Rivertown bounty 

A creative movement primes the Upper Arkansas Valley for craft-beverage tourism

Signs that the Upper Arkansas Valley is at the precipice of a cultural shift are scattered but ubiquitous here on the southern Front Range. At least two rather large, and tangible, ones have likely caught your attention from I-25 over the past few months.

The billboards' red background — consistent with other advertising materials for the event — is hard to ignore, and the headlining band names in the foreground (Flaming Lips, Mumford and Sons) have received just enough air time to be familiar to radio listeners and close enough inspection from indie-music nerds to be welcomed with genuine enthusiasm.

Both bands have toured through Colorado, of course. What makes this announcement stand out is the venue location: Salida is one of just five "stopovers" on Mumford's Gentlemen of the Road tour, alongside Walla Walla, Washington, Aviemore, Scotland, and other small towns.

The event marketing might have you believe these places are "gems waiting to be discovered" — quaint, unlikely hosts for such an occasion. But in Salida, locals, recent transplants and frequent visitors know better. It isn't some beautiful but sleepy mountain hamlet waiting for a celebrity spotlight to shine upon it.

In fact, Salida's creative identity has been recognized at least regionally if not nationally since the 1980s, when Sunset Magazine named it "Best Art Town in the West."

But the real surge has risen mostly over the past five years, as the craftier trades of the creative economy (in this case, beer brewing and liquor distilling) have combined with traditional artists to form a powerful movement.

Of course, recreation remains the primary lure of the Upper Arkansas Valley, which has been the case since the early 1900s, when the area's identity shifted from railroad nexus to tourism mecca — and welcoming to outdoor adventurers of every stripe and skill level.

But as Indy food editor Matthew Schniper discovered on a recent trip to Salida, Buena Vista and Poncha Springs, that's no longer the only reason to visit Chaffee County.

Schniper introduces us to some of the valley's best craft distillers, brewers, vintners, and chefs. They're bound to generate good business from the music lovers who descend upon the area next month for the Salida Stopover Festival.

In the meantime, local musicians, like the folk band Schniper encounters on his trip, are keeping the beat. — Vanessa Martinez

  • Matthew Schniper
  • Vino Salida

Vino Salida

8100 W. U.S. Hwy. 50, 719/539-6299, vinosalida.com

If you've explored the popular wineries of Colorado's designated viticultural areas on the Western Slope, you've likely had the pleasure of sampling wine in a tasting room surrounded by vineyards. We long for as much as we pull off Highway 50 to a row of attached retail businesses, including the colorful yet unpretentious corrugated-metal building that houses Vino Salida.

Kodi Whitehead, a sommelier at Del Norte's Windsor Hotel who once worked closely with Wolfgang Puck, was the first friend to recommend Vino Salida to me, calling it one of our state's top wineries. In his dining room, Whitehead currently pours Vino Salida's 2013 Bianco by the glass and offers its 2013 Petite Syrah by the bottle: "The Bianco is funky and pairs great with food," he says. "The Syrah is big and juicy."

I keep this in mind as we near Vino Salida's bright pink façade, with its blue and purple accents and a bright-red door. Inside, we don't find owner and winemaker Steve Flynn, but a knowledgeable helper guides us through tastings as we stand at a modest wooden bar flanked by the open production area.

Since opening in 2009, Flynn has procured grapes from elsewhere in Colorado, as well as from some of the country's most respected winemaking regions.

He crushes and ferments the grapes on-site in both stainless steel and Kentucky oak barrels, and produces nearly 20 varietals, from dry or sweet reds and whites to honey meads. Seven of them are 100 percent local to Colorado, as a special series of custom labels conveys. Sample six of them for $5; buy a bottle to take home, and the winery will comp that cost.

As a fan of blends generally, I favor Flynn's 2013 Rosso, a $16 bottle of complexity: majority Zinfandel and Sangiovese mixed with lesser portions of Carignan, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Cabernet Franc. The composition defies expectations, much like Colorado's steadily improving wine reputation overall, thanks to vintners like Vino Salida.

Catch them and nine other wineries at the 4th Annual Salida Winefest, Saturday, Sept. 5, from 1 to 6 p.m. in Riverside Park (salidawinefest.com).

click to enlarge Elevation Beer Company - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Elevation Beer Company

Elevation Beer Company

115 Pahlone Parkway, Poncha Springs, 719/539-5258, elevationbeerco.com

Just up the road from Vino Salida, we're greeted by a massive grain silo as we pull into Elevation Beer Company's sizable production facility. Somewhere along the way, we crossed a border.

Welcome to Poncha Springs.

