The seed was unknowingly planted during a 2017 trip to Denver. On my last day in town, I happened to meet Emily Hutto, founder of craft beer PR firm RadCraft Co-op, at Station 26 Brewing Co. I hung out with her crew for the afternoon before scuttling off to the airport and boarding my flight back to Chicago. We’ve kept in touch ever since via social media, plus the occasional text whenever we thought our paths might cross.
Then, in early August, an email hit my inbox. Ska Brewing is having a 23rd anniversary party in Durango, it said. Would I possibly be interested in attending?
Yes, yes I would.
My plane lands at Durango—La Plata County Airport on a beautiful Thursday morning in early September. I take a deep breath as I deplane and immediately feel different, lighter. Given the expanse of rugged earth, clear blue sky, and bright sun, the experience already feels different from my usual craft-brewery visit in Insert-Major-Metropolitan-City-Here.
[Disclosure: The Durango Area Tourism Office paid for our writer’s airfare for this piece. We’re thankful for their help in making our Colorado beer coverage more comprehensive.]
Here’s what I knew about Ska Brewing, prior to my arrival: its IPA, Modus Hoperandi, was one of the first craft cans I encountered when I moved to Chicago some 10 years ago. I even made fried cheese curds with it. What I didn’t know was how integral the brewery is, not only to Durango, but to the entire Four Corners region.
“We've got our own little bubble down here,” says Ska Brewing co-founder Dave Thibodeau when I meet him. “It's been good for us.”
Driving in downtown Durango, Ska’s recognizable, checkered logo blazes neon in the windows of the city’s bars and restaurants. We’re out for a few pre-dinner beers, and I quickly notice that each brewery serves Ska’s beer right next to its own. This type of connection means more when you’re living in a remote, sparsely populated area. I’ll eventually learn that it’s a running thread within the community.
Dinner is at Ore House, where Ska is joined on the beer list by a handful of breweries hailing from New Mexico and nearby Telluride. Hutto points out beers from La Cumbre Brewing Co. and Marble Brewery, both out of Albuquerque and both set to attend Ska’s anniversary party.
It’s post-dinner and we’re looking for a nightcap. “Orio’s is a popular spot. They still let you smoke inside,” Hutto informs me.
We opt to keep walking and find ourselves staring into Colorado Pongas, where glorious rap music blares from open windows and coeds spill out onto the sidewalk. It looks lit in that college type of way, which unfortunately doesn’t jive with the geriatric vibes I’ve slowly grown into.
Finally, we decide on what appears to be a more sensible option—Joel’s Bar, right next door—and seat ourselves at a high-top in the corner. Hutto, her RadCraft coworker Aaron, and I all opt for pints of Ska’s Mexican Logger (a Lager, of course) to end the night.
“I can’t wait to take you up to the catwalk at Ska tomorrow,” Hutto says as we finish our beer. “I’ll show you exactly where I was when I decided I needed to move here, to Durango.”
She had made the move from Denver just a few weeks prior to my visit. I’m curious to see what might cause someone to uproot their life and relocate. It had to be worth it, right?
After a morning of hiking the Animas River Trail, my partner Bria and I head to the brewery. We arrive a bit early, and I begin taking pictures while shrugging off the familiar side-eye you get when you walk around with a camera attached to your face and without proper introduction. Hutto finds us outside and immediately gets us set up in the taproom with a beer.
Ska’s taproom is modest but lived-in, which gives it that all-too-comfortable feeling: you could spend an afternoon at one of its tables and lose all track of time. People start trickling in to grab lunch from the dedicated food counter at the end of the room. Thibodeau joins us and, after introductions, we get to talking about how things are going for Ska after 23 years in the business.
Built for distribution, Ska Brewing is currently hovering around the 34,000-barrel mark. Thibodeau sees its current size as a catch-22: it lacks the leverage to throw money around like bigger regional breweries, but is big enough to need its beer to sell.
