Note: Originally appeared in Issue #41 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.
The term “American pub culture” can sometimes seem like a contradiction in terms. Too often, bar and pub patrons are lambasted with loud music, massive television screens and customers shouting at the top of their lungs just to be heard over the din. While entertainment gets cranked up to eleven, human interaction gets lost in the ruckus.
But every action has a reaction, and in response to the bombarding overstimulation of American bar culture, many brew pubs have turned toward a more family- and community-based atmosphere where patrons can come in, sit down, and chat over the most prolific of social lubricants – beer.
Beer geeks and community-minded individuals in Boulder, Colo. need look no further than downtown to find one such pub, where The Mountain Sun Brewery and Pub strives to provide a family-friendly atmosphere while churning out top-notch brews.
Connected To The Community
Don’t come to Mountain Sun expecting to spend a Sunday afternoon watching football, because there aren’t any televisions at Mountain Sun.
“We wanted it to be a community spot,” Assistant General Manager Kat Girod said. “Our dining room is more like a living room.”
When owner Kevin J. Daly opened the brew pub in October of 1993, one of the main goals was to create a community-oriented space where friends could get together over a couple of beers. In 17 years of operation, Mountain Sun has evolved into a spot where locals and tourists can come to see local bands play for free, where groups of friends can meet to catch up on the details of the week, and where individuals can come burn off some stress after a hard day’s work.
“It’s just a gathering place for friends,” Girod said. “I can think of, off the top of my head, at least 30 groups of friends that this is their regular place to gather.”
Part of the draw is certainly the beer, as head brewer Brian “Hutch” Hutchinson is known for turning out world-class beers (such as Hop Vivant, an Imperial IPA that took the Alpha King Award at Falling Rock’s hop-friendly challenge, as well as a medal at the Great American Beer Festival), but another major draw is the friendly atmosphere and sense of community that permeates the entire building.
Customers can sit down and enjoy a board game at their table, tourists looking for information need look no further than the wait staff for the location of a good hike, (another) good place to grab a meal, or even enjoy a beer from one of the area’s numerous other breweries on one of Mountain Sun’s three rotating guest taps.
“[We’re all about] giving people what they want when they walk through the door, whether it’s to go hiking, or to talk about beer with the guests we have,” Girod said. “The beer plays a huge role but we’re also a community spot and a restaurant.”
No matter how many board games a brew pub has available, and no matter how friendly the staff, no establishment can truly be called committed to community if it gouges its customers with unreasonably high prices. Don’t worry, that’s not going to happen at Mountain Sun. With three dollar pints during happy hour and a menu that is loaded with food items under ten dollars, the prices are definitely easy on the budget.
And what self-respecting brewery would have the gall to call itself “community-based” if it wasn’t active in local organizations, charities, and events? Keeping in line with its commitment to the neighborhood, Mountain Sun partners with its local Growing Gardens, a community farm, to stock the refrigerator with local produce (farmer’s markets are also frequent sources of materials for Mountain Sun’s kitchen). The brew pub is also active in local charities and events that support the community.
Room to Grow
The staff at Mountain Sun is always willing to help out the customers, but what sets Mountain Sun apart from the crowd is what it’s willing to do to help out its employees. One need look no further than Tim McMurray, who worked his way up to a Managing Partner in the company after years of working at the brew pub.
When Mountain Sun opened in 1993, the restaurant operations fared well, but business slowed down at night after the kitchen closed and locals began patronizing other bars that have full liquor licenses. If the business was going to succeed, nighttime business needed to improve. McMurray hit the street and helped bring in local bands to perform live at least once a week, and business began to take off. As a result, he moved his way up the corporate ladder until he was able to buy in to the company and also assume the official title as the Talent Buyer.
Growth is encouraged by all of the employees, as Girod explains that all are welcome to learn more about the brewing process by participating in a brew shift:
“One of the really cool things about our company is our brewers like to get involved with the staff and teach them,” Girod said. “People come in who are knowledgeable about beer and are on a beer vacation. If it’s not going to put you in overtime as a staff member you’re welcome to set up a brew shift.”
Despite the many facets of Mountain Sun, the focus is still the beer. And when it comes to the beer, the keyword is “variety.” The seven staple beers (see sidebar) are brewed at Southern Sun, Mountain Sun’s sister pub in South Boulder which opened in 2004 with a larger brewhouse and a grain mill, while the more creative and experimental brews are still whipped up in Mountain Sun’s six-bbl brewhouse.
It would be fair to call Hutchinson and his staff “hop heads,” as some of the establishment’s most popular and successful beers are the pub’s IPAs – such as Fuck Yeah IPA (typically abbreviated as FYIPA for obvious reasons), which is one of the staples at Mountain Sun. However, Mountain Sun is known for its creativity and originality as well.
Perhaps the most notable innovation was Van Diemen, a 10% ABV Black Saison brewed in collaboration with nearby Avery Brewing which featured Tasmanian pepper berries and a spicy yeast strain. Among other worthy creations were the aforementioned Hop Vivant, and Nihilist – a 10% ABV Imperial Stout brewed with tons of roasted malt and orange blossom honey before aging in Cabernet barrels for several months.
Along those lines, Mountain Sun is well known during the winter for Stout Month, which happens every February. Although the seven staples remain on tap, the 13 remaining taps go black with the malty heavyweights of the craft beer scene which draws in visitors from around the country.
“It’s a really fun event that gets people excited about stout, and it’s cool to show the general layperson how much depth there is just within that one style of beer,” Girod said.
With a month of rotating taps that range from well-within-style guidelines to the borders of “extreme,” it’s hard to put a label on a place like Mountain Sun. So just think of it as your living room, except with better beer.