The most unusual brewery crawl in Colorado is about 2-miles long with more than a dozen escalators and one sobering security check. It also is timed, at least if you want to make your flight.
The venue is Denver International Airport, where four local breweries launched outposts in the past eight months and combine to make Colorado’s gateway as beer-soaked as the state itself.
New Belgium Brewing opened a hub at DIA in April, not long after Great Divide Brewing and Breckenridge Brewery began pouring at their own new locations. Back in November, Tivoli Brewing began making beer just outside the terminal, making it one of the few airport breweries in the nation. And Post Brewing is eyeing a future spot to serve its beer and fried chicken.
The breweries’ new locations — in addition to the two other mainstays — offer an intriguing tour of the state’s beer scene, a who’s who of the state’s most well-known brewers all in one place.
“There are so many awesome breweries, and that’s what’s so cool,” said Leah Pilcer from New Belgium Brewery. “For me, the more beer we have at the airport the better, because it educates people on the amazing beer scene we have in Colorado. The fact you can go on a beer crawl at the airport is evidence enough.”
This is exactly what I did one recent day ahead of a vacation. And I can safely say, it’s more good beer than you can taste in one afternoon and still make a flight.
Tivoli Brewing (4 hours to departure)
Before I entered the madness inside the airport’s terminal, I stopped for a beer.
Denver’s Tivoli Brewing makes 110 gallons at a time inside its second brewhouse located at Tom’s Urban, a restaurant on the base level of the Westin hotel. The flagship is Jet IPA, a sweet full-bodied version of the hoppy style with plenty of lift at 9.5% alcohol by volume. It’s only available at the airport.
“We use (the brewery) as our experimental or pilot system where we do small batches,” Tivoli CEO Ken Hehir said. “In terms of our innovation process,” he continued, “it’s wonderful. It’s been a huge advantage and taken pressure off of our small brewery.”
Tivoli operates the brewery, but not the restaurant. And unlike the original location on the Auraria Campus downtown, the airport venue is more sports bar than brewery, with TVs stacked two high on the walls. (Most are this way, I learned, because the locations are run by contractors and often beer is a secondary focus.)
But Tivoli’s shiny brewing tanks are visible through a window from the restaurant bar, and seven house beers pour from the 32 taps, many of which feature a half dozen other Colorado breweries. The beers are all $9, but it’s still cheaper than the overpriced train to the airport.
The restaurant manager tells me when he seats people, he points to the brewery’s tanks and the list of Tivoli beers brewed here. He says he gets a good bit of interest from travelers who want to try a new city’s beers.
The menu offers a “brewery tour” with four half-pints and a “secret stash” seasonal provides options for all palettes. The beer flight is tempting, but with security waiting, I split after less than a pint.
Boulder Beer Co. (3½ hours to departure)
The swarm of activity inside the airport overwhelms the senses, but I sidestepped the south security line on level 5 and headed toward Boulder Beer Co., the state’s oldest craft brewer. Its special status is marked on a sign outside the taproom that beckons thirsty travelers, who pack the place at the height of the summer travel season.
I grab the last seat at the bar and order samplers of four beers to re-experience old favorites, including the Shake Porter served on nitrogen.
The guy in the next chair says his flight doesn’t leave for six hours, and when I ask what he’s going to do, he lifts his beer glass. He found a favorite in Hazed, the brewery’s flagship and an easy-drinking pale ale. “It’s hoppier than I like, but good,” he says, asking to be identified only as a “dumb Texan” in my story.
Again, the fear of missing a flight pulls me away and I leave half-full glasses before wading into the long security lines.
Denver ChopHouse and Brewery (2½ hours to departure)
There’s so much beer at DIA I forgot about Denver ChopHouse and Brewery until seeing the big red sign as I landed at the top of the escalator on Concourse A. I make a detour and grab a chair at the bar.