Elevation's agri-industrial taproom is all stained wood and pounded metal accents, with old tractor seats lofted as barstools. A large blackboard behind the bar showcases the list of pours (10 or 14 ounces run between $4.50 and $6 depending on ABV; $15 for five 5-ounce samples).

On a gravel patio outside, tents gift shade over picnic tables, and food trucks park at a window cut into the wall, which effectively blends them into the building. It's visually seamless and smart, and doesn't require guests to leave their drinks behind as they place their orders for the truck's fare.

During our visit, a colorful Mexican outfit called Poco Mas is parked in the window, and we make room for a worthy adobada taco with creamy avocado sauce. We also sweet-talk an accommodating bartender into modifying a sampler so we can try half pours of all nine brews on tap.

We taste our way around glasses encircled by a round cocktail tray, identifying them from a laminated list attached to an accompanying clipboard.

The tart and crisp Raspberry Gulch saison is sure to please, while a dark Trappist-style brew called Apis IV delivers big honey and roasted notes. The barleywine bangs at 12.5 ABV, and a collaborative firkin of imperial brown ale with Telluride Brewing Co. pops with orange citrus essence and wood from bourbon chips. But our favorite is the newly released Third Base Tripel, bright with plenty of Belgian yeast character and dynamically rounded (look for four-packs seasonally in area liquor stores).

Without space to dive deeper into the nerdy nitty-gritty, I'm earnestly impressed with Elevation overall, which pushes beyond standard expectations for craft beer, nailing their take on trendy styles and creatively spinning their own.

click to enlarge Wood’s High Mountain Distillery - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Wood’s High Mountain Distillery

Wood's High Mountain Distillery

144 W. First St., Salida, 719/207-4315, woodsdistillery.com

Owner PT Wood isn't at his Salida distillery during our visit, but manager and fellow distiller Rocky Tingler stops in to talk shop for a while. We're otherwise in the good hands of bartender Katelyn Robertson, who's poised behind a beautiful back-lit bar mounted to exposed brick and plaster segments painted sky blue.

On an adjacent wall hangs a chalkboard Wood procured from a local high school, which still displays an inventory of classic book titles like As I Lay Dying and Red Badge of Courage. Wood not only maintained the original scrawl — he used the list to name his house cocktails, every one of which I am tempted to try.

We start with Robertson laying out one sample each of Wood's current products: three gins, a whiskey and an elderflower liqueur.

Moving backward, the liqueur, called Fleur de Sureau (featured in one of the cocktails we order at Rivers Edge and described on the facing page), is 70-proof and made by distilling Muscat and Riesling wines before infusing the spirit with local elderflowers and locally made raspberry-blossom honey. It bears a funky aroma but delivers a pleasant flavor, with hints of anise inside the heavy, floral body.

The 90-proof whiskey, similar to Deerhammer's (see p. 23), gains complexity thanks to a diverse, malted grain bill — two-row barley, smoked barley and chocolate barley — with lesser quantities of wheat and rye for finishing spice.

The gins also weigh in at 90-proof, starting with the Treeline label, a dry style made from nine botanicals, including juniper picked on the Front Range, Tingler says. The Mountain Hopped Gin adds Colorado-grown Cascade hops, packing the essence of a good IPA and begging to be used in a beer cocktail. Finally, the Treeline Barrel Rested Gin channels heaven itself, pulling lovely vanilla notes and woodiness from charred, new American oak (as a bourbon would) over the course of six months.

"We call it 'gin for whiskey lovers,'" says Robertson, who offers us glimpses of life in a small mountain town from a 23-year-old female's point of view.

"Everyone's passing through," she says, mentioning seasonal raft guides and trail crews. "And when a new girl comes to town, the guys freak out." (She guesses the male-to-female ratio in town is about 80 to 20.)

Robertson's professional experience in Salida also plays out according to something we hear from Boathouse Distillery owner Jerry Mallett: In order to get by in this recreational wonderland, many people must juggle at least two jobs. (Robertson's other gig is with Moonlight Pizza & Brewpub, which is recommended to us on a couple occasions, along with Amicas Pizza & Microbrewery.)

Mallett — whose mellow bourbon and smooth tequila are aged, proofed and bottled locally but procured elsewhere — is among the local business leaders, along with Wood and Rivers Edge's Ray Kitson, credited with fundraising the construction of the town's river park, the overhaul of the SteamPlant Event Center, and the expansion of an early-childhood center.

With most jobs around here offering an average of $12 an hour, Mallett says, two or three are needed in order to keep up with increases in housing prices. But people nevertheless flock to live in towns that boast a "six-inch rule."

"Whatever job you have, if we get six inches of snow, you get to go skiing" he explains. "It's not a statute, but business owners honor it.

