We don’t know about you, but it’s been a lackluster year for us when it comes to beer. Don’t get us wrong, we live in an area with a ton of great breweries, and our liquor stores are great about introducing us to new brews from afar.
But in an alternate universe — one not stricken by COVID-19 — we’re just getting back from the Great American Beer Festival and have enjoyed several local beer festivals over the course of the summer. Alas, that’s not the reality we’re living in.
We still wanted to mark the passing of the beer festival season, though, and find a way to try some new beers — at least ones new to us. It then occurred to us that there was an entire beer garden in Durango that we’d never visited.
Attached to the back of the DoubleTree Hotel, the Animas River Beer Garden overlooks the river for which it’s named. And as far as we can tell, it’s one of the only local eateries or bars that does so. Every brewery in Durango is located within a few thousand feet of the Animas River (two are only a few hundred feet from it), but at none of them can you see the river from the bar.
What kept us from checking out ARBG for this long, though, was the fact that even though it has a variety of beers on tap, none of them are local. It opened in 2018 and is run as a partnership between the hotel chain and Breckenridge Brewery, and that’s mostly what it has on tap.
In many ways, Breckenridge Brewery is a bit like Star Wars.
It began its life humbly as Colorado’s third craft brewery in Breckenridge in 1990. Its beer was an immediate hit, expanding throughout the 1990s and 2000s, much like the film franchise, first into Denver in 1992 and then relocating its main hub to Littleton in 2015. In 2016, the brewery was bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, the Disney of brewing companies — AB InBev owns around 630 beer brands in 150 countries.
This comparison highlights our concerns about the brewery’s beer. Under its multinational corporate ownership, has it stayed true to its craft beer roots? Or like the Star Wars franchise, has it gone downhill with its purchase by a megacorporation — unwilling to take creative risks, continuously churning out the same old stuff? (Search your feelings, you know it to be true.)
And what does this all mean for the beer garden in Durango?
We visited ARBG on an October afternoon, but it was fall in name only. The sun was beating down on the patio, the temperature was hanging around 78 degrees, and people in bathing suits were playing by the river. So instead of a more autumny Vanilla Porter, we started with the Strawberry Sky, a kölsch-style ale brewed with strawberries.
It was an extremely quaffable beer, with a strong taste of strawberries — but not so strong that they hid the taste of the kölsch itself. It also had a noticeable hint of honeydew flavor, a result of the Huell Melon hops with which it’s made. It was refreshing and felt very appropriate for drinking as the last bits of summer finally fade away.
For our second beer, we stuck to the fruity summer beer theme, choosing Mountain Beach, a sour ale flavored with lime and pineapple, with notes of guava. It wasn’t as tart as you’d think it would be, and it was also a bit less sweet than the previous beer. But it still hit the spot in the afternoon sun.
We likely would have ordered a third beer (we’d been eyeing the tap of the Palisade Peach Wheat), but as a snack we ordered the Animas Nachos. When we think about nachos, we tend to think of otherwise-solid cheese melted over chips with other toppings. But that’s not the only way to do it. You can also pour queso fundido, literally “molten cheese,” over the chips in a way more akin to chili con queso. That’s what these nachos were, with pork carnitas, cotija cheese, guacamole, scallions, sour cream, and pico de gallo. Suffice to say, after not many bites of the ultra-dense nachos we were full.
Ultimately, the beers were good, especially the strawberry kölsh, even if drinking them means selling out to “Big Beer.” We can see ourselves enjoying more on the beer garden’s patio, albeit in summer 2021 probably.