John Hickenlooper
Credit: Photograph by Edward Keating

Hick and I have been sitting at the main bar of the 30,000-square-foot, three-story Wynkoop Brewing Company, which he opened in 1988, for about five minutes when he tells me how a deep depression launched his beer career. For the first time of many, he prefaces what he is about to confide with "My staff is going to kill me for telling you this . . ." which is both a subtle attempt to woo me and Hick's being somewhere near Mars on the Myers-Briggs extrovert scale.

He was in his freshman year at Wesleyan University. "I was obsessed with this woman," says Hick. "I couldn't eat; I couldn't sleep; and I couldn't function. So I dropped out."

Hick's jacket is gone­ – the tie was never there – and checked sleeves are pushed up his arms. Hick's life is one long run-on sentence, and he simultaneously talks about heartbreak, hops, and yeast, and all that other stuff beer nerds drone on about while monitoring the Rockies' Nolan Arenado's 25-game hitting streak. He speaks fast with a complicated accent that is hard to place: sort of plummy, sort of Dutch like his last name.

He says he took a semester off from Wesleyan and volunteered in Maine helping a group of parents build a school and learning to home brew with them in the evening. They were using Fleischmann's yeast, so the beer was profoundly undrinkable, but it started Hick on the path to lager creativity. On its own, Hick dropping out of school over a girl might just be a funny, well-worn anecdote in a politician's life story. And sometimes that's how Hick plays it: Later, after he'd gone back to college, he was engaged to a woman who studied witchcraft and owned a parrot.

"I turned out to have more in common with the parrot," says Hick.

Not a bad line either, but the reality is the college struggles were a cap on a childhood of pain. His mother, Anne's first husband was killed in a plane crash, and her second husband, John, his father, was diagnosed with intestinal cancer when Hick was in kindergarten. His father lingered for two painful years that stripped Anne of whatever faith she had in God. One of the stories Hick likes to tell about learning about empathy as a child is of whining to his mother at six or seven about her never coming to his school activities in their town just outside Philadelphia, and his older brother Sydney's throwing him against a wall and whispering, "Don't you think she'd rather be there than at the hospital?"

With Kurt Vonnegut, his father's fraternity brother, in 1997. (Courtesy John Hickenlooper)

Anne was nicknamed Shrimpie because she was just five feet tall but was also a dynamo all-league lacrosse player at Vassar. She expected a lot from her youngest son. He'd come home from elementary school and Shrimpie would pull out her chart. On the left side were basic things. Did you say anything mean about someone behind their back? Did you tease someone in front of others? Did you pay anyone a compliment today? He'd either get a gold star, a silver star, or a purple star, based on how he'd done that day.

Dad left enough insurance money that his kids wouldn't lack for material things, but Hick's mother couldn't make up for everything the boys had lost.

"She was so busy, she made it clear to me she'd help, but I'd have to figure things out by myself," says Hick.

He pauses for a moment and yelps at the television as the Rockies start a rally. He looks at his watch, thinks about calling the trooper who waits around the corner to come get him, but he keeps talking. He confesses to being bullied in junior high.

"A kid named George was the ringleader," says Hick, as he orders two more elaborate beers. "They came after me one time and chased me. I outran them, but it scared the living daylights out of me. Every day, they'd always be saying, 'We're going to come get you.' I was paralyzed. I was just in tears."

Hick's mom eventually found out and transferred him to a private school, where he had to repeat the seventh grade after being diagnosed with dyslexia. Around the same time, Hick started acting like a fatherless son. He shot himself in the foot while fooling around with a .22. He didn't tell his mom. He started lifting items from the neighborhood five-and-dime. He got busted stealing a dish sponge he thought might make his after-dinner chores easier. Shrimpie took him to see a neighbor doctor, who pronounced him OK. It wasn't until after their session that Hick realized it was a psychiatrist.

Shrimpie was a product of the Depression; her father lost everything, which explains her son's fiscal tightness, personified by budget surpluses, a freezing house in the winter, and no AC in the summer. Shrimpie got remarried late in life. Hick was visiting her one day when he came across a copy of The Joy of Sex on the nightstand. Some of the pages were dog-eared.

"That made me so glad," says Hick with a grin. His eyes shoot up at the screen as the Rockies plate another base runner. He pounds the table in triumph. His mind drifts back to the book. "That she found happiness and joy meant everything to me."