It is that time of year again. That time that is loved by beer geeks the United States over and stressed over by brewers in the same geographic area. The week where US brewers and beer geeks gather to drink, drink, and be merry in the Mile High City: the Great American Beer Festival or GABF (pronounced Gee-Ay-Bee-Eff). Yep. For the next week Denver will be overrun with brewers, beer geeks, frat boys, woo girls, and reluctant designated drivers looking for a good time.
As a resident beer drinker, I suppose it’s my responsibility to report on said festivities. I do so somewhat reluctantly as I feel the event, and all of the events surrounding it, are covered more than sufficiently (even beaten to death, perhaps) by writers much more prolific and talented than I. Some of that (excellent) coverage can be found on:
Denver Off the Wagon
And so on and so forth.
However, while reading the 1,000,000th article telling folks who are coming out here to visit Great Divide, New Belgium, and Falling Rock Taphouse, I figured I would join the conversation. While I think those establishments are fantastic, I’m a little tired of the same places getting all the press over and over when there are so many other great breweries, taphouses, and eateries out there that deserve some love as well. I thought I might as well throw a spotlight (regardless of the weird wolf-shaped gobo and strange, orangish tint) on some places I feel the dedicated beer geek would be loathed to miss on their travels to our lovely state.
Some of these breweries will be pouring at GABF*, but there’s nothing quite like visiting in-person.
- Hops & Pie, Denver. But, but, they only have 24 taps! you will likely whine to me. Yeah, but as the saying goes: it’s not the size of the boat, it’s the motion of the ocean. Since their opening 4 years ago, Hops & Pie has proven to be one of the go-to spots in Denver for rare, exclusive, and delicious beers. Their tap list changes (multiple times) daily, their staff is knowledgeable, and their food is great. While their offerings can tend towards one style or another depending on the day, I have yet to visit where they haven’t had something on offer that got my yayas up. Tomorrow (October 1st) they are doing a tap takeover with a bunch of beers that were formerly unavailable in Colorado. You know I’ll be there.
- *Barrels & Bottles, Golden. Barrels & Bottles has one of those enviable locations both in that it’s easy to park and walk to, but it also gives a lovely view of the largest brewery in Golden (and down the street from the ridiculously good Bob’s Atomic Burgers). Besides their awesome location, they are quickly becoming a destination for beer lovers from the city who are looking for an escape, but not too much of an escape. In addition to 20 beer taps (including at least four dedicated to their own beers) and an infusion tower, they have 24 wine taps, wine slushies, and a nice small plates menu. They avoid a lot of the pitfalls of other “beer bars” in town by working with multiple distributors and not playing favorites with any one brewery, region, or style. You are as likely to find a rare sour on tap as a double Cascadian. They also have a short, but growing, bottle list (which, yes, includes Banquet, because you have to show some respect for your neighbors). Additionally, their staff is ridiculously learned and can recommend a beer (or wine, for that matter) that you are surely going to love. If you’re smart, you’ll make the 20 minute drive out of Denver.
- Bark Bar, Denver. If you’ve traveled with your pup for GABF, be sure to give her a break at the Bark Bar. It’s a bar and a dog park all in one. If you’re an animal lover, there are few pup-friendly spots in an overwhelmingly pup-friendly city as fun as this one.
- Other notable tap houses: Freshcraft, Euclid Hall, Falling Rock (because to leave them off would be a crime), Mayor of Old Town, Brewer’s Republic.
Again, I’m going to skip the obvious. Yes, you should probably go to New Belgium (their tour is one of the best in the country, and I have been on A LOT of beer tours) and Great Divide and Odell. But there are so many great breweries out here, try not to limit yourself to those places you’ve heard of in Beer Advocate or from your buddy who had the BEST WEEKEND EVERRRRRRR last year. There are so, so many hidden gems. Here are just a few:
- *4 Noses, Broomfield. Yep, I’m bringing you into the suburbs. A newish brewery serving up some old standards and some experimental styles. Worth a visit if only for their Anarchy.
- *Big Choice, Broomfield. Wait, what!? Another Broomfield brewery!? What better way to chase down some excellent beers than with MORE excellent beers? Big Choice has some of the friendliest staff in the biz, and they have some good (leaning towards hoppy) beers to serve up. I particularly like their red (especially on nitro) and Colorado common.
