Beer Shangri-La: The Best Beers in Colorado

In his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, British author James Hilton describes the mythical paradise of Shangri-La, located deep within the Kunlun Mountains of central Asia. Loosely based in Buddhist traditions of Shambhala, an earthly utopian kingdom, Shangri-La has become synonymous with locales of profound natural beauty and wondrous creative energies. In that light, the craft brewing scene found in the San Juan Mountains can be seen as a Shangri-La of the best beers in Colorado. Drink in our guide to this beer paradise:


Calling itself the “Switzerland of America”, the tiny hamlet of Ouray, hidden in a fold of peaks on the north side of the range, is a jewel among the secrets of the hills. Local hot springs offer a bather’s delight and the water provides the basis each winter for one of the finest planned ice climbing terrain parks in the world. Proudly quenching the thirst of dirtbag climbers, backcountry skiers, hikers, kayakers, and just about anyone else who cares to stop in, the Ourayle House prides itself in serving great beer, and not really giving a damn about much else. The place is a trip, and definitely worth a stop. Across the street, the Ouray Brewery dishes up the best food in town, and some excellent brews to boot. A top level deck perched three stories above mainstreet provides 360 degree views.


At the heart of the San Juans lays the historic mining town of Silverton. Ore deposits beneath the surrounding mountains were so plentiful that active gold mines still operate to this day (though on a much scaled back basis), and working miners belly up at the Miners Tavern (970-387-9885) for a pint after their shifts in the shafts. Following a fire two years ago, the Silverton Brewery ran into issues with the restoration and expansion of the one hundred year old building that had housed their operations, and has decided to relocate production to Denver. They plan to focus on distribution and marketing with the current name, but at this time, no taproom is planned for Silverton. To keep the local brewing tradition alive, Avalanche Brewing Co. began brewing and serving its own line of beer last summer. Currently, four offerings are on tap at the brewery.


For earthly representations of Shangri-La, it’s tough to top Telluride. Tucked neatly into the head of a box canyon ringed by majestic mountain peaks split by white streaks of falling water, Telluride in the sunshine is a sight to behold (especially wth a cold one in hand). Satisfying the needs of the hungry and thirsty, Smuggler’s Brewpub serves up a bevy of craft beer alongside traditional pub fare. Just down valley from town, and now in their second year of production brewing, Telluride Brewing Co. continues to expand its offerings both locally and statewide in canned six and twelve packs. Look for a double IPA this summer.


Guarding the southern flank of the San Juan range, Durango has long been the stepping off point for excursions into the wilderness. A supply center during the mining booms of previous centuries, Durango today is blessed with natural resources of its own, as well as a vibrant local brewing scene with five breweries currently producing craft beer, and a sixth on the way. For a town of roughly 16,000 inhabitants, it would be fair to say that Durango is the capital of beer. Opening just this past April, Brew Pub & Kitchen is the creation of longtime area brewer Erik Maxson and wife Laney. The couple will focus on brews that pair well with their eclectic menu. Stalwarts of the Colorado brewing industry, and “bucket list” stops for any fan of craft brew, Steamworks Brewing Co. and Carver Brewing Co., also downtown, keep it colorful with a wide spectrum of beer styles and varieties on tap. Ska Brewing Co., located in Durango’s mighty Bodo Industrial Park, is the region’s largest production brewery. Look for live music and other events at the tap room on site. On the north end of town, Durango Brewing Co. produces its award-winning selection of beer, available both at the taproom and around town. Located beneath the Hermosa cliffs, the Mountain Madness Brewpub has plans to begin brewing in the future, and currently serves a fine selection of Colorado’s best beers.

Pagosa Springs

At the heart of the broad valley of the upper San Juan River, Pagosa Springs serves up spectacular mountain views, fantastic hot springs and some of the best suds in the state. Multiple-award-winning Pagosa Brewing Co. produces a staggering variety of beer styles throughout the year. In particular, the coconut porter that is available in the spring, (and therefore guzzled primarily by the lucky locals), runs rich and dark with a flavor sweet enough to melt the panties off of a nun. Just celebrating its grand opening in June, Riff Raff Brewing Co. is located in a newly renovated historic Victorian downtown, and features possibly the best deck and beergarden in Colorado. Head brewer Eleanor Schnose is already working double time to keep up with the swift demand for its elixirs.


Located at the northern gateway to the San Juan range, the Colorado Boy Pub and Brewery in Ridgway, Colorado, specializes in two things, great beer and artesian pizzas. In addition, an introductory course on opening your own brewery is offered on site.

5 Beers to Watch for on the Front Range

Want Beer Closer to Home? These suds will cool things down in the heat of summer.

Bohemian  Pilsner
Mountain Sun (Boulder)/Southern Sun (Boulder)/Vine St. Pub (Denver)
Mountain Sun has made a big name for itself with the beer cognoscenti during its February Stout Month, but wanted to lighten things up with a take on this central European classic.

Watermelon Kolsch
Fate (Boulder)
The new kids in town, Fate, have pleased palates with their German-style Kolsch (ideal for sipping on the open air patio). Here, they upped the summer content by adding watermelon.

Odell (Fort Collins)
Named for a rare Colorado butterfly that lives on the state’s hops plants, it’s light and elegant like its namesake. Plus, $1 from each bottle sold will go to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program.

Saison Belay
Golden City (Golden)
Ideal after climbing at the quarry, this classic uses a Belgian yeast strand with hints of clove, apricot and spice.

craft lager
Upslope (Boulder)
Try at the tasting room or pack cans in your car-camping cooler. —Doug Schnitzspahn

Kegs, Harleys and Backbends

Perfect together—motors runnin’, skulls, cold beer and… yoga? That may not be the scene at Sturgis but is the vision of Harley rider Mark Stefanowski. The Boulder-based yoga teacher, who plays classic rock tunes in his Vinyassa classes, wants to shake up the stereotype of the practice as some over-mystified, inaccessible Om-fest for the enlightened elite and remind folks of its playful possibilities. In that vein, he and fellow yogi Justin Kaliszewski founded Outlaw Yoga, an apparel brand and, more so, a new teaching philosophy. “Yoga transformed my life and I want to share that gift with as many people as possible. Through the Outlaw Yoga movement, we can bring people to this powerful practice that have never even considered it. We can support people to make changes. Most importantly, we can make yoga fun,” he says. That fun comes through Beerasana, a monthly fund-raising yoga class created by Angel Organic that’s taught by Stefanowski and held at local microbrewries. “The classes are fun and physical and when they finish we all gather as a community to enjoy a beer and socialize. Yoga can happen in any place at any time, why not in a brewery with a bunch of fun people?” He also teaches an Outlaw class the second Sunday of every month in Oskar Blues tasting room.  —Doug Schnitzspahn

Something Stronger?

Beer? Been there done that. What’s truly hot now in Colorado is stronger. Libations, my firends. Artisan distillers are poised to make Colorado as big a hub for the creation of craft spirits as it has become for microbrews. The state currently claims 41 legal distillers, and more are on the way. That trend mirrors a natonal rise in craft distillers and many local and national booze brewers were on display in Denver this past April at DSTILL, a week-long convergence of craft brewers who were also pouring out samples of their best stuff at a $40 event. At the top of Colorado creations we tasted were: Leopold Brothers’ Absinthe Verte, a local take on the herbal ecstasy that inspired Van Gough and Hemingway;  Wood’s High Mountain Distillery’s Treeline Barrell Rested Gin, a dark version that impressed even those who don’t like gin; and, oddly, Dancing Pines Chai Liqueur. —D.S.

Erich Henning writes about his favorite topic, beer, from his home in Durango, Colorado.

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