Spangalang Brewery

To consider why the atmosphere at Spangalang Brewery is so good, one must first consider how far the building in which it is located has come: Until last year, it was a busy, busy Division of Motor Vehicles office where people from all over the city gathered to wait in long lines, argue with beleaguered DMV employees and cough on one another. But the ambience at Spangalang is truly the result of careful work by its owners, who invested a jazz theme into the brewery as an homage to the history of Five Points. And although that history also includes several recent decades of neglect, that's changing in a big way as developers pour into the old neighborhood to redirect its future. Spangalang, with its long bar, excellent beer and recognition of its surroundings, will be a big part of that future.

Readers' choice: Ratio Beerworks

Best Suburban Brewery Tap Room — Ambience

Grist Brewing

Grist Brewing

Rob Kevwitch opened Grist Brewing in Highlands Ranch for two reasons: "I grew up here," he says, and "this neighborhood needed a brewery." With a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, Kevwitch studied "photodegradable dendrimer/polymeric systems" under a guy who studied under a Nobel Prize winner. Now he runs a brewery. Overqualified? Hardly. Making beer, especially good beer, takes a balance of science and creativity, and Kevwitch pours his heart into both — something symbolized by an actual balance (his grandfather's) that hangs on the wall. And speaking of creative decor, Grist is packed with charm. A huge rectangular bar sits as the centerpiece of a tap room that includes flat-screen TVs, a multi-colored neon sign, a counter-pressure growler filler, a Crowler machine and fermentation tanks that sit so close to customers that they can touch them — but please don't. Drink at Grist: You'll feel smarter.

Black Shirt Brewing Co.
Mark Antonation

Sometimes less is more, and Black Shirt Brewing has done the most with the least, turning what could have been a gritty blacktop into a hidden oasis out back. The owners of Black Shirt have always embraced the workaday industrial feel of River North, and the patio reflects that — with a view (for now) of nearby railyards. But the space — loaded with picnic tables, sun shades and hop bines that rise from planters made of reclaimed boxcar planks — is cozy and cool, boasting a stage made entirely of old wooden pallets. Enjoy it now, though: With construction slated to take place all around Black Shirt, reality could soon intrude into this oasis.

Tivoli Brewing Company

For nearly seventy years, a brewery operated inside the historic building that now serves as the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria campus. The beer kept flowing until 1969, when the Tivoli Beer Company closed, leaving just the old equipment behind. But history has a way of repeating itself, and in 2012, Corey and Debbie Marshall bought up several historic Denver beer trademarks, like Tivoli, Zang's and Neef's, and began contract-brewing updated versions of their German-style lagers. In 2014, they announced that they'd struck a deal with the Auraria Higher Education Center to build a new version of Tivoli — now Tivoli Brewing — right next to the old one. The reborn brewery has since installed its thirty-barrel brewhouse beside and below the two original 250-barrel, copper-plated brew kettles that the old Tivoli used and opened its own restaurant and tap house. The brewery is also being used to train the next generation of brewery operators as part of Metropolitan State University of Denver's hospitality program, making sure that Denver's history is poured into its future.

Finkel & Garf Brewing

Brewery tap rooms have gotten innovative when it comes to food. Most of them welcome the ubiquitous food trucks, while others have co-located in buildings with eatery options. A few offer popcorn machines, pretzels or candy. But Finkel & Garf goes way beyond that. The brewery contains a massive snack wall, with cubbies for enough options to make just about anyone happy. You can find chips, pretzels, peanuts, Chex mix, beef jerky, corn nuts, Goldfish crackers, Twinkies, sunflower seeds and Spam — yes, Spam. Oh, and if it's just beer you want, grab a six-pack from the wall of snacks and take it to go.

Oskar Blues Grill & Brew
Oskar Blues

Until a few years ago, the only way to take home beer from your favorite non-packaging brewery was if it sold growlers — typically 64-ounce glass containers filled at the tap. But these vessels are too big and unwieldy, and they often leave beer flat after a day or two. More recently, breweries began offering smaller containers made of different materials, which helped. But last year, Oskar Blues revolutionized carryout beer with the Crowler machine. These allow bartenders to force oxygen out and then seal a 32-ounce can of any beer a brewery has on tap — and although they aren't reusable, Crowler cans are easier to carry and recyclable, and keep beer fresher longer. Oskar Blues has now sold hundreds of the machines to breweries all over the country; in the Denver area, you can find them at Cerebral, Lost Highway, Black Shirt, Dry Dock, Wonderland, Grist, and Great Divide's Barrel Bar, among others. Look for more soon.

First Draft

New to craft beer? Want to try an ounce or two of several different styles — from the standard to the exotic — without committing to an entire glass? First Draft offers the freedom to do all of that. The place works like this: Walk in and lay down a credit card and your ID in exchange for a card or bracelet that operates the taps. Then walk over to the wall of forty taps, swipe your card and pour a little, or a lot, of any beer into your glass; you'll be charged by the ounce. Then clean your glass and try something else. Want to sample the latest Portland pale ale, a new sour, an obscure beer from a Colorado mountain town? Do it here.

Arvada Tavern

Sitting in the dining room downstairs at the Arvada Tavern, you'd never know that the upstairs houses one of the most authentic and fun speakeasy experiences in the area. Slip into the old-fashioned phone booth in the back and head up a long flight of stairs that takes you into the modestly sized but cozy and warmly lit Bernard Ballroom, where you can order one of the Tavern's beautifully crafted cocktails — the bar makes a mean French 75, as well as a delightfully orange-flavored take on the old-fashioned called an Olde Town Fashioned — and kick back at one of the well-worn wooden tables. On Friday and Saturday nights, the ballroom hosts free live music, usually jazz or bluegrass — perfect for the made-for-dancing wood floor under your feet.

Sam's Bar & Lounge
Sarah James

Several of Denver's best dive bars disappeared this year: The Rocky Flats Lounge suffered a devastating fire; the owner of the Rustic Tavern sold the spot, which is now a bakery and breakfast joint; the Filling Station will soon be wiped off the map by a big RiNo development. Other longtime dives have been renovated into shiny shadows of their former selves, often transformed into hangouts for hipsters. Well, we're betting you won't find a single hipster at Sam's Bar & Lounge, a watering hole that opened on Leetsdale Drive 62 years ago. You won't find any wi-fi, either; as one message on the bar's chalkboard urges, "Talk to each other and get drunk." That's not hard, especially if you sit at the big, four-sided bar — there are a few comfy booths, too — and chat it up with the bartender, who pours stiff, inexpensive drinks. As so much of old Denver dries up, the neon sign of Sam's shines like a beacon. Drink up!

Readers' choice: hi-dive
Star Bar
Courtesy of Star Bar

Star Bar will surprise you. The scruffy, wood-paneled bar in the Ballpark neighborhood often gets rowdy with karaoke and baseball fans and country music, but it shines unexpectedly when it comes to cocktails. A lot of that has to do with a back bar stocked with carefully selected spirits — with a strong emphasis on Colorado products — that includes rare Japanese whiskeys, more than a dozen Italian amari, and an entire barrel of bourbon. But it really comes down to the bartenders: Star Bar's staff is composed of a variety of local talent, whose brilliance is evident in their capacity to serve anything from a Coors Light to a caipirinha. Bartender Les Baker's smoked Manhattan, for example, is made with bourbon, artichoke liqueur, sweet vermouth and whiskey-barrel-aged bitters, served in a tobacco-smoked glass. In a twist on the usual, Star Bar is a dive bar for cocktail connoisseurs.

Best Of Denver®

Best Of