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.
Having said that, you tragically can’t subsist on beer alone, so Sparhawk points out some of the best places for beer and food in town. Beginning with Colt & Gray (1553 Platte St.) this upscale gastrotavern sports an ultra meaty menu. Start with their charcuterie plate or keep it simple (as simple as they get anyway) with the grass-fed beef burger or truffled turkey burger. The beer list rocks some of Boulder’s best like Upslope Lager on draft to hard-to-find bottles of Avery Dihos Dactylion sour ale aged in Cabernet Sauvignon oak, the latest in their barrel-aged series. It likely pairs well with the house
Out in West Highland (take a cab), Hops & Pie (3920 Tennyson St), enjoy either the regular or deep-dish pies with a brilliant toppings list, topped by beer-braised brisket! On your pizza! Their star-studded list ranges from Modus Hoperandi IPA from Ska Brewing in Southwest Colorado to the latest magical elixir in Odell’s Woodcut series.
East of Highland isn’t East Highland, it’s just regular Highland, which makes it the perfect neighborhood for Highland Tap and Burger (2219 W. 32nd Ave.), where Sparhawk insists you order the Shroom Luva burger (sautéed shrooms and truffled aioli) “with a side of their wings smoked over Stranahan whiskey barrel staves,” which is a pretty amazing thing to use the spent barrels for from Colorado’s best-known distillery. He suggests pairing it with Oskar Blues G’Knight (Imperial Red).
One of his last-but-not-least recommendations is Euclid Hall (1317 14th St.), a gastropub that loves playing with its food. The surf’n’turf consists of octopus and pork belly and they’ve turned the ultimate Quebecois drunk food—poutine (fries with cheese curds and gravy)—into a snack befitting craft brewers with “Duck, Duck Goose” that’s poutine topped with duck, a sunny side up duck egg, and foi gras. The beer menu equates to dozens of draft, canned, and bottled offerings as well as beer cocktails. And coming to Euclid might make the most sense given its proximity to the convention center that hosts the fest and your hotel room. Having said that, if you don’t have reservations yet, you may be out of luck. Hot spots like The Curtis and Hotel Monaco filled up months ago! Feel free to check GreatAmericanBeerFestival.com/Travel/Hotels for nearby recommendations. Rooms are likely to run over $200, so consider doing what I did my first GABF: stay at a hostel. A bunk at the Denver International Youth Hostel (630 E. 16th Ave.) will only run you $15 a night and with all the sampling you’ll have done, you’re sure to sleep through anything. As a last ditch effort, check if VRBO.com (vacation rental by owner) has anything available for an extra homey touch.
Seeing as overdoing it is a given, when you roll out of your bed or bunk, roll up to either of the two locations of Snooze (Park Ave. & Larimer or 700 N. Colorado) for Mile High’s best breakfast. You’ll wish you had an extra stomach when pouring over their menu that includes dishes like Breakfast Pot Pie, four various eggs bennies including Chilaquiles Benedict with carne asada, and the most inventive pancake menu with options such as Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes and Cherry Bourbon Street with bourbon-soaked cherries and chocolate chips topped with more bourbon sauce. Can’t decide which ones to get? Just like at a great beer bar, you can order a sampler flight. As a matter of fact, Sparhawk adds, “The Snooze concept is that they want you to try everything. So a half order of these bennie, quarter-order of those pancakes…”
Snooze is so successful (expect a line) that they’ve opened up other Colorado locations including in Boulder and Fort Collins, so let’s look at those beer scenes next.
When the Brewers Association sets up headquarters here, you know great beer abounds. A college town so whacky that even Mork from Ork could’ve blended in (it may have been the late ‘70s but the more things change…) makes it a great playground worth visiting while in this corner of Colorado.
Alas, GABF falls after the summer concert schedule at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, probably the most spectacular, majestic outdoor venue in the country. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be rock stars. Begin your visit at Adam Avery’s eponymous brewery. Avery Brewing (5763 Arapahoe Ave.), nearly 20 years strong, is revered for their foil-topped big beers like The Reverend Quad and Maharaja Imperial IPA. For diehards, a visit to the tap room yields fun small batch or one-off beers including mesmerizing creations from their barrel room packed with sour or spirit-aged delicacies.
Even older is Boulder Beer Co. (2880 Wilderness Pl.), dating back to 1979, one of the earliest craft breweries in the country and the very first in Colorado. After taking the tour, guests are treated to a sampler tray, and there may be some nostalgia involved since Hazed and Infused pale ale turned many a Coloradoan onto better beer. Conversely, Upslope (1501 Lee Hill Rd, #20) is one of the newer breweries in town but immediately became a local fave. In fact, what started as a tiny brewery in North Boulder just four years ago with two canned offerings keeps growing so quickly, they’re building a second brewing facility in town, and both will have a taproom. Not that Sparhawk only drinks their beer fresh from the brite tanks. “I’m craving cans of Brown Ale” he says, now that they’ve brought this cooler weather brew back out.
Yet another popular new brew on the block is Twisted Pine (3201 Walnut St.). They made a splash with Ghost Face Killah, made with six different chilis including the nefarious Ghost Peppers. Sparhawk says they have “a great series of beers like their NorthStar Imperial Porter,” which comes out in December should you stick around. A final brewpub that Sparhawk emphatically recommends is Wild Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery (70 E. 1st St. in Nederland), but it’s a good 15 miles west of Boulder. Still, he says, it’s worth the haul for the giant, smoked wings that he calls “insane” and happen to pair perfectly with their Hop Diggity IPA.
