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Take a tour of Denver’s beer history from home by pairing this new book with local breweries

“Denver Beer: A History of Mile High Brewing” captures the launch the city’s brewing scene during the gold rush and the spirit of modern craft beer innovators

"Denver Beer," a new book from Jonathan Shikes, recounts the 160 year history of brewing in the Mile High city. (Handout)
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A year after Denver was founded in 1858, the city’s first brewery opened.

The local newspaper declared the first batch of beer from the Rocky Mountain Brewery “the best we ever tasted” — surely in part because of the free keg delivered to its offices.

Today, the history seems quite fitting given that Denver now ranks as one of the nation’s best beer cities.

But the city’s beer fortunes didn’t always look so frothy, as Jonathan Shikes writes in his new book, “Denver Beer: A History of Mile High Brewing.” 

Jonathan Shikes is the author of “Denver Beer: A History of Mile High Brewing.” (Handout)

The book covers more than 150 years of brewing history, capturing the hardship faced by the German immigrants who started the city’s first breweries during the gold rush, the dark days of Prohibition that nearly extinguished the industry and the pioneers of craft beer who revived the legacy.

The best part: You can still taste the history today. And the beer is much better now, too.

One recent afternoon, Shikes agreed to take me on a virtual brewery tour of Denver’s past and present and described how each contributed to the current beer scene. Given the pandemic, the safest way to enjoy a beer crawl right now is at home. So the socially distanced tasting took place in his backyard and featured five breweries that sell beer to-go. 

Tivoli Brewing

The journey started with Denver’s oldest brewery and one of its newest, Tivoli Brewing. The founders of Rocky Mountain Brewery sold to the owner of Tivoli. The brewery was one of the few that endured through Prohibition and made the most popular beer among locals for decades before it closed in 1969. 

“Tivoli’s roots go back to the very first brewery and it was also the longest lasting one,” explained Shikes, who also writes about beer for Westword. “It was what everybody drank in Denver in the 40s, the 50s and 60s.”

A pallet of empty cans awaits the new canning line at Tivoli Brewing in Denver. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

A reborn Tivoli launched in 2012 at its old home on the Auraria higher education campus downtown, making a mix of old world and newfangled styles. Owner Corey Marshall acquired the trademarks for the old Denver breweries and beers, rooting the revamped brewery firmly in the past.

A good example was the beer Shikes poured: Sigi’s Bock, named for Moritz Sigi, who founded Colorado Brewery in 1864 and built part of the building Tivoli took over. The traditional German Bock is a lager, much like most of the beers in Denver in the late 19th century. And it features fire-kilned malt — a bygone in today’s world of electric and gas — that lends a smoky depth to the rich caramel flavor, perfectly encapsulating then and now.

Wynkoop Brewing

For the second stop, we fast-forwarded all the way to 1988 and the founding of the state’s first brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing in the Lower Downtown neighborhood.

It was Denver’s first new brewery since Prohibition ended in 1933. (Shikes said it’s possible other breweries launched after but he couldn’t find records about them and they no longer exist.) Wynkoop stood out from the crowd.

“A small brewery making its own beer was just a concept people didn’t understand,” Shikes said. “There was Coors and Miller and Schlitz and Bud and all those guys — but nobody made their own beer in a restaurant.”

MORE: Colorado’s forgotten beer boom 160 years ago shows parallels to today’s industry

The response was overwhelming. On opening day, people were lined up around the block, in part because Wynkooop served beer at a pre-Prohibition price of 25 cents. The catch: At first the brewery made only traditional English cask ales, served warm at 55 degrees and flat from a cask.

The beer we tasted — Colorojo, an imperial red ale — fits the brewery’s malt tradition but pairs it with a resiny hop bitterness. Thankfully, the brewery filled the crowler cold and carbonated.

John Hickenlooper, one of the brewpub’s founders and the former Denver mayor and governor, deserves a lot of credit for promoting the city’s beer scene and helping to make it what it is today, Shikes argued.

