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How Denver Became the Napa Valley of Craft Beer (and What to Try There)

Beer expert Tristan Chan shows us the best of the Mile High City’s beer scene.

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Hi, I'm Beth!

Beth Demmon is an award-winning San Diego-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications like the Washington Post, Civil Eats, Saveur Magazine, PUNCH, Good Beer Hunting, and many more. Her Substack newsletter Prohibitchin’ aims to amplify the voices of people working in and around craft beer, spirits, wine, cider, and other beverage alcohol segments who may not get the recognition they deserve. Her first book, The Beer Lover's Guide to Cider, will be published fall 2023.

Denver, Colorado has long been known for its majestic Rocky Mountain panoramas and world-class outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing. (The nickname “The Mile High City” comes from its mountaintop location and precise elevation of 5,280 feet, or 1,609 meters.) More recently, it has also become famous as the home of some of the best craft beer in the country. In fact, according to the local beer-focused site Colorado Brewery List, the Denver metro region boasts over 150 breweries, half of which are located within city limits.

Tristan Chan, longtime beer expert and founder of the national craft beer publication Porch Drinking, says that Denver’s beer scene was one of the earliest in the country and remains one of the most influential, both in quantity and quality. And while the craft scene has exploded in recent years, Chan notes that today’s success is due in large part to an early beer pioneer who set the stage for Denver to become the industry powerhouse it is today: the Coors Brewing Company, which opened in 1873.

Denver's beer history

The sign for Avery Brewing Co in Denver.
Avery Brewing Co is part of Denver brewing history.Bildquelle: CplusJ3 / Tripadvisor

“As much as people like to knock on big macro breweries, Coors definitely had a huge influence on the culture of beer, the acceptance of beer, and the knowledge of beer,” says Chan. And Coors’ decision to launch what would become one of the world’s largest beer companies in Denver was no accident. “Coors decided to start here because of proximity to the snow melt water,” Chan explains. “Snow melt from the mountains is generally very high quality water.”

That unique natural asset—and Coors’ success—helped cement Denver’s beer identity early on. But that was just the beginning. In 1978, homebrewing trailblazer and educator Charlie Papazian founded the American Homebrewers Association in nearby Boulder, helping to spark a homebrewing revolution. As Chan explains it, the combination of Papazian’s passion and Coors’ resources “allowed this fertile ground to flourish.” Today, the greater Denver region (including Fort Collins and Boulder) boasts both hyper-local craft breweries as well as nationally recognized brands such as Great Divide Brewing Company, Avery Brewing Company, and New Belgium Brewing Company.

Denver's craft beer scene

Friends share craft beer and snacks in a Denver bar.
When in Denver, it's good to share your beer.Bildquelle: New Africa / Shutterstock

Chan says Denver stands out from other cities with strong beer scenes (like Portland, Oregon or San Diego, California) because of local producers’ ability to perfect certain styles of beer, including sour or wild beers or lagers. He points to places like Bierstadt Lagerhaus that have really invested in their craft and then passed on their knowledge to other local brewers, helping grow the scene beyond their own specific contributions.

“They flew out a German brew system and really dedicated their whole approach towards German beers and the process … That attention to detail—in terms of replicating truly authentic German styles—has allowed them the opportunity to mentor many brewers in the area,” he explains. “Now, you're seeing more and more local breweries doing true German styles and adopting some of the approaches that they've taken.”

Denver’s best neighborhoods for craft beer

Friends line up at a local Denver bar for craft beer in Colorado.
Find your favorite bar.Bildquelle: Anne O / Tripadvisor

For those interested in exploring Denver’s beer scene, Chan recommends visiting beer-centric neighborhoods, so that you can get the widest possible array of Denver craft beer without having to drive all over town. And the best one to start with, he says, is the River North Art District (RiNo).

“The RiNo neighborhood is a huge driving force for the craft beer scene,” Chan says. The neighborhood is home to over a dozen breweries that Chan recommends, including Bierstadt, Our Mutual Friend, Ratio, Great Divide, River North, Mockery, O’Dell’s Denver location, New Belgium, and Stem Cider. “I think that’s one of the higher concentrations of breweries within a 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) radius of any area in the entire country,” he explains. “You can be a fan of virtually any type of style and find something there.”

He also recommends visiting the areas of Baker, South Broadway, Tennyson Street, and Lower Highlands (LoHi). “The neighborhood aspect is a great way for someone who's visiting the city to say, ‘Hey, I'm going to dedicate one specific day to this neighborhood’ and be able to try virtually anything and everything that they would want.”

The best breweries in Denver

Colorful beers on a stump at Raices Brewing Company in Denver in Colorado.
Raices Brewing Company is just one place to get to know.Bildquelle: Raices Brewing Company / Tripadvisor

Best breweries with food: If you want great beer paired with delicious food, Chan says Goed Zuur is a must-visit spot. “They’re probably the best in terms of high-level food with high-level beer,” he explains, pointing to their renowned cheese pairing program and sour beer selection. Other top choices include Hops & Pie, Briar Common Brewery + Eatery, and LowDown Brewery + Kitchen.

Best breweries for families: Danico Brewing Company in Northeast Denver is a great option for families and adult travelers alike. “They’re incredibly thoughtful in the things they do,” promises Chan, pointing to their “Kids Corner” stocked with games, art supplies, and cozy bean bag chairs. Another gem is FlyteCo Brewing, which boasts a mini-golf course, a full arcade, and even a bowling alley. Finally, he says the first Latinx-owned and operated craft brewery in Colorado, Cheluna Brewing, is popular with locals, thanks to its accommodations for guests of all ages at this family-run operation (including an outdoor patio that allows furry friends) and a convenient suburban location in Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace.

Most inclusive breweries: Denver’s well-established LGBTQ+ culture means there are a number of breweries that specifically cater to diverse crowds. Women- and queer-owned Lady Justice Brewing Company in Aurora is one such equitably-minded brewery. They incorporate social justice into every aspect of their operations, including charitable donations to nonprofits that support women and non-binary people and even naming their beers after influential pioneers, such as Sandra Day IPA. Goldspot Brewing Company in Northwest Denver, another woman-owned brewery, hosts events like drag bingo as well as open mic nights, providing fun for everyone.

Most innovative breweries: There’s no shortage of breweries pushing the envelope here, Chan promises. He points to New Image Brewing as one of the more cutting-edge breweries in the Denver area, as well as Latinx-owned and operated Raices Brewing Company. “Raices is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he says. “They truly do invest in the Latino community and do a lot of programming that you would never see at any other brewery.”

When to drink beer in Denver

A band plays for the crowd at Oktoberfest in Denver.
Oktoberfest in Denver is always a good time.Bildquelle: Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock

“If you’re a true beer geek, late September to October is the best time,” says Chan. Not only is it when Denver hosts the annual Great American Beer Festival, it’s also when breweries host Oktoberfest events—and it’s fresh hop season. Summertime is also a no-brainer, because the warm months are the most glorious season to be outdoors here.

While Denver’s schedule of beer-centric events runs all year round, Chan notes that one of the city’s annual events is his personal favorite: “Big Beers Belgians and Barleywines is the best festival that I’ve been to,” he says. “It’s a little bit of a hidden gem, but once you’re there, you want to go back every single year.”

More ways to explore Denver

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