Mountain Sun, craft beer + feeling like a friend

Boulder’s feel-good, quintessential brewpub turns 25 this year

By Paul Hagey Aug 10 2018

Feature image: Mountain Sun Pearl Street vibe. Photo: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly.

It’s another buzzing day at Mountain Sun’s flagship brewpub on Pearl Street Mall’s East End.

“I wanted to make a space where hippies felt welcome,” says Mountain Sun founder Kevin Daly, who launched the Boulder icon in 1993. “We wanted a warm, inviting atmosphere.”

A Dead Head who sold burritos outside of Grateful Dead concerts in the 90s, Kevin has undeniably succeeded. The space has the lived-in comfort of both hippie nostalgia and a soft “yes” to Jimi Hendrix’ question “Are you experienced?”

Mountain Sun Founder Kevin Daly. Photo: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly.

The lack of TVs and shelves loaded with books and games add to the comfortable living-room flavor.

Since launching a six-barrel operation on Pearl in October 1993, Mountain Sun has expanded into a multi-brewpub operation: it opened 10-barrel Southern Sun in South Boulder in 2002, Vine Street Pub in Denver’s uptown neighborhood in 2008, a pizza joint under Southern Sun in 2012 and Longs Peak Pub in Longmont in 2014.

Though craft beer is a big component of Mountain Sun, it was not the sole founding idea. Rather its ethos has always been a marriage of tipsy brew, good comfort food and a welcoming atmosphere.

Mountain Sun Brewer Davis Brown shows some barley at Southern Sun.

Boulder has changed a lot since opening day. Once a reflection of the crusty Boulder ethos, Mountain Sun now represents its hippie past, a relic. “People come here to see what it was like before,” Kevin says. Also for the good food and beer.

Mountain Sun celebrates its 25th anniversary with Rocky Grass-, craft beer-powered festival at Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons on Sat. and Sun., Sept. 14-15. (Tickets with camping for $150, without camping $110).

About the craft beer

With Vine Street Pub as the major brew horse, the group produces 3,600 barrels of beer, in between 120 and 150 styles, each year. Last year it did 124.

John Fiorilli. Photo: Mountain Sun.

But you’ll have to walk into one of its five locations if you want to taste its beer. Each location has about 20 beers on tap. It does not do any distributing, but customers can take home growlers of beer from Southern Sun and Vine Street Brewery as a Colorado law restricts takeaway beer sales at breweries to just what’s made onsite.

Like mountains of other craft breweries, Mountain Sun does a lot of hop-forward beers, says Mountain Sun Director of Brewing Operations John Fiorilli, who started with Mountain Sun in 2000 left and came back just as Vine Street was getting built.

Fifteen years ago, hoppy, unfiltered beers were for the beer nerd. Now no one’s intimidated by them; indeed they’re hunting them. The mashup of Front Range immigrants brings a vibrant mix of beer tastes, experiences and wants.

Along with experimentation, Fiorilli says Mountain Sun’s beer mantra mirrors its founding vibe: keep it natural. All beers are unfiltered, pure, natural. Like other smaller breweries, Mountain Sun does its brewing by hand as opposed to the machine-dominating systems at larger breweries such as Avery Brewing Company and Upslope.

Walk in and feel like a friend

Sun Managing Partner Paul Nashak at Southern Sun. Photo: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly.

Mountain Sun, like every other Front Range craft beer establishment, is facing stiff competition, on all fronts — from restaurants, brew pubs and taprooms. The taproom model has skyrocketed in recent years. It’s the gateway to early revenue for new breweries — they make a taproom and attempt to lure a foodtruck to come by.

The explosion of these food truck-taproom pairings has definitely upped the competition, says Mountain Sun Managing Partner Paul Nashak, who started as a cook at Mountain Sun in 1995 and worked his way up.

Year one to 20, Mountain Sun didn’t advertise, he says. But with over 250 restaurants opened on the Front Range in the last year, competition has become fierce. The company’s upping efficiency. Aside from focusing on honing its warm light on customers in its four walls, it is getting the word out through print media, social media and Instagram.

“You can’t sit back,” Nashak says, talking about the required vigilance of the modern craft beer and restaurant business in Boulder.

The company leans into culture, a differentiator. It has over 360 employees and shares profits with those who stay with the firm for a minimum amount of time. “We want to elevate customers when they come in,” he adds. He wants them to walk in and feel like a friend.

Over two decades in, that endless, bright quest is what keeps him and the company passionate about their people-serving careers: “I’m interested in changing people’s days,” Nashak said.

Kevin Daly also preaches that mantra. There’s more of a need to present an alternative way to the world than ever, he says.

Paul Hagey

Paul Hagey is BLDRfly’s founder and editor. When not wrangling video, audio and words in the name of story, he’s riding his mountain bike, trail running and hanging with his awesome wife Jen and their young daughter.