The history of rail travel in Denver goes back a long way, to the 1860s, when the first trains began pulling into town. But the history of beer goes back even further, to 1859, when thirsty gold miners flooded the area and German brewmeisters followed. The two just seem to go together: Imagine a lone figure setting a pint of grog — or, more recently, a tulip glass full of a double IPA — down on the bar while a train whistle sounds forlornly in the background.
At Black Shirt Brewing, which opened in 2012 just two blocks from the train tracks in River North, you can live that image every day. “It’s become a comforting noise for us,” says Carissa Miller, who owns Black Shirt with her husband, Chad Miller, and Chad’s brother Branden. “I think it started for us way before we opened, when we got bikes and started riding around the neighborhood. Everywhere we went, we could feel the grungy soul and hear the whistle. I think we wanted to take that love and that soul and build from there.”
On Friday, April 22, a new whistle will join the chorus when the RTD’s new Train to the Plane A Line opens, connecting Union Station with Denver International Airport with six dots in between, including one station at 38th and Blake streets, directly behind Black Shirt.
That proximity will mean a lot to the brewery — and to others within walking distance of light rail — because it will allow customers to use a new form of transportation to get there and, perhaps more important, to leave after a few beers. It means so much, in fact, that Black Shirt is throwing a weekend-long party to celebrate, complete with new beer tappings, live music and food trucks. (Nearby Beryl's Beer Company will also throw a party and tap A-Line IPA.)
But Black Shirt isn’t the only brewery in Colorado with a connection to rail. Here, in alphabetical order, are ten breweries for Colorado train lovers, including Black Shirt.
Black Shirt Brewing
3719 Walnut Street
Located just a block from both the railroad tracks and a new light-rail station, Black Shirt has a back patio with a great view of trains. And while that may be blocked in the coming year by construction of a new office building, the sound of the train whistle will remain. A more intimate connection can be felt inside the brewery, though, where the long bar and all of the tables are made from old boxcar flooring that was refurbished to make it smooth and straight, but which still retains a lot of wear and tear. “Every nick and scratch is a story of its own,” says co-owner Carissa Miller, adding that the man who sold Black Shirt the wood told her that it had been used in train cars that carried Coors beer from Golden.
13th and Ford streets, Golden
There was only one good way to get beer out of Golden in the 1930s after Prohibition ended, and that was by rail. Coors so depended on the rail lines that there’s a replica of a refrigerated Coors car (known then as a “reefer”) at the Colorado Railroad Museum, which is also located in Golden. All self-respecting train nerds have to visit this museum and check out the reefer, and they can follow up by hitting the famed Coors tour at the brewery. If craft beer is more your style, though, head for Cannonball Creek, Barrels & Bottles, Mountain Toad or Golden City Brewery, which also call Golden home. And if you hit them all, you might want to abandon your car and walk the three miles to the light-rail station at the Jefferson County Government Center for the ride back into Denver.
Denver ChopHouse & Brewery
1735 19th Street
Although it’s owned by Craftworks Restaurants and Breweries, which operates the Old Chicago and Rock Bottom chains, among others, the Denver ChopHouse serves up a wide variety of its own beers, which it brews on site — in a grand 1923 building that once served as Union Pacific’s local headquarters. And while the historic two-story building once had a direct connection to the tracks, which run nearby, it now has more of a tie-in to Coors Field, right next door. Still, if you close your eyes and look at the ChopHouse logo, which mimics Union Pacific’s, and the building’s architecture, you can almost imagine yourself in another era.
Glenwood Canyon Brewing
402 Seventh Street, Glenwood Springs
While Denver’s ever-expanding light-rail lines mean that beer lovers can travel by train to more and more local breweries, a true train lover will want to take Amtrak’s California Zephyr from Denver to Glenwood Springs. The six-hour journey rolls through beautiful mountain scenery and connects the Wynkoop Brewing Company (see below), which is just across the street from Union Station, to Glenwood Canyon Brewing, which sits on the first floor of the historic Denver Hotel, just across the street from Glenwood’s own Amtrak station. Founded in 1995 — or 91 years after the Denver & Rio Grande first chugged into view — Glenwood Canyon Brewing has since become an institution in town, and is one of the first things people see when they get off the train. Try an Old Depot Porter and then hit the hot springs.
