RiNo's Craft Breweries Await Arrival of Big Beer

"Where Art is Made" is the tagline of the River North (RiNo) Art District, but "Where Beer is Made" is just as apt. With big breweries set to join the upstarts, RiNo is poised to brew more beer than any other area in Denver.
A decade or two ago, RiNo was a natural location for breweries and brewpubs. It was the kind of neighborhood urban pioneers flock to for its plentiful supply of industrial buildings, favorable zoning and low rents.

Some of the earliest breweries have come and gone. Launched in Aspen, Flying Dog Brewery opened a brewpub and bottling line at the corner of Broadway and Walnut Street in 1994. Flying Dog eventually moved to 24th and Blake streets before the brewery flew the coop for Maryland in 2007.

Breweries preceded and followed Flying Dog at 24th and Blake. Mile High Brewery, now defunct, started there, and River North Brewery inhabited the location for three years before the redevelopment of the property forced them to leave RiNo in 2015, an ironic twist for a brewery named after the art district.

Black Shirt Brewing was a pioneer when it opened in RiNo in 2010.RiNo was home to the brewing industry even before it was called RiNo, but in the last 10 years the number of brewpubs, nanobreweries and microbreweries has grown rapidly. Pioneers like Black Shirt Brewing and Our Mutual Friend Brewing Company have been joined by Mockery Brewing, Ratio Beerworks, Zephyr Brewing and Beryl's Beer Co.

Recently breweries that established themselves elsewhere have begun moving to RiNo. When the founders of Salt Lake City-based Epic Brewing Company decided to start a Colorado brewery, they chose RiNo for their new facility. Epic's 2013 opening started a landslide of established breweries moving into RiNo.

In 2013, Denver-based Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project opened a taproom in The Source. Great Divide Brewing Company's original brewery has been located just outside the boundaries of RiNo at 22nd and Arapahoe for 22 years, but that didn't stop them from opening Great Divide Barrel Bar at 3403 Brighton Blvd. in 2015, with plans to open a production brewery in the coming years.

But the fun isn't done. The big boys are coming to RiNo. Blue Moon Brewing Company, part of the MillerCoors craft and import division, has purchased a property to create a state-of-the-art brewing facility near Brighton Boulevard and 38th Street. It is set for a soft opening in July and grand opening in September 2016. New Belgium Brewing Company from Fort Collins in slated to open a brewery and aging room in 2017 in a boutique hotel adjacent to The Source.

Not to be left out of RiNo brewing explosion, Anheuser-Busch InBev is opening a 10 Barrel Brewing pub and restaurant near 26th and Walnut streets in the old Casselman's space. Longmont's Oskar Blues is also opening a CHUBurger in RiNo later in 2016, and startup Bierstadt Lagerhaus is in the long process of opening on Blake Street next to C Squared Ciders.

The times are a-changin'

With all of the new entrants in the RiNo brewing derby, what do the brewing pioneers think? How will the new players affect the character of an area that was established to help promote artists and craftspeople? Will all of the gentrification, trendy new restaurants, boutique hotels and corporate breweries change the edgy, funky character of RiNo?

Brian Dunn of Great Divide Brewing Company knows a little bit about establishing a business in a transitional neighborhood. He thinks that the neighborhood and the existing breweries will benefit from the coming changes."I think all the new breweries in RiNo is a good thing," says Dunn. "People that visit breweries like to visit more than one brewery."

Great Divide's Yeti ventures north to RiNo in 2015.Dunn opened Great Divide at Arapahoe and 22nd streets in 1994 when that area was much like RiNo is now: in transition. "There are many similarities between RiNo now and the Ballpark neighborhood in the early '90s," he notes. "We chose RiNo because it is changing and edgy. There have have been a lot of changes in RiNo up to now but even more are coming. RiNo will continue to be a vibrant place and that will make it an entertainment destination."

What does Dunn think of the large corporate players coming to RiNo? "I think it is important that people know who brews their beer," remarks Dunn. "As long as Anheuser-Busch InBev lets everyone know they are behind the new 10 Barrel brewery opening in the old Casselman's location, I don't see a problem."

