Thirty years ago, I made my first trip to Denver. It didn’t start out as a beer tour but I made my acquaintance with the then-exotic Coors on the plane ride out (remember Continental’s “Flying Pub”?); with Mexican food, still a rarity in the Midwest; and in the local bars. And, like thousands of other Americans, including President Ford and Burt Reynolds, I smuggled some home.
The Coors mystique has passed into the realm of history; the brand went national years ago. But today, Denver is more of a beer destination than ever. According to the Chamber of Commerce, more beer is brewed in and around the city than anywhere else in America. That’s largely true because the Coors brewery in Golden turns out more beer than any other brewery in the world. Still, it’s the quality and variety of the beer that makes Denver special.
The same pioneering spirit that lured Adolph Coors west has drawn a new generation of brewers to Denver’s Lower Downtown neighborhood. When I first visited the city, LoDo was a “don’t go there” district, full of derelict warehouses left over from the days when tons of merchandise were shipped by rail. It continued to decline for years, thanks to an economic slump followed by collapsing energy prices.
City government turned things around. It offered incentives to preserve the district’s historic buildings and lobbied major league baseball for an expansion franchise. Once the Colorado Rockies became a reality, work began on Coors Field, a beautiful new ballpark that has become LoDo’s centerpiece. The warehouses have been turned into lofts—some 5,000 people live there—as well as dance clubs, restaurants, and, of course, bars and brewpubs.
LoDo’s first brewpub, which has become one of the world’s largest, is the Wynkoop Brewing Co. (1634 18th Street). To make this dream of his a reality, founder John Hickenlooper persuaded Colorado lawmakers to legalize brewpubs; then he converted a crumbling, century-old building, once an upscale department store, into a brewery and restaurant. He named it after “Ned” Wynkoop, a colorful figure who served as Denver’s first sheriff.
Wynkoop’s flagship beer is Railyard Ale, brewed in the Oktoberfest style. It’s joined by a rotation of a dozen or so others, including cask-conditioned and dry-hopped St. Charles ESB; Splatz Porter, said to have been named for the brewery’s cat; and offbeat selections like Patty’s Chile Beer, a lager brewed with bushels of Anaheim chiles; and even a medieval gruit ale brewed with herbs instead of hops. Wynkoop is a place where you can spend the whole evening. The complex includes an outdoor patio and billiards rooms, and even houses a troupe that performs “competitive comedy.”
Fifteen years in business haven’t dulled Wynkoop’s sense of humor. The brewpub celebrates its anniversary with the “Running of the Pigs” through LoDo. It crowns a “Beerdrinker of the Year,” who must pass an oral exam administered by “judges” wearing wigs and robes. Nor has success slowed Hickenlooper himself. Last summer, Denverites elected him mayor by a landslide.
Gonzo on Blake Street
Denver is just a couple of hours from ski country, and two breweries born in the mountains now call it home. Breckenridge Brewery and Pub (2220 Blake Street) is the offshoot of a brewpub in the resort town of Breckenridge. It offers something for everyone: the barroom in front caters to the pint and pub grub crowd, while two spacious dining rooms in back serve up burgers, barbecued ribs, and Tex-Mex favorites. Its location, cater-corner from the ballpark, makes it an ideal destination before or after the game. Or, for that matter, during the game. If the weather is nice (odds are good—Denver has more sunny days per year than Miami Beach), grab a seat on the patio and listen to the roar of the crowd.
Big changes are in the offing on Blake Street. Breckenridge plans to replace the current brew house with a smaller system and give the brewing staff plenty of room to be creative. In the meantime, favorites like Avalanche Ale and specialties like Ballpark Brown are “imported” from the main brewery south of downtown and from the original brewpub in Breckenridge.
LoDo’s other establishment with ski-country origins is the Flying Dog Brewery (2401 Blake Street). It began life as a brewpub in Aspen, but grew so popular that its owners moved the brewing operation to larger quarters in LoDo. Flying Dog also owns the distinction of being the world’s only Gonzo brewery. According to legend, on a hot summer night in 1983, writer Hunter S. (“Fear and Loathing”) Thompson was drinking Doggie Style Pale Ale with brewery founder George Stranahan. The result was “induced” visions (don’t even ask) of the Flying Dog, as well as Road Dog Ale, described as a “Scottish porter.” Thompson’s fans might have flashbacks of their own when they see Flying Dog’s surreal labels. They’re the handiwork of cartoonist Ralph Steadman, best known for illustrating the covers of Thompson’s books.
Flying Dog’s litter has grown to include K-9 Cruiser, an English-style strong ale; Tire Biter Ale, a kölsch-influenced golden ale; In-Heat Wheat; and even a barley-wine-style ale. All of these beers are available in pint glasses bearing Steadman’s artwork at the Blake Street Bar next door to the brewery. The bar looks like a neighborhood hangout, the kind you wish you had back home. There are a few booths, tables scattered around, and a pool table tucked away in a corner. Like many Denver bars, it caters to sports fanatics. On the night I visited, a local sportscaster was hosting his call-in show from a nearby table. The 50-barrel brew house is visible through the green shutters on the wall. If you ask nicely, you might even be offered a tour.
One Good Beer Bar
With all the attention given to brewpubs, good beer bars are too often under-appreciated. One notable exception is the Falling Rock Tap House (1919 Blake Street). It has earned a place on the national beer map, thanks to serving as the unofficial gathering place for brewers taking part in the Great American Beer Festival.
Falling Rock’s owners have converted a loading dock into a funky temple for visiting beer geeks. The decor is best described as Seventies Student Union, with at least a truckload of breweriana and miscellaneous other kitsch thrown in. But the beer selection bears no resemblance to that of a typical campus watering hole. The north wall sports more than 60 tap handles, featuring a wide selection of microbrews from across Colorado (Odell 90 Shilling, New Belgium Fat Tire Ale, Singletrack Copper Ale, and Great Divide Maverick IPA are all worth a try). There’s also a wide, Belgian-accented selection of bottled beers.
Falling Rock can be loud and chaotic on weekend nights and after Rockies games, but don’t be discouraged. Even when Falling Rock is at its craziest, the bar staff fill orders quickly and serve the beer at just the right temperature.
The LoDo saga comes full circle—namely, back to Coors, which built the SandLot Brewery inside the ballpark. It is there that Barmen, a traditional, slow-poured German pilsner named after Adolph Coors’s hometown in Prussia, is brewed. But the hard-to-find Barmen and SandLot’s other award-winning beers are another story for another day.
Paul Ruschman is a writer, editor, and researcher. In his free time, he travels as much as his budget permits, visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed. Photographs by Maryanne Nasiatka, www.sabat.com.