Crystal Springs Brewing Company Was a Major Lager Producer

Long before scores of craft brewers opened shop in Boulder County and The Great American Beer Festival became the beer event of the year, early European settlers made do with hard spirits. Beer was hard to come by, because it tended to spoil in transit to Colorado. That was until enterprising locals decided to import the necessary ingredients—hops and yeast—and start brewing their own beer.

Sketch of the old Crystal Springs Brewing property by Joseph Bevier Sturtevant, aka “Rocky Mountain Joe.” The house in the lower-right corner of the drawing, which can still be seen today, is where unmarried brewery employees lived. (photos courtesy the Carnegie Library for Local History/Museum of Boulder collection)

Little is known about Boulder’s first brewery, opened in 1866 somewhere on Water Street (now Canyon Boulevard) by Austrian immigrant William Gottlieb Cook. But as an unknown Rocky Mountain News correspondent remarked in 1867: “In Boulder, life is yet perceptible, which is altogether owing to Billy Cook’s brewing.”

Cook moved on to saloon-keeping a few years later, opened Cook’s Restaurant, and died in 1919. Life stayed perceptible with the debut of the Boulder City Brewery in 1876, founded by German immigrants and brothers-in-law Frank Weisenhorn and Charles Voegtle, both about age 37 at the time.

Situated on the 900 block of Arapahoe Avenue, on the sloping south side of Boulder Creek, the property had the advantage of a spring, unfouled by whatever people chose to dump in the public waterway. Advertisements emphasized “Denver prices” without the additional expense of horse-drawn transport from Denver: $2.75 for a keg, $1.50 per half keg and $2 for a case of a dozen bottles.

Voegtle opted out to become a fruit grower around 1888, and died in 1917. Weisenhorn sold the business in 1891 to a local group, and was kept on as president. Voegtle’s name can still be seen on the building that houses the prAna clothing store, on the northwest corner of Broadway Avenue and Pearl Street.

By 1892, the sprawling Boulder City Brewery property had a beer garden, grape arbors, artificial lake, and ice-making equipment, which enabled it to offer the novelty of “clear, clean and wholesome ice” for sale, even in summer. A national four-year economic depression may have been why the company fell into debt and wound up under the ownership of Boulder’s First National Bank in 1896. Crystal Springs Brewing and Ice Company incorporated on Sept. 8, 1897, with a capital stock of $150,000.

In 1901, it was sold to Illinois entrepreneurs Samuel Pells and Isidor M. Lobenstein and was producing 6,000 barrels of lager, as opposed to the 1,000 barrels it produced when it was established. Silent partner Lobenstein stayed east and died around 1950. Pells, manager of 14 breweries for the United Breweries Company before the purchase, moved his family to Boulder.

Crystal Springs Brewing and Ice Company was the second-largest manufacturing business in Boulder in 1907, producing $125,000 worth of goods, according to the Western Investors Review. (The top manufacturer was the Boulder mill and elevator, which sold flour and feed that year for $350,000, bringing Boulder’s manufacturing sales that year to nearly a cool million.) In 1908, Crystal Springs Brewing and Ice Company was one of six brewers in Colorado, including Adolph Coors in Golden, according to the proceedings of that year’s convention of the United States Brewers Foundation.

The Boulder-brewed beer became an instrumental part of another local pastime: Taking a train up the Switzerland Trail for a picnic and the “sublime mountain scenery,” according to train ads at the time. Passenger service on the narrow-gauge train started in 1898 and was in full force in 1909, when, to stave off bankruptcy, the company started themed outings (wildflower excursions, moonlight excursions, Sunday excursions) to attract passengers. The trains were famously loaded with kegs of beer packed in snow in winter and ice in summer, and traveled up Fourmile Canyon to Sunset before heading to the popular Mount Alto picnic area. The train traveled through Gold Hill and Ward, going as far as Eldora, before heading back. The beer-and-picnic train excursions would end in July 1919, when the tracks were washed out by floods.

In the meantime, the Temperance Movement had gained momentum during the last part of the 19th century, in part due to the high amounts of alcohol consumed at the time—nearly three times the amount we drink today. Boulder County’s reform-minded citizens were early adopters of the temperance mindset and voted in 1907 to shutter the saloons.
Crystal Springs Brewing was allowed to continue sales for private consumption. The brewery continued to deliver ice and beer to households, saloons and hotels via horse-drawn wagon for two more years. Incidentally, Charles Horn, older brother of Western legend Tom Horn, was one of the teamsters. Following the Wyoming execution of Tom for murder in 1903, Charles buried his brother in Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery. Charles was also laid to rest there in 1930.

Crystal Springs Brewing also sold ice, which was delivered in wagons. (photos courtesy the Carnegie Library for Local History/Museum of Boulder collection)

Crystal Springs Brewing didn’t last long in a dry city. In 1909, its machinery was sold to Charles O’Connor, who moved it to Denver. The whole state went dry in 1916, and Prohibition became national law in 1920. That same year, a bulletin by the Colorado Geological Society referred to the spring between Arapahoe and Marine streets as the “site of the old Crystal Springs brewery.”

The Pells eventually moved to Denver, where Samuel died in 1929. Frank Weisenhorn moved first to Denver, then to California. He died in San Francisco in 1921, the same year that fire destroyed the abandoned buildings of Crystal Springs Brewing and Ice Company.
All that remains today is a house once used to board unmarried brewery employees
at 952 Arapahoe. The lake was filled in and covered by a parking lot. The spring today supports a small rainbow cutthroat trout farm owned by the Boulder Fish and Game Club, a local volunteer organization since 1908. The club purchased about an acre of the old property at the corner of Lincoln Place and Arapahoe in 1927.

Beer would take a back seat until Boulder finally turned “wet” in 1967 (even though Prohibition ended in 1933) and Charlie Papazian inspired a generation of home-based and small brewers to revive the European tradition. More than 90 years after the original Crystal Springs Brewery closed, retired Boulder High instrumental music teacher Tom “Doc” Horst, at the suggestion of fellow Boulder High teacher and local history buff Rick Sinner, revived the old Crystal Springs Brewing label. And so the past was reborn on May 13, 2010, in the Horsts’ Sunshine Canyon garage.

Crystal Springs now has about 13 labels for different brews, servicing between 100 to 150 commercial accounts, including local liquor stores and restaurants. About half a dozen of those labels can be sipped exclusively at two Louisville taprooms. Horst has re-created the original Wuerz-burger lager brewed at Crystal Springs Brewing, as well as a number of different styles of beer that the original brewery produced, based on labels he and Sinner have collected over the years.

If it seems like Boulder’s second brewery is no longer part of the city’s history, Horst points out that most of Crystal Springs Brewing accounts are in Boulder, still helping to keep life perceptible.