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Chris Thibodeau pours hops into a beer kettle at Strange Craft Beer Company, as Rich Van Gilder, left, looks on.

How can beer save your life?

Connection through brew, locally and globally, helped an Air Force veteran discover a cure for what ales you

August 14, 2018

By Cory Phare

The stress from Chris Thibodeau’s lines of work was taking its toll.

He’d had borderline hypertension for a long time, following a 23-year career in the Air Force with five years as a defense contractor and a brief stint in health care. To blaze a new path, he started as a nontraditional student at Metropolitan State University of Denver; the stress followed, however, as his wife remarked on how he seemed frustrated one day.

“I told her that the classes were getting to me,” Thibodeau said. “Then she asked, ‘Why don’t you do something you enjoy?’”

So the next day, the brewing operations senior changed his major – and, unwittingly, his health.

“Brewing is such a relaxing atmosphere,” he said. “It’s low-stress, plus I’m doing something I truly love. And my blood pressure is normal, which it hadn’t been in over 20 years.

“My wife and I like to say that getting into beer saved my life.”

From left to right, MSU Denver student Rich Van Gilder, alum Marco Olivo, professor Scott Kerkmans and student Chris Thibodeau talk beer at Strange Craft Beer Company on Aug. 1, 2018. Photo by Alyson McClaran
From left to right, MSU Denver student Rich Van Gilder, alum Marco Olivo, professor Scott Kerkmans and student Chris Thibodeau talk beer at Strange Craft Beer Company on Aug. 1, 2018. Photo by Alyson McClaran

It’s a love that spans years – and the Atlantic Ocean.

When Thibodeau was a new enlistee in 1986, his first assignment was to a small base in Suffolk, England, north of London. Enterprising as they were, he and his fellow airmen soon discovered Greene King brewing, a staple English ale, at a local watering hole.

And, as this particular pub was on the National Historic List for England, keeping to tradition was key: A sunken beer cellar, along with the lack of carbon dioxide in the brews, ensured that the establishment met the qualifiers required for members of the Campaign for Real Ale.

“The barrels were up on racks; they’d pull the vent peg, twist the spigot, and beer would flow straight out by gravity,” Thibodeau recalled. “It doesn’t get any cleaner than that in serving an ale.”

Marco Olivo, right, works on a new beer recipe as Tivoli head brewer Charles Koller, left, and Strange Craft Brewing Company founder/head brewer Tim Myers, center, look on. Photo by Alyson McClaran
Marco Olivo, right, works on a new beer recipe as Tivoli head brewer Charles Koller, left, and Strange Craft Brewing Company founder/head brewer Tim Myers, center, look on. Photo by Alyson McClaran

MSU Denver President Janine Davidson, tasting beers in the Tivoli Brewing Company taproom.

High-flying brew

An Air Force veteran herself – not to mention former undersecretary of the Navy – Janine Davidson is no stranger to service. So with her upcoming Inauguration ceremony, Myers and Strange wanted to serve a beer for Davidson that's fit for a high-flying leader.

“Based on her preferences, we went with a variation on a pale-ale recipe MSU Denver students had created in their Intro to Beer & Spirits course called Spring Training,” Myers said.

Light-tasting and easy-drinking, the selection uses Denali hops, an American experimental variety, along with all-Colorado-sourced malts from Root Shoot Malting in Loveland.

The beer, which features tropical characteristics that evoke notes of citrus and pineapple and pairs well across the serving spectrum from appetizer to dessert, will be served at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and the Inauguration Soirée following the formal investiture ceremony Sept. 7. It will also be available for a limited time at Strange Craft’s Lincoln Park taproom starting Sept. 4.

 

Attention to detail is important in tipples, whether you’re in London or Lincoln Park.

“It’s exciting that the Colorado craft-beer industry is exploding, but it also requires a huge new pool of talent,” said Tim Myers, head brewer and founder of Strange Craft Beer Co., who regularly involves Roadrunners in the brewing process at the company’s facility just south of the Auraria Campus.

“What’s great about MSU Denver beer students is that they have a firsthand, well-rounded experience from an extensive program and a full set of lab equipment,” he added.

That includes facilities such as quality analysis and quality control and brewing production labs, joining those focused on microbiological fermentation and packaging. A formal ribbon-cutting ceremony for the labs is slated for Sept. 4 in the Tivoli Student Union at 5:30 p.m. as part of the upcoming Inauguration ceremony of MSU Denver President Janine Davidson, Ph.D.

As part of the event, Strange will release a beer inspired by Davidson called Next Peak (see sidebar). The brew was a team effort by Myers, students and faculty from MSU Denver’s beer program, and on-campus buds in suds Tivoli Brewing Co.

Thibodeau, who was also involved, said the beermaking process shares several traits with being in the military – which could explain why many veterans are drawn to the craft, including fellow service member and MSU Denver management alum Shawn Peters; his Peak View Brewing Co. is slated to launch in Castle Rock this fall.

“It’s all hands on deck during brew day,” Thibodeau said. “Whether it’s not cleaning thoroughly or cutting the boil short, if one little thing goes wrong, the whole batch could be wasted. You really have to pull together and trust each other, regardless of whether or not you know each other.”

Then again, there could be another, simpler reason.

“Military folks like to drink and share stories over beer,” he said.

Scott Kerkmans, director of MSU Denver
Scott Kerkmans, director of MSU Denver's Brewing Program, discusses a new beer recipe with student Rich Van Gilder (with Marco Olivo and Chris Thibodeau in the background) at the Strange Craft Beer Company on Aug. 1, 2018. Photo by Alyson McClaran

That’s a common bond many folks can relate to. And as our experiences grow through narrative diaspora, our worlds shrink, bringing us closer.

“As you go to different locations, you visit different breweries and bars; you encounter many different people,” Thibodeau said. “A lot of my friends today I met in a pub – over the years, over the miles, you stay in touch. You get to see their kids grow up.

“It’s a neat experience, building those friendships in beer.”

Finding that connection is key, whether it’s overseas deployment or returning to school later in life. And when you’re in an industry – and a program – where everyone wants to help everyone else succeed, success is just part of the recipe.

“That’s what I like about where I’m at – it’s a friendly, open environment,” Thibodeau said. “From students to professors and the other master brewers we’re connected to, you’re able to ask someone what they think and they’ll help you and give you an honest opinion without thinking twice.”

It’s one that’s worked for vets such as Thibodeau, connecting him to his passion – while unexpectedly lowering his blood pressure.

And as for what’s on tap in the future?

“We’ll see where the beer takes us next,” he said. 

 


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