By Joe Ross
Lee Driscoll and John Hickenlooper helped pioneer the craft food and beer industry in Colorado – but it took a while to catch fire.
Driscoll, the CEO of Breckenridge-Wynkoop Brewing Co., has covered a lot of ground since moving to Denver more than 20 years ago, where he met future Governor Hickenlooper through a mutual friend. Hickenlooper had launched Wynkoop in 1988 and he tapped Driscoll to help expand the company.
Wynkoop’s growth led to a merger with Breckenridge Brewery in 2010. The company’s success – including the sale of two of its properties to Anheuser-Busch late last year – has long been rooted in quality food and beverages.
Driscoll said a wave of new breweries in the 1990s and 2000s resulted in great beer. The food component trailed behind, however, and he said as recently as five years ago, he feared “a long, uphill battle” toward the mainstream demanding excellent food and drinks.
His push to hire experienced chefs and pair them with experienced brewers proved prophetic as the throngs of millennials from across the country began moving to Colorado. “Millennials are driving menu choices,” he said. In addition to food and beer, those choices include wine and spirits, which Breckenridge-Wynkoop offered early on.
Driscoll also noted that many of the craft beers have carried a wallop in the form of alcohol content. The current trend of brewers creating session beers in a wide variety of flavors has opened the door to more people. The alcohol-by-volume reading on most craft beer ranges from 5 percent to 10 percent. But session brews generally are a low 3 percent to 4 percent ABV, so a night of fun with friends doesn’t have to end with a headache. “Session is where it’s at,” Driscoll says.
The demand for quality fare and drinks drove the idea for the Farm House restaurant at Breckenridge Brewery in Littleton, one of the properties sold to Anheuser-Busch, along with the original Breckenridge Brewery located in the small ski town in Summit County. The Farm House, which opened last spring, appeals to a cross section of consumers, he said, by offering craft cocktails, wine on tap and of course, food and beer. “They are reaching the entire spectrum.”
Driscoll predicts a bright future for craft breweries, where people love to congregate. “There’s no substitute for human interaction,” he said. “John (Hickenlooper) has always said the couch and the TV are the enemies.”
Partners in beer and beyond
Lee Driscoll got involved with the brewing industry after being introduced to John Hickenlooper in 1994. Hickenlooper had co-founded Wynkoop Brewing – the state’s first brewpub – and was raising money for the Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. in Colorado Springs when Driscoll got a seat on the Wynkoop board of directors. Driscoll said he and Hickenlooper officially became partners in 1998.
With a background in law and finance, Driscoll helped Hickenlooper guide Wynkoop into prosperity, and an eventual merger with Breckenridge Brewery.
Hickenlooper stepped away from the brewing and restaurant world after he was elected mayor of Denver in 2003. Driscoll later served on the finance committee for Hickenlooper’s run for governor.
-Joe Ross spends much of his time looking for great stories and great beers.