- *Brewery Rickoli, Wheat Ridge. Still the smallest brewery in Colorado after almost two years, Brewery Rickoli offers a line-up of 16 beers, all of which are gluten removed. Some of the best IPAs I’ve ever tasted and their Elke Brown Ale is hard to match. Ignore the crappy stripmall appearances: these beers are class in a glass. Rickoli’s also won the Sam Adams Brewer’s Experienceship last year, so expect them to be busy at their booth.
- *Broken Compass, Breckenridge. If you are here long enough to make it to the mountains (which, let’s admit it, you should), you need to make your way to Broken Compass just north of downtown Breck. It’s nestled away by the Breckenridge Distillery and is serving up the best beer in Summit County, no contest. From their Pepper Pale Ale to their Chocolate Coffee Stout, their beers are delightful, interesting, and drinkable. The fact that their (very small) space is ridiculously charming and their staff defies the usual “locals only” attitude of most Colorado ski towns really seals the deal.
- Casey Brewing & Blending, Glenwood Springs. What Troy Casey, formerly of AC Golden, is doing up in Glenwood can be described as nothing less than magic, and it’s entirely unfair to other breweries. His Batch #1 Saison was absolute perfection in a bottle: funky, tart, crisp, playful. They are only open for their releases at this point, but they are available at a couple of locations in Denver and Glenwood and you would be well advised to pick some up. And by some, I mean every bottle you find. Then share with me. Because damn…
- Manitou Brewing, Manitou Springs. Another trip from Denver that is more than worth it. Manitou Springs, just west of Colorado Springs, is a stupidly cute mountain town with multiple public natural mineral springs smattered around town. It is also the home of Manitou Brewing, which is nestled back in an old burro barn with a great courtyard and warm interior. Their beers have yet to disappoint (although I am sad that I was only able to try their raspberry sour once) and their food is right on the money (helps to have a professional chef). I love this place so much that on our way from Salida to Evergreen yesterday, we diverted to go to Manitou. A worthy day trip, if you can make it.
- *Paradox, Woodland Park. While you’re down in the area, why not pop by Paradox Brewing? They are an exclusively barrel-aged facility fermenting wort brewed for them by Pikes Peak Brewing in Monument. The are doing some crazy experimental beers, with their Skully series being the crown jewel. If you can get your hands on some Skully #9 made with Nelson Sauvin hops, consider yourself very, very lucky.
- Golden City Brewery, Golden. Dubbed the second largest brewery in Golden for the last 21 years. I have to admit some bias here, however, if you are already up at Barrels & Bottles, it is a short four blocks up to GCB, which is located in and around a historical Victorian building. It also has one of the wackiest brewhouses in Colorado with a brick-clad kettle and old dairy tanks stacked 12 feet overhead. It also happens to employ two of the nicest guys in brewing, and two guys who you can spot as brewers from a mile away (beards, think big, luxurious beards). Oh, and one of them happens to be my partner-in-hops (thus the bias), so please go harass him.
- *Shine, Boulder. Shine is the quintessential Boulder hippie joint. It has a gluten-free menu with plenty of vegan, vegetarian, and raw options. But that’s part of what makes this place great. The food is spot-on (their grilled cheese made on gluten-free bread with cashew cream soup is out of this world, regardless of whether you’ve bought into the gluten-free fad or not). For a place that definitely flies under the radar when it comes to being a brewery, they have some mighty fine brews. A solid choice in Boulder that shows you what the Republic really is about.
- Mountain Sun/Southern Sun/Vine Street, Boulder/Boulder/Denver. The three breweries in this little group have so many of their own beers on tap, it puts the “big boys” to shame. And it’s not just quantity, it’s quality. Their beers run the gamut of styles with each one being thoughtful and well executed. This is a great side trip for anyone who is looking to have more than one beer at a location and some pretty good noms to boot. If you can find their Colorado Kind on nitro, it’s worth it. And grab some of their hummus of the day, you won’t be disappointed. But be warned: their prices are good because they are cash only, so bring the green stuff.
- *Comrade, Denver. Owner David and brewer Marks have such a good thing going on here that you almost don’t want to share it. One of a plethora of breweries in old garages around town, this one happens to have a great theme and serves up beer that we drive from Evergreen – over an hour each way – to get. Their Koffee Kream is brewed with coffee roasted especially for them by Denver institution Kaladi Brothers Coffee. If you are near downtown and happen to have brought a bike (or want to rent on from our excellent bikeshare program), it’s a fun ride along the Cherry Creek path out to their location.
