Beer in Fort Collins: The Brewmuda Triangle

In 2012 Colorado’s craft breweries produced 1.4 million barrels of beer or roughly forty-four million gallons of beer. Together, Fort Collins’ breweries (large, regional, and micro) produce approximately seventy percent of all beer brewed in Colorado.1 The city’s burgeoning beer brewing community emerged out the homebrew movement that swept across the United States throughout the 1980s. The city supplies water to many of its breweries, including Anheuser Busch (AB), New Belgium Brewing Company (NBB), and Odell’s Brewery. About half of this water supply comes from the Poudre River and the other half comes from Horsetooth Reservoir. Brewers at both Odell’s and NBB cite the purity of water from the Poudre River and the city’s commitment to consistent treatment of drinking as two of the main reasons why Fort Collins has so many breweries.2

Fort Collins is sometimes referred to as the Napa Valley of beer. A dry town until 1969, present-day Fort Collins is a popular tourist attraction for beer enthusiasts, especially craft beer aficionados. The craft beer industry, with its emphasis on specially produced, local brews, plays a vital role in this community’s economy and culture, one that goes hand-in-hand with the area’s outdoor recreation industry. However, the people of Fort Collins have not always welcomed the presence of alcohol in their town.

When the town began in 1872, Agricultural Colony advertisements encouraging people to settle in Fort Collins discouraged alcohol consumption, proclaiming, “What we do not want is whiskey saloons or gambling halls,” and in 1896, the Board of County Commissioners instituted legal prohibition in Fort Collins.3 In the late 1960s, students at Colorado State University (CSU) started a movement that eventually ended prohibition in Fort Collins entirely. In the 1970s, changes in government regulations of the alcohol industry combined with favorable economic incentives and shifting cultural attitudes towards alcohol and food consumption encouraged the transition to a beer-friendly city.

In 1980, the large beer company Anheuser Busch (AB) made its first bid to open a brewery in the city. Over an eight year period, AB waged a long public relations campaign, as local citizens debated the place of a brewery in town. Citizens expressed environmental concerns over the effects of the brewery on air quality and the strain it would place on the existing water system. Individuals organized town hall meetings, canvassed public opinion, and set up a task force to study the environmental impact the brewery would have on the town. Construction of the AB plant finally began in 1988. In 1990, Doug Odell opened Odell’s Brewery, the first of many regional and microbreweries to call Fort Collins home.4

Many brewers tout the purity of fresh Rocky Mountain spring water as the secret ingredient in their specialty brews. However, using and having access to water comes with many costs to local brewers. Breweries place significant demands on the municipal system and overall water requirements of the city. The amount of water needed to produce one barrel of beer is much greater than the water actually contained in the barrel. A typical brewery requires eight to ten barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer. In a brewery, water is primarily used in four different locations: the brewhouse, cellars, packaging, and utilities. In addition to water used in production, wastewater (effluent) generated and its disposal represents another major water-related cost for the brewery. Breweries often pay municipalities much higher costs for effluent disposal than for water. Therefore many craft brewers developed strategies to mitigate additional costs or lower municipal water rates through sustainable practices.5

In Fort Collins, the city’s large and regional breweries utilize production processes that maximize their factories’ energy and water efficiency. For example, NBB uses around four gallons of water to produce one gallon of beer, though some breweries use more. Water lost in the brewing process is recaptured as steam and then used to power the brewery. In addition to this, NBB utilizes an on-site Process Water Treatment Plant that cleans wastewater from the brewing process. Methane biogas extracted from the wastewater is harvested and then sent back into the brewery, where it helps power the plant and treated wastewater is sent back to the city. While not using the exact same systems as NBB, Odell’s and AB also utilize energy efficient technologies that allow them to reduce the amount of water the factory consumes.6

One of the driving engines behind craft brewing in Fort Collins is the Downtown Development Authority (DDA). Though the growing beer industry removes large quantities of water from the Cache la Poudre River, the economic benefits of this water-intensive industry currently outweigh supply concerns. In an effort to promote the city’s niche market, the DDA established the “beer triangle” in 2009. Jokingly referred to as the “brewmuda triangle,” the 580 acre area, formerly home to the Great Western Sugar Factory complex, is defined by the boundary line of three breweries: Odell’s Brewery, NBB, and The Fort Collins Brewery. The DDA has helped some breweries, such as Odell’s and the Fort Collins Brewery, expand with their own economic growth. The city offers tax increment financing that makes it easier for some of the city’s smaller breweries to expand their production capacities.7

As city officials promoted and invested in breweries as tourist attractions and an important facet of the local economy, so too have Fort Collins’ breweries taken interest in the Cache la Poudre River and the city’s water supplies. AB and NBB have built their own water treatment plants, which process the wastewater from the brewing process. AB uses the treated water on their NutriFarms, and NBB sends the cleaned water back to city. Additionally, NBB recently helped the City of Fort Collins acquire new water rights to the Coy Ditch, which runs along NBB property. The brewery donated about $100,000 out of the $700,000 needed to acquire a forty percent interest in the ditch.8

