Claire and Colin Carver were practically born into the family business.
From the time they were kids, the Durango-raised siblings played with toys in the booths at Carver Brewing Co., Colorado’s second oldest brewpub, and napped on bags of malt in the second-story grain room as their father Bill Carver and uncle Jim Carver ran the restaurant and brewery, which they founded in 1986 and 1989, respectively.
As a young girl, Claire recalls sneaking house-made brownies and bagels out of a display case on her way to dance class. Later, when they were in high school, both she and Colin worked jobs in the front and back of the house, washing dishes, seating tables, cooking food and serving coffee.
Now ages 32 and 29, respectively, Claire and Colin are ensuring the brewpub remains a community fixture. Last May, the duo inherited Carver’s, making it one of just a few second-generation, family-owned breweries in Colorado.
Admittedly, it’s not a move either of them saw coming. But when Bill and Jim said they were tapping out, both Claire and Colin decided to change careers.
“If we’re gonna get involved in the restaurant, now’s the time,” said Colin, who previously worked in the renewable energy space. “And then it was kind of obvious. Like, why wouldn’t we do that?”
“This has a lot of amazing qualities like … you have the flexibility and freedom to create. It’s social, [involves] teamwork with a sibling,” added Claire, who ran Bank of America’s supply chain sustainability program before moving back to Durango. “The community contribution that I grew up around, or was able to see, being able to continue that was a huge part of it.”
That includes the staff, some of whom have been with the company long enough to watch the Carver kids grow up. Pamela Marshall started working as a server at Carver’s in 1994 and while the restaurant has evolved – the pastry display case was replaced by a bar years ago, the tile tables are long gone and breakfast was nixed when the pandemic hit – its reputation hasn’t.
“It’s the heartbeat of the community as far as the restaurant industry goes,” Marshall said. “You have to come to Carver’s or else you haven’t been to Durango.”
Jumping starting Colorado’s craft movement
Back in the 1970s, Bill and Jim Carver were a couple of Midwestern boys chasing the allure of ski bum life all the way to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. In 1983, the brothers opened a bakery in Winter Park, supporting their lifestyle with bread, cakes and other pastries made fresh daily.
In 1986, they relocated to Durango, bringing their baked goods to the storefront on Main Avenue where the business still resides. But it wasn’t until 1988, when Colorado legalized the brewpub model, that they decided to add house-made beer to the menu.
Bill and Jim purchased a brew house from a burned down building in their home state of Wisconsin, which they removed themselves by digging through the rubble and using machinery to hoist the equipment out of the structure.
The brewery now lives tucked into the nooks and crannies of the Carvers’ commercial kitchen, looking as if the restaurant was constructed around the brewing area. It’s practically hidden compared to the centerpiece of cooking operations: a massive wooden table where the restaurant’s bread bowls and certain desserts get kneaded and prepared.
“We added all this value by having a bakery. So we had this kind of hand-produced aspect to our lunch and breakfast. And then we want to open for dinner. It’s like, what hand-produced, kind of craft aspect could we add to dinner? And really it was the brewery that did that,” said Bill.
Carver Brewing, as it’s known today, made its debut just a few months after now-senator John Hickenlooper and his partners opened Wynkoop Brewing Co. in Denver. (They could have been first, but the Carvers took some time off that year to kayak in the Grand Canyon.) The two breweries came up together, swapping yeast strains and advice in an era when making small-batch beers was a novel concept and there weren’t many other people they could lean on.
According to Dave Thibodeau, who co-founded Ska Brewing in Durango in 1995, that kind of camaraderie was a hallmark of the Carvers and it’s one reason the brewery i well-known throughout Colorado despite never having distributed beer outside of town.
Thibodeau recalls that the first time he met Bill Carver, he was worried that Ska might be received unkindly as a new competitor. But the opposite happened. “The first thing Bill said was, ‘I’ll put you guys on tap.’ So they were our first account, the other brewery in town,” Thibodeau said. “It set a precedent for how we would treat every other brewer in perpetuity.”
The brewpub’s impact extends beyond beer as well. For the last two years, Durango’s Manna Soup Kitchen has been growing produce at the Carver farm east of town to serve in grab-and-go meals and stock in its free market where locals in need can shop.
“It was absolutely amazing having volunteer support and the support of the Carvers,” said Ann Morse, executive director. “That allowed us to produce food that people wanted to see in the market. It was extremely valuable.”
In 2022, the Colorado Restaurant Association inducted Bill and Jim into the state’s Foodservice Hall of Fame. The hall, established in 1978, honors tenured locals who inspired and impacted Colorado’s restaurant industry in a significant way.
A lasting legacy
As Claire and Colin Carver embrace their new roles, they understand the legacy they’ve been tasked with upholding. Seems it won’t be too difficult, however, given they’re returning to their roots and their community.
On a recent winter day, the siblings traveled between tables during a busy lunch hour, greeting longtime patrons and family friends while delivering food and bussing tables. They’re still learning the ropes, Claire said, and plan to make their mark while maintaining the spirit of Carver Brewing Co. that locals have come to love.
No, they probably won’t be reviving breakfast service, Colin said, but they have other ideas, such as achieving carbon neutrality in the next year or so. No matter what comes next, the elder Carvers know they’re leaving the brewpub in capable hands.
“I think their nervous systems are getting used to the kind of responsibility and this knowledge and commitment and on-all-the-time kind of mantle that you have to wear when you’re responsible for this many employees and their livelihoods and all the customers and their experience,” Bill said.
“You have to get comfortable wearing that,” he added, “and I’ve seen that transition over the last many months. I think their comfort level is allowing my comfort level to be there as well.”
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