- Baere, Denver. Baere has been open a very short amount of time, and has some really wacky hours, but our first visit there provided us with some very good beers (their IPA, in particular, was perplexing and delicious). The service is solid, and they donate their tips to a different charity every month.
- *Lowdown, Denver. After you have a drink at Baere, go over to Lowdown. Once again proving that Rock Bottom is a great training ground for brewers, the owners/brewers at Lowdown know their stuff. Again, a wide variety of beers that compliment their excellent food perfectly. And they have a parking lot! Talk about package deal…
- *Equinox, Fort Collins. There are so many great breweries in Fort Collins, but I’m going to focus on Equinox because (A) of the likelihood you haven’t heard of it and (B) of the “sleeper” breweries, this is the only one I have been to (I know… bad me…) What I love about Equinox is not only that their beers a very, very good, but that they sell their recipes and kits next door at the homebrew store. Few things show the collaborative, familial spirit of the craft beer industry quite like that.
- Happy Leaf Kombucha, Denver. Not technically a brewery, but if you’re over visiting Crooked Stave (which I’m sure you will), you would be amiss to skip Happy Leaf. The first kombucha brewery in Denver, they offer 2-6 varieties of their buch, which is tart, funky, and perfect if you love sour beers. I was even able to get the Bearded Brewer on board. If you’ve never tried kombucha, Happy Leaf is the perfect testing ground as they do samples and the staff is happy to talk about process and ingredients. Since buch in a grocery store can exceed $4 a bottle, this is both a tasty, and a frugal stopover.
I have left off breweries that are farther afield such as *Butcherknife, *Steamworks, Copper Club, Three Barrel, *Roaring Fork, etc. Not because I don’t love them, but I was trying to think of reasonable distances from Denver.
This list could go on forever, if I let it. I love beer, but I also love food (duh). We have some amazing places to each along the Front Range, and eating fast food would be a crime with the glut of awesomeness we have on offer. Some of the Colorado specialties you can’t find elsewhere are: chile rellenos deep fried in egg roll wrappers, Mexican hamburger, “green” chile (that’s actually orange and made with tomatoes and pork, unlike New Mexico style green chili), the goober burger (burger with peanut butter and bacon, it’s as sinfully amazing as it sounds), Rocky Mountain Oysters (yes, they are a real thing), and every permutation of game meat you can imagine. Many of the breweries I’ve mentioned either have a kitchen or have food trucks, so that should always be your first choice, but if you’re looking for some solid food outside of a beer house, these could give you a start. Again, this list of eateries is far from exhaustive, but it should give a good base for some beer drinking fun.
- Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, Denver. Get any of the wild game dogs with caramelized onions and cream cheese on them. It’s one of those things that just works. If you can hit up his cart, do. The restaurant is nice, but nothing beats grabbing a dog from the cart and talking to the man himself.
- Bob’s Atomic Burgers, Golden. Build your own burgers done right. Be forewarned that they are huge and messy.
- Park Burger, Denver. More for the Works, a pile of fries with cheese sauce, ranch, and bacon, than anything else.
- Mexico City Restaurant, Denver. Only order the tacos. Do not deviate from that advice. They make their own shells and are greasy perfection.
- Big Mama’s Burritos, Wheat Ridge. Excellent green chile served in and on massive burritos. Grab some and head over to Rickoli’s.
- The Buckhorn Exchange, Denver. The place for wild game (not in dog form) in the city. Even if you don’t stay for a whole meal (it can be spendy), be sure to grab some Rocky Mountain oysters and hang out that the bar for some sense of the long gone cowtown Denver used to be.
- The Cherry Cricket, Denver. The inventor of the Goober Burger. Done and done.
- Wild Ginger, Littleton. A bit down south, but the best Thai food in the area. Their crab rangoon is actually made in house (unlike the frozen crap you get at most Asian places) and is like little bursts of glorious perfection in your mouth.
- New Saigon, Denver. The destination for authentic Vietnamese eats. We have a large Asian population who have set up shop along Federal Blvd, but this is my favorite. I particularly love noodle bowl 10N: noodles, sauce, pork, beef, and egg roll. Enough to feed four normal people or one me. Enter through the west doors, not the fancy south ones (that is bakery and takeout).
- Big City Burrito, Fort Collins. This has become a rather large chain, but I’m talking about the original one in Fort Collins, on College. Like Chipotle, if Chipotle had actual choices and a wide variety of sauces. Don’t miss out on their Soul Sauce, a mix of strawberry and habenero that gets the sweet and spicy mix just right. I order a 1/2 veggie, 1/2 carnitas burrito on jalapeno cheddar with potatoes instead of rice and beans with sour cream and soul sauce. Don’t judge.
