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Nov 23, 2014

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Western gold

By Gregg Smith

Tragedy strikes all too often in the world. Some people never recover, many more stumble through the rest of their lives in a sort of balanced numbness. Cruelty and shock fell even the strongest and brightest, yet now and again a person rises above it to reach their full potential, even in the world of beer.

The story began in 1862 when a 15 year old German boy was suddenly orphaned. Usually the stigma of 'orphan' in 19th century Europe meant dismal prospects. Worse, Germany was still reeling from a period of political unrest. Fortunately the orphan named Adolph Herman Joseph Coors was blessed with a constitution strong beyond the norm.

Born in 1847, Coors was fortunate in having reached an age at which he could secure work. By 1868, with no ties, and enough saved he set out to find a new life. What could it have been like? Imagine the wonder and excitement of an ocean voyage, the loneliness and challenge of facing an unknown land, and the astonishment he felt while traveling the wide open vistas of the still young country called America.

On arrival Coors immediately began a cross country journey. During a stop in Chicago, he accepted a position in a brewery and began an association which would be indistinguishable from beer itself. Chicago was growing rapidly, with inhabitants throwing up buildings as fast as the timber was cut. The quick pace of business, and Chicago's great entrepreneurial spirit, rubbed off on Coors and before long he set his sights on the wide open western sky with its equally open market.

With an eye to business opportunities, Adolph Coors eventually found himself deep in mining country. Locating near mining camps was no accident, it meant access to thirsty miners who's pockets were lined with gold and silver. It also meant railroads which carried out the riches, and on the return trip the trains carried back supplies and beer. Thus Coors settled on Denver as a central area from which he could seek his own liquid gold.

Coors began his trip to wealth as a Denver bottler in 1872, it was the first step of bigger plans. After linking up with a suitable business partner, Jacob Schueler, the two began planning a brewery. Coors previous experience in brewing caused him to seek a good source of water, preferably adjacent to an area with commercial potential. They found it where the melting snow pack ran down the eastern face of the Rockies, among the foot hills north of Denver, and not far from the railroads and mines. Founded in 1873, the lager brewery, located near the tracks of the Colorado Central Railroad, would grow into one of America's largest.

Before long the partners were shipping liquid gold to the mines west of town. Their future appeared assured. Yet with little regard for its promise, Schueler sold out his share to Coors in 1880, the single biggest mistake of Schueler's life.

Lager beer was popular in the west and sales grew. Fighting off the competition of seven other brewers Coors came to dominate the Colorado market and beyond, gathering immense wealth in the process.

Not one to sit idle, Coors continued to refine his brewery. He added artificial refrigeration in 1890. In 1895 he authorized a new brewhouse and followed it with a malting facility in 1898. Everything seemed well, then, unexpectedly, a storm hit.

Prohibition arrived early in Colorado, as it did throughout the Northwest, and voters approved a local option to go dry in 1916. At that time Coors was 69, and at an age when most men would have retired he rose to the challenge. First he developed a version of near beer, then branched into a line of dairy products. In the most successful move of all, the company began producing malted milk and rose to be the third largest supplier in the country.

Adolph Herman Joseph Coors died in 1929, too early to see the repeal of prohibition. With the guiding light gone, the company might have faltered, but under the direction of his son Adolph Jr. business smoothly continued along the course set by the founder.

Well into the 1900's Coors bucked popular trends. They remained a family owned enterprise as most others evolved into corporate entities (the family did tender a public stock offering in 1975 but limited the offering to retain control.)

Surprisingly, the greatest benefit for the company was originally a factor which restricted growth. Coors beer wasn't pasteurized; rather, it was filtered and, to assure the careful handling needed to maintain freshness, the brewery confined distribution to the western states.

When travelers from the east first tried Coors they elevated it to a status of near mystical. Finally, Coors expanded its distribution, but not until the company completed a carefully conceived plan which expanded their own bottling and canning works along with other related businesses such as ceramics, the material used in their filtering process.

Today the orphan would be proud of the company he built. Patience and perseverance was rewarded in the 1990's when Coors reached the number three spot among US brewers. Next time you head for the Rockies open a beer and try to imagine the trip as seen through the eyes of a young German immigrant.

Gregg Smith

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