Top image: Brothers Jim (right) and Bill Carver stand behind the bar in the back of Carver Brewing Company on Main Avenue in downtown Durango, Colorado. When they showed up in Durango in 1987, selling homemade beer was illegal but in 1988 the law changed to accommodate their dream. Thirty-five years later, Carver Brewing Co. is one of the Southwest's most celebrated family-owned brew pubs.
There’s a magnet on the refrigerator at Carver Brewing Company in downtown Durango, Colorado, that reads, “when opportunity meets preparation = luck.” This balance of being organized when fortune strikes has maneuvered Jim Carver (Business Administration, ’91) since he started working at a bakery when he was 13 years old. The stars have been aligning ever since.
Born in Wisconsin in 1957, Jim says he’s never not worked. Beginning with a paper route, he next fell under the tutelage of German bakers, who he worked with five days a week throughout high school. While hard work suited Jim, academics did not. He said he had a bad attitude throughout high school, where he feared his teachers and barely graduated with a 1.8 GPA. Still, he followed the masses to college and promptly flunked out.
“I didn’t even drop classes; I just quit going,” he said. “I gave up pretending.”
In December 1975, at 18 years old, Jim packed up his 1968 Ford Mustang and drove to Aspen, Colorado. He figured if he found a job, he’d stay. Sure enough, as he pulled into the iconic ski town late one night, he saw a sign on a window that read “baker wanted.” Twenty-four hours later, Jim had a job at Mesa Bakery.
Jim’s younger brother Bill worked at a bakery in Milwaukee while he studied accounting at the University of Milwaukee. When Bill graduated in 1982, the brothers bought a bakery in Winter Park, Colorado. The Carvers sold their first loaf on June 1, 1983. Jim was 26 and Bill, 21.
Three years later, the Carver brothers visited Durango and never looked back. They opened another bakery on Main Avenue in downtown Durango and enrolled in classes at Fort Lewis College. Bill signed up for microbiology, and Jim took art and business classes.
“Art class is so important for business people,” Jim said. “It changes the way you think. Business people think about debits and credits, but artists look at something, and if it’s not quite right, they’ll add color till it changes. You’ve got to see your business as a piece of art.”
After a trip to Oregon, Bill returned with tales of “little breweries popping up everywhere.” He pitched the idea to Jim that they should utilize the small room in the back of the burgeoning Durango bakery to make small batches of beer. In 1987, selling homebrewed beer was illegal; manufacturers could make it, but only liquor stores could distribute it. But opportunity met preparation once again when, in 1988, the law changed, and brewpubs were made legal in Colorado.
“I realized the harder I worked, the luckier I got,” Jim said.
Luck struck again for the brothers when a brewery fire forced a Milwaukee company to sell its equipment. The brothers scooped up the discarded paraphernalia for $10,000. Now all they needed was yeast.
“Nowadays, you call a yeast company and you get five pounds of yeast delivered to your doorstep,” Jim said. “Back then, you couldn’t order small batches of yeast. That’s where Fort Lewis came in.”
At the time, Bill was taking classes under John Ritchey, a now-retired professor of chemistry (1972-1996). Ritchey shared Bill’s zeal for crafting beer, so after school, lab work focused on extracting “one perfect yeast cell” and propagating it into a usable amount for the Carver’s beer.
“FLC was instrumental in doing our yeast analysis,” Jim said. “And connecting us with our professors: John Ritchey, John Thomas, Stanton Englehart. They wanted to see us succeed.”
Sustained by FLC yeast and a bevy of mentors, Carver’s Brewpub opened in 1988, the first brewpub in Southwest Colorado, the second brewery in Colorado, and the 124th brewpub in the United States (today, there are over 8,000). Jim says Ritchey would bring his classes to the brewpub for taste tests.
“The greatest thing about the College is its impact on the community,” Jim said. “Having that connection between the Fort and Main Ave. is so important. Higher education brings an added energy, allowing businesses to thrive that wouldn’t otherwise.”
From a bakery to a brewpub, from legendary breakfasts to iconic growlers-to-go, the Carver’s legacy is going on 35 years in Durango. In January 2022, the brothers sold their business to Bill’s children, Colin and Claire (Bill’s son, Peter, studied Geology at FLC until his tragic death in 2013). Jim is looking forward to retirement and eventually giving back to the FLC community that gave so much to him. But first, he’s taking a break.
“I feel like I just got done with a 50-year marathon,” Jim said. “We’ve got a truck and a camper and mountain bikes. We’re going places, but we’re not leaving Durango. I’ll do some woodworking, and maybe I’ll finally grow a mustache.”