The Mile High City Becomes Forerunner of Nation’s Niche-Specific Craft Breweries
Words by Amy Strauss
Photographs by Michael Ryan Lawrence
In a state with a brewing roster of 300+ breweries and counting, it comes as no surprise that in Denver, Colorado—the home of nation’s iconic Great American Beer Festival—you’ll find more than 50 breweries calling the Mile High City their home.
“There are not many neighborhoods within Denver that are without a brewery,” said Ryan Kilpatrick, the Founder/Head Brewer of Fiction Beer Company. “For a long time, there was a new brewery opening at least once a week.”
“Denver is ever-changing,” said Darren McGregor, National Sales Manager of Epic Brewing Company. “We’re heavily influenced by both coasts and we’ve really embraced what ‘craft’ beer is about. It’s all about quality and local. We don’t let anyone off for producing lesser beer.”
“A lot of brewers have left larger breweries to open their own places,” he continued. “We (Epic) are a legacy here—we have a long-standing relationship with camaraderie, we’ve got a big passion for diversity and we’re in a unique place with both big and small breweries, many of whom only sell their beers right here.
But what makes this saturated beer city so different from others, and more importantly, worth your trip across the country?
“We are not a town where all of our breweries are making the same styles,” Fiction’s Ryan said. “Every brewery has its own take on things.” Renegade Brewing Company’s Laura Decker agreed. “The beauty of Denver’s beer scene is there isn’t a beer that defines it—variety makes us unique.”
But, be warned. “If you come here for seven days to just tour breweries, you’ll barely scratch the surface,” said Black Shirt Brewing Company’s CEO Chad Miller. “You’ll want to spend at least a few months tucked into the neighborhoods. Only locals know how well those breweries are doing—they’ve become their local watering holes.”
After three very-short days kicking around Denver—which, as Miller said, is definitely a tease—we’ve identified seven craft breweries that are setting the pace for quality, exceptionally unique beer in this state capital. They’re staying independent, they’re staying weird, and they’re carving out a hop-forward, barrel-aged niche unlike any other scene exploding in the United States.
Fiction Beer Company
7101 E. Colfax Ave.
Neighborhood: South Park Hill
What happens when a self-proclaimed book dork and beer geek collaborate in the beverage industry? A literary brewery is born! In September of 2014, husband and wife Ryan and Christa Kilpatrick—he’s the beer nerd; she’s the bookworm—debuted their brewing company within one of East Denver’s quintessential residential neighborhoods. Operating off of a seven-barrel system (“people ask if I have a pilot system, I laugh and say that’s our whole system”), the duo produces a range of well-balanced beers inspired by their favorite books.
“We will always tie a beer to a book, its name and its description,” revealed Kilpatrick. The very scholarly beer program is categorization by genres—Classics, Adventure and Fantasy—which is where you’ll find mild-to-wild beer filed appropriately. Like a good book you love to reread, the Classics are styles you are familiar with and revisit often (e.g. Old Bums & Beat Cowboys Pale Ale, inspired by On the Road; Subtle Rose Pils, inspired by The Burrow; A Beer of Very Little Brain, inspired by Winnie the Pooh). The middle ground, referred to as the Adventure section, is where you’ll find creative sours, playful IPAs and imperial pale ales (e.g. Neptune’s Fickle Grace, a 100% Brett IPA, inspired by S). Fantasy is where the “authors” (their nickname for the brewers) have the most fun—think fruit- and herb-infused saisons)
Kilpatrick is a Jersey Shore native who moved out to Denver for college and never came back. As part of Collaboration Fest, an annual collaborative brewing event in Denver, he summoned a hometown brewery, Cape May Brewing Company, and they collectively brewed New Age Lovecraft, an inventive red saison brewed with blue violets, lemon verbena, galangal root, white clover honey and Equinox hops.
