Being in Denver for the Great American Beer Festival is truly Beer Heaven, because of three best of breeds that elevate the Mile High City to a rarified state of beer bliss: the Best Beer Festival, Best Brewpubs and Best Microbrews. Denver is also a great restaurant city, with everything from fine dining to great burgers, and is home to several historic old hotels worth staying at.
BEST BEER FESTIVALThe Great American Beer Festival is without question the leading beer festival in North America. The 34th annual GABF will be held on Sept. 24-26, 2015 in Denver, featuring nearly 750 breweries serving 3,500 beers to an estimated 60,000 attendees.
The GABF, which is typically held in late September or early October in downtown Denver, was the brainstorm of homebrewing guru Charlie Papazian, who reportedly got the idea to have an American beer festival after attending the Great British Beer Festival (which celebrated its 29th anniversary last year) with noted beer scribe Michael Jackson. The first GABF in 1982 was held in Boulder and had 22 participating breweries serving 40 beers to 800 attendees. After moving to Denver in 1984 the festival grew rapidly and in 2000 moved to a new location, the Colorado Convention Center, after several years at the nearby Currigan Exhibition Hall, which was torn down to make way for a new, larger convention center. The Colorado Convention Center is just a few blocks from the 16th St. pedestrian mall.
With GABF founder Charlie Papazian at the 2002 GABF
Being on the GABF floor brings to life the breadth and diversity of craft brewing in the U.S., with beers being judged in 84 different style categories. In 2010, 151 judges from the U.S. and 9 other countries abroad judged 3,523 beers in 79 categories, covering 133 beer styles. The GABF has three evening sessions from 5:30 to 10 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and one afternoon session on Saturday. The "Connoisseur Tasting Session" on Saturday during the day is definitely worth checking out, since it is much less crowded than the evening sessions, which also tend to get pretty rowdy toward the end of the night. The afternoon session also provides an opportunity to sample the award winning brews (which often run out quickly) and a chance to talk to some of the winning brewers.
Another tip -- membership in the American Homebrewers Association entitles you to a discount on tickets to the Great American Beer Festival -- join and save!
BEST BREWPUBSOne of the best things about attending the GABF is that the tasting of great craft beers doesn't end when the festival shuts down, it only begins. Denver is home to a dozen brewpubs, and many of them are located within walking distance of the festival hall, including several in the fashionable LoDo (LOwer DOwntown) area.
If you only have time to stop at one brewpub in Denver, the one to visit is Wynkoop Brewing Company, which introduced the brewpub concept to Colorado when in opened in 1988. Wynkoop was also a pioneering presence in the LoDo neighborhood, as founder John Hickenlooper (Denver's new mayor as of June 3, 2003) opened his brewpub in Denver's old warehouse district near Union Station well before it became a trendy area and long before Coors Field was located there.
Wynkoop is housed in a century-old building that served as the home of the J.S. Brown Mercantile Company. The spacious main floor, which served as J.S. Brown's showroom, now houses Wynkoop's bar and restaurant, as well as the brewhouse. After brewing, the beers are matured in an aging cellar in the basement and served from conditioning tanks directly underneath the bar. Also in the basement of the building is Wynkoop's Impulse Theater, where live comedy shows are performed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The second floor is home to Wynkoop Billiards, an elegant pool hall with 22 tables, two private pools rooms and several dart boards. There are also a variety of banquet rooms throughout the building to host large or small private parties.
While the food at Wynkoop is top-notch, with a very eclectic menu, and the surroundings are impressive, the main attraction is clearly the great beer, with nine ales usually on tap. The flagship brew is the delicious RailYard Ale (now available in cans), an Oktoberfest-style amber ale that is light enough in body and taste to match any marzen from Munich. Also in the regular rotation are Wixa Weiss, a traditional German-style hefeweizen; Patty's Chili Beer, a light golden ale with 150 pounds of Anaheim chilis added for some pizzazz; and my favorite, Sagebrush Stout, a creamy, full-bodied dry stout with a rich oatmeal flavor. Wynkoop takes special care to serve its beers at the proper temperature, and these beers are served at 36-38 degrees and are carbonated.