“If we opened today, we’d just focus on our tasting room. But we’re not set up that way,” he explains. “But what do you do to stay relevant in the other markets? You have to make a splash, but at the same time, they need to truly sell.”
Every beer still makes a difference to the brewery and its finances, which means nothing goes to waste. A botched batch of Brut IPA was turned into a Pineapple IPA, which people seemed to like, according to Thibodeau. But it likely won’t become a recipe Ska sticks with. Here, one-offs are few and far between.
“We’re this bad size!” Thibodeau laughs. “I think authenticity is the thing we have, you know? We just do what we enjoy doing and cross our fingers.”
Our glasses are empty and Thibodeau has a few loose ends to attend to before the night’s VIP party (the anniversary weekend’s kick-off event). As he disappears into the brewery, the three of us head off for a tour around the facilities. We see the familiar sights: stainless tanks and kettles, canning lines, a pilot system. Finally, we climb up to the catwalk that juts off the side of the brewery. It overlooks the parking lot and patio, as well as the stunning backdrop of the not-so-distant mountains.
“This is exactly where I was standing, having a beer with Dave, when I decided I needed to move here,” says Hutto.
Looking out at the vastness, it’s no wonder. I can’t stop taking pictures of the exact same view, mostly because I want to capture the way it makes me feel in the moment. I almost decide to move to Durango myself.
I can’t stand around daydreaming for too long, though: it’s just about time to switch to party mode. Tonight, Ska’s new Brut IPA, Moral Panic, is making its debut.
By the time we arrive at the industry pre-party, attendees are already lined up to get a taste of the new beer. Thibodeau pulls up on his fat bike alongside Colorado Brewers Guild GM Steve Kurowski. It seems folks from all over Colorado make the trek to Durango to celebrate for the weekend.
Moral Panic is one of the rare experiments that’ll make it to distribution in cans. It’s a clean, crisp, and welcome palate cleanser—especially following a meal.
“Galaxy is the main hop. It’s crazy because you get that initial Galaxy hop aroma. But because it ferments all the way out, it doesn’t have that lingering bitterness,” Thibodeau explains. “It just finishes and you’re like, ‘I can have another one!’”
I do have a second. But because the next day has an even busier schedule planned, I head back to my Airbnb on the outskirts of town after soaking in the last remnants of daylight.
I’m herded into the back of a Volkswagen van with a slew of other writers and photographers, and we’re toted off to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Our destination is 39 miles north of Durango in Silverton, Colorado. Silverton, population ~637, is a former silver-mining camp, now a National Historic Landmark. The train was given the same designation, and serves as Silverton’s main economic driver via tourism.
We pull up to thick clouds of smoke, which billow from the train’s chimneys. Narrow Gauge workers are busy shoveling coal, stoking the fire, and getting ready for the day’s trip. They entertain our requests for pictures, which is lucky because the train makes quite an impression when juxtaposed with the staggering mountains surrounding us.
Once aboard, the tracks disappear into a narrow crevice before emerging from a massive canyon. We spend the next two-and-a-half hours being treated to incredible view after incredible view of mountains, valleys, and waterways before pulling into a clearing where Silverton materializes like a magic trick.
Silverton is a strange place, reminiscent of Old Western films. Dirt roads are lined with saloon-style buildings and general stores. People zip by on four-wheelers and motocross bikes. Mountains replace the sky and the horizon is non-existent. The group walks around for a short time. I grab a Kölsch from Golden Block Brewery, one of two breweries in town, and head next door to order a burger from The Grand, a restaurant and saloon connected to a hotel.
Soon we pile into the van and head back to Durango, but our short stay is exactly the type of trip Silverton relies on to survive. The San Juan National Forest caught fire earlier in the summer of 2018, just prior to my visit. The railway sustained significant damage, as did U.S Route 55, which leads to Silverton, effectively strangling economic activity and cutting the town off from everything.
