The ‘beer’ brand sticks to downtown Fort Collins

All right. The next person who says “Napa Valley of Beer” has to scrub out all the barrels.

Beer as a brand for the city of Fort Collins, and downtown especially, has been raising its profile year-over-year for the past three decades. It began when Scott Smith enclosed stainless steel fermenting tanks in a glass room near the center of Old Town Square in 1989, opening CooperSmith’s Pub & Brewing

The progression since then has been never-ending, with some craft brewers, notably New Belgium Brewing Co. and Odell Brewing Co., expanding to become beer-and-ale theme parks as much as breweries. Other, more modest enterprises occupy the nooks and crannies that make up the smallest of the small downtown commercial real estate listings. 

The brew houses bloom and fold like morning glories, with some popping up brightly in unexpected places just as others fade into local craft brew history. No wonder, then, that someone would invoke Napa Valley in describing the beer-centrism that now characterizes the city.

“Are we still the newest?” asked Salt Road Brewing LLC founder/owner Scott Ficarra as he walked from the brew house into the tap room at his brewpub in a low brick building on Old Firehouse Alley between Linden and Chestnut streets in Old Town.  

Salt Road opened in April, and remains the newest — at least as of this writing. However, a six-month span without a new craft brewery in Old Town qualifies as a lull, so by the time this sentence is read Salt Road might be No. 2. 

The two bookends, with iconic CooperSmith’s as the oldest, and Ficarra’s new Salt Road venture the newest, provide some illumination of the craft brew landscape without having to make excursions to the other 25-or-so brewers operating in Fort Collins. 

“We’re coming up on our 35th year, and that’s kind of a big thing for any restaurant,” CooperSmith co-owner Dwight Hall said, unconsciously shifting focus to the food for which the business is known as much as the craft beer.

Hall is among three owners, all of them long-time employees who were picked by founder Smith in 2014 to take the reins with their investments to purchase the business. Hall serves as president, Chris O’Mara as brewing operations director and Sandra Longton as managing partner and front-of-the-house specialist. The titles notwithstanding, the three are co-equals in running the business. 

“We are a team, not a hierarchy,” Hall said.

This day in downtown’s life, Sept. 23, also notched another gold medal for CooperSmith’s at the Great American Beer Festival, the national craft brewing convention held in Denver. The gold medal in the festival’s pro-am competition recognized CooperSmith’s role in taking an amateur brewer’s recipe and scaling it up to a market-size batch under the name “She Fancies Herself A Little Bit French.” (Yes, that’s really the name.)

With a track record 1/70th as long as CooperSmith’s, Salt Road founder Ficarra has a narrower business window to measure his success. 

“We started out real strong, but the summer was quite mellow,” he said, making it clear that “mellow” translates to “slow.” “All the other breweries around Fort Collins were reporting the same. But this fall we’re doing great.”

The drum Ficarra beats to separate his brew from the rest is in the word “local.” 

“Our main focus is producing beer with local resources,” he said. “While we’re brewing new and interesting experimental beers, we’re also showing that Colorado has become a premier place for brewing ingredients.”

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