I like to play tourist in my own state sometimes, especially since there are so many places in Colorado I’ve never visited. It also helps that nearly every town has a craft brewery, with new beers just waiting to be tasted.
For my husband’s 30th birthday, we decided to head to Longmont, Colorado and visit Left Hand Brewing and Oskar Blues Brewing. In this post, I’ll focus on the first stop on our Saturday beer tasting journey: Left Hand Brewing.
Before I dive into my experience, here’s a little background on Left Hand Brewing. The whole operation started with a man named Dick Doore. He was a graduate of the Air Force Academy down in Colorado Springs, and in 1990, he was given a homebrewers kit for Christmas, and as he said “it was all downhill from there.”
Dick had a good friend from the academy, Eric Wallace, who would soon become his partner in crime. Eric spent a lot of time in Europe after graduation, where he got to drink a lot of really great European-style beer. Once he was finished with his commitment to the Air Force, he decided he wanted to come back to the U.S., but he wanted to bring back the Italian pub feel or the German beer garden feel, which didn’t really exist in the U.S. in the early 1990s. So he met back up with Dick who had been home brewing the last few years, and they decided to start a brewery.
They wanted to stay on the front range because the water quality is so pure. Right out of the tap, it’s very clean and very soft. You don’t have to strip a lot of junk of out it, and you can almost use it right out of the tap for beer. After searching all over for the right facility, the sight in Longmont became available. It was a former slaughter house and sausage factory, with insulated walls and floor drains in place. All they had to do was power wash it and bring their equipment right on in. That was September of 1993, and they incorporated as Indian Peaks Brewing Company. Unfortunately, there was another brewery that brewed an Indian Peaks Ale, and to avoid a lawsuit, they decided to change the name.
They named the brewery Left Hand after chief Niwot, leader of the Arapahoe Native American tribe in the 19th century. Niwot is the Arapahoe word for “left handed.” The name change came in 1994, the same year they entered the Great American Beer Festival and they took home a gold medal for Sawtooth (one of my favorite beers from Left Hand) and a bronze medal for BlackJack.
Demand continued to rise, and people who didn’t live in Colorado were eager to be able to purchase Left Hand in their state. The brewery started to expand like crazy, and it’s now the fourth largest craft brewery in Colorado and 36th largest in the country, and it distributes to 37 states and 11 countries.
Despite it’s size, Left Hand is majority employee owned, which means the bartenders working in the tasting room are co-owners. They market themselves as “righteously independent” and they have no intention of being sold to one of the big beer companies. Absolutely love to hear that!
The brewery isn’t far from downtown Longmont, and Main Street is the perfect place to grab some food either before or after you visit the brewery. If you’d like to dine while you’re enjoying a Left Hand beer, there is usually a food truck located outside.
My husband and I, along with a few of our good friends, arrived a little early for our 1:15pm tour. We booked online ahead of time, but you can also show up the day of and generally there are spots available. If you have a large group, though, I recommend reserving ahead of time.
You do not get tastings on the tour, so it’s best to order something to carry with you from the tasting room. We had some time, and decided to order a flight of Left Hand’s dark beers: Milk Stout, Milk Stout Nitro, BlackJack Porter and Wake Up Dead Imperial Stout. I’m a big fan of dark beers, with their hints of fruit, chocolate and coffee (depending on the mixture). They have a smooth consistency and a flavor that isn’t too abrupt. The only downside: they tend to be heavier and therefore you get full faster. If you want to taste a few more beers, a small tasting of these is all you need, so you can leave room for more hoppy goodness.
I quickly ordered a pint of Left Hand’s award-winning, flagship beer Sawtooth—a deliciously crisp amber ale—and then our tour began. Our guide started in the tasting room and gave us the history of the brewery (which you’ve already read about), and then we headed behind the scenes.
We visited the CIP (Clean in Place) room where they clean every tank in the brewery from one location. They clean every single tank between every single batch, because they don’t want the flavor or color of one beer to leach in and ruin the taste or color of the next beer.
Outside is the grain silo, housing all of their two-row malted barley, as well as the fermentation tanks, which are 480 barrels or 960 kegs, and they have 12 tanks—a ton of beer!
The tour then heads into the brew house where all the magic happens. The guide will explain the beer brewing process, which is pretty much the same spiel at any brewery, so I won’t bore you with the scientific side of it. The final stop is the packaging hall. When you walk in you’ll see some artwork created from Left Hand bottle caps and labels, which I would totally buy if they were available for purchase. It’s okay, though, inspirations for my own future beer cap art projects.
During the week, tours will actually see production in action, the bottles zooming by on the conveyor belt and the pallets being wrapped in cellophane. On Saturday, production is shut down, so if you want to see it, visit Monday-Friday. But it should be noted that it can be very loud in the packaging hall, so if you’re worried about hearing your guide, the weekend is your best option.
Even if you’ve taken a tour of Left Hand or you’re not interested in the beer-making process (just drinking it), it’s worth coming back again and again to try the exclusive pilots they have on tap. The beauty of being a craft brewery is they can test out all kinds of varieties, and let you, the consumer, try them out and give your opinion. A pilot will stay on tap for different lengths of time, depending on its popularity, and even if it shows promise, there’s no guarantee it will become a full-production beer. Let’s face it, if all pilots became perennials or seasonal beers, then they couldn’t say they have beers that are “tasting room only.”
In 2015, Left Hand produced just shy of 85,000 barrels, or 170,000 kegs. The brewery anticipates producing even more in 2016, and when they hit the next barrelage goal, they are fully prepared to expand to handle the demand. I, for one, am excited to see what the future of Left Hand holds.
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