"Six inches, you're gone. But you'll be back [at work]by 11 a.m.; you just want those two hours of powder."

And before we depart, we want just one more drink: the spicy Thai Bloody Mary made with Treeline Gin, house tomato mix, sweet chili sauce, sriracha and wasabi, rimmed with Himalayan salt and garnished with pickled shrimp.

It's killer, and pairs well with a house antipasti plate, featuring excellent, local Scanga Meat Co. (scangameat.com) cuts — soppressata, prosciutto, pepperoni and capicola — plus olives, grapes, cheeses and a honey-mustard dip infused with Wood's whiskey.

Six inches or not, skipping Wood's is not an option for any craft-loving tourist adventuring through the Upper Arkansas Valley.

Regardless of what truly brings you here.

click to enlarge Ploughboy Market - MATTEW SCHNIPER
  • Mattew Schniper
  • Ploughboy Market

Ploughboy Market

311 H St., Salida, 719/539-5292, ploughboyinc.com

In 2013, The Nature Conservancy and its readers selected Ploughboy Market for the Nature's Plate Award, which essentially designated it the "people's choice" for Colorado's greenest restaurant.

So it may come as a surprise to visiting Front Range dwellers that Ploughboy is really more of a casual deli and market than a formal eatery.

Co-owner Kerry Nelson and her husband, Dave, hatched the idea to open a local-food marketplace six years ago, shortly after investing in commercial property directly across the street from a Safeway store.

"We like ugly buildings," she says, explaining part of the couple's motivation for the purchase.

More importantly, however, the ubiquitous grocery chain inspired them to open a place that keeps money circulating locally — not just in town, but also in the area's outlying ranching and agricultural communities and other places around Colorado where cottage-industry types produce their own gourmet, boutique, and mindfully made goods.

"It was a way for us to impact the local economy," Nelson adds, explaining Ploughboy's all-Colorado rule (made or grown in-state) for stocking the market's shelves.

Strolling past rows of dry goods, produce and cooler cases, as well as a display case stocked with deli items, Kerry offered us samples of a stroganoff-like pasta and Asian stir-fry, showing off Denver-made Pappardelle's pasta and local beef.

Both were good, but we were still full from an earlier meal, so walked out instead with a pleasantly biting, ginger-lemon-flavored Doctor D's sparkling water kefir drink and a pint of Cows Gone Coconut decaf coffee ice cream. (Sorry, they don't make a caffeinated version, but it's insanely good nonetheless.)

You'll also find several flavors of Salida-made Don't Go Nuts oat bars. The company specializes in nut-free foods for allergic folks, wrapped in packaging that features charmingly silly cartoon characters engaged in various sports. And they taste great, thanks in part to no shortage of sugar.

Sure, you can shop sustainably while buoying local commerce here in the Springs at places like Garden of the Gods Gourmet and Hunt or Gather, but Ploughboy is still worth a stop, especially if you're looking to stock up on sweet snacks before heading to one of the area's spectacular camping spots.

click to enlarge Rivers Edge - Bar & Restaurant - MATTEW SCHNIPER
  • Mattew Schniper
  • Rivers EdgeBar & Restaurant

Rivers Edge Bar & Restaurant

300 W. Sackett Ave., Salida, 719/207-4267, riversedgesalida.com

To the best of his knowledge, Rivers Edge owner Ray Kitson believes his bar to be the only drinking hole in Colorado that pours local spirits exclusively. The menu bills it as "Colorado's first all-Colorado cocktail program."

If he's right, it's a pretty damn cool and commendable feat, and the nearly 30-deep cocktail list is alluring, with many fine Centennial State brands: Leopold Bros. (Denver) and Dancing Pines (Loveland) liqueurs; Boathouse Distillery bourbon (rectified in Salida); Deerhammer whiskey (Buena Vista); Wood's gin (Salida); Peach Street Distillers vodka (Palisade); and more.

We drop in just before closing and sit on the scenic lower patios along the Arkansas, close enough to the river that we have to raise our voices to hear each other over its roar.

The patios are tented, fire-pit-warmed, and almost beach-like in their open-air splendor. (They're also a significant walk from the kitchen for servers, so tip appropriately.)

For cocktails, we try the Elixir, Colorado Cider and Green Grind.

The first incorporates PSD's Jackelope & Jenny pear gin, Wood's Fleur de Sureau Elderflower Liqueur, and lime juice, finishing like a medicinal tonic with floral-citrus fusion. The cider in question is Denver's Glider Cider, mixed with Leopold's 3 Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur for very nice effect, even if the sweetness borders on cloying, which is all too common with beverages containing fermented apple juice.

