It’s hard for Coloradans to imagine a world before craft beer. The state is home to 10 percent of the nation’s breweries and only 2 percent of the population. The craft is celebrated with notable festivals such as The Great American Beer Festival and The Colorado Brewers’ Festival, among many others. There’s no doubt Colorado knows a thing or two about a good beer buzz, and the state, and Durango in particular, owe a lot to Jim and Bill Carver of Carver Brewing Company, a bakery turned brewpub. As the second brewery in Colorado – almost the first – the brothers helped lay the foundation for the rich beer culture in the state. There are dozens of stories about the 35-year-old brew pub that have started (and, at times, been forgotten) with a pint of Old Oak.
The Carver brothers baked the pretzels, laid the pipe, and built the bar with their own hands. New projects, like the organic farm that supplies the kitchen, are always on the horizon. Jim, Bill, and other old school Carvers characters sat down with DGO Magazine to tell us how it all started.
Baked-in work ethic
Jim Carver, founder and co-owner: I used to deliver newspapers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I used to deliver newspapers above a bakery in the winter. One time (the bakery owner) said, “Do you want an inside job?” Because it would be 20-below zero in the winter. So I was in eighth grade when I started working in a bakery. Bill was 8 at the time.
Bill Carver, founder and co-owner: I started right before going into eighth grade at the same bakery.
Jim: In high school, I worked five days a week – Monday, Wednesday, (and) Friday after school – greasing all the bread tins, cleaning the trays, and setting the bakers up for the next morning because they would come in at 3 (a.m.) and 2 (a.m.) in the morning. Then I would work Saturday and Sunday at 4 a.m., so you had to be up at 3:30 in the morning, which was a chore sometimes in high school, because you would go to bed at 2 (a.m.). We got by on an hour of sleep.
Bill: We worked at the knee of these old German bakers, and they didn’t put up with any nonsense so –
Jim: You didn’t show up late.
Bill: You didn’t show up late. You didn’t dare do something wrong. It focused you as a young person. Milwaukee itself is a fairly blue collar town, so there is just (an emphasis) on work ethic. It’s not unusual to put in long days. We were working with these old men bakers who worked as hard as we did, and they’re in their 70s. It’s just normal.Six days after I graduated (college), I was 21 years old. Jim and I opened up a bakery/cafe in Winter Park in 1983 – Carver Brothers Bakery. It’s still there, but we sold it in 1987, and that is where we got the money to start the brewery.
Barb Wynne, former owner: I cooked my way through college and worked with these guys. Bill, Jim and I were all in Winter Park in the ’80s. We were all kids in our 20s.
Jim: A bakery was going out of business (in Durango) and we heard about it.
Bill: We were looking for a year-round warmer town than Winter Park. You talk about depressing; it’s a ski town. When it’s shut down, all your expenses keep going, but there is no income at all.
Wynne: I kinda just chipped in and said, “That sounds like a good idea. Let’s be partners.”
Bill: Barb was a cook in Winter Park and she heard Jim and me talking – “Hey, we’re looking at this bakery in Durango,” and then she piped up and said, “I wanna go.” So we became one-third equal partners with Barb Wynne. (Wynne eventually left Carvers to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.)
Jim: We were negotiating and (the seller) didn’t want to come down in price. And we were like, “It’s not worth it.” Then the electric company (worker) comes up, and he was going to pull the meter – so all the electricity is off, you’re going out of business – we said, “Tomorrow we are going to offer half of what (we’re) offering today.” So they took it.
Jim, Bill and Wynne purchased the old Durango bakery in 1983.
Bill: There were a lot of empty storefronts. There was plywood on the plate glass windows. It was the mid-’80s. It was a different economy back then, and Durango wasn’t on the map as much.
Jim: When we first opened, 20 percent of Main Street was empty. It was going through the Depression. When we first opened, we did 99 cents (for) two eggs, hash browns, and toast.
Bill: Just to get people in the door. Plus, we didn’t have a lot of extra labor. It was us.
Jim: Our mom was serving and pouring coffee.
John Thomas, patron: They opened Carvers the same day my wife and I opened the Durango Kid clothing store on Main. We walk in that day to get coffee and they didn’t have half-and-half.
Jim: John was like, “This is really good coffee. Do you have some half and half or cream?” And we were like, “No, just 2 percent.” And he said, “You need cream.” And I thought, “Well, we never had cream. Mom never let us.” In Milwaukee, my mom did all the shopping. All we had was 2 percent milk. The dairy guys came in (the following day) and I asked for those little half-and-half creamers.
Thomas: We came in early the next day and Jim was standing with a big smile on his face with a bowl of half-and-half and I said, “These guys are gonna make it.”
Bill: Even the raspberry preserves on the breakfast table, that was another customer’s suggestion. They said, “You can’t serve those stupid little jellies. You need preserves from a jar. We’re like, “You’re right!” So, we still have that 35 years later.
Thomas: I would go in every morning at 6:30 to get pancakes. They had these great big pancakes. I went in one day and the pancakes were smaller, and I said, “What happened to the pancakes?!” If anything was out of whack, I would give them a hard time.
Bill: We had breakfast and lunch here. It was a very bakery-oriented restaurant. If we were going to open for dinner, we really knew we needed a homemade craft piece to it. It was just at the advent of breweries. I visited a few, got interested in it, and thought, “If we are going to open up for dinner, let’s open up a brewery.”
There were lots of challenges. There were very few small brewery equipment manufacturers back then, so a lot of people were using used dairy equipment. There was a big fire that happened on the east side of Milwaukee, and one of the buildings (that) burned was a building that just installed a little brewery. Downstairs, everything was floating because there was 4-feet of water in the basement. I was able to extract (the equipment) out of the remnants of the fire, and that became our brewery. We still have some of those tanks today. That is part of the legend of who opened first.