3550 Frontier Avenue, Boulder
The pastoral, two-level back patio at Sanitas Brewing has a view of Mount Sanitas, but it also has front-row seats to a daily train show. Trains, most of them carrying coal, rumble past the brewery at seemingly random times of the day every day, on a set of tracks lined by grass and trees. “We have not figured out a rhyme or reason for why they are scheduled when they are,” says Sanitas co-owner Michael Memsic. The brewery has embraced the situation, though, naming its session beers (those that are under 5 percent ABV) the Train series and keeping one on tap at all times; Train 15, a session stout, is the current offering. In addition, Sanitas lowers the price for a pint of its Train beer to $2.50 for the fifteen-minute period after each train rolls by. There are a few train decorations in the tap room as well.
2736 Welton Street
Be careful when you walk out of Spangalang Brewery after having imbibed one too many D Train IPAs: The light-rail stop is just a few steps from the doorway, and the front sides of those trains aren’t very forgiving. Although this brewery, founded just a year ago, is located inside a former driver’s-license office, it has a much stronger connection to trains. That’s because the Five Points neighborhood has always had its share of rail lines, whether they were the electric trolley lines that ran through here starting around the turn of the twentieth century and lasting into the 1950s, or the train cars that rolled up in 1994 as part of RTD’s first light-rail line. According to brewery co-owner Darren Boyd, beer-drinking parents like to set their kids up near the window so they can watch the light-rail cars go by every seven and a half minutes. Oh, and those trains make logistics easier as well: Boyd says employees of the Appaloosa Grill, which serves Spangalang beer, regularly ride the light rail with a dolly, pick up their keg and take it back to the restaurant on the 16th Street Mall.
1330 Zuni Street
Strange Brewing is a bit of a walk from the nearest light-rail stations, at West Tenth Avenue and Osage Street or at West 13th Avenue and Federal Boulevard, in a non-pedestrian-friendly swath of town, but anyone who drinks here can get their fill of train tracks. That’s because the approach from the east often requires a stop at some tracks, either for the light rail or a much more infrequent train. The real show, though, is on Strange’s back patio, where only a chain-link fence separates drinkers from the whooshing W Line trains heading to and from Golden; they pass within a few feet of the tables. Try a Cherry Kriek and remember that Denver was founded in late 1858 at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River.
801 East Second Avenue, Durango
Perhaps more than any other place in Colorado, Durango is tied to its railroad. After all, the town was founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in 1879 — and has seen nonstop train travel ever since. Today the big draw is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which offers multiple packages for train buffs and tourists, including the Durango Brew Train, which gives riders a chance to eat, party and sample beers from Durango’s six breweries. Although Durango Brewing, which features a locomotive on its logo, is currently closed, Steamworks Brewery is just four blocks from the D&SNGR depot. It, too, is currently closed for renovations, but should reopen later this month, with several beers with rail-themed names on tap. With any luck, one of them will be Conductor.
900 Auraria Parkway
Model-railroad enthusiasts might be familiar with Tivoli because of the Atlas Model Railroad Company, which makes a tiny replica of the forty-foot refrigerated trains that used to carry Tivoli’s brews from Denver to the rest of the western United States during the seven decades that the brewery was in existence; it shut down in 1969. Now they can get familiar with Denver’s light-rail system, too. In 2012, the reincarnated Tivoli — using old trademarks — opened a showplace brewery inside what is now the student union on the Auraria campus. And by the end of the year, you should be able to start drinking in that brewery, then take the light rail to a second, smaller Tivoli brewery inside the Westin Hotel at DIA.
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Wynkoop Brewing Company
1634 18th Street
Just as the history of real transportation in Denver begins at Union Station, which opened in its current spot in 1881, the city’s history of craft beer begins just across the street, at the Wynkoop Brewing Company. Denver’s first craft brewery was founded in 1988 in what was then a mostly vacant stretch of old warehouses. But the owners of the brewery, including now-governor John Hickenlooper, embraced the rail yards behind the station, which encompassed some three dozen tracks, by naming one of their beers Rail Yard Ale — a beer that remains famous. “It was the first train-minded craft beer in the state, and would be the flagship modern-day train beer,” says Marty Jones, a craft-beer ambassador who has worked with numerous breweries over the years, including the Wynkoop. “It’s a nod to the city’s past and a tribute to a culture that barely exists anymore.” At one point in time, you could watch the trains pull in and out while sitting on the patio, ordering flights of beer labeled A Train, B Train and C Train. Today, you’ll just have to listen for the whistle.