‘Innocent of Hops:’ The case of Colorado’s first craft beer

Photo: Tivoli Brewing Company
The Tivoli Brewing Company was a prominent brewery in Denver's early years.

This much we know with certainty: The story of the first beer brewed in Colorado – the beer that set this rectangular patch of Rocky Mountains on a path to becoming one of the world’s leading locations for local libations – did not happen anything like this.

A distinguished and industrious German brewmaster (let’s call him Aldolph) did not ride into town on an immaculate wagon pulled by a team of Clydesdale horses, doff his fashionable hat, and proclaim to the assembled townsfolk:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have long sought the perfect setting for brewing the world’s best beer, and at last I have found it here. With limitless quantities of pure Rocky Mountain spring water, ideal agricultural conditions, and a reputation for discerning palates among its fine residents, I believe that this region is destined for an enviable position at the pinnacle of brewing history. I am fortunate to have arrived first, and henceforth and without further ado I shall brew a beer worthy of the noble men and women who call this place home.”

Had they been able to peer a century-and-a-half into the future, the first Euro-Americans to settle in Colorado may well have concocted an origin story for the local brewing industry along these lines - a beginning that could portend a day when Colorado would one day boast more than 240 breweries (and counting) and annually convene the nation’s best brewers at the Great American Beer Festival. But, lacking magical powers of foresight, the early settlers enjoyed the state’s first pints without doing much to memorialize them.

Historians and beer enthusiasts today (often one and the same) who want to illuminate the brewing industry’s origins in Colorado must piece that story together through archival legwork and educated guesswork. What emerges from this endeavor is not the heroic narrative that characterizes so many pioneer stories, but it is in many ways a more interesting and enlightening story about settlement on the Western mining frontier.

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Although Native people throughout the region enjoyed indigenous fermented beverages resembling beer long before Euro-American settlers appeared, beer as we know it today arrived in the Rocky Mountains with the earliest argonauts of the Colorado Gold Rush.

The story begins in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where a man named Frederick Z. Salomon operated a mercantile store with his brother. Near the beginning of 1859, Salomon was in St. Louis purchasing new stock for his trading post when he heard news of a gold strike along the South Platte River and its tributaries.

The 29-year-old Polish immigrant quickly decided his future was among the hopeful miners flocking to the Rockies and teamed up with Joseph Doyle, a trader who had been operating in the Arkansas River Valley and south into New Mexico for nearly two decades. Salomon returned West with a large wagon train of supplies and in the summer of 1859 he set up shop under the name J.B. Doyle & Co. in the town of Auraria, just across Cherry Creek from what was then the separate settlement of Denver City.

John Good watched Salomon set up his business from his own mercantile shop on the Denver City side of Cherry Creek. The 24-year-old immigrant from the German-speaking region of Alsace-Lorraine had arrived in May, a month before Salomon, riding an ox cart loaded with supplies to sell to miners on their way to the booming gold diggings.

Setting out from Akron, Ohio, he had crossed the plains alone, and without a partner like Doyle to help capitalize his enterprise, Good was obliged to make regular resupply trips back East by himself. It was a trip that sometimes took him three months.

When Salomon and Good looked out from the shop doors during that summer of 1859, they saw a dusty, sepia-toned, rambunctious settlement convulsively developing into the main supply depot for the mining camps scattered throughout the mountains to the West. A growing community of businessmen and women in Denver and Auraria offered food, preserves, equipment, clothing, lodging, assorted entertainments, and plenty of pungent Taos lightning whiskey in exchange for gold dust. It was nearly everything a person could hope for or expect hundreds of miles from any place that might be called a city.

But beer was rarely available at any price during that first year in Denver. Bulky and heavy to transport, with lower profit margins than more concentrated spirits and likely to spoil en route, beer was a commodity best produced locally. Salomon and Good appear to have recognized a market for the golden brew along the Rocky Mountain mining frontier.

Here’s where the historical record gets reticent and the historian veers toward detective. We know before the year’s end Salomon and a partner named Charles Tascher would found the Rocky Mountain Brewery, and that Good’s name would be associated with the enterprise by the spring of 1860.

But beer is a product of the special alchemy between barley, hops, yeast, and water. How did Salomon and his partners assemble these ingredients in a raw boomtown in 1859?

One story, apparently based on tradition more than any firm documentation, claims Good brought the first hops to Denver in his ox cart. If so, it seems likely he carried them on his second trip, made around the beginning of autumn to resupply his store and prepare for winter.

Good then sold the hops to Salomon, perhaps as previously arranged. Alternatively, Salomon might have easily purchased the hops on a quick unrecorded purchasing trip to St Louis. Or they may have arrived with a speculative freighter. The transport of the lager yeast is even less documented. It is not recorded anywhere, but the hop merchant could have carried it to Colorado as well.

Despite the murkiness of the existing historical record, it is clear once Frederick Salomon obtained hops and yeast, he cleared the major hurdles – barley was more commonly available for purchase, and the South Platte provided residents with water – and he began to operate a brewery near his store on the east side of what we know today as Larimer Street between 10th and 11th Streets, right in the center of what is today the Auraria Campus.

Salomon brought on Tascher as his partner in the Rocky Mountain Brewery, and in early November 1859 the pair commenced brewing. By late November, the editor of the Rocky Mountain News thanked the brewers in print for the gift of a “huge bottle of this teutonic beverage, the first ever brewed in the Territory of Jefferson,” which would be available to the public soon.

Two weeks later, the publicity-savvy brewers delivered a whole keg to the newspaper office, and the editor pronounced it “a little the best we ever tasted.” A week after that, a notice ran the beer would be for sale that weekend. Orders could be placed at J.B. Doyle & Co. Recalling that joyful occasion years later, one early imbiber recounted that the original Colorado beer, “though quite drinkable, was as innocent of hops as our early whiskey was of wheat or rye.”

“Quite drinkable” was good enough for the thirsty residents of the new territory, and the Rocky Mountain Brewery prospered. Only a month after opening, Salomon announced plans to build a beer cellar across the South Platte in Highland to expand capacity. Later that spring, in May, Tascher left the partnership and John Good and Charles Endlich joined Salomon as proprietors.

That arrangement lasted almost a year until Salomon left the business in April 1861. The business continued to grow, and the following year Good and Endlich opened satellite breweries in several mining camps south of Denver. Endlich died in 1864, but Good continued to run the brewery until 1871, when he sold it to his brewmaster, Philip Zang.

The tale of the first beer brewed in Colorado is not the sort of fateful or colorful origin story that makes for a good yarn around the bar of one of the state’s craft breweries. It is a pragmatic story about businessmen who saw opportunity in beer.

When Good hired Zang in 1869, he was the first professional brewer that had ever been involved in the Rocky Mountain Brewery. After leaving the brewery, Frederick Salomon went on to be a notable figure in many of Denver’s early water companies and railroad enterprises.

Good moved into banking and real estate investing, although he did get back into the beer business when he later foreclosed on a brewery and rechristened it the Tivoli, creating one of the few breweries that would survive prohibition in Colorado.

Look deeply into a pint of your favorite Colorado beer, and in the bubbling prisms of that golden (or red or brown or black) brew, which almost certainly benefits from more hops than its forbearer, you might catch a glimpse of Colorado’s golden past unobscured by all the glitter.