- Pete’s Kitchen, Denver. Pete has a lot of different joints around Denver, but Pete’s Kitchen provides the 24/7 service necessary for hardcore beer drinkers. It’s a diner in every sense of the word and we wouldn’t want it any other way. I always order their big greek salad with gyro meat and two eggs over medium after a hard night. It’s like the night before never happened.
- SOBO 151, Denver. This was our regular haunt when we were living in the West Wash Park neighborhood. It’s strange enough to find any eastern European food in Denver, so SOBO not only serving authentic Czech food, but doing is well, is a triumph. I particularly love their sauerkraut soup, Smazak (fried cheese), and their garlic dip. They also have Krusavice Cerne on tap, which is a good beer for anyone studying for their BJCP or Cicerone to check out.
Again, if you live here, you know how great this state is. But, if you don’t, why not take a little time to allow your liver to recover and visit some of the amazing places close to Front Range that we have to offer? Of course, there’s the always popular Red Rocks, but here are some potentially lesser-known spots to take a break.
- Buffalo Bill’s Grave, Goldenish. Head up I-70 to Lookout Mountain, get off the highway and follow the signs for Buffalo Bill’s Grave. After taking it the amazing vista of the Continental Divide on one side and the Front Range on the other, drive down the twisty, turny Lariat Loop. This road will drop you off in Golden, where you can whet your whistle at the aforementioned Barrels & Bottles and GCB (or, make a whole day of it and hit up Mountain Toad and Cannonball Creek as well).
- Squaw Pass, Evergreen. Go up I-70 (stop at the Buffalo herd on your way up – it’s owned by Denver and is 100% genetically bison as of two years ago) to the Evergreen exit and drive up 74 until you see the sign for Mount Evans (it will say closed, but that’s just the highway to the top of the mountain). Turn down that road and you will be treated to some of the finest colors in Colorado, as well as stunning views of Mount Evans and the Divide. Dropping down the other side will leave you in Idaho Springs, and it’s a quick 40 minutes from there down I-70 to Denver.
- Chautauqua Park. Okay, maybe this one isn’t so under the radar, but it’s a shame to miss it if you’re up in Boulder. Standing at the base of the Flatirons, you really come to appreciate the diversity of Colorado geology. Oh, and there may be a brewery or two you can visit while up that way.
- Dinosaur Ridge, Boulder. I can’t seem to get out of the mountains with these. Oh well, folks here for GABF spend enough time in the city that they should know about outside of it anyway. Dinosaur Ridge is located between Morrison and Golden and is a nice walk where you can see dinosaur footprints in situ with lots of educational information. There is also a museum that is worth a peek, while you’re out there.
- Plains Conservation Center, Aurora. Look! I brought you to the plains! Yes, this a ways out (but you can have a beer or two at Comrade and Dry Dock on your way there), but it’s worth it. Oftentimes Coloradans forget that we have as rich a history on our flatlands as we do on the spiky ones, and this place reminds us of it. We spent a great day out there for the Hops for Habitat beer fest and recommend you do the same.
- Staunton State Park, Conifer. Colorado’s newest state park is full of amazing rock outcroppings, waterfalls, and hiking trails. If you need a day to really, seriously get away, than the secluded Stauton should be your destination. You are unlikely to find such peace anywhere else within 45 minutes of Denver.
- Evergreen elk rut. I live in this great little mountain town called Evergreen, and around this time of year the elk begin to rut – or go at it so that they can get the ladies. Watching the bulls bugle and spar really is a magnificent sight, and one that I have to admit to taking for granted. Honestly, if you see one thing outside of Denver, make it this.
Look, I know that this list is far from exhaustive, and I’ve likely pissed some people off with inclusions and/or omissions, but this is what I could think of to give guests to the Mile High City a good place to start. What would you add to this list? Any taplists that are ridiculously good that I’ve overlooked? Any breweries that deserve some sweet, sweet lovin’? And places that you always bring guests when they come out (yes, I purposely left Casa Bonita off the list)?
I already have another idea for an article, so it seems you may be more of me this week than you’re used to. Maybe I’ll even post drunk from the fest itself! We shall see…
Let’s do this thing.
Updated to include the elk rut in Evergreen.