Rich and Wendy Tucciarone may have been cold, but they looked at home inside the beer cooler at Arctic Liquors. The couple was in Steamboat last week and stopped in to check out the store's selection and placement of Kona's bottled beers.

Photo by John F. Russell

Rich and Wendy Tucciarone may have been cold, but they looked at home inside the beer cooler at Arctic Liquors. The couple was in Steamboat last week and stopped in to check out the store's selection and placement of Kona's bottled beers.

Former Steamboat residents champion good beer and small breweries

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— On Tuesday afternoon, Rich and Wendy Tucciarone stood shivering in the beer cooler at Arctic Liquors, wearing cotton shorts better suited for their life at Hawaii's Kona Brewing Co. than for a trip through the quick-turning fall weather of Steamboat Springs.

In part, they were in the cooler to scope out the store's selection and display placement of Kona's bottled beers, which the couple has spent the past nine years brewing and promoting. Since leaving Steamboat in 1993, and then moving to Kailua-Kona in 1999, the Tucciarone's have made craft brewing as much a part of their quality of life as skiing or mountain biking.

"Beer is part of a meal," Rich Tucciarone said the day before, sipping a Fat Tire he'd let warm up in its Steamboat Smokehouse fishbowl glass. "It's not just shotgunning it out of a can or a funnel or whatever people do these days. It's having a nice, strong porter with a brisket, and just elevating your meal in so many ways."

As he said this, Tucciarone's Fat Tire was elevating the culinary attributes of a basket of chicken wings. But his refined taste for beer soon would be put to use, in his eighth year as a judge at the Great American Beer Festival, this weekend in Denver. In the festival's varied categories, Kona brews have taken home three medals in the past four years.

With much of their lives centered around beer, Rich and Wendy Tucciarone have come a long way from the time they spent in Steamboat, working on and off in the restaurant where they met, described by Rich as, "the romantic Stoker Bar at the top of the gondola."

A rising, foamy tide

"When we left Steamboat you were kind of just starting to get a couple of offerings. People didn't know what was out there," Rich Tucciarone said of craft brew availability in the early '90s. Wendy, who handles public relations for Kona Brewing Co., clarifies his explanation: "There wasn't much out there."

That's changed, with Mahogany Ridge Brewery and Grill pouring its creations in the wake of Heavenly Daze and Steamboat Brewery and Tavern, and stores across town carrying selections from small domestic breweries throughout Colorado and the rest of the country.

"Consumers, they're demanding more flavor," Rich Tucciarone said. "People aren't necessarily drinking more volume, but they're drinking better."

According to statistics from the Brewers Association, craft brewing sales rates grew 12 percent in 2007, compared to 1.4 percent growth for imports and non-craft domestics. Kona has been part of a craft brewing growth trend, with the brewery producing about 4,000 barrels in Rich Tucciarone's first year there in 1999 and turning out about 100,000 barrels in 2007. Now the brewmaster/vice president of brewery operations for Kona, Rich Tucciarone manages the output of the company's two mainland contract breweries, develops new flavors and oversees all of Kona's beers.

Among the brewery's products on Steamboat shelves are Wailua Wheat, a passion fruit-flavored wheat beer; Longboard Island Lager, Kona's flagship beer; and Fire Rock Pale Ale. Tucciarone said Pipeline Porter, a coffee-flavored dark brew, should be available at local stores soon.

Picking a favorite from Kona's dozen or so beer choices is impossible for Tucciarone - "That's like asking what your favorite child is," he said - and picking his top Colorado craft brews isn't much easier. After leaving Steamboat, Rich Tucciarone spent four years with Breckenridge Brewery before moving to Kona. Even as craft brewers target the same market, there's a sense of togetherness that stands apart from other industries, Wendy Tucciarone said.

"That's one thing about the craft beer industry, is that there's so much camaraderie at the brewery level, everybody's really friendly and supportive," she said. "I think the people who are involved in it are really passionate about it. You don't typically get involved with the craft brewing industry to make a lot of money."

As Rich Tucciarone rotates Kona bottles and repositions six-packs in the Arctic Liquors cooler, the lack of competition and love of good beer come through. Selling Kona in Colorado is about riding the rising tide of craft brewing, and Tucciarone keeps an eye out for new flavors while he and Wendy are careful to keep beer from overtaking their lives.

"We try not to talk too much shop at home, unless it's, 'What kind of beer should we have?'" he said.

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