Katie Coakley
Daily Correspondent

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August 12, 2014
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Experience the Vail Valley's growing craft beer scene

What are you drinking these days? If you’re like the growing number of people enjoying the rising popularity of craft beer, perhaps you’re enjoying a light and sunny kolsch on the back deck. Those with a passion for hops might be sipping a double IPA, and those with a more adventurous palate might be sampling a Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout (yes, it does exist). Whatever the flavor, craft beer has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years.

As of the end of June, more than 3,000 breweries were operating across the United States.

“This represents a return to the localization of beer production, with almost 99 percent of the 3,040 breweries being small and independent,” wrote Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association in a recent article. “The majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a local brewery.”

Even though those numbers seem to point to larger cities like Denver and Boulder, in the Vail Valley, that distance is not too far off. There are two breweries in Edwards (about 16 miles from Vail); for those living in Eagle, there are two breweries to make the “10 mile” statistic accurate.

Of those four breweries, three have been open for five years or less. However, Gore Range Brewery in Edwards will celebrate its 17th anniversary in December.

“I’ve seen a lot of change with the whole craft beer scene,” said Jeremy Pluck, head brewer at Gore Range Brewery. Pluck has been working as the brewer at Gore Range since it opened in 1997. “I think it starts with the adventurousness of the beer drinking public. It took a bit of time for the whole craft beer movement to gain some traction, but when people discover the flavor diversity and complexity, then they tend to get into it. You can’t go back to drinking bland beer.”

Creativity from the tap

That’s one of the beauties of craft beer. The industry itself thrives on creativity and every brewer has his or her own style and perspective on flavor. The Mountain Livin’ Pale Ale at Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. in Edwards tastes very different from the Kindler Pale Ale at Bonfire Brewing in Eagle and still different than the World’s Greatest Pale Ale (named for a mountain-bike trail, not an overabundance of self-confidence on the part of the brewer) at new 7 Hermits Brewing Co. in Eagle.

“I think that people are seeking out the diversity of flavors. They want to try different beers and people seem to want stuff they can’t get elsewhere,” Pluck said. “When they’re coming into our area, they want to check out the local beer. When they go back home, they can’t get that beer. It becomes a missed opportunity if they don’t come and check it out.”

Case in point: sitting at the bar at Gore Range Brewery on Friday evening was a couple from Austin, Texas. They had come up from Denver for the day and, when asked what had brought them to Edwards, the man explained, “We’re on a bit of a brewery tour; we wanted to check out the breweries up here.”

With the plethora of options in Denver, this couple decided to drive to Edwards to sample the opportunities a bit further afield — options that are smaller and more locally focused. They’re not alone.

Uber local

Most of the new breweries in the U.S. are operating in neighborhoods and towns and tend to be operating on a smaller scale and are locally centered. This hearkens back to the heyday of the 1800s: There were 4,131 breweries operating in 1873, and they were largely local.

The newest neighborhood brewery in Eagle County, 7 Hermits, has the neighborhood spirit in spades. Located in Eagle Ranch, 7 Hermits has an industrial aesthetic in the decor, but the feel of the place is far from mechanized. On a typical evening, a few folks sit at the bar while others occupy the high-top tables, pint glasses in hand.

Currently serving seven different beers, 7 Hermits started with what could be classified as an epiphany, according to brewer Matt Marple.

“It was not in my mind to do a brewery,” Marple said. A home brewer for many years, Marple got his first sip of success at a brewing competition hosted by Mountain Beverage. Out of his four entries, three took top prizes, with one receiving the grand prize. But it took a special beer for Marple to (literally) taste the possibility.

“It was when we made Paul, our imperial IPA. It was one of those moments in the garage when we were standing there, smelling it and for 10 minutes, we couldn’t get over the smell of it,” explained Marple. “It was like a ‘light coming down from above’ moment, and we tasted it and we looked at each other and we said, ‘That’s the beer. We could actually build a brewery on that beer.’”

The brewery has been open for almost six months now, and Marple said that it has done no advertising.

“Everything has been word of mouth,” he said. “We’re mostly just living off of our local community at the moment.”

That might change in the near future as he prepares to go into distribution. However, don’t expect the local feel and focus of 7 Hermits to alter. Marple understands his clientele and knows what they like.

They don’t like change.

When Marple tweaked his Gold Dust Lemon Blonde, the feedback was almost instantaneous — the customers wanted the previous recipe.

“It was a small change, and it was closer to what I originally wanted,” explained Marple. “But they loved the first batch so much that I got pushed back into going back to the first recipe. I have die-hards, and that’s all they drink.”

Still growing

New breweries are popping up like forest mushrooms in cities of all sizes around the country, and it doesn’t seem as if craft beer is approaching the top of the bubble. Of the nationwide growth in breweries, there has been a 22.6 percent increase in regional craft breweries, a 22.8 percent increase in microbreweries and a 7.1 percent increase in brewpubs. Large, non-craft breweries showed no growth at all.

“I’ve been in the brewing industry for close to two decades now. It’s amazing where it’s gone and how much attention it has been getting lately,” Pluck said. “It’s great. A high tide floats all boats. We want to see more good beer out there; it’s good for the industry.”

So get out and explore the beer world that’s right here in our valley — there are plenty of options to please your palate.

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The VailDaily Updated Aug 12, 2014 09:31PM Published Aug 12, 2014 12:53PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.