You almost know there’s something special about Silverton by the way the tiny town pops out of nowhere as you’re winding along the Million Dollar Highway, like an oasis for weary travelers and hungry adventurists.
Located in a valley at 9,318 feet, the San Juan Mountains seem to gobble the town up, their peaks visible from every street corner and porch. A stroll through the streets show off the unpolished nature of the town, seemingly unchanged since its settlement in 1885. Unlike other mountain towns that have become billionaire retreats, Silverton has preserved its wild nature and historical charm while managing to keep its sense of community.
You won’t find an abundance of hotels there, and the only paved street is Main Street. There are no box stores or chain restaurants, and yet thousands of visitors arrive in the summer months via the train, and still more travel along the highway year round. It’s safe to say that the town has never stopped attracting those with an adventurous gene. Once a rowdy mining town that drew in prospectors hoping to strike it rich with silver and gold, today Silverton attracts anyone seeking a back country skiing experience, or the daredevils who are looking to get dropped out of a helicopter onto Silverton Mountain. You’ll find avid hikers, fishing enthusiasts, and those willing to push the limits of their 4WD by following Otto Mear’s daring toll roads to ghost towns and alpine lakes.
The town has become something of a recreational base camp. Thanks to tourists from Durango, Montrose, and beyond, Silverton is a year-round destination, fueling small businesses like Avalanche Brewing, owned by Austin and Casie Lashley. Growing up in Durango, Austin was amongst a class of 18-year-olds who brewed their own beer before they were old enough to buy it. Surprisingly enough, that’s not illegal (or, at least, it wasn’t at the time). His friends all dreamed of opening breweries in Durango, but Austin had his sights firmly set on Silverton.
Following the dream took him to Alaska, where he endured the dark, cold winters working in the state’s busiest homebrew shop.
“It was kind of like being a beer librarian,” he said.
The opportunity taught him to be unafraid of any beer style, and that experience is ever apparent in Avalanche’s rotating six taps. You’ll usually find their signature White-Out Wit and Sultan IPA on the list, but Austin isn’t afraid to brew up something fun or weird.
As you walk through the brewery’s front door, an old snowboard-turned-chalkboard greets you with today’s beer options. The shiny copper bar gives the space an old-English-pub feel, but everything else about Avalanche screams their love for the outdoors. The tap handles are made from old ski poles, and the tables are all laminated with topographical maps of Silverton, Telluride, and Ouray’s best hikes. I get the ski-themed sampler tray (where the glasses are actually little boots that clip into the tiny ski like the real deal). In the end, it’s the Strawberry Rhubarb Gose that wins my affection, a unique German-style beer that’s brewed with salt. This particular batch included over 40 pounds of rhubarb (one of the few crops that thrives in Silverton), giving it a tart, refreshing finish.
It’s that kind of focus that makes Avalanche really stand out. Using local rhubarb as the inspiration for a twist on a lesser-known classic is just the beginning. Their food is made almost entirely from scratch, despite the small size of the kitchen. They make everything from their pizza dough to their sauces and condiments (including the to-die-for beer mustard in their saucy Cubano wrap, which I devoured in about two-seconds flat).
When I asked the husband-and-wife team how they managed to make it all work, they looked at each other and laughed. To be successful in Silverton, you have to be willing to work, and you’ll find the two of them working almost every day of the week. Sometimes, they get up at 4 a.m. to brew beer before heading up to the kitchen to help with the lunch rush. It doesn’t feel like work, though.
“At this point, I don’t know where else we would live,” Casie tells me. “We love it here, and we love what we do.”
Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. In early June, the couple bought the old Romero’s building, formerly the longest-running family-owned restaurant in Silverton. The new space will not only quadruple their indoor seating area to 100 seats, but it will also allow them to expand the kitchen and the brewery. This is the next step in their Frankenbrew brewery model: start small and build the brewery you want over time, inspired by their good friend Tom Hennessy at Colorado Boy.
The couple hopes to complete renovations and open in the new location before the summer of 2019. In the meantime, you can visit them on Notorious Blair Street – and don’t forget to grab a 32-ounce Crowler can to-go. Once you leave Silverton, you can’t find their brews anywhere else.
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at [email protected].