I’ve only once spent more than a few days at at time in Denver. That was 2008, when I was in the midst of a cross-country move from Washington, DC to somewhere out west. Portland was always the default destination, but I was open to staying put somewhere else. I stopped in Denver for a few weeks and was very tempted by the parks, sunshine, and mountain access to stay. The thriving coffee, cocktail, and beer scene in Portland won out however, and I’ve been living here ever since.
When I visited Denver for the Collaboration Festival and Colorado Craft Beer Week a few weeks ago, I also had the opportunity to catch up with a city I haven’t visited in a few years. The number of breweries has exploded since then, along with every other aspect of its food and drink culture. If it was as good in 2008 as it is now, I likely would have stayed. (For that matter, if DC had shown more signs of being where it is today in 2008, I might not have ever left.) Guided by Two Parts, who organized Collaboration Fest and set me up for the weekend with the Colorado Brewers Guild, these were some of the highlights in the city’s growing beer scene (with a bonus visit to Colorado’s first aquavit distillery, because of course I couldn’t pass up.)
Our first stop was not at all what I would have expected: a gluten-free brewery in Golden. My limited experience with gluten-free beers has been that they’re either a poor substitute for beers made with typical grains, or that they’re interesting, but different, drinks in their own right. (Groundbreaker in Portland, which makes gluten-free beers with sorghum, lentils, chestnuts, and other ingredients falls into the latter category). Holidaily is the first I’ve tried making gluten-free beers that stand up to their barley-mashed counterparts.
Holidaily brews with millet and buckwheat. Talking with their brewer, relying on these grains apparently raises all sorts of challenges: smaller particle size after milling, less efficient fermentation, and higher costs overall. Yet they’re still turning out good, interesting beers. When I visited they had a double IPA, Belgian-style wit, red ale, and stout on tap. The last of these was my favorite, perhaps because the emphasis on roasty flavors obscures the difference between traditional grains and their millet and buckwheat counterparts. Regardless, though I was a little skeptical going in, I’d gladly return here for more.
Cannonball Creek Brewing Company
Our next stop was just up the street at Cannonball Creek, a brewpub making a diverse range of beers with a tap list that veers toward the hop-driven. A stand out was the “Trump Hands” session IPA, a low-alcohol session beer named after everyone’s least favorite tiny-appendaged aspiring authoritarian. You don’t have to get it in a comically small sample glass, but that seemed the most proper way to enjoy it at the time. The beer, fortunately, goes down a lot easier than the candidate. The pub also features a rotating array of food truck vendors setting up shop outside, keeping the menu varied.
Baere was the standout brewery for me at Collaboration Fest, thanks to their smoked pineapple saison and rye saison aged in rye whiskey barrels. Returning to Denver proper, we stopped into their strip mall brewery before opening hours to check out their current line-up, which included wonderfully malty and crisp farmhouse ale made with Sorachi Ace hops, a bretty brown ale partially aged in rye barrels, and a very dry, roasty winter stout. With my interest in beer cocktails, I was especially curious to try their low-abv Berliner weisse mixed with housemade woodruff, raspberry, and grapefruit and hops syrups. There is resistance among some beer lovers to “prepared beers” — and good beer should arguably need no augmentation — but the practice allows for interesting additions of flavor, especially when the additional ingredients are well-made. (Neon green artificial woodruff syrup is best left out.) Sampling a flight of Berliner-weisse preparations is the kind of thing a beer cocktail fan like me can’t resist. Though it looks unassuming from the outside, Baere’s the place I’d like to return again and again.
Trve Brewing is just a few blocks away from Baere, making the pair ideal for a one-two pub crawl. The aesthetic is heavy metal, though I’m told the clientele is diverse. They make clean beers at the brew pub, but at a second facility the make sour ales that can be purchased their in bottle. I opted for their “Buried Sun,” a lightly tart saison fermented with a mixed culture. They’re also producing some of the most striking label artwork I’ve seen.
I only had time for one beer at Ratio, but their “Dear You” saison would be one of my go-to every day beers if I could get it in Portland. I had a great time sipping on a flight at Call to Arms, a damn near ideal neighborhood brew pub. And though Crooked Stave‘s tasting room was closed when I visited The Source — a shared space with great food, drink, and coffee — I got to catch up with owner Chad Yakobson and bring home a few barrel aged fruit beers to enjoy in Portland.
Beer mecca Euclid Hall, whose initial program was founded by my friend Ryan Conklin, was one of the few places I returned to from previous visits. As great as their beer selection is, I wanted to go back for their Pig Ear Pad Thai, an addictively delicious take on the dish that swaps strips of fried pig ear for the noodles. It works amazingly well, and it was just as good as I remembered from my visit several years ago. They also have a section of the menu devoted to beer cocktails, which I obviously couldn’t resist. I tried the”Litre O’Cola,” made with gin, cherry and thyme shrub, lemon, coffee, and Diebold porter. It was really good, taking on cola notes without being too sweet; it’s the kind of drink I’d have liked to include in my book, if I’d encountered it before publication.
Devil’s Head Distilling
A few weeks before my visit, Ryan White from Devil’s Head Distillery got in touch with me about his new aquavit. They’re the first ones producing the spirit in Colorado, alongside a gin and vodka. Made with 100% barley, it’s a grain-forward aquavit with a complex botanical blend led, but not dominated, by caraway.
Lastly, I really enjoyed my stay at The Crawford Hotel, located in the newly renovated Union Station, where I was hosted for the weekend. The amenities here are really amazing: craft beer, good coffee, ice cream, and complementary Tesla rides in the area are included in the stay. (Surprisingly, I took advantage of all but the beer — I was never actually there for happy hour, but the tap list had a strong selection of local beers.) There’s also a stylish cocktail bar, The Terminal, upstairs, and the free WiFi in the sunny, bustling lobby makes this a dream location for a work base in downtown.