Black Shirt Brewing is one of the brewing pioneers in RiNo. Branden Miller along with his brother, Chad, and Chad's wife, Carissa, started the brewery in 2010 on a shoestring budget. For the first two years, they didn't open to the public, and Black Shirt Brewing was "so far north in this little arts district that we almost didn't even qualify to be in it," says Miller. "Almost no one wanted, originally, to go this far [out], but we kind of knew what the future was going to bring."

The future brought a light-rail stop to Black Shirt Brewing's backyard. The new A Line stop at 38th and Blake Street is clearly visible from the outdoor patio where the brewery hosts musical acts. It was uncertain, though, if the new rail line to Denver International Airport might also bring an end to the Millers' dreams. The building that Black Shirt Brewing inhabits did escape eminent domain for the new station and -- at least for now -- the developers' clutches.

"We never wanted to be a downtown brewery," says Branden. "We wanted people to have seek us out and we always thought that if you had to make a special trip to come to our brewery then so would the person you're sitting next to at the bar and we always thought that the conversations would be better."

Meghan Howes, a longtime patron of Black Shirt Brewing, lives in the nearby Cole neighborhood, another area of Denver that is feeling pressure from the development in RiNo. "There are pluses and minuses of the redevelopment of RiNo," says Meghan while sipping a pint of Colorado Red. "It was an inevitability."

She says the area has changed markedly in 15 years, noting, "When we bought in 2002, our friends thought we were crazy." Now those same friends are likely wishing they had bought in this area of Denver that has gone from some of the cheapest land per square foot to some of the most expensive.

The Napa Valley of craft beer

The planned Blue Moon brewery promises a lot of change to what was once a sleepy and ramshackle part of Denver. New streets are being built here. There are plans for sidewalks, planters, benches and lighting.  

John Legnard, head brewmaster at Blue Moon, says, "We're so excited to be a part of the booming RiNo community and to join the great businesses and breweries that operate there. We hope to see RiNo continue to become the go-to destination for those who appreciate creative beer, delicious food, as well as art and music."

Blue Moon is opening a pilot brewery on 38th Street.Legnard continues, "We have spent 21 great years brewing and creating out of the SandLot [Brewery] in Denver. A couple years ago, we thought it was time to expand to a space that gives our fans a closer look at the process and the opportunity to try even more of our brews. We knew that RiNo was the perfect location for our newest venture."

But not everyone is thrilled about the impending development that is certain to make this area an even more appealing destination. Just south of the Blue Moon site sits Mockery Brewing. Justin Burnsed, the irreverent head brewer at Mockery, says  the brewery's name refers to the mocking of German Beer purity laws by ignoring the strict recipe requirements of the Reinheitsgebot and brewing beer well outside the recognized beer classifications.

Burnsed has a laissez-faire attitude about all the changes he has seen in the last couple of years here along Brighton Boulevard, and to the changes he knows are coming when Blue Moon opens just up the street from Mockery. He has already had a preview of this when Great Divide opened the Barrel Room Bar and new facility a block away.

"There are more people walking around the neighborhood now, especially the well-dressed developer types," Burnsed slyly observes. "I am indifferent to new breweries moving in. As long as they produce a quality product, it is good for all of us." He expands on his "a rising tide raises all boats" philosophy: "I can foresee a time when RiNo will become the Napa Valley of craft beer."

Katie McNeal of Beryl's Beer Company echoes that sentiment. "There is construction on every corner, and some people worry about big breweries coming in and ruining RiNo. I think their coming in will make RiNo the most concentrated craft beer neighborhood in the country."

At Mockery Brewing, regulars Tom Travis and Spencer Vliegen both had worked in RiNo, but their jobs have now shifted to other parts of the city.  Still, they make the trek to Mockery.

Travis says it is because Mockery reminds him of a brewery in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Vliegen likes Mockery because "it has small intimate atmosphere, with good beer and knowledgeable staff."

What changes have they noticed? Travis states, "Light rail has changed the feel of the place." He says he watched the Great Divide building going up, but its presence hasn't changed his brewery affiliation, though he observes, "RiNo is getting more interesting."

Read more articles by Jerome Shaw.

Jerome Shaw is a writer, photographer and beer lover from Denver. His travel blog is Travel Boldly. You can find him on Twitter @JeromeShaw or email him here.
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