“I think he’s probably the single most important person in Denver beer history,” Shikes said. “He didn’t just found the very first craft brewery here, but he promoted it nationwide and helped other breweries. He just was a constant pitch man.”

Great Divide Brewing

When Brian Dunn opened Great Divide Brewing, not too long after Wynkoop, he “thought he was too late to the game,” Shikes said.

The year was 1994. But Dunn found a niche model that soon established Great Divide as one of the most prominent breweries from Colorado. “He started that different business model here of packaging,” Shikes said. “You could come in and taste his beers and then take them home.”

Still, it took a bit for Great Divide to get established. The early beers were “hugely over the top,” Shikes said. A prime example is the Yeti imperial stout we tasted. The beer’s logo is more emblematic of Colorado beer than any other, but it was an acquired love.

“Brian went around trying to sell it to restaurants, and they were like, ‘What the (heck) is this?’” Shikes said. “It was this crazy 10% ABV dark beer. They said, ‘No one is going to buy this.’”

Great Divide Brewing in Denver is one of the latest breweries to enter the hazy IPA category. (Photo provided by Great Divide Brewing)

Of course, eventually everyone did. The rich chocolate and coffee aroma and roasted dark flavor in the original Yeti still stands out, even if stouts are typically sweeter now and loaded with adjunct ingredients, like coconut, marshmallows and spices. 

Despite their envelope-pushing past, Great Divide eventually adapted to the modern trends and even will release a pumpkin Yeti version in August. And a new focus on small-batch beers helps one of the oldest Denver breweries stay relevant today.

“They are one of the oldest, most well-known breweries,” Shikes said. “Them, Breckenridge and Wynkoop — that’s the trifecta of old powerhouses here.”

Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales

One chapter on modern Denver beer in Shikes’ book is titled “Sours and Social Media.” Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales is the poster child.

“They were just a brewery that pushed things enormously forward in the modern beer scene. Spontaneous fermentation was something totally different,” he said. “Their ability to market themselves was a big deal. And it came just as the demand for sour beers was exploding.”

The brewery, located on South Broadway in Denver, specializes in spontaneous fermentation, a process that exposes the wort to the natural air where wild yeast and bacteria can work their magic. The huge additions of fruit into the beer also added a twist.

When it started, the novel approach generated long lines for beer releases and supersized aftermarket prices online. The beer we tasted was Butcher, a sour golden ale aged on second-use cherries and raspberries in barrels, first brewed in February 2019. The funky and light-fruit flavor, paired with the tartness of the sour style, certainly made for a complex sip.

“Before them people were making sours,” Shikes said, “… but they really helped launch things in a different direction that everyone wanted to follow up on.”

Cerebral Brewing

To capture another element of the current Denver beer scene, Shikes points to Cerebral Brewing located just off East Colfax Avenue in the Congress Park neighborhood.

“Cerebral is a classic modern beer story for Denver, in that it is a local taproom started by a homebrewer — his first business venture — who found a good spot in a great neighborhood. That’s a very Denver story,” Shikes said.

When Cerebral opened in 2015, founder Sean Buchan didn’t feel beholden to standard styles on the market. He went a different direction and is well known for hazy IPAs.

“Like a lot of these homebrewers … he didn’t feel like he needed to be constrained by tradition or anything else,” Shikes said. “And that (beer) was hot in the homebrewing scene.”

The brewery became a trendsetter and keeps innovating with adjunct stouts and oak-aged lagers. “He continues to push,” Shikes said of Buchan. “He has a way of being on trend before it becomes a trend.”

A good example was the one we tasted, Smile With Your Eyes. Packed in a 16-ounce can, it’s a collaboration beer brewed with New Image Brewing in Arvada. The double dry-hopped Triple IPA was made with blueberry blossom honey.

Like other hazy IPAs, it pops with tropical fruit flavors and a softer bitterness than the traditional style. 

It’s a far cry from the simple lagers of yesteryear Denver beer, but an indication of how far the industry has come in 161 years.

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