For some tasty vittles with your local brews in Boulder proper, head to The Kitchen (1039 Pearl St.) but note that it’s actually sort of three restaurants in one. The Kitchen is the wine-oriented bistro and The Kitchen Upstairs is geared toward group dining, so it’s The Kitchen Next Door (technically 1035 Pearl St.) that is the pub and taps exclusively Colorado beers. Organic, farm-to-table grub abounds.
Feeling less fancy? Pop into Backcountry Pizza and Tap House (2319 Arapahoe Ave.) with a menu that, sandwich- and pie-wise, appeals to meat lovers (“the meat grinder”) and vegetarians (“garden fresh”) alike. Diners can slake their thirsts from 52 taps, most of which rotate on the regular, and the patrons become regulars, too. Naturally, several are local taps such as Left Hand Milk Stout from Longmont in case you don’t have time to stop in on your way from Boulder to Fort Collins. But if you do stop in Longmont, be sure to visit Oskar Blues’s two locations, the brewery’s Tasty Weasel Tap Room (1800 Pike Rd. Unit B in Longmont) and Homemade Liquids and Solids (1555 S. Hover Rd. in Longmont). The original site of the brewery is in the nearby town of Lyons but now closer to the metro area, Tasty Weasel offers visitors something beyond Dales Pale Ale or Old Chub including a weekly firkin. Come ready to get your Skeeball on as well. As for the Homemade pub, of the 43 American craft beer taps, 10 are house brews to help wash down their Cheese Fry Po’boy.
Oh, and here’s the best part about hitting Oskar Blues during your GABF-cation. Book a seat on the Oskar Blues Ordeal for $25 and a short bus will pick you up in downtown Denver, shuttle you to their locations around Lyons and Longmont, and have you back by 4 p.m.
Northernmost among Front Range towns is Ft. Collins, viewed by many as the Austin of Colorado. Actually, because of the number of breweries here, it’s more like the Portland of Colorado. With fewer than 145,000 residents, there are already eight breweries. (Nine if you’d like to count the A-B one off I-25). But inarguably, the best known is New Belgium (500 Linden), home of Fat Tire Amber Ale and dubbed the best place to work (depending on which magazine you read, but I’d way rather work here than Google). To take a tour of one of the most sustainable/eco-friendly breweries in the world, book in advance as they fill up. Or just hang out in the taproom called the Liquid Center where you can sample their usual lineup as well as the latest from their Lips of Faith series. Among the most recent is Tart Lychee, one of my favorite sour beers of all time.
Two blocks away and having opened two years earlier is Odell Brewing (800 E. Lincoln Ave.). Visiting is compulsory not just to see where staples like 90 Shilling Scottish Ale hail from, but to get to procure mouthwatering rarities like Friek (half raspberry-infused Framboise, half cherry-imbued Kriek) and perchance a bottle from their Woodcut series, complex ales aged in new oak barrels when most barrel-aged beers mature in spent spirit or wine casks.
One of the nice things about Ft. Collins is how easily you can ride your Fat Tire cruiser everywhere, but to visit the Fort Collins Brewery and the brewpub they launched on site, Gravity 1020 (1020 E. Lincoln Ave.), just stroll down the block. If you haven’t sampled their beers like Major Tom Pomegranate Wheat Chocolate Stout. Go in on a Tuesday night and you can order a flight of their house cupcakes. Each week brings new flavors. Makes me wonder if they’ve done an Imperial Chocolate cupcake.
Among the newer brewers in town, Sparhawk mentioned Equinox Brewing (133 Remington St.), where you can enjoy their mostly British and German styles in their beer garden. Incidentally, it’s situated in Old Town across the road from Coopersmith Pub (# 5 Old Town Square) in the square. It features the casual “pub side” and the hyper-casual “pool side” (as in billiards, not sippin’ pool-side in your flippy-floppies). The range of beers they brew enables you to order interesting and complementing pairings such as the watermelon salad with What A Melon ale (a light blonde tinged with fresh watermelon) or the Mesa Verde burger topped with green chilis to go with their Sigda’s Green Chili ale that works way better than many a chili beer out there. Not too spicy, but bold enough to sate ardent chili fans.
And perhaps saving the most beer-geek ballyhooed brewery for last, Sparhawk brings up Funkwerks (1900 E Lincoln Ave., Unit B), the Belgian-inspired brewery well-regarded for their flagship Saison and sure to delight visitors at their taproom (tucked into the Ft Collins Brewery’s initial location) with any of their even more exotic beers, mostly but not entirely in the Saison style (including Southern Tropic, an Imperial Saison).
When brew-hopping around Ft. Collins works up your hunger, head to Choice City Butcher & Deli (104 W. Olive St.). Owner Russ Robinson has developed a true beer-geek/foodie destination perfect for laying that early morning foundation; I look forward to the corned buffalo hash with creamy potato pancakes as much as anything on their 20 taps, which are always guaranteed to feature something you won’t likely find elsewhere. But it’s perhaps their variety of Reuben sandwiches (five of ‘em) including, naturally, one with buffalo.
It’s a 65-mile haul back to Denver from Ft. Collins, so first and foremost make sure you have safe transportation, and secondly, use the time wisely and sleep. After all, you’ve only got 72 hours to soak up all the fest has to offer so make efficient use of that hour-and-a-half drive.