Monday, April 9, 2012

Collaborative ale honors memory of beloved Brewers Association figure

Tucked inside a hillside in Sunshine Canyon in Boulder County, thousands of rare beers from around the globe line the rock walls of an old gold mine.

While a gold mine filled with rare beers from around the world may sound like a dream, it was reality for Danny Williams, an iconic character in the state's beer scene who died Jan. 23 of pancreatic cancer.

He was 52.

Williams worked with the Brewers Association for 12 years, in part, as the beer service manager, gathering beers from brewers across the country for the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup each year.

The unique job put Williams in charge of thousands of elite beers from around the country, so he started stashing some of the extra bottles in an inactive gold mine he owned in Sunshine Canyon.

Throughout the years, the mine and the beer parties he hosted there became legendary throughout the brewing industry.

Brewers started sending their beers to Williams to keep on hand in the mine, which was an ideal temperature for storing beers.

Today, the mine is stocked with more than 4,000 unique beers.

Williams left behind more than just a mine full of beer.

He left a legacy that has craft brewers across the country, including four Fort Collins breweries, rallying to save the mine by doing what they do best — making beer.

There's beer in that 'thar hill

Williams' gold mine beer parties were legendary throughout the craft beer world.

Lauren Salazar, New Belgium Brewing Co.'s sensory specialist, met Williams while working as a judge at the Great American Beer Festival.

Throughout the years, she became close friends with Williams, often dropping in on him at the mine. "I would just drop in on a Friday afternoon, walk in (the mine) and there are all the most amazing beers you have ever seen," she said. "They are all just at your disposal; nothing was off limits in there. It would be these beers that people covet."

The mine, one of the biggest mining claims in the 1880s, is lined with shelves and rows and rows of beer.

Williams' 29-year-old son, Josh Williams, plans to keep the mine open for beer storage and parties.

Perhaps the gold mine was best known for its Belgium Beer Festival each May that attracted industry elite from throughout the country.

Chad Yakobson, owner and brewer of Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, who attended the party last year, said it was fun to ferret out beers that Williams hid in the mine, including some of Crooked Stave's early releases.

Josh Williams plans to move into the house where his father lived on the property and maintain the mine. He said his father's last wishes were have his sons keep the mine in the family.

With Williams' death, there were costs associated with the property that the family has to cover.

Salazar jumped into action, sending an email to a brewing forum to see if people were interested in a collaborative brews in Williams' honor.

More than 20 brewers from around the country responded, and Salazar has been helping coordinate the efforts and connecting different brewers. In Fort Collins, Crooked Stave, Funkwerks, New Belgium Brewing Co., Odell Brewing Co. along with Durango's Ska Brewing Company joined forces to brew Danny's Goldmine Ale.

All proceeds from the beer will go toward keeping the mine open.

'This is a nice beer'

Salazar recalled how Williams would pick up a beer with such reverence and say, "Ah, this is a nice beer," when walking through the mine.

That phrase became the tagline for the beer that the local brewers brewed last week at Funkwerks.

"Danny didn't like one style of beer," she said. "When we went to make the beer, we just were thinking of something bigger you could pull out of the mine a couple years later."

The beer, which will be released to the public in the next couple months, is a dark Belgium-style ale with a 10 percent alcohol by volume.

The collaborative beers that are completed in Williams honor will all go on tap at the Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego in April and May.

Brad Lincoln, co-owner of Funkwerks, where the beer was brewed, said Salazar introduced him to Williams, who immediately took an interest in what the niche Saison brewery was doing.

"He liked beer so much, and this is kind of our way to say thank you to him," Lincoln said.

Josh Williams said it is amazing to see the impact his father had.

With brewers around the country rallying on his behalf, Josh Williams said he appreciates the generosity and the brewers' respect for his father.

"He was very best friends with several of them. Lauren, I've known her since before I could drink beer," Josh Williams said. "Every year, we did a special Belgium-only drinking beer party, so many of those brewers have been to that party."

Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, met Williams while working for Greenpeace in 1990. At that time, Williams was looking to relocate and Gatza pointed him toward Colorado.

A home brewer of 20 years, Williams was thrilled by the brewing culture he found in Colorado. In 1995, he started working as a Great American Beer Festival volunteer before joining as a contract worker in 2000. In 2001, he bought the gold mine and started stockpiling beer.

The fact that brewers are making beer in his memory would have made Williams laugh, Gatza said.

"He would have been honored and thought it was really funny," he said.

"He would have looked at the picture (on the label) and said, 'I don't look like that. Who is that guy with gray hair?'"

The black beer label with gold text has an image of a smiling Williams. That smile is sure to echo off the walls of the mine for years to come.

"Danny had this way of making everyone feel super special and loved," Salazar said. "Every time I was around him, I just felt happier and less stressed out."

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