DENVER, Colo. — Jeremy Tofte has beer in his blood.
The owner of Thai Me Up, a Thai restaurant and brewery in Jackson, Tofte is a third generation member of the beer industry, following on the heels of a father who worked for Miller Brewing Company and a grandfather employed by Al Capone.
Last week, less than two years after he opened his restaurant, Tofte’s beers won awards in three of the most competitive categories at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the largest and most elite convention of craft brewers in the United States.
“We can’t produce enough beer as it is,” he said at the convention. “I don’t know what we’ll do now.”
If craft beer — defined in part by the small scale of its production — has set out to disprove the notion that bigger is always better, then Wyoming’s brewing community is making a similar case to other craft brewers. Wyoming has just 14 breweries, five of which won medals in Denver including three golds, four silvers and one bronze.
“In a sense we’re proselytizing for the beer-drinking culture we want in Wyoming,” said Nathan Venner, the brewmaster at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery in Laramie, whose flagship Tumblewheat beer won silver.
The story of beer in Denver is one of David and Goliath.
The city sits in the shadow of the single largest brewing facility on earth, Coors’ flagship brewery in the suburb of Golden. But Denver also has nearly 20 small breweries scattered across the city. For three days every October, the craft beer industry and its biggest fans pack into the Denver Convention Center, a cavernous hall in the city’s downtown, to talk shop, taste beers and crown the best small-batch beers in the country.
More than 500 breweries passed out samples in the sprawling festival hall this year, including several from Wyoming: Altitude, Black Tooth Brewery in Sheridan, Wind River Brewing Company in Pinedale and Snake River Brewery in Jackson. Thai Me Up also competed in the event, but did not set up a booth.
Over the course of the weekend, nearly 50,000 fans swung through the festival to sample the wares, ranging from sweet fruit beers to rich black porters.
For an event soaked in booze, the crowd was surprisingly subdued.
On the first night of the festival, 13,000 beer enthusiasts slowly circled the hall, clutching taster glasses and chatting with brewery staff.
“This is a wheat beer, but it’s not boring like you’re probably thinking,” a volunteer at Altitude’s booth told a man as she poured a sample of the golden-colored Tumblewheat beer into his plastic cup.
“It’s got this floral kick, am I right?”
About fifty feet away, someone dropped his plastic cup. As it clattered against the cement floor, a low boo rose up from the crowd, rippling outward until it could be heard across the room.
It is a scene that would be repeated hundreds of times over the course of the weekend, sending out a clear message to attendees: Enjoy your beer, but don’t be sloppy about it.
“A lot of people like to drink alcohol, but the craft brewing community tends to have a much greater sense of pride in what we drink,” Venner said. “Part of what we’re doing is helping people be more responsible drinkers.”
That is a collaborative effort, he said, so you aren’t about to see craft breweries getting too competitive with one another.
“When the industry as a whole is making good beers, it brings more people around to craft beers and helps us all,” said Cory Buenning, the head brewer at Snake River in Jackson.
When Snake River first opened in 1994, small-batch beer-making was hardly a visible industry in the United States, let alone Wyoming. But founders Joni and Albert Upsher were savvy businesspeople convinced that if they could simply get local residents to taste Snake River’s flavorful beers, their loyalty to the industry stalwart light lagers would fall away, Buenning said.
They were right. Serving a colorful mix of locals and tourists, the Upshers’ brewery thrived. Meanwhile, over the next 15 years the number of craft breweries in the U.S. as a whole grew from 537 to more than 1600.
Today, just over five percent of beer in the U.S. is produced by small beer makers, and Snake River shares the state with more than a dozen other craft breweries, a number that is still growing. Two of the Wyoming breweries that took home medals at this year’s beer festival in Denver, Thai Me Up and Black Tooth Brewery, in Sheridan, opened in the past two years.
“The more people who make good beer there are in a certain region, the more it draws people who like to make beer to that region,” Buenning said.
In many ways, the Rocky Mountain West has become the spine of craft brewing in the United States. Colorado alone has more than 100 craft breweries and is the only state in the country with a sitting governor, John Hickenlooper, who once founded a brewery — Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing Company.
It is a region of the U.S. where beers sell under names like Custer’s Last Stout and Big Horn Hefeweizen and craft breweries have a diverse following that challenges the idea that craft beer is the exclusive purview of coastal urban hipsters.
“Twenty years ago all you could get [at a bar in Wyoming] was Bud Light, Coors or Miller,” said Tim Barnes, co-founder of Black Tooth, which claimed a gold medal at the Denver festival for its Wagon Box Wheat beer.
“Now from a very early age all kinds of beer drinkers are demanding good-tasting beer.”