Thankfully, the Green Grind is not your typical wheatgrass smoothie gone drunk. Rather, it's an ode to Deerhammer's Whitewater Whiskey, a remarkably chocolatey white dog, in this case blended with Leopold's sour apple liqueur, lemon simple syrup, cucumber and muddled mint. The balance of this mixture isn't harmonious, but I can see that it should work if executed perfectly, and it doesn't stop me from wishing to sample every drink on the list.

From chef Wes Fox's menu, we nab excellent fish and pork belly taco plates, both boasting rich crema sauces, bright accenting flavors and lovely char yielding to fatty delight on the pig.

The stunner, though, bears an unassuming name: grilled vegetable salad. Out come greens topped with sear-marked eggplant and squash strands, a handful of quinoa, halved cashews, stringy tobacco onions (fried with paprika and cayenne to resemble the smoke stuff), toasted coconut flakes and a killer coconut vinaigrette that infuse the dish with sweet acidity and an island essence.

click to enlarge Deerhammer Distilling - Company - MATTEW SCHNIPER
  • Mattew Schniper
  • Deerhammer Distilling Company

Deerhammer Distilling Company

321 E. Main St., Buena Vista, 719/966-7611

Lenny Eckstein leads an enviable life as distiller and distillery owner in Buena Vista.

"We get to make whiskey and slow down in the summer. We back production down a bit and get on the river more. That's what we're all about," he explains. "There's not really a huge story to it, as much as just trying to blend lifestyle and whiskey making."

We're couched at the four-seat bar in his bustling tasting room, enjoying a view into the distillery through the large open window that stands in for a traditional bar back as we sip our Royal Tea (house Bullwheel Gin, Earl Grey tea, honey, lemon and black walnut bitters) and High Roller (house Whitewater Whiskey, pineapple, coconut, almond and lime).

Pointy copper fixtures on two stills and the shiny stainless steel of fermenters reflect the glow of overhead fluorescents.

Behind the bar, stage right, simple wooden shelves host rows of Deerhammer's three current flagship products: the aforementioned gin and white dog, and the Downtime Single Malt Whiskey.

By this point, we've already worked our way through neat sips of each, delivered in tiny plastic taster cups.

And our cocktails are exceptional.

Just ask Distillery 291's Michael Myers, who also happens to be visiting from the Springs. (Myers' whiskies are the shit, and he thinks Eckstein's are, too, which validates my conclusion. After all, two shits don't make a wrong in the whiskey world.)

Deerhammer bases its 86-proof gin on historic Dutch genevers more than the common London Dry styles of today to create a "hybrid" that incorporates 15 botanicals that are both macerated (soaked) and placed in baskets in the still's column to give up their ghosts as vapors pass through.

Notably, rather than start with a tasteless, neutral grain spirit, Eckstein brews with malted barley — as if to begin a whiskey — developing more complex flavors in his wash and thereby influencing the final distilled product.

This concept is key to his whiskies, as well, in which he invests more expensive chocolate and caramel malts, starting with a grain bill much like that of an imperial porter (because distillers basically make beer, which they turn into higher-proof spirits via distillation).

"The sentiment is specialty malts won't do much," he says. "But I've never found that to be true. On the homebrew side, I use to make beer and sometimes distill it. Porters and stouts and the heavy specialty malt beers would translate over really nicely."

In translation, it tastes lightly of chocolate, with faint tobacco aromas in the roasty finish.

Deerhammer's Whitewater Whiskey delivers way more complexity than the average white dog. The Downtime is, of course, aged for all the desired barrel nuances.

A food truck is parked just outside Deerhammer's patio, but Eckstein recommends we cross the street for dinner, to the Asian Palate (theasianpalate.com), the "best food in town."

Myers agrees: "It's where I eat when I come here," he chimes in.

And we're sold.

At the restaurant, we're treated to live music from a young, button-cute folk band and are pleased to find both Elevation and Eddyline beers (see p. 32) on tap, as well as a Deerhammer gin cocktail infused with a touch of Elevation (local love overload!).

Filipino-style chicken adobo (braised with soy, vinegar and garlic) and pancit (egg noodles) arrive beautifully plated with a tower of rice and fried banana accompaniment. It's a salty, tangy, umami bomb, but it's delightful. So is the more Thai-like fish larb, with sashimi salmon bits soaked in chilies, ginger, lime and mint paired with toothy bok choy.

Though I usually crave more comfort-food, brewery-type fare on high-country getaways, the lighter, fresh fish connects us to the river. And the restaurant's proximity to Deerhammer, an essential tour stop, makes it an easy addendum to the itinerary.

  • A creative movement primes the Upper Arkansas Valley for craft-beverage tourism


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