Being born in Aspen is to be a child of the geography — remote, stunning and at times harsh — and the frenetic urban-mountain culture. It’s not always easy but the results tend to be special.
Same goes for the products originating out of this valley in the heart of the Rockies where, oftentimes, when you want something done right one must turn inward. There is a long history here of using available resources to give the people what they want. The entrepreneurial spirit takes hold as strivers find their niche.
Below is a snapshot of a few of the companies that have been created and nurtured in the Roaring Fork Valley, but is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list. Instead, this sampling shows a bit of what’s possible. The roster of homegrown businesses and products is ever-changing, as well, and the next big thing is currently a work in progress in the “ideas” file on the laptop of a local who is sure they know just what this place needs.
Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say, and that adage propelled the legendary Klaus Obermeyer into one of the ski industry’s original gear gurus. He arrived in Aspen as one of the burgeoning resort’s original ski instructors in 1947 and saw how a lack of warm and comfortable outdoor gear capable of standing up to the elements was preventing his students from getting the most out of their ski days. To remedy the situation he fashioned a down parka out of a blanket he had brought with him to Aspen from his native Bavaria. Obermeyer went on to innovate products such as the first high-alpine sunscreen, turtle necks, two-pronged ski breaks, mirrored sunglasses, double-lensed goggles and other items we take for granted today. This formed the basis of Sport Obermeyer, a company that remains based in Aspen and, more than 70 years later, continues to produce high-quality outdoor adventure gear that keeps skiers and other recreationists warm and wanting nothing more as they make their way up and down the slopes.
High Society, based at the Aspen Business Center, was founded in 2003 as the freeride revolution was taking over skiing. Four friends — Reggie Charles, Jason Flynn, Jeremy Rungi and Jay Morin — determined that the products coming out of the big ski and snowboard manufacturers were not cut out for the type of performance needed to conquer the steep and technical slopes around here, so they set out to do better. High Society is now established as a top-tier small manufacturer of ski and snowboarding hardware, with its equipment made in Denver.
The company soon branched out into the stand-up paddleboard market, which over the last decade has been one of the greatest growth sectors in the entire outdoor-gear industry. Like their skis and snowboards, High Society’s SUPs are renowned for their versatility and durability, as well as unique artwork supplied by local artists. Models such as the Flagship are designed with Colorado in mind, capable of handling everything from the wind-chopped waters of a high-valley reservoir to a rolicking whitewater scramble down the Colorado River.
As it continues to grow in its 16th year as a company, High Society has remained committed to living up to the lofty expectations of those people who call the mountains home because of the lifestyle that can’t be found in less-extreme environments.
The best skiers in Aspen tend to occupy a unique place in the outdoor world. They are fast, but far too cool for spandex. Strafe Outerwear was created by twin brothers John and Peter Gaston who felt that most performance gear on the market was either far outside the budget of most young skiers, lacked the style captured by the freeskier movement, or both. They set out to make the gear they wanted to wear that solved both problems.
The company specializes in light, breathable material that provides just enough insulation to handle midwinter cold and is most at home doing laps on Highland Bowl. Aspen Highlands is the company’s muse and proving ground and Strafe’s showroom occupies a corner space in the base village.
Strafe’s bibs, pants and one pieces have become nearly ubiquitous on local mountains and the hats and tees are increasingly becoming synonymous with the Aspen brand. The pedigree behind Strafe is also part of the story. Both Gastons are accomplished athletes, with John having his most successful season last winter competing against the best in the world, placing in multiple elite-level European ski mountaineering races.
It all starts with the base layer. Screw around with that and it doesn’t matter how great or fancy the set up is with the rest of the gear. The first layer in contact with the skin sets the tone for your day and whatever activity you might partake in. Two Aspen adventurers saw the need for a company focused solely on this element of outdoor clothing and launched Corbeaux from their Aspen condo, focusing on making the kind of base layers they would want to wear for their impressive pursuits. Darcy Conover and Adam Moszynski are in the process of skiing all of the 200 tallest peaks in Colorado. Their idea of a light summer outing involves scrambling to 13,000 feet and hiking circuitous routes following the dynamic ridgelines framing the high country.
Their clothing conveys this level of ease and comfort. They use only recycled materials, make everything in the U.S. and nothing comes off the line without meeting the highest standards of wickability, breathability, insulation and versatility. And when you reach that hut deep in the backcountry or decide to call it on your ski day and head to the tavern, these layers will be right there with you providing comfort and a good look for the mountains.
Aspen Brewing Company
Aspen was in a weird place in 2008. Despite being one of the most dynamic ski towns on the planet, it didn’t have its own microbrewery. Three friends set out to solve that problem and created what immediately became a local institution and one of the town’s most successful small businesses.
Aspen Brewing Co. has grown by leaps and bounds since then, from its original taproom and in-house brewery on North Mill Street to its current production facility at the Aspen Business Center, where it can brew and can enough beer for regional distribution.
Aspen Brewing Co.’s taproom has always been a hit, and a welcome change of pace from the high-end restaurant bar scene native to much of the town’s nightlife. The downtown space welcoming to all is now in its third iteration, moving to the corner of Galena Street and Hopkins Avenue in 2017. Known as Aspen Tap, the new location has proven to be a huge upgrade. Besides one of the sunniest patios in town, the brewery now has a gastropub menu with excellent tacos, sliders and pretzel bites.
After more than a decade in business, the beer just keeps getting better. Aspen Brewing Co. employs a creative team that keeps coming up with new and interesting takes on craft brew to serve the rotating menu at Aspen Tap. Top selling varieties available around the state include solid renditions of an IPA and a blonde.
Woody Creek Distillers
Back in the day, the Roaring Fork Valley was one of the premier potato-producing regions in the country. The access to markets fell off when silver mining crashed in the 1890s — meaning fewer trains coming to the valley that would haul potatoes back to Denver — and many fields went fallow. But all that is old can be made new again and that is part of the story of Woody Creek Distillers. Founders Mary and Pat Scanlan and Mark Kleckner bought a former potato farm in Woody Creek and set out to bring the handcrafted ethos popular in the beer and wine business to spirits. Woody Creek Distillers is now famous for its potato vodka, which is distinct from any grain-made vodka with much more complex flavors. The team spent more than five years coming up with the right potatoes to base their vodkas on and went all the way to Poland to find the right spud for their reserve batch.
Since the distillery’s founding in 2012, it has grown to produce excellent ryes and gins, as well as vodka, that most good local bartenders have on their shelf. Woody Creek Distillers also operates a tasting room in Willits, open 2-8 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, with tours available by appointment.
Marble Distilling Co.
A good spirit starts with good water and only Marble Distilling Co. can boast that its water comes filtered through the same material that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Lincoln Memorial’s columns are made out of.
Carbondale-based Marble Distilling Co. takes its water from a well in Marble, near the headwaters of the Crystal River, and has been filtered through Yule marble before it comes out of the spigot. The U.S. government tapped a historic quarry nearby when it built those famous monuments.
The distillery’s three signature products are its Vodka 80, Gingercello Reserve liqueur and Moonlight EXpresso coffee liqueur, and the company released its first rye whiskey last winter. The Marble Distilling Co. is also notable for its downtown Carbondale facility, home to the Marble Bar, the Distillery Inn and its production facilities. That facility is setting the standard in distillery sustainability and was built from the ground up to recycle all of the water it uses and capture the heat from the process as a power source.
The Marble Distilling Co. also has an Aspen outpost. The Marble Bar inside the Hyatt Grand Aspen features signature cocktails, small bites and a modern look that is the perfect setting to savor all the flavors.