Writing a column in late May destined for the High Summer issue in July while watching flakes the size of coasters build to a soggy eight-inch-deep mess on the front deck is no easy task. On the radio, the talk is of serious snow in the central Rockies, and the possibility that the intrepid souls at CDOT may not have some of the seasonal high-alpine passes open for the Memorial Day weekend. Independence Pass is 25 feet deep in places, but the locals in Aspen still hope for a regular start to summer, hot on the heels of near-record skier visits this past winter.
I haven’t been up the Roaring Fork Valley in years, not since Widespread Panic and Ratdog played something called the “Howling Wolf” at the base of Buttermilk in the late-’90s. At that time, the Flying Dog Brewpub still operated in Aspen, though the bottling operations had been moved down to Denver. The larger production facility allowed owner (and MG founder) George Stranahan, (also producer of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey), to distribute his flagship Doggie-Style Pale Ale and the rest of the lineup in 45 states. I’m a big fan of Doggie-Style, and I always wondered at the connection between the beer, Aspen and the unique artwork on the labels.
As it turns out, George was the owner of the “Owl Farm” property in Woody Creek that was the long-time residence of the late-Hunter S. Thompson. He leased it to Hunter, and through his acquaintance, was introduced to artist Ralph Steadman. When Flying Dog began bottling beer for distribution, Ralph agreed to design the labels. His first label, for Road Dog Porter, contained the scrawled slogan, “Good Beer, No Shit.” The Colorado liquor board, apparently concerned that adults over the age of 21 would be irreversibly harmed by this bold stroke of marketing genius, pulled the beer from shelves. A four-year legal battle ensued, during which time the words, “Good Beer, No Censorship” replaced the original moniker. Flying Dog prevailed in court, and the label art was restored. Today, it can be found in any decent liquor store across the country, with the notable exception of the State of Texas, whose mixed-up liquor authorities still can’t handle that shit.
With the closure of the brewpub in 2000, Aspen was without a true local brewery until 2008, when the Aspen Brewing Company opened up shop. The brews are served in the on-site tasting room, and at notable venues in and around Aspen. I was lucky enough to run into them at a beer festival on Earth Day in Boulder. I enjoy India-Pale-Ale-style brews, and found ABC’s offering, Independence Pass IPA, to be a crisp and refreshing hop experience, and a welcome break from the current trend of double- and triple-strength concoctions out there, many of which drink like chilled Robitussin, and hit like a full bottle of the same.
That same summer, a friend and I hiked the Lost Man trail over the 4th of July, from the top of Independence Pass, to where it again intersects the highway, seven or eight miles below. Standing on the side of the road in a sweaty tie-dye with my thumb out, none of the 13 out-of-state minivans grinding up the pass in a slow line behind an RV would stop and give me a lift. As I watched them pass, a jet-black Trans-Am skidded to a stop on the gravel shoulder. Jumping in to the black leather seat, the driver, wearing aviators and a silk shirt, looks over to me and says in a Swiss/South African accent (a combination possibly heard only in Aspen), “I just watched them pass you. I used to ride up here. Now we pass them all”! Burying the pedal, he proceeds to tear up the narrow lanes of the pass with complete disregard for solid yellow lines, speed limits, other vehicles, sheer drops or blind curves. As we recklessly swerve around them, the honks and shouts from the flabbergasted minivan drivers are drowned by the deep-throated roar of the big-block, and Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which the driver has turned up to 11. At 70 mph, he makes his move on the rental RV, and with open road now ahead, I see the hairpin just below the top of the pass where our car is parked. Not wanting to get behind the RV again, he slows to a roll and I jump out with a shout of thanks. As he screams away, I stand at the inside of the hairpin as the RV and all 13 minivans that had refused to give me a lift, roll slowly by. The shocked looks on the face of the Midwestern wives and children was great. The last guy in the line shouted as he passed, “Nice choice of Rides!” Priceless!
Erich Hennig, an avid home brewer, is the Four Corners columnist for the Rocky Mountain Brewing News. He lives in Durango, Colo.