Many Fort Collins breweries actively support recreational and environmental causes related to the Cache la Poudre River. Some companies contribute financially to reengineering the river. Through the Colorado Water Trust, state and local water organizations including local breweries—NBB, Odell’s, Pateros Creek, Zwei Bruder, and Funkwerks—funded the removal of the unused Josh Ames Diversion Dam in the fall of 2013. The dam’s removal was part of the Poudre River Downtown Project to restore ecosystems and maintain water levels in the Cache la Poudre River through Fort Collins.9 The close relationship between the beer industry and outdoor recreation industry in and around Fort Collins provide incentives to brewers to participate in such activities. As Fort Collins’ craft brewing industry has grown into an important sector of the local economy, so has the brewer’s voice and influence expanded into municipal decisions.

  1. Brewer’s Association, “Statistics: State Craft Beer Production and Sales Date, 2013,” Brewer’s Association, http://www.brewersassociation.org/statistics/by-state/?state=CO (accessed June 11, 2014); Denver Post, “Colorado: The Beer State — The History of Beer in the State in a Splashy New Video,” Denver Post Website, YouTube video, http://blogs.denverpost.com/beer/2012/02/06/colorado-the-beer-state-the-history-of-beer-in-the-state-in-splashy-new-video/2314/ (accessed April 5, 2013); Trevor Hughes, “From Mature Breweries to Upstart Startups, Fort Collins is Bursting with Beer,” The Coloradoan, October 2, 2013.
  2. Trevor Hughes, “Meet the Fort Collins Residents Who Make Sure Your Beer Tastes Like Your Beer,” The Coloradoan, http://www.coloradoan.com/article/20130903/NEWS01/309030005/Meet-Fort-Collins-residents-who-make-sure-your-beer-tastes-like-your-beer (accessed December 13, 2013).
  3. Ansel Watrous, History of Larimer County Colorado (The Old Army Press, 1911), 231, 235-248.Forty years later attitudes had changed somewhat. In 1935, the city council amended an ordinance to allow the sale of 3.2 percent beer within city limits. This amendment signaled one of the first shifts of Fort Collins citizens towards the acceptance of alcohol in their community. Additionally, it established a link between the consumption of beer and the town. Bars such as the Town Pump and the Matterhorn serviced thirsty patrons through the prohibition period.[4. “City’s ‘Dry-Town’ Founded in 90 Year History,” The Coloradoan, March 13, 1960, LC — Prohibition, Fort Collins Museum of Discovery Archives, Fort Collins, Colorado.
  4. Harold M. Swope, “Brewery Issue Merits Votes of Citizens,” The Coloradoan, June 23, 1983, LC Industries — Anheuser-Busch (1), The Fort Collins Museum of Discovery Archives, Fort Collins, CO; Sue Diehl, “Brewery’s Effects Discussed,” The Coloradoan, May 17, 1983, LC Industries — Anheuser-Busch (4), The Fort Collins Museum of Discovery Archives, Fort Collins, CO.
  5. “Water and Wastewater,” 6-7.
  6. Peter Lehner, “Want Great Beer? You Need Clean Water,” Switchboard: National Resources Defense Council Staff Blog, http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/plehner/want_great_beer_you_need_clean.html (accessed December 13, 2103); Miller, “Process Water Conservation;” New Belgium Brewery, “Energy,” New Belgium Brewery, http://www.newbelgium.com/sustainability/Environmental-Metrics/Energy.aspx (accessed June 10, 2014).
  7. Fort Collins (Colorado) Downtown Development Authority, Minutes of Regular Directors’ Meeting, Meeting of 11 December, 2008; Fort Collins (Colorado) Downtown Development Authority, Minutes of Regular Directors’ Meeting, Meeting of 12 March, 2009; Pat Ferrier, “The Downtown Development Authority to Help create ‘Beer Triangle,’” The Coloradoan, April 7, 2009, LC Prohibition, The Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Fort Collins, CO.
  8. New Belgium Brewery, “Closing a Loop: Power From Wastewater,” New Belgium Brewery, http://www.newbelgium.com/sustainability/Environmental-Metrics.aspx (accessed December 13, 2012); Anhueser Busch, “Energy Conservation,” Anhueser Busch, http://anheuser-busch.com/index.php/our-responsibility/environment-our-earth-our-natural-resources/energy/ (accessed December 13, 2013); “New Belgium Brewery Helps Fort Collins Acquire Poudre River Water Rights,” The North Forty News, http://www.northfortynews.com/new-belgium-brewery-helps-fort-collins-acquire-poudre-river-water-rights/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter (accessed December 13, 2013).
  9. City of Fort Collins, “Press Release: Breweries, Colorado Water Trust Partner to Support City’s Poudre River Restoration,” City of Fort Collins News and Events, released on Oct. 2, 2013, accessed Dec. 5, 2013, http://www.fcgov.com/news/?id=5074.

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