“Denver is quickly becoming a place for sour beer,” Kilpatrick mentioned, regarding his funky collaboration with Cape May. “Mostly everyone has a sour program and we’re starting to see a lot more kettle sour styles. New Belgium and Avery led the way, and then Crooked Stave did very well in setting a sour precedence too.”
To nudge the bookish theme one step further, the bar is made out of actual old books, tables are engraved with quotes from famous authors and the beer menus are bound within old books.
“You come to Fiction because you are a book lover. You enjoy the theme for what it is. You have a book-inspired beer. You take part in the free book exchange. You have fun with it!”
Epic Brewing Company
3001 Walnut St.
Neighborhood: River North
They may have the second largest (read: successful) barrel-aged program in Colorado, right behind New Belgium, but the Centennial State wasn’t the first stop for David Cole and Peter Erickson’s brewery. Epic’s roots began in Salt Lake City in 2008, where they worked with a petite three-barrel system that grew organically into a 10-barrel brewhouse. The brewery’s cofounders discovered a loophole in the liquor laws in Utah (allowing them to sell 4%+ ABV beers in their tapless tasting room so long as they were served out of a bottle, with food) and quickly created beverage diversity within the state. Eventually a combination of the Utah’s political scene and a desire for expansion led them to flee to Denver in 2013.
The River North-based 20,000-square-foot space was formerly a BMW repair shop that they transitioned into a 20-barrel brewhouse, speckled with a sea of 12 foeders (their combined capacity holds 760 bbls) and endless racks of barrels. John Conlan, one of two team members who made the jump from SLC to Denver, says the brewery is a “brewer’s wet dream. We are capable of producing nine beers in 30 hours on our system. It’s incredibly efficient.”
“We are all about establishing the local connection wherever we produce,” said Epic’s Darren McGregor. “We have beers exclusive to Colorado, as well as others that are exclusive to Salt Lake City.” To avoid “house flavor,” he said that they fluctuate between using of 7 different yeast strains, 30+ hop varieties and a lot of specialty malts, among other ingredients.
For example, with their esteemed Son of a Baptist coffee-infused stout, they give it the localized treatment by varying the coffee roaster that they obtain the coffee from, depending on where the batch is headed in distribution.
The brewery’s taproom is worthy of trip to Denver in itself, boasting 25 originals on tap and always a rotating, limited-edition firkin or two. Hobnob between the Classic—but not-so-basic—to the Elevated and Exponential series. Highlights include the Los Locos, an ultra-refreshing Mexican-style lager crafted with lime and sea salt, the Tart & Juicy kettle-aged sour that bursts with juicy hops and the Brainless on Peaches, a Belgian ale brewed with peach puree and aged in French Chardonnay casks. Brewery tours are available Fridays through Sundays, at select times.
Black Shirt Brewing Company
3719 Walnut St.
Neighborhood: Five Points/River North Arts District
Want to know what 14 years of building a brewery looks like? That’s Black Shirt. Whether you caught the likeable family affair on Netflix’s Crafting a Nation or you’re intrigued by someone celebrating a t-shirt shade by splashing it in a brewery name, this River North (RiNo) Arts District-based brewery will catch you off-guard in the best of ways.
As their triumphant story goes, CEO/brewer Chad Miller built the business plan for Black Shirt back in 1999. It took him, along with his partner/brother Branden and his wife Carissa, over a decade to fund and build the project. That’s a long time, but with his father’s sage advice to “do one thing and do it well” continuously churning in his head, he persisted.
“I was supposed to go to Harvard but instead, I just wanted to brew beer,” he said.
Not only was he DIY’ing the entire production in a neighborhood that was known to be somewhat sketchy at the time, but he was also developing his shtick to perfect the Red Ale Project, which would eventually become the base beer for all beers served at Black Shirt’s taproom.
That’s right. All of the beers at this music-themed brewery are red ales. “We felt that the style was underappreciated. We went to a lot of breweries and always thought, ‘we could make this so much better.’”