Community leaders leapt into action, including Ska. In collaboration with Oskar Blues and other beer makers across the state, $28,000 was raised as part of the “Save the San Juan Saturday” event. Participants donated the equivalent of a keg of beer to almost every on-premise account in Durango and Silverton, and two cases of beer to each off-premise account, in order to support beer tourism and raise awareness of fire-relief efforts. Overall, between those efforts as well as non-beer related fundraising, $416,000 was raised to help furloughed workers, evacuees, and small businesses and non-profit organizations.
Ska’s parking lot has transformed into a hall of beer tents, and 35 breweries have set up, all already pouring beer. Attendees have donned their favorite black-and-white checkerboard shoes and outfits, cut-off vests and studded belts. I even see a few impressive mohawks sticking out above the crowd.
The vibe at first is fairly chill. Folks make the most of the late-afternoon sun, grab a bite to eat, mingle and begin to get buzzed. Grilled turkey legs are slathered in barbecue sauce after they come off the hot coals. Corn on the cob follows shortly after. I grab one of each and only have a few bites before my partner snags my food and snarls at attempts to get it back. I guess I’m going to survive the evening without a proper base layer.
For now, the stage is bare. A playlist blares from speakers while attendees nurse their beers and smoke pot on the adjacent grassy knoll. The pungent odor is pervasive, delicious, and calming as the sun begins its descent behind the mountains.
The music starts in earnest and folks get to skankin’. Fittingly dressed in black, fringed habits, the Nuns of Brixton begin their set as attendees gather around the front of the stage. The band implores early-comers to shout the lyrics along with them, and the lead singer holds the microphone out to a group who look more than ready to rumble. Nuns of Brixton are a Clash cover band, which means all the mohawks are screaming along in tandem.
Music has always been a big focus of Ska’s anniversary parties. Bands big and small, ska (Fishbone, The Skatalites, and Reel Big Fish) and non-ska (Supersuckers, The Denverites), have been invited to play over the years. Less Than Jake was set to headline in 2017, but Hurricane Irma put the kibosh on the gig. Each year, Thibodeau likes to bring in a mix of acts.
“We’ve had some traditional ska, some third-wave ska, some two-tone ska. Now we've got some East-Coast ska coming,” he beams.
Slowly, the crowd migrates away from the beer tents, grassy hill, and taproom, and congregates around the stage. Meanwhile, new arrivals continue to pour into Ska’s parking lot. Before I know it, the entire space is packed. After the Nuns of Brixton’s set, the Doped Up Dollies hop on stage and warm up the crowd before the headliners: Big D and the Kids Table.
“They do Warped Tour a lot. They don't play out West other than that, so it’s fun to have them,” says Thibodeau. “There's all these little connections [between music acts]. Usually, whoever we talk to has heard about it and knows about us.”
Big D knows how to work a crowd, and the band couldn’t have done a better job at getting the party amped up with its ripping power chords and defiant lyrics. The music seems so stark against the backdrop of the Colorado sunset, which slowly fades from vivid oranges to soft purples before lapsing into complete darkness.
Once the show is over, folks linger. They sing, they finish their drinks, they laugh as they’re herded to the exits. It’s clear that this party is something Durango locals and attending brewers look forward to each year.
“Ska has been a great distribution partner to us and puts on one hell of a party,” says brewmaster Jeff Erway of Albuquerque’s La Cumbre. “Thibodeau is a great guy that truly believes in beer in a way only someone that started their brewery in the ’90s could—unabashedly.”
Marble Brewing, also out of Albuquerque, sends employees to Ska’s party each year as a reward, according to seniority. Nate Jackson, Marble’s packaging manager and overall fix-it guy, tells me the event is one of his favorite festivals. (He’s attended many times.) His words of admiration about Ska nicely sum up the enduring appeal of this unique Durango business.
“I still remember drinking my first True Blonde at a bar downtown,” he tells me. “After that, I had three more. They’ve made a staple of quality throughout the years, and are the point to aim for for any brewery getting into the game.”