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Everything's Sip-Shape

The Pilgrims may have landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 simply because they'd thrown one too many keggers on the Mayflower and their beer supply was low. Hey, they may have been Puritans, but they had their priorities straight. "For we could not now take time for further search or consideration; our victuals being much spent, especially beer," was the entry written in the ship's log just before they docked, which hints that the Pilgrims weren't such a bunch of tight-asses after all. Instead, they were serious enough about their micros (surprise! Small-batch brews were around long before Samuel Adams made the jump from Boston Tea Party patriot to Best Beer in America) that they jumped ship at the first available spot. Never mind that it wasn't their targeted destination and that they didn't have a chance to check for friendly natives. They were out of beer, dude.

A hundred years later, more than 4,000 breweries stretched across the colonies, according to the Beer Lover's Rating Guide. Even at the start of this century, the country still had more than 2,000 breweries in operation. Of course, Prohibition put a stop to that, and even after its repeal, the number of American breweries was just in the low hundreds. Two decades ago, though, that number started climbing; the most recent count was a few shy of a thousand breweries. And more than half of those are brewpubs, breweries that serve food on the premises.

Denver lays claim to the largest brewpub in the world, the Wynkoop Brewing Company, which was also the first in town. Since it opened more than eight years ago, quite a few local brewpubs have risen to challenge the mighty 'Koop. But while some of them do a decent job of brewing quality beers and serving palatable food, many offer little more than variations on the tired old hamburger theme.

Time to wake up and smell the barbecue--hell, inhale the barbecue--at Breckenridge Brewery and Pub.

The seventh of the Breckenridges (there's the original in the town of the same name and a Denver brewpub on Blake Street, as well as versions in Dallas and New York), the Kalamath Street site, which opened in June, was originally designed to handle the company's twelve-pack production. But because Colorado law changed shortly thereafter and now stipulates that microbreweries offering alcohol for consumption on premises must serve food, the owners decided to fire up an abandoned smoker from the revamped Blake Street brewpub at the Kalamath address.

Kalamath's first chef lasted only a few months before heading off to do his own thing, but he left behind the skeleton for some fine barbecue. Under chef Greg Fowkes, who came on board in September, the meats continue to smoke, and the sauces that smother them have improved. The result is unbelievably delicious, the kind of finger-licking good that makes barbecue and beer a happy combination.

Fowkes's menu is concise and to the point: a few sandwiches and a few platters, all involving various combinations of chicken, pulled pork, baby-back ribs, brisket and what's called "heart-stopping" sausage. The best way to try a little of everything is the "Pig Out" ($8.50), a bargain of a meal that includes a quarter of a chicken, a quarter of a rack of ribs, a pile of pulled pork, a fat sausage link and two slices of brisket. Although everything had been slathered with the same basic sauce, each meat boasted its own rubs or marinades that lent distinct characteristics. A salty dusting of seasonings, for example, peeked out from beneath the sauce on the chicken; those spices heightened the deep, smoky flavor of the strangely tender bird. The juicy ribs had absorbed much of the sauce while losing most of their grease; the pulled pork was sweet and just slightly spicy-hot; the wonderfully chewy sausage was tongue-numbingly fiery, if not quite heart-stopping. But it was the brisket that really sent us over the edge, with its fat-edged flavor and flesh that truly melted in the mouth. This generous grouping came with a choice of two sides, and since we'd ordered two Pig Outs, I can say with confidence that four of the options are solid: chunky, skin-on mashed potatoes with a mild brown gravy; a light, vinegary peppered coleslaw; sludge-consistency, tomatoey, sweet-and-spicy baked beans; and a comforting, creamy-yellow potato salad.

The sandwiches placed the same marvelous meats on fresh, cushy buns and paired them with bags of chips. The sausage ($4.50) and pulled pork ($4.25) both went down well with pints of Breckenridge's dense Oatmeal Stout. The prices and service were easy to swallow, too. Both times we visited, we ordered at the counter to the left of the tasting room; plastic baskets loaded with food appeared within minutes. (Later I learned it was Fowkes himself manning the food line during lunch.) You can get your order to go or take it into the simply decorated dining area that makes for casual, friendly meals (of course, everyone's drinking beer). There are three containers of barbecue sauce on each square table: one sugary-sweet and molasses-thick, one comfortably hot, and one billed as "original," a Cajun-style concoction that sits somewhere between the others in spiciness. If you order takeout--a good idea if the location is close by, because it's a great deal for a business lunch and the place does an excellent packing job--make sure you get all three sauces. We didn't the first time around, but that was the only hitch we encountered.

It was smooth sailing at Broadway Brewing, too. Quite a bit more bustling than Breckenridge's Kalamath outpost, Broadway Brewing is a full-fledged hangout. The funky, art-filled space in the 1911 Silver State Laundry Building is owned by Wynkoop and Aspen's Flying Dog Brewery; as you might expect, their beers are the most heavily featured, although a half-dozen others are offered on a rotating basis.

But food doesn't take a back seat to beer here. Since it opened almost three years ago, Broadway Brewing has put a lot of effort into its menu. The best item, though, is still the rotisserie chicken ($8.50), a whole crisp-skinned bird stiffly coated with herbs and spices and accompanied by a thick, mayo-mortared potato salad. The chicken's interior was skin-fat slick and falling-apart tender, and the sharp bite of the rub made for a delectable balance of sweet meat and seasonings. Fowl has another starring role in the chicken burrito ($5.75), a fat bundle of moist chicken hunks, chopped red onion, Jack and cheddar cheeses and black olives, all seemingly soaked with jalapeno juice and barely contained by the flour tortilla; the trimmings included tomatoes, lettuce and sour cream, along with a freshly tossed, cilantro-garnished salsa. With so many bad takes on this popular item out there--most served in places that foolishly call themselves "Mexican grills"--Broadway's burrito was a straightforward standout.

Although the rest of the roster consists of more typical pub grub--pizzas, calzones, lettuce-heavy salads and huge sandwiches of roast beef or meatballs--it's all well-executed fare. A small white pizza ($7) came topped with barely cooked garlic, sliced romas and melted mozzarella sharpened with romano. The football-sized spinach calzone ($5.75) spurted ricotta from its recesses and overflowed with garlic, romas and long strands of mozzarella. The highlight of both the pizza and calzone was the dough, a yeasty, beer-fortified blend that also popped up as beer-bread rolls for sandwiches. The crusty shell and bubble-spongy interior was the perfect holder for the hoagie ($5.50), a monster tower of top-quality salami, ham, capicola and provolone wet down with Italian dressing. A couple of mugs of Old Scratch and Railyard Ale rounded out our provisions.

The four of us walked out of the Broadway stuffed with first-rate food and only $40 lighter.

Pilgrim, that's progress.

Breckenridge Brewery and Pub, 471 Kalamath Street, 573-0431. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Broadway Brewing, 2441 Broadway, 292-2555. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday; noon-midnight Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday.

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