Soulcraft Brewing in Salida, Colorado is one of those unique places where the location is just as good as the postcard picture indicates. The town sits on the banks of the Arkansas River and is nestled in a valley surrounded by high mountains and snowcapped peaks. Despite the mountainous location and high altitude, Salida is surprisingly warm most of the year. While the winters do bring snow and cold weather, the geographic location of the town means that there is lots of sunshine, and summers are warm but generally not overly hot. In short, Soulcraft Brewing is a little slice of mountain paradise.
A History of Revitalizing a Town
While Soulcraft opened in November of 2016, the brewery has deeper roots in the Salida region.
Soulcraft is an independent business, but part of its founding was to take over brewing duties for the famous Salida Amicas Pizza and Microbrewery. Amicas opened in 1994 as part of a Colorado chain of pizza brewpubs called Il Vicino. In 2002, the chain separated from the chain owners in Salida and became Amicas. Despite the several name changes and moves, Amicas is still the heart of Salida. If a visitor asks where to go, the answer is inevitably to try Amicas.
In many ways, Amicas helped to revitalize the town of Salida over the decades. Salida, like many mining towns in the Colorado mountains, had become stagnant in the 1990s, as mines closed and jobs moved out of the area. The owners and brewers at Amicas loved the rugged outdoors. Most of the staff worked at Amicas to fund their wild Colorado lifestyles. From skiing, mountain biking, and river rafting, the town of Salida was an affordable, quiet town. What was lacking was a place for locals to gather around a good glass of beer.
Downtown Salida was all but boarded up, most of the businesses moving to Highway 50 on the outskirts of town. What remained of downtown Salida was a handful of cowboy bars and a pile of tires and garbage at the end of Main Street. “It was a tough time,” explains Mountain Mail Newspaper Owner Merle Baranczyk. “Rafters on the river saw piles of garbage, tires, and old appliances when they floated past Salida…”
The staff at Amicas was there to enjoy the Colorado mountains, and their adventures showed in their work. For example, a rafting paddle was used for decades to stir the mash of Amicas beer. At several points, Amicas organized mountain bike races and sponsored rafting competitions in the town. Over time, people from the Colorado Front Range, desperate to get out of the city and busy ski resorts, discovered the events, and of course, the beer Amicas provided. In many respects, Amicas helped to revitalize Salida by offering locals and visitors a comfortable place to have a pint and a pie.
Salida boomed with the rest of Colorado in the mid to late 2000s, and Amicas needed an ample space on Main Street. The downtown area of Salida had gone through a transformation. The trash on the river was cleaned up. The boarded-up buildings now housed shops, coffee cafes, and restaurants. And Amicas burst at the seams.
The decision was made that the brewery part of the business needed to be spun-off. Head brewer Mike LaCroix, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, took co-ownership of the new company. The goal was to brew Amicas beers still, but with an expanded brewing capacity, Soulcraft brewing would have its line of beers as well.
A moment has to be taken to understand the depth of LaCroix’s brewing experience. After graduation from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland, Oregon, in the early 1990s, he immediately started brewing. First, he joined the Silver Plume Brewing Company in 1992, but the experience only lasted “an hour and a half,” as he now jokes. He moved onto the notable Colorado Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs for several years. When he returned to Colorado after a few years of kicking dusty trails, he joined the “second largest brewery in Golden” (The joke is that the world’s largest single-site brewery is also located in Golden, Colorado, which brews Coors). Golden City Brewery is one of those wonderfully funky breweries that everyone should stop and visit (please skip the mega Coors Brewery).
In 2002, he joined Amicas. In an interview, he explained why he wanted to take on the massive project of Soulcraft Brewing: “I outgrew Amicas. I was brewing in 600 square feet on old dairy equipment and knew I wanted to get back into production again.” The name Soulcraft came from a hardcore band, Bad Brains, and the brewery name is a nod to their music: Soulcraft. “The name is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, years in fact. The name initially came from a Bad Brains song, Soulcraft. To me, the song and lyrics represent a way of life, being grateful, and striving to be your best.”
Building a Great Brewery
LaCroix partnered with a local contractor, former Wyoming rancher, green-thumb, and all-round handyman, Tom Price. While Price operates outside of the spotlight most of the time, he keeps the building humming and has built a food truck that sits on Soulcraft’s fantastic patio. When not working on the building or in his garden, he can be found doing quality control in the tasting room at the end of the day.
Soulcraft hosts 16 beers on tap with a brewery capable of 5,000 barrels per year. Many of their flagship beers are canned and distributed within the Southern Colorado Region. The tasting room is a large, welcoming room with a stage for the many bands that play at Soulcraft. The large patio faces the sun and the mountains, with the food truck serving tasty food that pairs well with the beer menu.
When LaCroix headed up the small Amicas brewery, he focused on easily drinkable beers that most people would enjoy. But with an expanded taproom, he could now explore more complex flavors that still concentrated on balance while bringing forward more prominent flavors.
It would hardly be a Colorado brewery if there was not a rendition of the favorite IPAs that the state has become famous for in beer lore. Perhaps the flagship IPA is the Low Viz Hazy Pale Ale that has an ABV of 6 percent. The beer has a classic and refreshing combination of Cascade, Citra, and Simcoe hops. These combined allow for the fresh, almost juicy flavor of the beer while minimizing any prominent bitterness on the pallet. The beer gets the hazy in its name thanks to the loosely filtered nature that allows hop oils and proteins to maintain the haze.
For the avid IPA drinker, there is the favorite Centi-Mental IPA. This beer carries a strong ABV of 7 percent and an IBU score of 90. The Cascade and Centennial hops create a big citrus profile that balances well with the rich malt.
Stouts and Browns
Salida is a ski town in the Colorado Mountains, and when it is cold, it is nice to turn to rich, malty flavored beer. The Coconut Milk Stout is an interesting turn on the milk stouts that have also become popular in Colorado — brewed with the traditional lactose that adds sweetness and creaminess that balances the heavy roasted malts. The Coconut addition ties the whole beer together with intense flavor and aroma of chocolate and coconut. It is an easy drinker with an ABV of 4.6 percent.
One way to tell the quality of a microbrewery is to see if they carry a brown ale, and then see how well that brown turns out. Browns are almost a litmus test of skill in brewing. Of course, Soulcraft blows it away with their several versions of the Joe Brown and the Bon Ton Brown, all worthy of a stop to the brewery. The subtle manipulation of the heavily roasted malts without undo sweetness from the unfermented sugars is a testament to the attention to detail of the brewery.
In a similar vein, the Gold Crown ESP is another of the rare but excellent traditional English pub ale that is all too rare in the microbrewing revolution in the United States. This beer is placed on a nitro tap, which adds to the exceeded expectations.
Other Beers of Note
There is not a bad beer that comes off the taps in Soulcraft. The company continually experiments with different recipes and balances, but they never let a mediocre beer hit the tasting room. The All-Mountain Amber is one of those easy drinkers that LaCroix has become known for. The Moon Itcher Helles is a refreshing take on the classic light style lager that goes down refreshing and easy on hot days. The X-Ray IPA rounds out a great lineup of IPAs the brewery carries.
For more information on Soulcraft, visit their website at soulcraftbeer.com.