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Pub Visit - USA/Canada

Tommyknocker1Idaho Springs, Colorado:
Tommyknocker Brewery

Visited on: Friday 8th June 2018

Bob Thompson

Often there is a lot in a name and that is the case here. Idaho Springs is yet another former mining town in the valley of the Clear Creek. This rises high in the Rockies near Loveland and flows easterly towards its junction with the South Platte River on the plains north of Denver. In the valley there are many communities that were founded to exploit the metal ore deposits, mostly gold, silver and lead.

Tommyknocker2It started with the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859 and these towns all emerged during the following twenty years. So what was a Tommyknocker? In 1859 and throughout the rest of the nineteenth century nearly every adult American was born in another country. So the miners who flocked to work in the Colorado mines came from many places. Yet the largest proportion came from just one English county: Cornwall.

These men had all the expertise of mining for precious metal ores. They bought their families and customs and beliefs with them.

One of their beliefs was the existence of the Tommyknocker. In Celtic Cornwall this was the equivalent of the Irish Leprechaun. Small impish characters, they lived underground, especially in mines. They were regarded as either malicious or benevolent.

In the first instance they knocked on the walls of the excavated tunnels and chambers and caused collapses. The actual bangs and creaks from the supports that precede these incidents are said to be made by them. In the second instance it is said that their knocking lead miners to new rich seams. It was also said that their knocking prior to disaster was a warning to leave quickly. Take it which way you will. Yet it was a very strong belief that spread beyond Colorado and is thought to have finally died out in the USA during the 1930s.

Tommyknocker3So here we were, in a town where Tommyknockers were said to exist and now have a brewery named after them. This brew-pub was part of the early revolution and opened its doors in 1994, brewing started a year later.

Its co-founders were Tim Lenahan and Charlie Sturdavant. Sturdavant had some previous experience as he and his family had established the Golden City Brewery in Golden, CO in a garage a year earlier.

Tim Lenahan was no slouch in this brewing game, either. He had been the brew-master at Breckenridge Brewing since its establishment in 1990. Lenaham had found the property in 1994 and they signed the deeds of ownership on 9th December. The building was constructed in 1898 and its first use was as a stagecoach stop. With more modern means of transport it became a bus station, then a restaurant / bar known as the Placer Inn, that later still had a bowling alley added.

The new venture did very well, especially after its brewery opened in April 1995. After a while Sturdavant distanced himself from the daily management of Tommyknocker and opened his third brewery, The Cheshire Cat brew-pub in Arvada, north-west of Denver. Later, he sold that on and it is now the Yak & Yeti Restaurant and Brew-pub, which specialises in North Indian and Nepalese cooking. It still produces beers and this side of the business is known as Spice Trade Brewing. Please see article in BeerVisits on this interesting place.

Tommyknocker4Tommyknocker continued its life in an uneventful fashion for many years. However Tim Lenahan died in January 2017 and there was an impasse. Tim’s half was sold to two out-of-state investors. Charlie Sturdavant was very keen that the remaining 19 investors should have a stake so they were included along with Charlie’s own shares. The new owners are Gerry Ware of California and the family of the late Richard Cohen from New York. The former head brewer Steve Indrehus is now CEO and responsible for day-to-day operations.

The pub has a lot of old world character and I hope that doesn’t change, it is a source of worry. On entering the pub the brewery can be found at the back of the building in and extension. The bar counter are is the best part of the pub with a nice wooden bar-back with the logo of the brewery. Most of the tables are in the large room at the front of the brewery with its wooden floorboards large windows looking out onto Miner Street.

There was a fine selection of beers to be had. The full offering was: Drift Blonde Ale (4.7%), an American golden ale with low bitterness; Palisade Peachwood Cream Ale (4.5%) an American cream ale brewed with peach wood from the Palisade area of Colorado; Alpine Glacier Pilsner Lager (4.9%), a German Pils; Maple Nut Brown Ale (4.5%), an American brown ale with maple syrup; Imperial Nut Brown Lager (9.0%), a very unusual style; Pick Axe Pale Ale (5.0%), an American pale ale and Blood Orange IPA (6.0%); blood oranges added. The above beers were those on offer from the regular list.

Tommyknocker5The following were seasonal or specials: Black Powder Stout (6.3%), a sweet stout; Ornery Amber (5.4%), a Vienna lager; Tundrabeary (4.7%), an ale brewed with real fruit added; Cocoa Porter (5.7%), an ale brewed with cocoa and honey malt; Butt Head Bock (8.2%), a German-style doppelbock and TK-IPA (7.2%), an American IPA.

The selection continued with: Dynamite Blast Hazy IPA (6.0%), a New England IPA; Pine Bough (5.0%), a pale ale brewed with pine needles gathered in the Loveland Ski Resort area and Placer Pale Ale (5.6%), a New England pale ale.

Finally, saving what could potentially be the best till last, we had Crystal-hopped Rosemary Blonde from cask! See below for what we thought of it.

So, we tried a few of the beers for research purposes and our conclusions were like this: Palisade Peachwood Cream Ale was very smooth tasting with a slight peach-type taste. Drift Blonde Ale was very innocuous with no bitterness, or even flavour! Probably brewed for those customers who want to drink one of the big domestic brewer’s beers. Black Powder Stout was definitely a sweet stout and was served by mixed gas.

Tommyknocker6Placer Pale Ale was heavy on the citrus-infused hops (Citra and Columbus) so, at least in my mind it wasn’t really a New England pale, more West Coast. Pick Axe Pale Ale was without doubt, a West Coast ale, being very smooth and bitter with Chinook, Amarillo and Columbus hops, extremely good indeed. TK-IPA was almost as good with Chinook, Willamette and Crystal hops; very bitter and yet also extra smooth.

We detected that the cask Crystal-hopped Rosemary Ale had rosemary in the aroma and also in the taste. There was also lemon in the background. Surprisingly I liked it, however it was served a little too warm, a common problem for cask ale in the USA.

Nevertheless, it is always important to mention breweries that produce cask ale in this country, one day it might catch on!

The new owners are keen to expand the Tommyknocker brand and there is already a franchised bar in Helsinki, Finland. I think you will see more of this in the USA and elsewhere. I was pleased to visit this, the original pub, whist it was in a still relatively unspoilt condition. If you are in Colorado, I suggest you do similar.

Important Information:

Tommyknocker Brewery, 1401 Miner Street, Idaho Springs, Colorado 80452. Tel: 303 567 2688

Hours: Monday-Sunday 11.00-22.00

Idaho Springs has a bus stop. It is used by Bustang inter-regional routes.
These run from Denver to Glenwood Springs and v.v. (twice a day) and Grand Junction (once a day).
It is also served by Greyhound from Denver to Grand Junction and beyond and return twice a day.