Brew Grit: Steamworks Brewing

Steamworks Brewing Embodies Work (and Play) Ethic of its Durango Home

By Kyle Kirves

You had a nightlight, right? Maybe it was just a simple bulb plugged into an outlet. If it was fancy, maybe it sported a Wonder Woman logo or an R2-D2. And your teddy bear was maybe a Winnie the Pooh or a Paddington. That is, if you’ll admit to having either. Right? Right. 

Well, Brian McEachron of Steamworks Brewing in Durango might have you beat. “My nightlight as a kid was an Olympia beer sign,” he says. “With the oscillating waterfall and everything. And I have a Hamm’s (beer) bear that I got as a kid from my dad. It’s still in my office.” 

 © Steamworks Brewing Co

© Steamworks Brewing Co

So it’s not surprising that those old-school 1960s and ’70s beer labels influence the new Steamworks art for its cans and bottles of Conductor IPA, Steam Engine Pale Ale and Backside Oatmeal Stout. These three containers, with their crisp white labels, limited color choices and simple iconography would look right at home alongside the old enamel cans your dad has in his collection. My favorite, the Backside Stout, features a skier in vintage apparel in black-and-white-and-bronze, inside an image of wrought brass, maybe cutting stem christies down Purgatory Mountain in Durango. Even the Steamworks-branded ribbon at the top and bottom seem cut from the same cloth as beers you’d find in grandad’s Philco ’fridge. It’s old-school street cred in a can. 

Yes, the art is clearly in the mode of old Milwaukee beer branding. But, though the imagery may be nostalgic, what’s in the can is completely 21st century: polished, drinkable beers that McEachron describes as “quick off the palate, sessionable, tight beers that you want to drink more than one of.” Couple that with a nitro-injection — in the case of the Backside — that demands that you “pour stoutly,” and you have a recipe for an award-winning concoction, one of many, in fact. Time and time again, Steamworks continues to bring home the hardware from Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. 

It’s more than just nostalgia that influences Steamworks’ choices in artwork. Durango itself is infused in everything Steamworks does, and has been for nearly 20 years. 

“We chose Durango as where we wanted to be because there is still a great hard-working, blue collar ethic there,” McEachron says. “We know so many people who have done whatever it took to stick around the place they love. It’s a small town. Still working class. Still affordable. And what we do is a tribute to that place and the people in it. Nuts and bolts and gears and steam. That’s Durango.” 

Justin “JT” Travis, onetime staffer at Steamworks and now designer of their can and bottle art, suggests Steamworks owes a debt of gratitude to Durango’s traditions. 

 © Steamworks Brewing Co

© Steamworks Brewing Co

“We like being associated with our town’s historical, frontier reputation,” Travis said. “The (Durango and Silverton) Narrow Gauge Railroad is part of that frontier tradition that we’ve kind of tapped into in terms of our branding and can art.” 

Travis said the inspiration for the imagery has always been steam-powered industrial, but with a less modern take. He calls it vintage industrial. “Steamworks was steampunk way before it was fashionable to be so,” he said. 

One notable departure from the Steamworks branding catalog is the eminently drinkable and instantly recognizable Colorado Kolsch, showcasing the Colorado state flag as a wrap. When I asked him about being way out in front of the whole Colorado flag branding phenomenon, McEachron laughs and says, “We’ve been out in front of a lot of things. Nobody was doing collaboration years ago. Now it’s a huge thing. And that’s so, so unbelievably great for everybody. Everybody is learning from everybody else.” 

McEachron cites decades old “friendly competition” with fellow Durango brewers Ska Brewing, and recent collaborations with Denver’s Dry Dock Brewing (“Dry Dock is killing it. Great people making great beer,” McEachron says.) as mutually beneficial creative crucibles. Dry Dock cans Steamworks’ beers for distribution, and you’ll find shout-outs to Dry Dock on the cans, giving credit where credit is due. 

But all work and no play makes for a dull brewery. 

 © Steamworks Brewing Co

© Steamworks Brewing Co

McEachron is quick to point out that the good, hard working people of Steamworks — and the city of Durango, of which they are a microcosm — are also very much about good, hard play, too. They’re committed hikers, bikers, boarders, rafters, rowers … you know, typical Coloradans. McEachron himself on any business day could easily be taken for a fly-fishing guide on a day off. 

“We are contractually obligated to ski certain places in Durango,” McEachron says, citing local landmark Purgatory as sacred ground for Steamworks. “And we stock a lot of back-country ski and Snowcat operations. We love those people. Those folks are Colorado.” He might as well have said “Durango.” 

Like its home city, Steamworks continues to strike the balance between work and play, business and family — and life, and love, and everything else. Their story — both Steamworks and Durango’s — is well-told in the images on beers that you’d be proud to pull out of your own refrigerator, slap in Dad’s hand and say, “Here’s to __________.” It’s up to you to fill in the blank. 

Kyle Kirves is a solid dude who believes drinking beer should be a ‘five senses’ experience.