A few months ago, we were invited to tour AC Golden Brewing inside the Coors Brewery in Golden. Not the type to turn down a brewery tour, five of us filed into the car and headed west. We’d all met Troy Casey of AC Golden before, and we’d all tried the beer.
And we all had mixed expectations. Is it craft if it’s small batch but inside of Coors? Does it matter, if the beer is good? Do snozberries really taste like snozberries?
We arrived at the brewery and did the whole sign in, get a pass and safety equipment, and were on our way. Coors itself is a massive factory-looking brewery, and AC Golden is deep inside. In fact, at one point, it felt like we were in a scene from Goldeneye (the game, not the movie) when we walked outside one door onto the roof of Coors.
The resources AC Golden has access to would make most brewers envious. They are a part of Coors, and that is apparent at almost every turn. Except the one turn that brought us into what appeared to be a broom closet, and ended up being the hidden barrel room. A few dozen barrels greeted us, and we were allowed to sample some incredible sour beers. Fifty feet away, a few thousand barrels of Coors Light were being frost brewed, and we were drinking cherry Brett bombs in a broom closet.
You know that feeling when you see a movie in the afternoon, and are super confused to walk outside into daylight? That.
These sours were the focus of our visit. Slowly, AC Golden is releasing their barrel program beers into the open market via Mile High Wine and Spirits in Belmar. They will be available at Mile High near the end of March, so keep an eye out for more on that.
We ended our trip with a visit to the employee bars. One, a smaller bar, had a handful of AC Golden brews on tap. Sours, Bocks, stouts, and a few other options were available, intermingled with Coors Banquet and Light.
Overall, it was an amazing look into what the big guys can do in the craft world. We often read of mishaps in the form of macro craft beers – lime wheat IPA anyone? – but AC Golden is not a marketing gimmick. It’s real beer, and it’s really good.
That’s my short summary of our trip. Here are some thoughts from my companions on this adventure:
AC Golden’s beers relay interesting aspects of the craft beer industry. Get all of your griping out of the way now. Cut loose! Point out why big breweries suck. I have heard it all, be pedantic. I won’t take it after I get started. Done?
The project that Troy Casey heads up out in Golden spans the Coors Brewery. Brewing is localized to a few areas but the barrels are stashed throughout the place. AC Golden has been allowed a lot of small spaces to incubate some very interesting projects. What they have been given by the bucket-load is access. Access to brewing technology, access to brewing science (both historic and cutting edge), access to buying, sales and marketing power, but most importantly they have access to experience. It is a great thing. One of the employees, Kent, has been at Coors longer than most of our little group has been alive. (I was one year old when he started there.) The right combination of technical knowledge and experience were definitely brought in to make AC Golden what it is.
The beers themselves are great. They have a broad barrel aging and cellaring program. Fruit aging is highlighted and bacteria are analyzed, probed, and identified, but they are discussed and used with reverence. The sour peche that we tasted ranked as my favorite barreled beer we had the chance to try. We were also allowed into a really beautiful bar tucked in what seemed to be office spaces. This was the Coors’ private bar if I understand correctly. Now it is a showcase for AC Golden’s products. This is where I had my beer of the day. Bock beer is a beer that you don’t see a lot of in modern craft beer. There are a few good representations of the style around and the one I tried in that little tasting room was excellent. Rich and malty with no sharp edges. It tasted like history. As I sat there surrounded by the marketing heritage of a major brewer that I am supposed to hold in no small animosity, I couldn’t help think about how we as brewers are all tied together in a passion to excel at creating a beverage that brings people together and makes them happy.
It was a dreary day as we headed out to the Coors brewery. Nick, PJ, Josh and I piled into PJ’s cruise machine and we rolled out. The ride to Golden was endlessly giggle producing. As the brewery came into sight Nick began to proclaim ‘I see it it’s right there just turn left!’ Through the excitement of Nick’s yelling and the giggle fits we managed to miss virtually the only exit to Golden. We got ourselves turned around and on the right path, before we knew it we were standing in the shadow of the Coors plant.
To be honest we were all a little nervous and all felt just a little dirty going in. Chris met us up in Golden and the five of us were ready to rock. The tour was unlike any other brewery tour I had ever been on. First we gave our IDs to a man with a computer who checked us in and made tour passes for us. We were also given some pretty sweet safety gear. Hard hat baseball cap things, safety glasses and rad shoe covers. The tour of the equipment itself was pretty awesome. AC Golden brews on a scaled down version of the Coors brewery. All of the shiny copper took me back to Belgium and the breweries I visited there, just stunning.
The way the brewery is laid out made us dizzy. I think we all agreed if we worked there we would get lost regularly. At one point we got to walk on the roof to get from point A to point B which was a wicked awesome James Bond moment. Of course no tour of AC Golden would be complete without tasting the flagship Colorado Native at which point pictures were taken and threats of blackmail occurred.
Now of course the real treat of the day was the barrel rooms. First up was a whiskey barrel aged stout that was super thick and delicious, would make a great breakfast beer. Further away was the room that housed the funky bug barrels. Here is where Troy gets to play with fruits and sours and deliciousness. There were peaches, cherries and raspberries all made deliciously tart beer. This is the kind of beer that I hope eventually is what people think of when they think of AC Golden. The brewery really is so much more than just Colorado Native.
Judging from a lot of people that I have talked to there has been a lot of hostility about the idea of Coors turning their pilot system, which is bigger than most craft brewery’s systems, into something that they can market as craft brew competition. AC Golden’s Colorado Native has never blown me away but I was initially impressed when I got to taste a couple of their sour beers aged in chardonnay barrels at a Denver Homebrew Club meeting a few months ago. However the macro name attached to AC Golden still had me blowing that off as a fluke until recently, when we were able to actually visit their facility.
Things went as expected when we showed up at the giant Coors building complete with having to wear clunky steel toed over-shoes and hard hats. These things aren’t necessarily bad things but they aren’t something a brewery tends to think about until they are employing a lawyer or three and they reinforced the idea that we were visiting one of the largest breweries in the world. Everything changed after following our “tour guide” Troy (actually a highly educated brewer) through the creepy and claustrophobic underbelly of the Coors facility into where all of the AC Golden stuff is created.
Everything from the shiny fermenters to the half inch of water on the cellar floor to the old filter and the filter operator complaining about it’s performance spoke to the fact that they are indeed “crafting” beer at AC Golden. My superficial and fickle craft beer ideals were finally appeased after meeting their bearded, overall wearing head brewer named Speedo (not sure about the name but you should ask him) and I haven’t even gotten to the best part. The tour of their brewing facility was enlightening to be sure though we hadn’t even gotten to the barrel room.
We were teased by being shown about twenty cases of sour barrel aged framboise in the storage room outside the barrel room that we weren’t able to drink. After that we were ushered into the barrel room. It had a concrete floor and dusty windows but there was light coming form somewhere, perhaps from the barrels themselves, and smelled of old wood. There was a bottle of sour peach and brettanomyces beer already waiting for us which was the perfect start to our little tasting. After that pins started being pulled out of barrels and our glasses were filled straight from the barrels. There was lots of sour, fruit, oak, brett, whiskey, even a sour stout to be had by all while Troy and Speedo explained what was coming out of each barrel.
I was pleasantly surprised by my experience at AC Golden and as the brewers explained that while they do enjoy Colorado Native it’s sales help them do what they are really passionate about. While the financial backing of Coors may be a blemish in the eyes of craft beer drinkers I think it is actually more of an advantage for AC Golden. Cheers!