A close second Producing and selling beer at the same site didn’t become legal until 1988 in Colorado. Before John Hickenlooper became governor or the mayor of Denver, he and his partners were touting the soon-to-be-open Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver as Colorado’s first brewery. But the pressure was on, as Carvers and another brewery were also preparing to open, too.
Bill: I did visit almost every little brewery in existence that summer. There were two or three in California, and there was one in Toronto that actually let me work for them for free for like a week. And I just asked, “How do you do floor drains?” and “How big a pipe do you need to go into the brew kettle?” So, I was trying to minimize the amount of mistakes. Both Jim and I built the brewery. We cut the floor to put in the floor drains, built the walk-in cooler, and we installed all the tanks.
Jim: We’d start baking at 4 in the morning, get done about noon or 2 (p.m.), and then we’d start building the brewery until like 10 or 12 at night. We didn’t know construction, we didn’t know drains, we didn’t know concrete, we didn’t know carpentry, but we did it.Operating the bakery while simultaneously building the brewery took some time. Wynkoop Brewing eventually ended up pouring the first draft on October 18, 1988. Carvers taps started flowing two months later.
Jim: We didn’t even know what to call it. We didn’t want to call it homemade beer because that doesn’t sound good. At some point, somebody said craft beer, and we’re like, “All right. That makes sense.” But we didn’t even know what to call ourselves.
Bill: The word brewpub wasn’t even around back then. You could not buy enough yeast to pitch into a batch of beer. We converted a little room into a microbiology lab, so I’d grow up our own yeast from slants into little pitching volumes. We’d helped open the brewery in Farmington at that point, so we were helping them with yeast. We had opened a brewery up in Glenwood Springs, so we were supplying there. And that’s another reason we got synergy with the Wynkoop brewery back then. We would trade stock-pots of yeast. I went to brewing school and was a lab partner with the original brewer from Wynkoop. We swapped stories and shared where to get ingredients. The whole industry had to develop and evolve with the advent of craft beer in America.
Jim: We even had to convince people that we made (the beer) here, because they were like, “No, there is a truck that delivers it and puts it in those tanks.”
Bill: When the beer was still in the fermenters, (adventure writer) Edward Abbey came to town to do a book signing at Maria’s. He came in for breakfast with his family the next morning, and I said, “Have you heard of small breweries?” And he was like, “No.” “Well,” we said. “We got one.” He came up and tasted all our first batches of beer that were not even done yet and he said, “It’s a damn fine idea.”The face and tastes of Carvers
Dave Cuntz, chef and co-owner: I worked here from the ’80s to ’92 and actually helped them first build the brewery. Barb Wynne hired me on as a prep cook. She comes out and grabs me and says, “Come back here.” She throws carrots and onions and celery down on a cutting board and goes, “Do you know how to use a knife?” “Yeah.” She goes, “Cut this up.” So, I proceed to chop it and she goes, “Wow, you’re hired.” I immediately quit the Red Snapper.
Wynne: I was probably just in a hurry to get some chicken stew made.
Cuntz: Bill stuck me inside all the holding tanks and made me clean them all. Before that, I was the keg changer. They were in a very long, stretched walk-in, and boy, was that challenging.
Bill: It was like working in a submarine.
Cuntz: You had to be really agile while moving very heavy kegs.
Bill: That was before we (had) serving tanks.
Cuntz: I had an art class with a professor up at school, Stan Englehart, and he made you write journal (entries), so I was reading through them a couple years ago. (In one entry), Jim and Bill gave me a raise. I went from $9 to $10 an hour, and I was so excited.
Mike Hurst, co-owner: I got tied to these guys in the late ’90s. (Carvers opened) Glenwood Canyon Brew Company, and I was (working there while) trying to make it as a professional snowboarder and not quite making ends meet – imagine that. So, I was working there at night and during the summers. I had an opportunity where I could move down to Durango, so it kind of just fell into place where I was able to transfer down here. That was in ’99. It’s coming up on 20 years this fall, and it’s been this gradual progression ever since.I started working the 6 a.m. bakery counter and busing tables. I worked my way up to management. I was eventually thinking about leaving, and these guys came to me with an offer I couldn’t refuse to buy into the place. I identify more as the face of Carvers. I’m the guy at the front-of-house. I’m at a lot of the events. I have this passion for cycling, so you see a lot of bicycle elements downstairs.
Jim: We always talked about the changing restaurant scene in Durango. Twenty years ago, I was like, “All right, we’re done growing in Durango because it’s just too expensive to put in restaurants.” But we just had seven restaurants move in this fall. We always had line cooks. We did sandwiches, fairly simple food, but with the changing restaurant scene, it’s like we need to get a chef in here. So we talked to Dave.
Cuntz: It’s kind of full circle for me. I’ve worked here for 6 years. In order to stay alive, you’ve gotta evolve. Always. And that is what we did.
A Durango institutionThe bakery-turned-brewery has become a crucial part of the community, not just as a place to meet for a cold beer and quality meal with friends, but as the rising tide that lifts all ships. Carvers has held community festivals, has been a major supporter of local non-profits, and helped open the Powerhouse Science Center.
Jim: It’s hard to believe we’ve been in business for 35 years.
Thomas: It’s like my own dining room. It’s always been that way.
Bill: We’re just really a little restaurant, but over time, it just shows you with the power of intent and giving every year, we’ve been able to really help a lot of the non-profits.
Jim: Pretty much, whatever happens, we are capable of fixing it, and in the kitchen, we can put out these amazing meals. We own the building, so Carvers is probably going to be here for a long, long time. We are setting it up so that if we’re gone it keeps going, and that’s the intent.