For beer lovers, attending the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver deserves to be at the tippy top of your bucket list, that check-list of things to do or places to see before you die. In 2012, there were more than 450 breweries pouring nearly 2,500 different beers (from all 84 recognized categories) all under one roof. Good luck getting to try that many beers in any other single location. And Godspeed trying to try all the beers you’d like to, or even just all the IPAs on the convention floor. Can’t be done.
Of course, the other awesome aspect about going to GABF is that it’s in Colorado. The northwest corner where the Great Plains begin to level out from the Rocky Mountains is home to dozens of must-drink breweries and an overall beer culture that’s truly a mile high.
Presumably, you’re flying into Denver International, which is nowhere near downtown. So as long as you’re out there, take advantage by making your first stop Dry Dock Brewing (15120 East Hampden Ave. in Aurora). The way the crowd erupted during the award ceremony at the 2009 GABF when they earned Small Brewery of the Year honors, you’d think the brewery was larger. It’s one of Andy Sparhawk’s favorite Denver-area breweries. Sparhawk isn’t just the Brewers Association’s Craft Beer Program Coordinator, he’s also a Denver native, so we turn to his expert recommendations.
Once in town, make the “requisite” visit to Wynkoop (1634 18th St.) in Lower Downtown (“LoDo”), famed as Colorado’s first brewpub established in 1988 and perhaps even more famous for one of its founders, John Hickenlooper, who parlayed his success into becoming Denver mayor and who then sold his interest before his successful campaign for the governorship. Indulge in the local flavor with the buffalo meatloaf and wash it down with Mile Hi.P.A.
The brewpub is right by Coors Field, home of the megabrewery’s pilot Sand Lot Brewery (where some Blue Moon beers got their start) giving Colorado Rockies fans somewhere drink pretty great beers to dull the pain of these perennial cellar dwellers (and not in the good sense of a complex beer). Since there’s no chance the Rockies will be playing this deep into October, less than a mile walk is the equally compulsory-visit Great Divide (2201 Arapahoe St.). Denver’s largest brewery has been operating since 1994 and has developed a stellar roster of beers, most notably the members of the Yeti clan. Plunk down on a stool in the tap room and find out which Yeti Imperial Stout is your favorite: the original, Belgian-style, or the Oak-aged, not to mention variations on the oaked theme including Chocolate (my favorite given the dash of cayenne pepper) and Espresso. If you fill up on Yetis, walk ‘em off…it’s only a five minute stroll to River North Brewing (2401 Blake St #1). Sparhawk notes that they “specialize in what could be described as Belgo-nouvo.” Pop into their taproom and “try their Hypothesis, a Belgian-style Double IPA.”
Speaking of Yetis, Sparhawk shares a ridiculously cool sounding brewpub, the Yak and Yeti (7803 Ralston Rd. in Arvada) around 10 miles northwest of downtown where he lives. What began as the second location of this restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Nepal, Tibet, and India made excellent use of a pre-existing brewing system. Rarely does a brewpub offer such an exotic menu, which is also quite vegetarian- and kid-friendly. Though you’d expect to find a restaurant with Indian food to offer an India Pale Ale, the beer menu instead boasts Himalayan IPA (which won GABF gold in the Strong Pale Ale category a couple years back).
If heading there is too far, Denver Beer Co. (1695 Platte St.), which just celebrated its first anniversary, is much closer. “The past year has been whirlwind for Charlie Berger and Patrick Crawford,” says Sparhawk. “The brewery took home a bronze medal at their first GABF in the specialty beer category, Graham Cracker Porter, to hang behind the long bar in their tap room.” As locals flock to support and imbibe these newcomers, they can order food from the omnipresent food truck(s) waiting to serve customers and picnic tables to sit at, regardless of snow in the wintertime.
As a final brewery shout-out, Sparhawk points to the nanobrewery Wit’s End (2505 W. 2nd Ave, Unit 13), one of Denver’s newest yet only open during limited hours Thursdays through Sundays. Rather than deriving its name from brewing only Belgian White Ales, it’s actually the brainchild of Scott Witsoe, whom Sparhawk refers to as owner, brewer, bartender, janitor, etc. Wit brews one barrel at a time and evidently makes “a variety of fantastic beers…Grab a bar stool and chat it up with him with a Jean Claude Van Blond or Super Fl.IPA.
Of course, if walking across town (or hopping on the free shuttle that zips back and forth down the 16th Street Pedestrian Mall) is too much, drink your way across Colorado and beyond at the legendary Falling Rock Tap House (1919 Blake St.) with its 75-plus taps. Pop over after the evening sessions of the fest but either leave on the early side to make sure you get in, or enjoy standing in line with all your favorite brewmasters since the Falling Rock rightly doesn’t play favorites by letting anybody skip.