Denver, From Struggling Downtown to Craft Beer Town

With Margrethe Knudsen at Falling Rock last week

With Margrethe Knudsen at Falling Rock last week

“When we first moved here (in 1983), there were times when we wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into,” my friend and fellow brewer’s wife, Margrethe commented last week as we walked from lunch at Denver’s famous Falling Rock Tap House to the 16th Street Mall hotel where the World Brewing Congress was taking place. “But the city has really changed over the years.”

Native Danes who had lived in Copenhagen, Seattle and Montreal, Margrethe and Finn Knudsen initially found Denver short on sophistication and cultural opportunities. It’s not an unusual sentiment, arguably as old as the city’s founding in 1858. As recently as 2012, The Denver Post ran an article on the city’s art scene titled, “Denver, Cow Town to Now Town.” But there’s no doubt that downtown Denver has changed dramatically, and craft beer has made major contributions.

In 1984, when Finn Knudsen recruited my husband Hugo to brew at Coors, downtown Denver was already headed into a downturn. Over the next few years, the economy went into free fall as jobs evaporated all over the metro area. People walked away from houses worth less than their mortgages, and formerly grand department stores like The Denver, Neusteter’s and May D & F shuttered their downtown doors as patrons flocked to suburban malls.

During the 80s, downtowns all over the U.S. suffered similar fates and continued to struggle into the 90s, a decade in which craft beer saw its first downturn. With the dawn of the new century, though, both craft beer and inner cities have come back stronger than ever. Ironically, craft beer has help fuel the rebirth of many downtowns as breweries have re-proposed older, sometimes long-vacant, buildings in towns and cities around the country.

As long-term trends often do, this one started slowly with early craft brewers like Bert Grant who opened Yakima Brewing and Malting Company in the 19th century Yakima (Washington) Opera House in 1982 and the Martin brothers in California who, in 1985, started brewing at Roaring Rock Brewery and Alehouse (renamed Triple Rock after threats of a lawsuit from Latrobe, brewers of Rolling Rock) in an old downtown building near the UC Berkeley campus.

Wynkoop's founders (photo purloined from The Denver Post archives)

Wynkoop’s founders (photo purloined from The Denver Post archives)

Colorado’s oldest craft brewery, Wynkoop Brewing Company, was started in 1988 by four buddies, including unemployed geologist John Hickenlooper, today Colorado’s governor. The partners chose a vacant 89-year-old mercantile building in the then sketchy Lower Downtown, blocks from the all-but-moribund Union Station.

For most of the early craft brewers, those were challenging years. Money was tight and banks had no interest in gambling on their crazy dreams. Few people understood what craft beer was or why they should go to a sad part of town to pay more for a beer.

In Denver, one of the biggest catalysts in the makeover of downtown was the opening between 1995 and 2001 of Coors Field (home of the Colorado Rockies), the Pepsi Center (Nuggets and Avalanche), and the Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium (Broncos). In addition, in 1988, just as Hickenlooper and friends were opening the Wynkoop, the city council had rezoned and re-baptized Lower Downtown, which bordered the future Coors Field, giving it the snazzy name “LoDo” and offering economic incentives to businesses that would locate in the area.

The craft beer scene in Denver and Colorado was still young when Coors Field opened in ‘95—with its very own Blue Moon Brewing Co. at the Sandlot (owned by Molson-Coors)—but bars, restaurants and shops had been signing leases on those old, tired buildings in LoDo and, blocks to the north, the newly-named Ballpark Neighborhood, for several years.

Last week at Great Divide

Last week at Great Divide

Rock Bottom, with over thirty locations today, opened its first restaurant and brewery on the 16th Street Mall in 1991. The following year, Breckenridge Brewery, today owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, opened a brewery and restaurant right by the almost-completed ball field. In 1994, Great Divide started brewing a few blocks away in the rough and tumble Ballpark Neighborhood. (Even last week while several of us enjoyed a beer on Great Divide’s patio, the bartender came out and told the homeless guy leaning on the railing with his tall boy Bud Lite to move on.) The beer geek mecca Falling Rock Tap House came on board in 1997 and, according to its first Beer Advocate review in 2002, boasted a then almost unheard of 69 taps.

And today, brewery openings continue at a hot pace. Last summer, Great Divide opened a new brewery and Barrel Bar taproom one mile from its original location on a 5-acre lot in RiNo (pronounced like the animal), Denver’s trendiest new urban neighborhood. Plans call for a restaurant, beer garden and full destination brewery in the next few years.

Exposed underside of original brewing kettles at the renovated Tivoli Brewing Company

Exposed underside of an original brewing kettle at the renovated Tivoli Brewing Company

Also last summer, a group of investors led by former Molson-Coors employee Corey Marshall opened, or better said, re-opened Tivloli Brewing Company just west of LoDo and across the parking lots from the Pepsi Center. With the exception of Prohibition (1920-1933), Tivoli brewed from 1864 until 1969. In 2012, Marshall’s group formed Tivoli Distributing Company and started contract brewing. Last year, with the old Tivoli beautifully renovated, they opened for brewing and business once again.

The Terminal Bar at Union Station

The Terminal Bar at Union Station

Three months ago, the 30-tap Terminal Bar opened inside Union Station with a spacious beer garden out front. Today refurbished and restored to its early magnificence, the train station serves as the hub for Denver’s expanding light rail. Last month, Blue Moon opened a brand new 30,000 square-foot brewery with a 20-barrel system, a huge dining room and patio areas a few blocks from Great Divide in RiNo.

Thirty years ago, when empty buildings littered downtown Denver and “Colorado beer” was synonymous with Coors, none of us living there could have imagined the vibrant downtown of 2016 or the role craft beer would play in its renaissance.

Blue Moon, RiNo

A weekday afternoon at the new Blue Moon, RiNo


  1. Dave Thomas says:

    Nice writeup about Denver Leslie, well crafted!
    It was great spending time with you and Hugo at World Brewing Congress.

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