A handy guide to getting a handle on Durango’s craft beer options

by Micah Susman

When my wife – who at the time was my girlfriend – first brought me to Durango to visit our future home, our first brewery stop was at Durango Brewing Company (Editor’s note: RIP). We went to Ska the next day, and the new Animas Brewing Company the day after that. I would eventually end up frequenting Carvers and Steamworks after we moved, not to mention a few pints at Brew. And, of course, I had to visit the breweries in Mancos, Pagosa, Ouray, Silverton, and all the other surrounding towns.

It seems you can’t have a town in Colorado without a brewery or two. Heck, it’s probably true for the whole country now since the (American) Brewers Association states that, “In 2018, small and independent brewers collectively produced 25.9 million barrels and realized 4 percent total growth, increasing craft’s overall beer market share by volume to 13.2 percent.” Colorado hasn’t been about just Coors for decades now, and due to the Great American Beer Fest and Oskar Blues spearheading the craft beer in a can movement, Colorado has been the home base of craft brewing for quite some time now. In addition, Durango has been a part of this national growth with Ska’s contribution to the market since the late ’90s.

If you are new to town, or just trying to get a handle on the options for craft beer, here is my introductory guide to who is currently serving in La Plata County. Remember, if this is your first foray into Colorado beer, we love our hops and IPAs, and rarely make a consistent Czech or German-style pilsner, nor a smooth finish pale ale. All breweries have food options, and some draw more for their menu than beer, so it’s good to know that a non-beer-drinker can still find epicurean delights while drinking fizzy water. However, you should know that Ska is the only option for a beer garden with picnic tables.

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The newest brewery in town, Chainless Brewing, has moved into the old Durango Brewing Company on North Main. The space has not changed since the transition, other than some cycling-related decor, but it doesn’t really need it, as the DBC folks pimped out the patio prior to selling out. Chainless is all about the beer, with a dozen flowing taps and no other alcoholic options aside from beer cocktails. Unless you are at the bar though, it works as a traditional restaurant with table service.

Chainless Brewery’s menu has bicycle-themed bar food with price tags that are about average for our town, and everything tastes great. The traditional wings, burgers, and sandwiches are all worth it, especially during the lunch specials. As a parent who occasionally brings his kid to the brewery, there was nothing for her to do here except stare at the many TV screens. As a result, my weekly visits here are for adult time and often just for beer drinking, but I don’t mind, as they have the most beers agreeable to my palate than any other spot in town.

Steamworks is the most popular brewery and restaurant in town. It has numerous eating areas – inside or outside with servers, or a large bar area with peanut shells – and they have a wait during most meal times. (Note: they are one of the only places in town near Main Ave that serves quality food after 9 p.m.) Their focus appears to be pretty balanced between delicious food and a vast menu of varied beers. I prefer to come here with my wife and child, as we all like the food, really all of it, and we just have a beer or two. I have even been here to eat and have not had a beer! They have a couple Great American Beer Fest award-winning beers that they sell in cans off-site, and a running tap list of 14 beers, including a nitro, a barleywine, and a steam beer. I like their beer, but I don’t gravitate to any single one, so it is always a bit of a hops roulette over there.

Carver Brewing Company is another long-standing staple in town, and I imagine they sell more food than beer on a daily basis. They are quite popular with both locals and tourists being right on Main Ave, but they are different from their peers in that they have a spectacular breakfast. Well, maybe just great, now that the menu has changed and my favorite items were removed. They are known for locally sourcing their food and have their own farm in Animas Valley, where many of the menu items are grown. They have a good kids menu and a little area with toys, and there is a back bar and patio, which really opens up the options for your eating milieu.

The menu at Carvers is not as vast as Steamworks, but they do a good job. They really push the green chile, but you will only like it if you want many chunks of succulent pork mixed in, as there is no vegetarian chile. As one of the first breweries in the area – it was started in 1988 – Carvers has made a name for their beer, too, but they don’t can it for retail. I have found all of their beers to be just fine. None rise above another nor call to me upon arrival. This is another option that is best for just dining, not drinking. Even though they call themselves a brew pub with about ten beers flowing at a time, it really feels like a restaurant to me that serves both fresh, local food and beer.

Animas Brewing Company, nestled in the old bird store next to Rotary Park between the river and the tracks, was the closest to my house last year, but also the least frequented. Their brief menu serves up a few Irish-influenced bar food items, like keg rolls and fish and chips. I have enjoyed every item on the menu, but I have never walked out of there feeling like I got my money’s worth with the small portions. The beer, like Carvers, is all fine, but none are so good that I go out of my way to enjoy them, and they have never sold me a beer for less than $5. In this town, if you don’t have a happy hour or an occasional $3 or $4 beer, you will not foster a local following. This locale was good for bringing the kid, as the park is right there and the patio has some space. I will meet someone there for a beer or two these days, but that is about it.

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Ska Brewery might not be the oldest brewery in town, but they have the biggest name outside of the area. I remember seeing Pinstripe and True Blonde in Austin before I moved here, but I never liked these beers enough to buy them in stores. I love going to the scenic, well-appointed, wind- and solar-powered brewery up at the southeast top of Bodo Park. There might be a tiny stage at Chainless, but Ska really tries to push their music weekly at the Thursday Ska-B-Q and the annual birthday bash – which always sells out. They are the only true-to-form brew pub in town with no table service. They do offer tours and canned beer to take home, not just growlers or crowlers like the other four. The inside has two stories, the upper often used for meetings or yoga, and the outside is great for kids and dogs.

Their food is ordered from a different counter and register than the beer at the restaurant within a brewery called The Container, aptly named that because it’s located in a converted storage container attached to the main building. They have a great $5 kids menu and other predictable food items such as pizza and burgers. The pizza is one of my favorites in town. Ska’s beer menu includes 10 flagship pours, which are also canned and sold in stores, and typically about four or five other experimental or seasonals. The beer is quite hit or miss with my palate. I normally prefer the experimental or seasonal beers to the most popular ones. Even though Ska is my top choice when bringing the family, there are many regulars who like to go and just drink beer, too, even if they are as annoyed as a Yelp reviewer who thought the kids ruined the experience for him.

An aside on the Ska brand: They have become much more than a brewery and have grown into Ska Fabrication, Skagua seltzer water, and Oh Hi, the THC drink made in collaboration with the folks at Durango Organics. They also have the largest collection of schwag in town.

The fact is, you can’t go wrong with any of the local breweries; it just depends on what you want from the experience. I look forward to doing a more in-depth look at the beer and food options at these five strong Durango breweries, in addition to exploring the ones in neighboring counties and any others that might pop up.

Micah Susman

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