Rich and Brock begin their Saturday mission with a 7:30 a.m. wake and bake.
"We need a little Colorado kind bud to get into the proper spirit of things," Brock says, lowering his Bic over a packed bowl of green. "You need to have your mind focused when you embark on such a journey."
Not only that, but you need a certain spirit of adventure. Along with a couple hundred other people, Rich and Brock are planning a trip to the northeast Denver warehouse district off Colorado Boulevard, just across the train tracks from Brock's Park Hill bungalow. They'll spend the early part of their weekend standing in a serpentine line, awaiting the moment when the clock strikes eight and the doors roll up at the Western Beverage distribution center, aka Beer Warehouse.
"When I first moved to Denver, this guy told me about this amazing place called Beer Warehouse, but he wouldn't tell me where it was," Brock says. "He said, 'There's no way you're going to get up at 7 a.m. -- but if you show up, I'll take you.' So I showed up, and he took me. And it was amazing. It was like that scene in Indiana Jones where they open the vault on the Holy Grail -- only it was beer."
Every Saturday from eight to noon, Western Beverage -- the local distributor for Miller Beer products as well as a number of imports and domestic microbrews -- opens its well-stocked floor to the public, moving goods it can't sell to retail or tavern owners for aesthetic or quality-control reasons. Mismatched cases of pilsners and ambers, bottles with torn or sticky labels, brews reaching their expiration dates, and cases nicked by forklifts or banged up in the back of an eighteen-wheeler are stacked on pallets and roped off at the front of the warehouse. It isn't pretty, but it's all perfectly drinkable. And one hell of a good deal.
Though prices and products fluctuate from week to week, buyers usually drop $10 a case for imports and higher-end brands such as Heineken, Samuel Adams and Tecate, and $7 for domestics like Miller and Pabst Blue Ribbon -- roughly half of what the merchandise would net at retail.
"The first time my friends and I came here, we bought seventeen cases," Rich says. "We went home, cracked one case open and started playing Beer Pong at 8:30. We were drunk by noon. We couldn't believe this place. We were just so happy."
Now they visit about once every six weeks, usually walking out with twelve cases between them. ("Now that I'm married, I don't have to come as often. It lasts a while," Rich says.) But like most of the people in line, they are fiercely protective of "the secret," giving out the exact location to only the most dedicated brew hunters. (They're also protective of their identities, lest they be shunned as the secret-revealers.) Though neither Brock nor Rich is a particularly heavy drinker, they see no need to let just anyone in on this place that is the perfect synthesis of two things Americans love best: beer and a bargain.
"You get every ethnicity here: Mexicans, college kids, black guys," Rich says. "Everybody's gonna come out with a pallet of something. Where else do you see that kind of diversity in Denver? You don't see it at a Broncos game."
That's not to say that everyone gets along. There is only a four-hour window of opportunity, and competition for the primo goods can get heated. "Most of the time it's pretty good, but it's like piranhas if they bring out a pallet of good stuff, like Tecate," says D.L. Schmidt, a uniformed Denver cop hired to work overtime at Western Beverage. "You don't want to get caught in the middle of it."
Richard Aguilar knows that placement is key, as is having the right equipment. On this particular Saturday, he, his two daughters and his future son-in-law showed up at 6:30 a.m., though they weren't the first in line. (A couple planning a lot of pre-nuptial gatherings beat them by a full hour.) A husband-and-wife team selling homemade burritos arrived at 6 a.m., anticipating hungry crowds; Saturdays at Beer Warehouse have become their busiest sales day of the week. Armed with a loading dolly, Aguilar, like everyone else, intends to come out with more than he can possibly carry.
"There's some real professionals out there; it's crazy. They really know what they're doing," Aguilar says. "Once we get inside, we spread out. Everybody's just looking, looking, looking. When you find something good, you stand over it; you block."
At 7:59, Aguilar's eyes flash on the warehouse door. In a minute, he's inside with his family. One daughter goes deep into the interior while the other swings right; the elder Aguilar roves up and down the center aisle with the dolly, awaiting the call to come collect a prize find. By 8:03, they've scored three flats of Tecate in cans.
Schmidt controls the flow at the door, but the floor packs quickly. Wives guard stacks of Henry Weinhard's Red while husbands load carts and pallets or back trucks up to the loading dock. A woman trying to steady a box of loose Heineken bottles on one knee loses her balance and sends the whole lot crashing to the floor. People around her simply step over the smashed glass. The clanging of bottles is constant, a smell of stale beer lingers, and it's impossible not to be in the way; shoppers elbow their way to 24, 48, 96, 240 bottles and cans of beer. The average haul is ten to thirteen cases per buyer -- enough for approximately eight beers per person per day for a month.
By 8:20, Brock and Rich are satisfied with their bounty. Heading toward the exit, where they'll pay a Western Beverage foreman in cash, their loading dolly is skillfully if precariously loaded, like a drinker's version of Tetris. They've got some Miller High Life, Boddingtons Draught Bitter and Heineken. But the real snag is five cases of Samuel Adams Summer Ale, the hottest commodity of the day, which disappeared from the warehouse after approximately twelve minutes. Even better, the foreman charged them for only twelve cases; they got 288 beers dirt cheap, and 24 free.
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Surveying the load, the two friends are feeling proud and congratulatory. A little later in the day, they'll open a couple of cold ones and toast each other.
"That's a shitload of beer we got today," Rich says, smiling. He and Brock give each other high fives and start to pack the thirteen cases into the back of Brock's SUV.