In the fall of 1988, life in Denver was anything but a Rocky Mountain high. The economy had been down so long that replacing a perfectly fine airport with a giant public-works project half an hour from downtown seemed like a swell idea. Houses were selling--when they were selling at all--for what their owners had paid for them almost a decade before, during the last rush to the Rockies. Not surprisingly, everyone was looking for someplace new to drown their sorrows. Somewhere they could slake their thirst for something, anything, that might show the dry times were over.
Still, when the folks at the Wynkoop Brewing Company first opened their doors, they didn't know what hit them.
Specifically, dozens of hungry media types and other freeloaders who showed up, eager to take advantage of the offer of a gratis lunch (the Wynkoop was testing its kitchen before opening to the public) and, more important, the first beers to come out of the first Denver brewpub. The place was mobbed that day, and the crowds have kept coming ever since, lured on by the promise of community and camaraderie and, above all, good beer.
The Wynkoop's founding brewmaster was Russell Schehrer, a computer programmer who'd begun his brewing career in his parents' basement in Boulder, using his grandfather's recipe; in 1985 he won the Home Brewer of the Year Award from the Association of Brewers. A few years later Schehrer and his then-wife, Barbara McFarlane (at the time a Westword employee, which explains the excellent beverages at our office parties), caught wind of the fact that two unemployed geologists were planning to start a brewpub in an old warehouse down by Union Station.
The pair--John Hickenlooper and Jerry Williams--had spent months accumulating knowledge about the restaurant and renovation businesses and scraping together enough money to pursue their dream. (A loan from Denver's economic development office--arguably a much better investment for the city than building a new airport--helped seal the deal.) Schehrer and McFarlane soon signed on, and along with Martha Williams and chef Mark Schiffler, the six original Wynkoop partners (backed by dozens of relatives, friends and well-wishers) opened their place in October 1988.
The Wynkoop was the first major new venture in an area that wasn't yet known as LoDo but already had plenty of character. The brewpub quickly added some characters to the neighborhood. Like all homegrown--and home-brewed--ventures, it had its eccentricities. Hickenlooper, for example, displayed an unexpected flair for promoting the place and schmoozing the press. He also insisted on pronouncing the brewpub's name with a short "i," contrary to all historical references and the very street the place was located on, because "we don't make wine."
No, indeed. The Wynkoop made beer, all kinds of beer, but especially authentic English-style ales that tasted foreign in a town just down the road from the Coors plant. "Warm and flat is where it's at," said Schehrer. "In Russ we trust," responded his numerous fans, who made T-shirts to prove it. The Wynkoop marked special occasions by brewing up something special; during one such experiment Schehrer invented the first chile beer, combining in one glass the two very best elements of a Mexican meal. (The brew wound up named after me, arguably its most ardent fan, since by then Westword had moved into its fourth LoDo office, this one conveniently located across the street from the brewpub.) The Wynkoop's first anniversary called for something even more special--a "Running of the Pigs" that had porkers careening through the neighborhood.
That neighborhood has changed a great deal since the Wynkoop opened. Other brewpubs soon followed the Wynkoop's lead; today Denver has more brewpubs per capita than any other city. Flush with its early success, the Wynkoop expanded, first into an upstairs pool hall and lofts, then by helping other brewpubs across the country get started. Some of the partners have gone on to other projects. Schehrer himself designed the brewing systems and trained the brewers at Coopersmith's in Fort Collins and Hubcap Brewing in Vail, as well as at breweries in Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Kansas.
Most recently Schehrer was in New York, helping set up the brewing operations at Typhoon Brewing Company. He worked hard and he played hard--too hard, sometimes. And late last month, he fell down the stairs in his Brooklyn apartment--a beer in one hand, a grilled-cheese sandwich in the other (his favorite combination, McFarlane remembers). He died of his injuries last Friday, at the age of 38.
It was not a good weekend for the Wynkoop. On Saturday two men tried to rob the comedy club in the basement, shooting a patron and threatening others as they ran upstairs and outside, then pistol-whipping a customer outside Wazoo's around the corner before they jumped in a car and sped off. Although another recent Coors Field-area robbery barely made the papers (and the name of the bar that was hit was never mentioned), LoDo is hot, and the Wynkoop is hotter. The shooting made the first five minutes of every local TV newscast Sunday, with one witness saying he'd never go to LoDo again.
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If only the incident would also scare off the Planet Hollywoods and T.G.I.Friday's scheduled to soon bring their formulaic fun to the area and instead leave LoDo to early entrepreneurs like Schehrer and his partners, who took a unique Denver neighborhood and tried to keep it uniquely Denver.
In the aftermath of the robbery, Wynkoop staffers responded in a characteristic fashion. One of the bullets had dented a vat; fortunately, the beer inside was unharmed. Maybe the occasion should be marked by brewing up a batch of "Bulletproof Bitter," someone suggested. That's certainly what Schehrer would have done.
And then, at the wake that will be held in his honor sometime next week, they could all raise their glasses and toast Russ and recent days already long gone, offering this Gaelic blessing:
"Deep peace of the running wave to you, deep peace of the flowing air to you, deep peace of the quiet earth to you. Deep peace of the shining stars to you, deep peace of the gentle night to you, moon and stars pour their healing light on you.