September 10, 2013 Updated: September 10, 2013 at 1:05 pm
We drove 350 miles across southern Colorado, over two mountain passes, through the vast San Luis Valley and into Durango to find my favorite kind of beer.
Actually, we were on a vacation in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado's largest range, where every little valley town seems to have a great brewery. That's why I never traverse our state without "The Guide."
Made by a Colorado Springs company, the "Beer Drinker's Guide to Colorado," a map and fact book available for $13.95 at many liquor stores, is in its seventh edition. The latest, released this summer, comes with coupons for free or discounted beer or merchandise at more than 50 breweries.
So in the name of journalistic research, we paid each a visit, and found that some exciting things are happening in beer in southern Colorado.
Durango Brewing Co.
Our first stop was at this little brewery that's been churning out the suds since 1990. You might have seen the image of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad on their bottles in liquor stores.
In fact, distributing on the Front Range seems to have hurt their local offerings, as there were only four beers on tap and they were out of Derail Ale, a two-time gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival. But the food was good, their India pale ale was standard and the place has a great "locals" vibe. The path to the restroom goes through the brewery and is so circuitous I wanted to leave a trail of bread crumbs.
Ska Brewing Co.
After three days exploring the ruins of Mesa Verde National Park, where, I'm pleased to report, the bar at the Far View Lodge has a fine selection of Colorado craft beers, we headed east again.
Ska's Modus Hoperandi, sold all over the state, has long been my go-to when I want a can of something hoppy. Canning is clearly the focus of the brewery, which is located in an industrial park, but I was pleased to find a large tasting room with some pretty interesting brews on tap. There was Dilsner, a dill-flavored pilsner that gets an "A" for effort but was a little too in your face. There was Estival Cream Stout, like a delicious Creamsicle in a glass. And there was my favorite, Vernal Minthe Stout, brewed with peppermint, spearmint and cocoa and vanilla beans. Think of it as Girl Scout Thin Mints for grown-ups only.
Pagosa Springs, just west of Wolf Creek Pass, is home to two breweries, but since the designated driver - my wife - seemed to be growing tired of watching me sample beer, we stopped only at Pagosa Brewing.
In summer, this might be the finest beer garden in Colorado, with lots of shade, fire pits, mountain views and cats and dogs roaming around. They also have an incredibly robust beer menu and an amazing chili beer, Chili Verde Cerveza. I don't usually care for chili beers, but this offered a nose full of chilies without the after burn.
I chased it with a delicious burger and on we went.
Three Barrel Brewing Co.
The San Luis Valley hamlet of Del Norte doesn't seem to have much exciting going on, but their brewery sure does. Founded in 2005, they have beers with names such as "Trashy Blonde," "Hop Trash" and two beers named for "Phil," who is/was a misbehaving rooster. The tiny kitchen was bustling and the beers were great, though, as we were at our third brewery of the day, my notes on them are unreliable.
Their beers aren't yet available on the Front Range, though you can find them at liquor stores in southern Colorado.
I had many more questions about "Phil," but the hour was getting late so on we went.
San Luis Valley Brewing Co.
After five days of backpacking, we emerged from the South San Juan Wilderness with a powerful thirst for beer.
I had visited San Luis Valley Brewing in Alamosa many times, but with more free beer coupons burning a hole in my pocket, we stopped again. The beers are mostly standard offerings you'll find at any brew pub and the service was slow, but it's a great atmosphere with some incredible sausage plates on the menu, and the print journalist in me loved how the menus were designed as newspapers.
We threw down a couple of brews, had our first big meal in five days and left to disappear at Valley View Hot Springs for a few days.
Elevation Beer Co.
The final free beers of our journey were in Poncha Springs, which until last year was a highway crossroads where I seldom stopped.
Elevation Beer Co. is just more than a year old, but the beers have been making heads turn around Colorado. It's a classic tasting room without a kitchen, but all the better for focusing on the brews. I was fortunate to get some of their 7437 Anniversary IPA, full of exotic hops and checking in at 9 percent alcohol.
You won't find that in liquor stores, but their First Cast IPA, a fine hop addition of its own, recently became available in four-packs in liquor stores, along with their rich, chocolatey Little Mo Porter. I've seen some of their other beers in champagne bottles.
I chatted with one of the brewers, tasted each beer for good measure and folded "The Guide" for now. It'll be in the glove box for when next we venture out into our great state.
Six breweries down, so many, many to go.