Also in the regular rotation are several British-style ales that are served at cellar temperature (48 to 52 degrees) without added carbonation. While I'm not a big fan of ales served in this fashion, I'm told that Wynkoop's versions are excellent. They include the Imperial I.P.A., a distinctively hoppy India Pale Ale with hints of oak flavor, and the St. Charles E.S.B., a dark red English bitter. Wynkoop also regularly rotates three other cask conditioned ales: Quinn's Scottish Ale, a dark ale with smoky flavor; ChurchYard Ale, a strong malty ale; and Splatz Porter, a traditional dark brew with hints of coffee flavor. There are also seasonal beers on tap throughout the year, including a variety of fruit beers, and mead made with Colorado wildflower honey and fruit flavors.
A good time to visit Wynkoop is during Happy Hour on Monday to Friday from 3-6 p.m., when all pints are $2. Wynkoop hosts special events throughout the year, including single malt dinner tastings with selections from Wynkoop's large Scotch collection. Tours of the brewpub can be arranged on Saturday afternoons between 1-5 p.m by calling ahead.
Wynkoop Brewing Company
1634 18th Street (corner of Wynkoop St.), Denver
BEST MICROBREWSIn addition to great brewpubs, Colorado is also home to several fine microbreweries producing unique high quality beers. Foremost among these is New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, makers of a line of Belgian style ales including the renowned Fat Tire Amber Ale. Another excellent microbrewery in Fort Collins is Odell Brewing Company, makers of Cutthroat Porter and Pale Ale. Also gaining a national reputation are the beers of Flying Dog Brewery in Denver, although probably as much for the distinctive Ralph Steadman-designed labels and attention-getting names (Doggie Style Ale, Old Scratch Lager and Road Dog Ale) as for the quality of the beers, which are very good.
A great place to sample these homegrown brews is Denver's best beer bar, the Falling Rock Tap House. Falling Rock's appeal is visible immediately upon entering, with 69 tap handles filling the wall behind the long bar on your right. There is also a hand pump for serving British ales. The draft beer list typically has over 25 offerings from Colorado breweries, along with a great selection of other American micros and imports from Europe. The lineup changes regularly to include seasonal brews. If you're not able to find something to your liking on tap (highly unlikely!), there is also a large assortment of bottled beers, including a variety of Belgian ales.
Adding to the appeal of Falling Rock is its spacious bar area and laid-back atmosphere, including a downstairs smoking lounge for cigar aficionados. Falling Rock rolls out the red carpet for GABF attendees, with special beers being tapped during the festival and lots of special prices on beer and food.
Falling Rock Tap House
1919 Blake Street (at 19th St.), Denver
BEST BURGERFor more great microbrews and one of Denver's Best Burgers, the place to go is My Brother's Bar, located just a few minutes northwest of LoDo on the other side of the Platte River. My Brother's Bar is famous for not having any sign outside, but as Denver's oldest bar most people know where to find it (across the street from Shakespeare's pool hall). The bar also has a unique historical role as part of Denver's Beat Poetry Driving Tour, having been a watering hole in the 1940s for Neal Cassady, a Denver native and the role model for the main character in Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road." The bar pays homage to the Beat Poets with a display of letters and photos of Cassady and Kerouac.
The main attraction at My Brother's Bar for modern day Beats (like my friends Dru and Tom) is the burgers, which are served in wax paper on a tray with condiments so you won't feel guilty about making a mess. The house specials are the JCB, a jalapeno cheeseburger, and the delicious Johnny burger, with three kinds of cheese (including jalapeno) and grilled onions. The onion rings and fries are also top notch. The burgers are matched by a great beer selection with over 15 beers on tap ranging from local microbrews to imports like Stella Artois.
My Brother's Bar
2376 15th St. (at Platte St.)
BEST OLD HOTELDenver is home to several historic hotels, including the famous Brown Palace Hotel that dates back to 1894. The Brown Palace is a great hotel to stop by for cocktails in the opulent atrium lobby or a beer in the vintage Ship Tavern pub, but its location is not as convenient to the brewpubs, beer bars and other nightlife in LoDo. We recommend another historic hotel in the heart of LoDo, The Oxford Hotel, which dates back to 1891. This small boutique hotel, which has every modern touch, is around the corner from Wynkoop Brewing and also has an excellent restaurant located in the hotel, McCormick's Fish House and Bar.
The Oxford Hotel
1600 17th St. (at Wazee St.)
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