Carver Brothers Bakery was established in 1986 by brothers Jim and Bill Carver, ushered in a new paradigm for Durango. Fresh roasted, whole bean coffee replaced the “add hot water and stir” methods, already cast out in hip, coastal cities more than a decade earlier. Soon after craft beer laws became more flexible, Bill Carver, an avid home brewer, began scheming to add a brewery to the cafe. A fellow named John Hickenlooper had the same idea up north in Denver, and a competitive battle ensued for earliest opening. Turns out, Jim and Bill, perhaps not so ambitious after all, were rafting the Grand Canyon when Hickenlooper’s Wynkoop opened. One month later, in 1988, Carvers became Colorado’s second craft brewery. (And 23 years later, Hickenlooper became governor of Colorado).
Mike Hurst joined Carvers in 1999, working his way up through the restaurant stations — “I was a busser. I was at the pastry counter at 6 a.m.” Now, Hurst is a co-owner with Jim and Bill Carver and chef Dave Cuntz. He refers to customers as guests, and likes to remind his employees that “our role is to host a celebration for anyone who walks in the door.” Hurst daydreams about being more of an activist, but currently sees his role as being “pro-Durango.”
A lot has changed since the brewery’s first pour in 1988. There are now six breweries in Durango. But, Hurst says they work together and he’s proud of that.
What’s the best part of running a restaurant in a small, close-knit town?
It’s the people. Both the Carvers team and the guests. I have a huge responsibility to run the best restaurant I can for our guests and the people who make a living at Carvers. You just look forward to seeing people. Restaurateurs are nurturers at heart. Also, it’s humbling to be part of this community where so many passionate citizens wear so many hats to make Durango the place it is.
What’s the most challenging part of running a restaurant in a small, close-knit town?
I take things really personally. It’s hard to keep perspective in a town that has one restaurant for every 1,000 citizens. It’s a very competitive business. Things get lost between the energy you put into the business and what the public actually notices.
Is it hard to be the face of Carvers in the community, even when you’re not working?
Yeah. I’m naturally introverted. Running the business is almost like another marriage.
Because of all the various relationships you manage and oversee? Between you and staff, across staff, and then add in the public?”
(nods) I’m probably an empath by nature. I care about all those players you mentioned. I think about how to pay due respect to all the interpersonal issues that come up, while also making sure people walking in the door get taken care of.
There’s a rumor that your beer is gluten free.
We use a naturally occurring enzyme that clarifies the beer and also knocks gluten levels down to twenty parts per million (ed: this is the international threshold for brewing to be considered “gluten free”). We don’t advertise this because we don’t conduct lab research on each batch we brew. But the testimonies I’ve gotten from gluten intolerant people is that Carvers beer doesn’t give them trouble. Yet, I have to offer the disclaimer that we bake our own bread and cross contamination is a possibility.
Have your brewers ever had a great idea that just bombed?
I don’t see our brewers making that kind of mistake. They do the work before they brew. We encourage creativity. I’m always telling our brewers I want them to be mad scientists back there.
What’s your favorite Carvers beer?
I love the Belgian styles. We dry hop the beer, so instead of being bitter on your tongue, it shows up as more of a citrusy, floral aroma.
Do you use any Colorado hops?
Our Pine River IPA uses hops grown in the Pine River Valley. When they come in, fresh-picked, they smell like mango and cantaloupe.