By RICH GRANT
In 1858, some prospectors made an amazing discovery in the United States’ relatively unexplored Colorado Territory. Gold!
Word spread quickly, and, soon, hundreds of men gathered in a tent camp at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Into this makeshift town rode a trapper named “Uncle Dick” Wootton, who built the first log cabin … and promptly turned it into a saloon.
Well, Uncle Dick would be proud today. The site of his saloon has become the center of Denver – a vast metropolitan city of nearly 3 million people covering an area the size of Connecticut. But even better in Uncle Dick’s eyes would be the fact that his Mile High City that started with a saloon has become the beer-brewing capital of the world.
Today, Denver brews more beer than any other city. Nearby Coors brewery is the largest single brewing site in the world and Denver’s annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF) – which will be held this year between Oct. 3 and Oct. 5 – has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the largest celebration of beer and the most prestigious beer competition on the planet.
Hosted by the Brewers Association, the GABF in Denver offers more than 2,200 different lagers, ales, stouts and porters from nearly 500 breweries, all available for tasting. (If you were to try just a one-ounce sample of each brew, it would be the equivalent of drinking 200 bottles of beer!)
How did Denver become the center of American brewing? Appropriately, one of the leaders of the craft beer industry served as mayor of Denver for eight years, and later became Colorado’s top political leader, Governor John Hickenlooper.
A former geologist who spent time in Mexico working in oil exploration, Hickenlooper and several partners opened Colorado’s first brewpub in 1988. Today, his Wynkoop Brewing Company is one of the largest brewpubs in the nation, and Colorado has more pubs per capita than any other state.
One of the primary reasons is water. Just as the fresh rivers flowing over the moors of Scotland have provided an indelible taste to Scotch whiskey, it’s the water tumbling down from the Rocky Mountains that adds character to Colorado beers.
Coors Brewery still uses the same 44 natural springs that founder Adolph Coors discovered in the 1870s. After filtering through the rock and sand of the mountains, the water is so pure that (unlike many breweries in the world) it does not have to be treated before brewing.
You can take free tours – and taste free samples – at Coors Brewery every day of the week. Try Batch 19, made from one of Adolph’s handwritten notes, or Colorado Native, a beer made with all Colorado ingredients.
9-Day Beer Fest
To celebrate the GABF, the city of Denver has wrapped another event around it – the Denver Beer Week, which will run from Sept. 27 to Oct. 5 – a celebration of all things brewski with “Meet the Brewer” nights, rare beer tastings, beer contests and beer-paired dinners, where the city’s top chefs match different beers with separate courses.
But the big enchilada is GABF – a festival that attracts 50,000 of America’s top brewers, beer writers, beer bloggers, home brewers and fans.
What’s it like? In a word: crazy. There are four tastings of 4.5 hours each.
The festival occupies 10 acres of the Colorado Convention Center. Tables are laid out geographically, so the brewers of New England are on one side, while the famed beers of the Pacific Northwest are on the other, with everyone else in the middle. There’s little in the way of decoration or aesthetics. It’s white table cloths and kegs of beer. You get a sampler glass upon entering and may taste a one ounce sample of any of the 2,200 beers.
Where to start? Well, experts say: pick a style. Try India Pale Ales (the strong hoppy beer that was originally exported from Britain to its troops in India and had to be strong to last the six month voyage). Or try black stouts, pilsners, pale ales, lagers, amber ales or fruit beer concoctions like chocolate raspberry porter.
The show floor is madness. Thousands of people wear hand-made necklaces of pretzels – the salty snack helps them clear their palette between beers. Scottish marching bands go up and down the aisles, adding squealing bagpipes and beating drums to the madness, while hundreds of people come in costumes, from German bar maids to hop heads (people dressed as hops, the magical ingredient that gives beer its bitter taste).
Mixed in the crowds are serious beer judges. A medal from the GABF is the most coveted award in the brewing industry.
After the festival, it’s time to head into the streets to Denver’s tap houses, brewpubs and microbrewery taste rooms. Try a signature Railyard amber ale at the Governor’s former brewpub, the Wynkoop, or swing by Great Divide Brewery for a classic hometown Denver Pale Ale.
The legendary Falling Rock Tap House has 145 different beers on tap, while the Yard House on the other side of town balances that with additional 140 beers.
You can sip a brew at the rooftop deck of the Ale House at Amato with all the lights of Denver spread out before you, or cheer on the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in their own in-stadium brewpub, Sandlot Brewery.
Many people head to the 16th Street Mall, Denver’s mile-long pedestrian promenade that is lined with 300 trees, 50,000 flowers, 28 outdoor cafes and dozens and dozens of beers. Perhaps Governor Hickenlooper put it best when he said: “Beer is in Denver’s DNA.”
Wherever you go, Denver is one sophisticated beer town. You won’t have a hard time finding great beer – the only challenge is deciding which one.
If you are planning to attend, be sure to get your tickets to the GABF early. They traditionally sell out six weeks before the event. You can get more information and order tickets through the Great American Beer Festival webpage.
For information on Denver, Denver Fest, Brewery tours and brewpubs, check out the Visit Denver webpage.