It took 167 test batches to pinpoint the final recipe. “All of the beers use the same [base] recipe and then we build on the malt bill, vary the yeast strain, etc. We build layers in the beers the way that we want to. The recipe is versatile, which allows for a lot of spin-offs.”
“Red ales are not just malt-forward beers,” Miller continued. “We make them for all seasons—deep and rich in winter; crisp in summer. It’s important to have beer of the terroir and beers that express our neighborhood of Denver. Colorado means ‘red,’ after all.”
To illustrate the Miller brothers’ range of red ale recipes, they’ve produced the flagship, Colorado Red Ale, to be a hazy farmhouse dry-hopped with Galaxy hops, a crushable kolsch, a pistachio-lavender red rye and a half-Japanese porter made with Seven Spice, among many others. All beers are served in Offero Vessels, a type of glassware that is slanted downward and based off of an engineered coffee mug design that enhances aromas as you bring the glass to your lips.
Now, four years in, the charismatic front runner let us in on what’s to come. He has a secret barrel house he’s been stashing beer in for three years. Currently, his inventory includes 50 barrels and 2 foeders. He spent years collecting wild yeast for this barrel program. We can safely presume that we’re all in for a treat with these beers.
Oh, and what’s the deal with the name? “We are the Black Shirt Brothers,” laughed Miller. “We always only wore black t-shirts—we were rock and rollers. Now, my wife only wears black shirts too.”
Renegade Brewing Company
925 W. 9th Ave.
Neighborhood: Santa Fe Arts District
“When we opened, we were the ninth brewery in Denver,” said Laura Decker, VP of operations at Renegade. “Now there are over 50 and every brewery contributes its own thing.”
The “offensively delicious”-themed brewing company—a brewery pushing to be unique and plant its own stamp on the local beer scene—was one of the first small businesses to contribute to Denver’s growing Santa Fe Arts District. “We’ve come to fit in well here,” said Decker. “We produce an art product too.”
In the last two years, Decker, along with passionate homebrewers-turned owners Brian and Khara O’Connell, have been in full-blown expansion mode. They are currently in the process of finalizing preparations for their new 15,000-square-foot production facility and, eventually, a second taproom. They’ll remain in Sante Fe with their second location, expanding production to a 30-barrel brewhouse and also installing their own Wild Goose Engineering canning line.
“For five years, we’ve done everything in small batches—70 barrels at a time,” she continued. “We’re at the point where we need more production and fermentation space and it’s time to expand our can sales.”
Strictly draft and can sales only, Renegade’s goal is brew smart beer that people actually want to drink. “Our style is breaking the style. We take a style outside of the usual; expectations,” said Laura. “We deconstruct a beer and consider what could make it more interesting. For example, with our Consilium, an English-American pale ale, we added American hops to the end and finished it with orange peel. In the end, our beers come out to be unique interpretations of the featured style.”
Equally as inventive are Renegade’s variations of oatmeal ale—there’s Borracho Oats, which was aged for six months in a tequila barrel, and there’s Hiatus, which is infused with Denver’s Novo Coffee cold-brewed java. Additional highlights include the Berbere, an imperial stout brewed with Ethiopian curry and 5:00 in Bangkok, a crisp ale with lemongrass and ginger.
In March 2016, they developed a new charitable hook for their brewery called the Tap 4 Tap. It’s a program that provides one gallon of clean water for those in need per every gallon of beer purchased, launched successfully. Already, just a few months in, they’ve provided 27,959 days of water through a partnership with UNICEF.
Great Divide Brewing Company
2201 Arapahoe St.
Neighborhood: LoDo (Lower Downtown)
Already a household name, Great Divide is currently barrels-deep in expansion mode. In 1994, owner Brian Dunn hacked a former dairy processing plant into a 15,000-square-foot brewhouse. By now, it’s proved to be too small for the brewery’s rapidly expanding sour program, which they launched five years ago.
