From Prohibition to Pints Aplenty

Photos: Neill Pieper

Photos: Neill Pieper

Telling the Colorado story through brewing history

By Steve Graham

Sam Bock needs to keep his three-foot-long bottle smasher away from his mountain of pint glasses.

As a state public historian, Bock is curating “Beer Here! Brewing the New West,” a 3,000-square-foot exhibit coming to the History Colorado Center in May. It tells the somewhat contradictory story of beer-making in Colorado. 

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He hopes to celebrate today’s booming industry by lining the entryway with a mountain-shaped display of pint glasses from each craft brewery in Colorado. Once inside, visitors can explore yesterday’s brews and lack thereof. The large bottle smasher helps represent a lengthy era of prohibition.

Colorado passed a state alcohol ban in 1916 before the federal measure, but Bock wants to make sure the law’s backers are not just laughed off as teetotaler spoilsports. 

“We want to humanize them,” he said.

With more than 200 saloons at the time in the small frontier outpost of Denver, there was clearly a legitimate concern. 

“We really had a pretty prolific drinking problem,” Bock said. “It was pretty out of control.”

Through artifacts, documents and interactive displays, he hopes to paint a full picture of the prohibition era and several other moments in state history. 

The exhibit links prohibition activists on both sides to the rise of the mob and the 

Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. KKK members took over many state political offices, but initially rose to power as a law-and-order vigilante prohibitionist group. They heavily targeted local Italian communities that continued to make their own illicit wine and beer.

This kind of historic context is the overarching mission of the exhibit. Bock hopes to explain many of the state’s historic social and economic changes through the lens of beer.

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Bock dipped into beer research as a history graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Center of the American West. He planned to continue pursuing a PhD, but couldn’t pass up a job offer from History Colorado. It gives him the chance to create a public platform for his history research.

He said he had worked on a series of articles and public talks about Colorado beer with History Colorado creative director Jason Hanson. It was the genesis for a book that will be released as part of the exhibit.

Bock said he and Hanson both realized Colorado brewers helped define the fun, outdoors-oriented modern Colorado lifestyle. 

“There’s no company that has done more than Coors to brand Colorado,” Bock said.

In turn, the microbreweries that grew up around big beer became a draw of their own.

“Craft beer has become one of those amenities that is as important as hiking trails and ski resorts,” Bock said. 

He traces the history of Colorado craft beer to Charlie Papazian, who taught then-illegal home-brewing classes in Boulder, where he also launched a festival that has grown immensely since 1982.

“It was the Great American Beer Fest that put Colorado on the map as a beer destination,” Bock said.

He said corporate beer “had become pretty monotone,” but a new breed of tourists and transplants came to Colorado for the skiing and mountain biking, and were willing to pay more for a tastier, more niche product.

Bock said the hardest part of creating the “Beer Here!” exhibit was culling the list of artifacts provided by breweries, local collectors and area museums.

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His favorite item is perhaps an 1887 Denver brewer’s union card written entirely in German, reflecting the background of nearly all Denver beer-makers at the time.

History Colorado also found space for New Belgium’s original brewing tanks and a 2002 Dale’s Pale Ale can, the first canned craft beer. That piece celebrates both Oskar Blues and Ball.

But Bock said the 15-month exhibit is not really about aluminum inventions or even that “voluminously hopped mutha” in a can. It’s about the story of Colorado. He said he wants visitors to walk away from the exhibit asking, “why do we have this brewing industry and what does that tell us about where we are as a state and where we’re going in the future?”

Steve Graham is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor who likes taking his two young boys biking, hiking and brewery-hopping in northern Colorado.