Colorado helped pave the way for craft beer nationwide. How is Denver beer getting on now that it’s mainstream?
Take a window seat on the train ride from Denver International Airport to Union Station. On the half-hour trip from the middle of nowhere, watch the city come into focus through the dust and sun. Watch long expanses of sky meld with mountains that ripple the horizon.
Denver is alone up there—hundreds of miles removed from the nearest major city. The Only City In The West. It grew from a tangle of railways to a metropolis where people have flocked to find purple mountains, silver veins, gold nuggets, and green ones, too.
Everything funnels to this frontier, and it’s always in transition. Nowadays that means donut shops in acronymic neighborhoods (LoHi, LoDo.) There’s an explosion of new residents and a dearth of rentals on the market. Real estate is up and wages are not.
Amid this influx, of course, there is beer. Denver is the cradle of craft beer and the capital of Coors. It’s home to the Great American Beer Festival and several of the nation’s most recognizable craft brands. There are over 60 breweries in the city limits, and a dozen or more in the pipeline for 2017. There’s no denying the pressures in this seasoned and crowded craft beer market.
“If you’re opening up in the city, you have to be on your A-game with beer,” says Ben Chenard, co-founder of Little Machine Beer. “They’re not quite as forgiving as they used to be.” Little Machine established in Jefferson Park, an up-and-coming neighborhood that looms above the Broncos stadium, in 2015 when there wasn’t a brewery within a mile. Now there are a handful.
Chenard says Jefferson Park is “extremely dense and getting denser,” with lots of customers within walking distance and more on the way. The muffler shop around the corner is becoming a cluster of 56 micro-apartments. In 2015, Little Machine might have been considered out-of-the-way. Now they’re hoping to grow into a community cornerstone.
Raspberry Table Sour is back on tap! Open at 4 today. Cheers! pic.twitter.com/IANhoO6lRT
— Baere Brewing (@BaereBrewing) January 6, 2016
The simple fact behind the city’s brewery growth is that more people are coming and they need more beer. Ryan Skeels co-founded Baere Brewing in a strip mall just off the main drag in the bustling Baker District. They specialize in saisons and sours, but try to keep something on tap for every new palate. “There are a handful of sky rise apartment and condo buildings being built within a mile of our taproom,” Skeels notices. “More people are looking for more places to sit down.”
With so many to choose from, each new brewery needs to find a niche—if not a new neighborhood, then an under-served style. That might mean taking a stab at a category that garners fewer entries during judging at the Great American Beer Festival—the brewery competition and festival whose presence looms over Denver year-round.
The week of GABF is invaluable for Denver’s small breweries. It could be giant chunk of a brewery’s annual taproom sales. It’s a chance to show off for the industry’s finest on your home turf—forging relationships, discussing projects. And if they win a medal, it just might change the trajectory of their business.
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