In mid-2015, one mile away in River North, they’ve opened the Barrel House, a 16-tap bar that currently fits 40 guests (plus 100 more on the patio, when that’s open). The second taproom is only in its phase one of Great Divide’s intended expansion. It’s attached to a 65,000-square-foot warehouse, which can house up to 1,500 barrels—a majority of which are dedicated to sours—and also allows room for a new kegging and canning line.
Let’s jet back to the original, which will remain even after the RiNo facility is complete. The bustling jewel box-sized taproom has entertained brew geeks’ palates with its range of bold, higher-in-alcohol beers for years. With 16 beers on tap at all times, the offerings dance between the notable classics (i.e. all of the Yeti series), the seasonal Tank Farm series (Nadia Kali, a hibiscus saison is very worthy of a try), and a few experimental brews, pulled off of the site’s OG pilot system.
Adam Dreyer, Great Divide’s bar supervisor, revealed that the brewing team is constantly creating “well balanced beers—especially IPAs, like Titan—that do not fry your palate. We have brewers on-site every day—even Saturdays—constantly working off our pilot system.”
Though he may be biased, he suggested that Great Divide is making the “best beer in the city. There are so many beers done so well, but we make sure to always have something for everyone, catering to all needs and making people happy.”
Tap into Dreyer’s enthusiasm by joining him for a free, guided brewery tour. They’re hosted daily and run roughly 30 minutes at both facilities.
1710 S. Broadway
Neighborhood: Platt Park
“It was a fantasy of mine to open a brewery,” said Matthew Fuerst, owner of Grandma’s House. “I just needed a hook first.”
With an extreme hobby of collecting kitschy vintage and being a self-proclaimed “hoarder by nature,” Fuerst melded his treasure trove of ideas (and tangible inventory) into a brewery and tasting room that, well, looks like your grandma’s house.
“I wanted this space to be comfortable, nostalgic and authentic,” he said. “Somewhere you’d want to hang out and a place to appreciate weird things.”
From walls lined with 8-tracks, knit-wrapped taps, cheeky knick-knacks, paintings actually made by his grandmother, retro board games (notably including Trump: the Game), plastic-lined tables, s bar with hard candy bowls, and even box TVs (read: more than one!) available for button-mashing your way through Atari and Nintendo games, he’s succeeded at making everyone feel like they are at their grandparent’s house. He’s even cross-stitched the brewery’s swag.
His brewery is positioned as a collective, where he allows breweries-in-planning to use his system and make their official debuts on his taps. In simplest terms, Grandma’s House is a brewing company that operates with multiple breweries under one roof, celebrating the spirit of collaboration and learning from one another. Once a brewery moves on to its own space, they become a “grandkid.” Since opening in 2014, he’s collected three grandkids, with several homebrewers currently operating at his space, including a sake brewer.
The coolest part? All of his brewing tanks are named after his grandparents.
Comrade Brewing Company
7667 E. Iliff Ave.
Neighborhood: East Denver
“Welkome to the Party”—that’s the slogan that backs David Lin and Marks Lanham’s southeastern Denver brewery. Splashed in fire engine-red and themed as a tongue-in-cheek nod to Communism, the only thing the comrades take serious is their beer.
“We make beer that we want to drink ourselves,” said Lin. “Clean, drinkable, hoppy … that’s the beers we produce. Typically, we have six IPAs at all times, including red, black and session.”
“There was motivational for us to come out and kick ass,” chimed in Lanham. “People gravitate towards quality beer and that’s what we are about.”
Lanham, a career brewer with 20 years under his brewing belt, runs the site’s 15-barrel brewhouse that resides in a 5,300-square-foot location with an attached spacious taproom. All equipment is U.S.-made—no Chinese tanks—and they tap into local hop harvests whenever they can.