Owned by a national chain, Denver Chophouse’s location looks like a miniature version of its place near Coors Field downtown. The menu lists four classic styles, a pale ale and IPA among them, and the bartender tells me the beer is made in Denver. I opt for the dark Munich lager, an amber that is sweet at first taste but dry on the finish with a nutty character.
The unexpected stop is making me worried about time, so I take one more sip and leave the beer to find my original destination, the new Breckenridge Brewery bar.
Breckenridge Brewery (2 hours to departure)
The Littleton brewer’s new spot is so far down that you walk to where it looks like the concourse ends and keep going. Head down another escalator and take a hard left to find it near gate A73 where regional planes are taking passengers to Eureka, California, Vernal, Utah, and Watertown, South Dakota. The Breckenridge Brewery is a bar with more liquor options than taps, situated between Brothers BBQ and Snarf’s Sandwiches.
The menu offers the beer classics like Avalanche Amber Ale as well as Bud Light, homage to its owner, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer. The most intriguing options are a Beer-mosa, which is the White Ale topped with orange juice, and the Vanilla Porter with a kick of raspberry syrup.
But I skip them all. By now, it’s abundantly clear that drinking a beer at each brewery in DIA is a fool’s errand and probably not a good idea if I want to make a flight.
New Belgium Brewing (1½ hours to departure)
The trek from Breckenridge Brewery to Concourse B for New Belgium Brewing is a lengthy one — and confusing. The directory sends visitors to the New Belgium Hub all the way down near gate B80. (In fact, this is where I went. I enjoyed a hazy IPA and a sandwich.)
But in the other direction, the Fort Collins brewer recently opened a new spot that is more centrally located near gate B30. (The brewery plans to keep both locations for now.)
The new place is billed as a sports bar with an elevated menu designed by Paul Reilly, the chef behind Beast and Bottle and Coperta in Denver. It features a large bar and cafe-styled seating. But for those who want to stay a while, the restaurant has two shuffleboard tables.
It’s a far cry from the beer-soaked home base, but New Belgium is investing time in educating the staff about the beer to make for a better experience.
The sports bar location restaurant has a limited and seasonal beers that are hard to find at airport breweries. And the bartender makes beer cocktails, which is a new twist for the New Belgium. The beer list is long enough to make you want to linger, but I didn’t get a chance with the clock ticking.
Great Divide Brewing (45 minutes to departure)
To make the final brewery, I had to run down the concourse. And by the time I made it to Great Divide Brewing near gate C32, I only had time for a quick sip — which is disappointing because it has the best beer list of any brewery at DIA.
The dozen-plus taps pour all the favorites, and bottles of rare beers like the barrel-aged series and sours also are available. The Yeti imperial stout is a favorite, but I ordered the Amelia Mary Blonde Ale, an easy drinking, lighter beer that is an exclusive to the DIA location.
The staff are wearing T-shirts with a Yeti wearing a pilot’s cap pulling a rolling suitcase — special logo for the airport bar location. Inside, it looks vaguely similar to the Barrel Bar location in Denver, with a wood and metal motif and the menu offers beer-themed fare. But the eye-catcher is the wall of colorful beer cans on one end of the bar.
Matt Sandy, the brewery’s marketing manager, said Great Divide wanted to land at the airport to reach people it misses in downtown Denver. Great Divide made a bid for the brewery location where Tivoli landed, but settled for the restaurant. “Any opportunity to sort of extend that Denver experience for visitors is something that I think just adds to their overall enjoyment of the city so we were excited to plant our flag out there,” Sandy said.
Putting a half-full beer on the counter, I hustle through the crowds and arrive at my gate minutes before the plane begins to board.
Six breweries in four hours makes this a stressful beer tour. I’m not sure I’ll do it again. But it is worth visiting one or two because the variety of beer from hallmark Colorado brewers is impressive.
Updated July 8 at noon: This story was updated to include new details about the New Belgium Brewing locations in Concourse B at Denver International Airport. The brewer’s newest restaurant is near gate B30.