S+B Q+A with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) is not your typical governor, which is why Spoke+Blossom was eager to sit down and talk microbrewing and beer, economic options for rural Colorado, and what might come next for this unlikely politician (oh, and did we mention beer?). S+B spoke with him recently at his State Capitol office in Denver.
Brown: You know, I had prepared some really serious, cutting-edge, journalist-type questions on health care and marijuana and the political divide. But it suddenly dawned on us that you talk about that stuff all the time and that we should instead talk about the fun stuff. So let’s talk about beer!
Hick: I like the sound of that.
Brown: Back in 1988, before you had apparently even thought about politics, you opened the Wynkoop Brewing Company — Denver’s first craft brewpub. The success of that and the growth of the LoDo district launched you into politics when you got involved in fighting the sponsorship, and subsequent name change, of Mile High Stadium by Invesco. After your tenure as Denver’s mayor, you’re now in the last year of your second term as governor. But it all started with beer. Why do you think beer is such a great unifier?
Hick: Back in the early 19th century the country was moving to a more mechanized economy. Thomas Jefferson was a big supporter of beer — despite the fact that most people drank rum, which made you more tipsy, of course. [But] Jefferson had said “I wish to see this beverage become more popular,” and it did.
Brown: Because beer made you less tipsy?
Hick: Yes, absolutely! Because it was a very modest form of inebriation, even more so than today, because it was all 3.2 [percent] beer. Plus, drinking beer or wine kills all the harmful bacteria that can give you indigestion or [parasitic] giardia and any of that stuff. Beer is also a great substitute in a place where you have no sanitary drinking water.
Brown: So there’s a scientific reason for it!
Hick: Lots of scientific reasons. Beer is one of the oldest beverages. It goes back 6,000 years! They can [historically] date people back to first brewing beer.
Brown: And what do you drink at home, if I may ask?
Hick: You know, it depends on the season. I go to a lighter pale ale — or even a lager — in the summer when it’s warm, and I move to stouts and porters when it’s cold. During the shoulder seasons, I might wander between an amber ale or something a bit hoppier, like an IPA.
Brown: Do you like the more exotic or adventurous beers?
Hick: Not so much, but I do drink a bunch of different beers, and occasionally I’ll find something where the brewer put a tangerine into a wheat beer and I might think it’s unusually delicious.
Brown: Then you’re okay with fruit in beer?
Hick: Oh yeah, but it’s not generally what I drink on a regular basis. More on special occasions.
Brown: Do you have any beer on tap at the Governor’s Mansion?
Hick: We do! We’re the only Governor’s Mansion in the country with beer on tap. We have three different styles of Colorado beer on tap at all times.
Brown: Do you think the out-of-state acquisition of Colorado breweries hurts our beer culture or is a good thing? For example, Anheuser-Busch buying Breckenridge Brewery, based in Littleton.
Hick: You know, it is what it is. To rail against it or to wish that didn’t happen is futile. It happens in technology with software companies, it happens in pretty much everything. It’s one of the ways that entrepreneurs and startup people get liquidity. My heart is always with the startups or the small companies … like this beer that you brought me here today, Many Rivers Brewing [of Grand Junction]. When I see a company trying to do something in a different way — and instead of trying to make a profit for something personal, they’re trying to put money into habitat restoration and the quality of rivers — I’m like, Wow, how can I help them?
Brown: You can drink it!
Hick: I will!
Brown: If you could do it all over again, would you have left the beer industry to go into politics? Do you miss it?
Hick: I do. I miss the beer and the restaurant industry. I miss it sufficiently that I do think about it several times a week. I’m not going back and regretting what I’ve done, but I do think it’s important to take stock of what you’re doing day-to-day, so that you’re not taking your life for granted, so that you’re not in a rut and doing something just because it’s the next step in front of you. I have to say, I can’t open a bottle of beer without all that history bubbling up through me. I can’t walk into a restaurant without appreciating the owners and what they must be thinking about. So I do miss it. But all change involves loss … even change that takes you into a much better place. If the truth be known, I’m much better at being a mayor or governor than I ever was at running a restaurant.
Brown: And you’re probably better at it because of your experience running a brewpub.
Hick: Absolutely. When you run a small business, you learn there’s no margin to having enemies, and there’s no profit in pissing people off and ruining your reputation. Like they say, when you’re in rough water … everybody paddles! It doesn’t matter whether someone’s tall or short, black or white, straight or gay. It doesn’t matter. They’re your family and you have to work together. When the chips are down, everybody works together. That’s a very valuable lesson to learn if you’re going to go into politics.
Also the collaboration. We worked with other businesses in lower downtown to help make LoDo [Denver] one of the most vibrant redevelopment neighborhoods in the United States. It was collaboration that let us accomplish Fast Tracks, and you don’t get all 34 mayors to support 122 miles of new track in metro Denver without collaboration. Collaboration is what propelled us to get the environmental community together with the oil and gas industry when we were working on methane regulations. All of that collaboration came directly out of working with other small businesses in lower downtown as a brewpub owner, and seeing how much more power you have when you work together.
Brown: Speaking of growth, it’s been very interesting for us on the Western Slope to watch what’s happening in Denver over the last few years and learn from it. What do you say to those who might think Denver might be full, as far as growth?
Hick: Nothing stays the same, so you’re growing or you’re shrinking. And if you’re shrinking, that’s not good for anybody.
Now, you can question how fast you want to grow—and I think that’s a fair discussion point that everyone in Colorado should be talking about. If you want to grow, how do we make sure that as we grow, we protect the things that make us love Colorado? Should we be growing faster than we are now? I think that’s the question a lot of people raised about Amazon [looking for a second headquarters]. How badly do we want them? I think our answer to that was that we’re not going to throw a ton of money at them, and would give them the same incentives we offer anyone.
Brown: This rural-urban divide has never been more frustrating, as the Front Range continues to boom while we in the more rural parts of the state try to redefine our economies, in order to attract some of those jobs to our side of the Continental Divide. What do you think our sales pitch should be to attract business and tourism?
Hick: You’re already doing a lot of it. I think good economic development begins with topophilia, or love of place. It begins with people who love where they live, and want it to grow in a healthy way. Topophilia is what we’re using as a framework or reference point for communities all over Colorado. That’s why our Main Street program will support smaller towns fixing up some of their oldest, most beautiful buildings, because they’ll enhance your love of a place. I want to roll out better tax credits for people who start businesses and continue those businesses in smaller communities. Getting broadband to rural communities is important, too.
Brown: To be sure. So what’s next?
Hick: You know, I have [a year] left in this administration, and we have so much stuff we’re working on … [like] the apprenticeship program, and organizing outdoor recreation to fight for clean water and clean air. We’re working on some big efforts to create a better foundation for future growth, and the moment I start thinking about getting involved in anything else like a political action committee or a future campaign, not only do I get distracted, but my entire staff gets distracted. We have so much [still] to do and I want to make sure everyone is laser-focused and not distracted.
Brown: Governor, thank you for your time.
Hick: Thank you, Robin. I look forward to reading the next issue of Spoke+Blossom!