Flavors of Fort Collins a “visitors” can’t-miss-it list.
Taste all the sweetness, hoppiness, and cherry goodness that Fort Collins has to offer.
By Peter Moore
Death and taxes are said to be unavoidable. Except if you live in Colorado, in which case, add “visitors” to that can’t-miss-it list. Even if you die here, you know everybody will show for the memorial service.
So it was perhaps inevitable that my wife’s sophisticated brother- and sister-in-law from Los Angeles—who never once visited us in Pennsylvania—were quick to propose a trip to Fort Collins, after our move here. These particular visitors were foodies before the term had even been coined, so we prepared to hit the sensory battle stations. We had been entertained by them at their Carmel Valley Ranch, much frequented by Hollywood royalty back in the day. We’re talking Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Esther Williams, and even Uncle Walt Disney, reclining in the same chaise longues where our relatives plied us with martinis and roasted artichokes.
The gourmand gauntlet had been thrown, and we needed to deliver in kind.
Fortunately, we were ready, and so was Fort Collins, with treats of the high-brow, foamy, fruity, and single-source-chocolatey variety.
Elliot’s martini bar
Our first stop with indoorsy visitors is Elliot’s martini bar, on Linden. Elliots pioneered sophisticated drinking here a quarter century ago, back when FoCo was a shot-and-a-beer town. Now they keep their cocktail menu fresh by hosting a biannual competition among their bartenders to see who can invent the most beguiling new slurp. And so I found myself seated at the bar on a recent Sunday afternoon, passing communal cocktails down the line as we evaluated thirteen innovative intoxicants. Hey, somebody has to do it! The winners, soon to appear on Elliot’s summer cocktail menu: The Jalapeno Mango Margarita, made with muddled jalapenos, Blanco tequila, house-made mango simple syrup, and mango juice; the Melon Ballsy, made with house-infused cucumber-melon vodka, cantaloupe and lemon simple syrups, Midori liqueur, and tonic water; and a Colorado Sunset, made with orange-blossom vodka, lemon honey, bitters, and an orange twist—as sweet as the view from our westward facing back deck. I’m only sad our visitors didn’t bring along Rogers, Fairbanks, and Williams, for whom that lineup might sound like “breakfast.”
Our intended Estes Park day dawned sloppy and wet, so it became chocolate and beer day, instead. Yes, in that order; New Belgium tours don’t begin until 11:30AM. So we were lined up with a crowd outside Nuance, on Pine Street, along with two other groups in time for the 11am opening on a random Tuesday. It’s every bit as intoxicating as anything served up at Elliot’s. The co-owner of Nuance, Toby Gadd, took us firmly in hand, pushing us toward tasting menu #1, with single-origin chocolates, meaning (he explained) that they were prepared from beans with a distinct and unique flavor profile, rather than the mongrel makeup of your average Hershey bar. For $4 per person, we received stars of Ghanian, Fijian, Nicaraguan, Venezuelan, and Madagascarian chocolates, along with a jug of water and crackers, for the requisite palate cleansers. We couldn’t agree which was best, so the winner was: chocolate. We toasted our indecision with Nuance sipping chocolate, an espresso cup brimming with half a molten chocolate bar. We were in the joyful heart of 70% cacao darkness by the time we vibrated back out onto Pine Street.
New Belgium Brewery
We needed to come down off of our choc-elation, so we signed up for the 3:30 tour at New Belgium Brewery, on Linden. I had been more of a wine drinker upon moving to Fort Collins, but that’s like living in Liverpool in 1963 and preferring the Rolling Stones. Beer gets in your blood here, so surrender the car keys before anything dangerous happens. Scotty the tour guide took us into the beer-belly of the beast, talking at such a clip that you’d think he was part owner of a coffee brewery, rather than the hoppy kind. He has achieved full nerd-level mastery of the complex process that turns grain and yeast into gold. First stop was the photo montage of old Belgium, where our local brewery sprung from the co-founder’s bicycle tour in the late 1980s. Then upstairs to an enormous room with three giant beer-making tanks that pump out heat and the primordial ooze that is magically transformed into Fat Tire and other stud suds. While Scotty talked, and talked, and talked, we tour-goers were tapping six kegs of New Belgium product—for free! I quickly learned the virtue of the half-pour. Over the course of a 90-minute tour, the risk of growing sloppy hoppy drunk was great. My fondest foamy sample: New Belgium’s first beer—Abbey—was built on a Belgian beer the founders quaffed in the Olde Country. History, with a pleasing head! And Scotty taught us how to guarantee that head: If you spritz a beer stein with water, then shake it out, the H2O residue prevents beer bubbles from forming a foamy overload. After this tour, I’ll never tilt a glass the same way again.
Colorado Cherry Company
All of which brings us to the climax of our tasting tour of Fort Collins. We left town for it, actually. Pie is one of the very best reasons to drive to Estes Park (aside from that RMNP thing they have going there). A few miles into Big Thompson Canyon, up Route 34, you’ll come around a bend and encounter the Colorado Cherry Company. The business got its start 90 years ago in more likely cherry country—Wisconsin—but a series of family relocations placed them square in the path of traffic headed toward Trail Ridge Road. We started with pocket pies—loaded with gooey, tart, Montmorency cherries—on the premises; do not, under any circumstances, attempt to drive while eating one, or you’ll wear what you should be savoring. The pocket pies were so good that we picked up a whole pie for home degustation. It weighed three pounds, and it was all gone by the time our visitors left for the airport, 24 hours later.
You know, of course, that Main Street Fort Collins was the model for Main Street, Disneyland. If Uncle Walt had actually come here, like our recent California visitors, to taste all the sweetness, hoppiness, and cherry goodness that Fort Collins has to offer, he might have stayed, and located his fantasy park here.
Thank goodness he didn’t. We can keep it for ourselves.