Imperceptibly but steadily the arid ranchland terrain of dry gullies and crevices rises to meet the horizon as I leave behind a limitless expanse stretching eastward as far as the eye can see. A few hours pass before I crest a small hill, and there, spread out before me in the distance is the spine of the continent soaring to majestic heights. Tucked up against the Front Range palisades that form the entry to the Rockies, Denver and other erstwhile frontier settlements beckon with a cosmopolitan flair that belies their one-time reputation as a collection of cow towns.
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Home to hikers, cyclists, and other fitness-conscious denizens of Whole Foods and similar paycheque-depleting grocery stores, Colorado boasts the second-highest number of gallons of beer consumed per capita in the United States. Beards abound, but there’s hardly a beer belly in sight.
- 175 craft breweries (4th in the U.S.)
- 4.7 breweries per 100,000 adults 21 years of age or older (4th in the U.S.)
- 1,413,242 barrels produced (2nd in the U.S.) *One barrel = 31 U.S. gallons
- 11.7 gallons of beer per adult 21 years of age or older (2nd in the U.S.)
~Brewers’ Association data current as of 2013~
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Arapaho and Cheyenne buffalo hunters once occupied the land that rumours of riches transformed. Gold drew the tide of white pioneers and adventurers to the Front Range in the middle of the nineteenth century, establishing Denver as a major supply point at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
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Over the rolling wheatfields all golden beneath the distant snows of Estes, I’d be seeing old Denver at last. […] Before I knew it we were going over the wholesale fruitmarkets outside Denver; there were smokestacks, smoke, railyards, red-brick buildings, and the distant downtown gray-stone buildings, and here I was in Denver. He let me off at Larimer Street. I stumbled along with the most wicked grin of joy in the world, among the old bums and beat cowboys of Larimer Street. (Jack Kerouac, On the Road)
Just as Denver once attracted luminaries of the postwar counter-cultural efflorescence, the city has also played a central role in a more recent “revolution” that is leaving an indelible imprint on the recent cultural history of North America. Even if Kerouac’s beat prose pulses more faintly in Denver today than it did in the late 1940s, a host of Denver breweries and brewpubs have channeled the ethos of this earlier generation in challenging taste preferences for massed-produced beer. Though we may debate the merits of gentrification, establishments like Wynkoop and Great Divide have shaped the urban revitalization of Denver.
Wynkoop Brewing Company
With its three-story brewpub with its sea of pool tables on the second floor and convivial downstairs bar and dining area, Wynkoop is a Denver institution with deep roots in the community.
Back when it opened in 1988, there was nary a brewpub in sight between California and Chicago. And not only that: The historic building in which John Hickenlooper and his partners chose to establish their brewpub––the J.S. Brown Mercantile Building (1899)––was in an area of town that had long since fallen on hard times. The partners had to lobby the state legislature to change the laws governing the production and sale of beer at a single site. The work paid off. With one cut of the ribbon on opening day, Wynkoop became Colorado’s first brewpub and Denver’s first microbrewery. (It seems the experience with the political process paid off for Hickenlooper. If you’re not from Colorado but were wondering why the name sounds familiar, Hickenlooper was elected mayor of Denver fifteen years after Wynkoop opened, and was elected governor twenty-two years after the first pint was raised.)
Rather than settling on a pint, try a sampler flight of three 5-oz pours. Two beers in particular stood out among the two flights I ordered. The Cherry Sour is a relatively complex barrel-aged beer with pleasant oak and vanilla aromatics stitched together with a playful sour cherry and hay-like Brett character. If you like darker beers, try the B3K Black Lager––plenty of sweet cocoa and caramel together with toast and roast aromas complementing spicy-herbal noble hops and a bitter-sweet chocolate nuttiness on the palate. Should you happen upon Wynkoop around April Fools’ Day, try the Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout if you dare.
No frills here. Just a wrap-around bar, a room with a view (to the brewhouse), and the occasional food truck parked out front. Located in a serviceable early-vintage brick building a few steps off the beaten path in a part of town that still retains a Kerouacian feel, Great Divide’s tasting room is all about what’s in the glass. Even if you live in a place that sees plenty of Great Divide distribution, this is one taproom and brewery where your well-spent time won’t cost you more than a happy song to sample the richly warming offerings that don’t make it far beyond the Denver city limits. The prices for samples of their various Yeti iterations (Espresso Oak-Aged, Chocolate Oak-Aged, Belgian-Style, you name it) are eye-popping, but in a good way. With the proliferating rivers of excellent imperial stouts available these days, it still pays to rediscover the craft beer “classics” from time to time.
If you’re not as much a fan of the heavy hitters as I am––or if you entertain any hope of partaking of Denver’s rich cultural scene in addition to your beer explorations––the taproom’s sixteen handles also include Great Divide’s widely available lighter fare like Heyday Belgian-Style White Ale and Lasso IPA.
Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen
Just off Larimer Street, Euclid Hall occupies a stately brick building once home to a Masonic Lodge and the Colorado Women’s Relief Corps. A small selection of mainly Colorado breweries such as Elevation, Telluride, Epic, Odell, Avery, and Left Hand flow from the twelve taps, and the roughly fifty bottles and cans come reasonably priced. Choose from the Arithmetic or Algebra list for lighter beers, or try your luck with Trigonometry or Calculus at the higher ABV/IBU/sour quotient end of the list.
You may well find a larger selection of beers at several of the taprooms within a stone’s throw of Euclid Hall, but you’d be harder pressed to find food that matched the caliber of this gastropub’s dishes: house-made sausages, hand-ground mustards, and P.E.I. mussels steamed in New Belgium Tripel are just a few of the beer-friendly dishes you’ll find here. I had a rich and silky Duck Poutine that had me thinking for a moment that I was at the legendary Au Pièd de Cochon in Montreal. My dinner companion, who’s vegetarian, had no objections about the Asparagus Gribiche.
Colorado Liquor Mart
Colorado Liquor Mart features knowledgeable service if you’re lucky enough to get “the beer guy.” Colorado craft beer is well represented, and the store has an inconspicuous walk-in behind the showcase coolers where you can search for rarer beers from the U.S. and beyond. Be sure to ask about it; staff members were more than happy to take me back for a look. Easily accessible from I-25, Colorado Liquor Mart makes a perfect pit-stop for loading up on the way out of town. Mr. B.’s Wine & Spirits and Mondo Vino get good press, but I haven’t been. Check them out and let me know what you think.
Thanks for reading the first part of Tempest’s series on Colorado’s Northern Front Range. The compendium of articles I’ll be rolling out over the coming weeks is eons from exhaustive––who among us can conceivably visit every establishment in the Denver, Boulder, Longmont, and Fort Collins areas within the space of a week, especially while taking in two sessions of the Great American Beer Festival? Feel most free to chime in with a comment about your own favourite brewery and taproom gems beyond the justifiably famous ones that saturate the Front Range.
Related Tempest Articles
Albert Bierstadt. Surveyor’s Wagon in the Rockies (1859). Two-dimensional public-domain reproduction of the original housed in the St. Louis Art Museum.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road.
Great Divide taproom, F.D. Hofer.
Euclid Hall exterior, Euclid Hall Facebook page.
Useful Further Reading
Ed Sealover. Mountain Brew: A Guide to Colorado’s Breweries (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011).
© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.