Their repeat-GABF medal-winner, Superpower IPA, has led the reputation of this hop-driven brewery; it’s often rumored to be the best IPA in the state of Colorado. Crafted late summer/early fall when the organically grown Pacific Northwest hops are in season, the kingpin IPA is only annually available for a limited time, and they put a lot of care into the hops that it uses.
“Because of the fresh hops, this beer can only be made during the very short harvest window,” he shared. He relayed that it takes less than 24 hours from sourcing the hops to getting them into the beer.
When you breeze-through of the tap list and you can tell Comrade’s affection isn’t just about fresh hops, but the whole hop spectrum and all of the endless varieties. They make use of Chinook, Azacca, Mosaic, 06277, HBC 366 (formerly Equinox), El Dorado, Nugget, Amarillo, Citra, Golding…and we’re just getting started with the mentions on that list. Beyond IPAs, they spend some quality time with a mighty milk stout brewed with a custom-blend of Denver’s Kaladi Coffee Roasters’ coffee and a gnarly blonde ale, Yellow Fever, that’s infused with jalapenos.
Before You Go … Additional Breweries & Restaurant to Hit
When haunting around the River North neighborhood, while visiting Black Shirt Brewing Company or Great Divide’s Barrel Room, carve out an afternoon—and potentially an evening—to visit the booze and food incubator The Source. Billed as new-age “artisan food market,” the former foundry building dates back to 1880 and operates as the home to 15 merchants that horseshoe around its perimeter and share a central communal area.
Much buzzed about is the cult-followed Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, who got their start in Fort Collins and most recently brewed nearby at Prost Brewing. They now have their own HQ in The Source where they bust out wine-forward, funky releases and serve them in their petite tasting room. Crooked Stave neighbors to visit? The oak-fired oven-driven Acorn restaurant that prepares an exceptional Duroc pork shoulder and serve it family-style with poblano-cheddar cornbread; Western Daughters, a must-see whole-animal butcher shop that sources 150 miles or less and busts out killer carnivorous sandwiches; and Proper Pour, a real-deal bottle shop for beer nerds and cocktail geeks alike.
While in Platt Park—or the “Green Mile,” as locals call it—make it a point to stop at two-year-old Former Future Brewing Company, who aim to produce “futuristic interpretations of historical styles” of beer in a taproom that’s themed around aviation (e.g. a sleek airplane wing makes up its bar). Small-batch beers are made 120 gallons at time in an interesting range of styles (i.e. patersbier, unfiltered lager and rustic saisons). Six house taps rotate as do the house beer cocktails and beer and cookie flights.
Nearby, in the Historic Baker neighborhood, you’ll find the grungy TRVE Brewing Company that’s after all metalheads’ hearts (they have hearts … we think?). Blaring the likes of Mastodon and Widower, dimly lit and clad in all black, its 3-barrel system produces never-boring black IPAs, salty wheat beers and pine-forward IPAs. With only 16 seats at the bar and extensive communal tables, this nano-brewery’s experience is one of Denver’s most unique. After exploring their ever-changing eight taps and select saison and sour bottle releases, you’ll probably want to become part of this metalhead crew too.
Looking to soak up the suds from your beer-packed day? Make a pit stop at chef Troy Guard’s street art-splashed, badass Mexican food joint, Los Chingones, that rolls out rattlesnake chorizo-studded guacamole, a six-deep salsa list and ten variations of tacos—which include the likes of octopus, lamb neck, pastor pork and fried tofu. Epic even brewed them a custom beer that’s an elevated rendition of a Corona.
In the mood for course-by-course culinary nirvana to seal the deal on your Denver beercation? Make a reservation immediately—and definitely in advance—at Central Denver’s To the Wind Bistro. It’s charmingly petite—as in, seats 16 people—and hard to get in, but worth the effort. Chef Royce Oliveira operates the Denver darling out of a six-burner open kitchen, rotating his small plate menu regularly and hosting many beer-centric dinners.