without a doubt, a landmark town for beer. 

The title of oldest operating brewery in Fort Collins goes to CooperSmith’s Pub & Brewing, which opened in November 1989, two weeks before Odell. The pub was founded by Scott Smith and named for his son, Cooper. The brewery still operates using both traditional beer faucets and beer engines to produce the best flavors possible. Somewhat of a staple among CSU alumni, the acclaimed brewpub has had a thriving presence ever since it opened in Old Town Square.

Chris McCombs, head brewer at CooperSmith’s since 2018, recounted that the first beer ever brewed by the pub was Light on September 27, 1989, and they are planning to rebrew the original recipe at some point. McCombs cited quality ingredients, attention to detail in the process and cleanliness as the keys to creating a quality craft beer. The most popular beer they brew is Punjabi Pale Ale, a citrus and grapefruit fusion with a creamy mouth feel, McCombs said. 

In an email, McCombs explained how brewery culture in Fort Collins drew him in.

“Craft brewery culture has always been interesting to me in that it fosters cooperation and learning among potential competitors,” McCombs said. “I can’t imagine a better brewery culture than Fort Collins.” 

Brewing has a thriving home within Colorado State University as well through the brewing of Old Aggie Superior Lager, the light lager that has fueled the patrons of CSU football games since 2017. This crisp brew comes in at 4.7% ABV and, according to the New Belgium website, has personable honeycomb and citrus notes that make it popular among football fans and beer connoisseurs alike. 

Created by New Belgium in collaboration with students of the fermentation science and technology program at CSU, the beer yields 6% of profits split three ways. Due to the promotion of the brew by the football team, part goes to CSU Athletics, with the rest benefitting the FST program and alcohol awareness programs associated with the University.

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“Old Aggie is (a) great model for how (an) industry can support various University endeavors,” FST Associate Director Jeff Callaway said in an email. 

Reach Hailee Stegall at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @stegallbagel.