Where to Drink in Boulder, Colorado

Destinations by | Sep 2016 | Issue #116
Illustrations by Sam Brewster

While most of the nation gave up on Prohibition in 1933, the town of Boulder was stuck with so-called “non intoxicating” beer of 3.2 percent ABV and below until 1967, when voters finally repealed their own version of an alcohol ban. Perhaps it was pent-up thirst that resulted in Boulder becoming one of the cradles of the modern brewing industry.

It was here that Charlie Papazian created the American Homebrewers Association just 11 years later, and then in 1979 the organization that would become the Brewers Association, the industry’s primary trade association and host of the Great American Beer Festival. And it was also here that two University of Colorado professors secured the 43rd brewing license in the nation in 1979 and started brewing and selling beer out of a former goat shed. That brewery, Boulder Beer Company, still exists, although it has long since matured, along with the city’s beer culture as a whole.

Over the years, Boulder Beer was joined by Twisted Pine, Mountain Sun, which now has five breweries and restaurants, and Avery Brewing, which continues to challenge palates with beers like its 18 percent ABV rum-barrel-aged pumpkin bomb, Rumpkin, and its tart, passionfruit Witbier, Liliko’i Kepolo. Founded in 1993, Avery is now among Colorado’s biggest breweries. In 2015, the brewery moved from its longtime home to a $30 million, 5.6-acre campus with a showplace restaurant.

But Avery isn’t the only one pushing boundaries. Roughly 15 breweries have opened in the past eight years within the city limits, including Upslope, which now has two locations and is building a larger taproom with a full-service restaurant. Some of these breweries are located downtown and along the Pearl Street Mall, Boulder’s famed and funky main street, where you can find potheads mingling with elite athletes and college kids, and street musicians hustling alongside aspiring tech entrepreneurs. But most are in business parks, which provide a relatively cheap and spacious breeding ground for creativity. Many of Boulder’s scientists, chefs, and entrepreneurs got their start in tiny rooms in business parks as well.

Other towns in Boulder County, like Lafayette, Louisville, and Longmont (home to brewing superstars Oskar Blues and Left Hand), have also staked their claims as some of the most vital beer destinations in Colorado, but Boulder itself can’t be overlooked. So, rent a bike, grab your GPS, and immerse yourself in some of the best beer that Colorado has to offer.


Many people start their exploration of Boulder at the historic Pearl Street Mall, if just for the people watching alone. Anchoring the east side of this pedestrian mall is Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery, which, like the People’s Republic of Boulder itself, has always done things its own way: this mellow institution doesn’t take credit cards, doesn’t have TVs, and tends to tap new beers at 4:20 p.m. But the beers here are anything but spaced out. Known for hoppy brews like Colorado Kind Amber Ale and FYIPA, don’t miss Mountain Sun’s Stouts, like Old School Irish Stout, best sampled during its annual Stout Month in February.

On the west side of the mall, you’ll find two very different restaurants known for their beer selections. The first is The Kitchen Upstairs, part of a string of elegant restaurants in Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins. The draft list here is small but thoughtful, featuring local, national, and international treats to pair with a seasonal menu of charcuterie and rustic sharing plates, like vegetable paella and prosciutto flatbread. The expansive bottle list offers everything from rare Firestone Walker oddities and difficult-to-find Belgians to local vintage specialties.

For a different vibe, head down the street to the West End Tavern, an unpretentious party spot. There are 25 taps here of mostly local craft (think Telluride Fishwater Double IPA and Upslope Craft Lager) split between bars on the main floor and upstairs. But it’s the second level where you want to set your glass down at a table on the rooftop patio and enjoy some pit-smoked barbecue on a Colorado evening.

Just off the Pearl Street Mall is Rueben’s Burger Bistro, which looks like a ’50s-era diner, but operates at the forefront of beer culture. Its 42 taps feature the best of both Belgium and Colorado, along with some out-of-state specialties. Try a Funkwerks Tropic King Imperial Saison with the Mont Ventoux burger, topped with a layer of fries, bacon, cheddar cheese, and a fried egg on a pretzel bun.

Boulder’s largest tap list—packed with some of the most sought-after brews in the nation and the world—is at Backcountry Pizza & Taphouse. Owner John Fayman has cultivated contacts and allegiances that often make him one of the only spots in Colorado to land rare beers, like La Vermontoise, a collaboration between Brasserie Blaugies and Hill Farmstead, to the newest Double IPAs and barrel-aged Stouts from tiny craft darlings

The Sink, a classic Boulder college hangout that’s been around since the 1920s, has attracted guests from Robert Redford to President Obama with its famous burgers, like the Grass-Fed Garlic Burger with garlic chips, garlic aioli, and garlic sautéed spinach. One of New Belgium’s first Boulder accounts in the early ’90s, its 18 taps include locals like Asher Brewing Tree Hugger Organic Amber and brews by its sister restaurant, West Flanders Brewing on the Pearl Street Mall.

Brewery taprooms are popular local hangouts, too, and a few of the new crop stand out. Among them is Sanitas Brewing, which makes high-quality beers that run the gamut from Session Pales to barrel-aged wild ales. The place also boasts a killer patio, with a view of its namesake, Mount Sanitas. Local tip: look for beer specials when a train rumbles by on the tracks a few feet behind the patio. Close by is Bru Handbuilt Ales & Eats. Founded in a garage by Boulder chef Ian Clark, Bru makes each beer as if it were a dish on his upscale food menu, combining unusual ingredients for unusual flavors, like pizza with IPA tomato sauce or spent-grain cookies paired with Citrum IPA, made with lemon zest and juniper.

Boulder is also home to the state’s first certified all-organic brewery, Asher Brewing. Don’t let the organic label fool you though: their beers are still packed with flavor, like the dank, 60 IBU Greenade Organic Double IPA.

And at father-and-son brewery Finkel & Garf Brewing, a massive snack wall frames the taps behind the bar, with cubbies for chips, pretzels, beef jerky, Twinkies, and Spam. It comes in handy after enjoying a few pints of Rye Saison or Imperial Red.

Most of these breweries sell beer to go, but for one-shop stopping, there’s a pair of independent liquor store powerhouses in Hazel’s Beverage World and Boulder Liquor Mart. The latter is a cavernous space featuring just about every packaged beer made in the state, along with all of the out-of-state breweries that currently distribute in Colorado.