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Brewing beer in Gilpin County for 150 years

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Selections from “Of Mines & Beer!”

By Dave Thomas

Estimates of the number of non-Native Americans living in Gilpin County within a few months following Gregory’s discovery of gold vary widely from 5,000 to as many as 30,000 in 1860. Enumeration of the number of Native Americans living in Colorado is difficult. The first official US census to include Native Americans was in 1890 and most of those records were destroyed in a 1921 fire.

Brewing in Gilpin County began in 1862, perhaps coincidentally the same time the Weekly Register-Call was launched, and from then on, the population and number of breweries were much easier to track. In 1870, the ratio of breweries to residents reached a high of six breweries and 5,493 residents for a per capita ratio of 915 people for every brewery in the county.

Today, according to the Brewers Association in Boulder, the state of Colorado ranks fourth in the US with one brewery for every 42,000 people. Sparsely populated Vermont leads the way with one brewery per 30,000.

Interestingly, most of the Continental European miners (Germans, Austrians and Italians) appeared to leave this region and move eighty miles west, over the Continental Divide, to Leadville around the time that silver was discovered there in 1878, while the number of miners from the British Isles (English, Welsh, Cornish and Irish) remained relatively constant in Gilpin County.

Many miners and mill workers also came from the Tyrolean region of the Alps in western Austria and northern Italy; Sweden; and, later, China. The latter were specialists in recovering the last few dollars of gold from the slag, dumps and tailing piles left behind by hard-rock miners.

Gilpin County population and number of operating breweries:

1860: 5,000 – 30,000 est. pop. (no breweries)

1866: 7,000 pop. (6 breweries)

1870: 5,493 pop. (6 breweries)

1880: 6,489 pop. (5 breweries)

1890: 5,875 pop. (2 breweries)

1900: 6,690 pop. (no breweries)

1910: 4,131 pop. (no breweries)

1920: 1,364 pop. (no breweries)

1930: 1,212 pop. (no breweries)

1940: 1,625 pop. (no breweries)

1950: 850 pop. (no breweries)

1960: 685 pop. (no breweries)

1970: 1,272 pop. (no breweries)

1980: 2,441 pop. (no breweries)

1990: 3,070 pop. (no breweries)

1997: 4,000 pop. (2 breweries)

2000: 4,623 pop. (1 brewery)

2010: 5,604 pop. (1 brewery)

The Earliest Beers

Making beer and mining gold and silver in the west certainly pale in comparison to what was going on in the eastern half of the United States from 1861 to 1865. Perhaps as a means of escaping the horrors of the American Civil War, in which 3 million Americans fought and 750,000 died in more than 10,000 armed conflicts in twenty-six states, getting as close to Colorado as Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas, thousands of thirsty miners came to the foothills of Colorado (called the Kansas Territory at the time), seeking their fortune.

As wagon trains of homesteaders and miners traveled west to California beginning in 1849 and to Colorado in 1858, they made contact with Native American tribes, including Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa, Comanche, Crow and Utes in the Platte River Valley. The Ute mountain tribes inhabited the foothills that would become Gilpin County and most of western Colorado. As their lands were slowly being taken from them, Thomas Fitzpatrick, the first U.S. Indian agent, offered restitution to the tribes in a treaty, amounting to $50,000 per year and the promise that their traditional lands would be theirs forever.

However, gold fever, among other things, made this treaty and others untenable. Hard liquor in the form of whiskey, played a major role along with disease, in the demise of Colorado tribes during the gold rush. During the first twenty years of mining in Colorado, the Ute tribal population was reduced from 8,000 to 2,000 by disease and diminished hunting grounds.

African-American frontiersman Jim Beckworth (1798-1866), reportedly the first man to settle on Clear Creek near present-day Arvada, claimed that whiskey traders would purchase a forty-gallon cask of high-proof alcohol and dilute it four-to-one with water, yielding two hundred gallons or sixteen hundred pints. A pint of watered-down whiskey could be traded for a tanned buffalo robe worth five dollars each, yielding a profit of nearly $8,000.

It has been confirmed recently that Pueblo dwelling Indians of Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado brewed their own style of beer from corn (maize) before any contact with Europeans, who typically brew with malted barley. Pot shards from the US Southwest dating back 800 years were found to contain bits of fermented residue from corn beer production.

Previously, it was known that many of the tribes living in Mexico and some in Arizona are known to have produced a weak beer called “tiswin.” This was made with corn or fruit by the Apaches and made with saguaro sap by the “Tohono O’odham” (desert dwellers that were called “Papago” by the Spanish conquistadores.)

“Choc beer,” as mentioned in the 1976 revisionist Western film, The Outlaw Josey Wales, is named for the Choctaw Indians of Oklahoma. The origin of choc beer is not known, but like nearly all beer, is a fermentation of malted barley and hops. In 1894, a report to Congress claimed that Choctaw beer was a “compound of barley, hops, tobacco, fishberries, and a small amount of alcohol.”

A district court ruling in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1920, during Prohibition, acquitted a man that had been arrested for selling choc beer illegally, because the district judge ruled that “Choctaw beer,” measured at 2.89 percent alcohol, was “a non-intoxicating drink.”

Since grass seeds (barley, wheat, corn, rice, etc.) can spontaneously germinate and ferment when wet, it is likely that Native Americans would have discovered that accidentally fermented grain tasted better and had a mildly intoxicating effect. They then, most likely, figured out how to duplicate the process. Wild yeasts occur naturally in the air and, compared to the cultured yeasts of today, were limited in how much alcohol they could produce, therefore these early beers would have been fairly low in alcohol.

This is a selection from “Of Mines & Beer!” history of 19th century brewing in Gilpin County by Dave Thomas. Copies of the book may be obtained locally at the Gilpin Historical Society museum, Dostal Alley Brewpub in Central City, the Bobtail Cornerstore in Black Hawk, or online at www.Amazon.com.

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