Beer Man

Why River North Brewery's Opening Brings Closure in RiNo

Sarah Cowell
River North Brewery has reopened at the edge of RiNo.
Sometime this week, River North Brewery will break in its new, seven-barrel brewhouse at 3400 Blake Street by cooking up a batch of Hello, Darkness Black IPA. It's not one of the brewery's flagships beers, nor is black IPA still a trendy style, or even a customer favorite. But the beer is important to River North owners Matthew and Jessica Hess. To understand why, you have to take a little trip into the past.

The year was 2012, the month was February. Barack Obama was running for a second term against Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump was still just an irksome reality-TV star. Tim Tebow was the presumed quarterback of the Denver Broncos, while Peyton Manning had yet to appear in town. In Denver, the neighborhood between Blake and Walnut streets and 24th and 38th was still mostly an industrial part of town, and rarely referred to as River North — much less RiNo, even though it had given birth to the RiNo Art District a half-dozen years earlier. There were plenty of places to park up there — anywhere you wanted, really — and no scooters. The Populist, now shuttered, had yet to open. Neither had Infinite Monkey Theorem or Black Shirt Brewing or Our Mutual Friend. In fact, although the city's brewery scene had blown up in 2011 with the addition of five new breweries, there were still only a grand total of about fifteen within Denver city limits — a far cry from the seventy-plus breweries that now fill the Mile High City's cup.

The original River North brewery, at 2401 Blake Street. - JONATHAN SHIKES
The original River North brewery, at 2401 Blake Street.
Jonathan Shikes
But that's when the Hesses opened River North Brewery in a big warehouse space at the corner of Blake and 24th streets. They planned to specialize in Belgian-style beers, which no one else in Denver was concentrating on at the time, unless you counted Coors-owned Blue Moon Brewing.

"I have had good luck and a good time brewing those styles of beers," Matt said at the time. An engineer from Kansas, he developed all of his early recipes from the home brews he'd been making. The beers included a Belgian wit, a Belgian saison (J. Marie), a Belgian-influenced pale red, and Hello, Darkness Black IPA — which was actually the first beer that River North ever brewed at its first location.

click to enlarge Matthew and Jessica Hess. - SARAH COWELL
Matthew and Jessica Hess.
Sarah Cowell
Over the next few years, River North Brewery would enjoy a huge amount of success and popularity in Denver's burgeoning craft-beer scene. But in the summer of 2015, the Hesses found out that they would have to move, and quickly: The brewery's building was being scraped to make way for an apartment complex.

It was a big blow to a brewery that took its name from its location in the River North Art District, especially since rents had become exorbitant in the intervening years as the area's popularity exploded. The only solution was to move out of the neighborhood and into a big warehouse at Denver's northern border, where the brewery could maintain a small taproom and expand its canned production.

click to enlarge SARAH COWELL
Sarah Cowell
Later that year, River North reopened inside a 10,000-square-foot warehouse at 6021 Washington Street, but Hess insisted that he planned to find additional space in RiNo at some point in the future.

Finally, in June 2017, River North secured a new location — at 3400 Blake Street, exactly ten blocks from its former location. But planning and permitting and other pre-construction negotiations took much longer than expected, and work didn't begin on the building until nearly fifteen months later.

click to enlarge SARAH COWELL
Sarah Cowell
But finally last month, River North Brewery opened the doors to the new taproom, becoming both the oldest and the newest brewery in RiNo at the same time.

"In 2012, the RiNo brewery scene was only a shadow of what it has now become," Hess points out. "There were just a few of us, all friends, sharing a passion for great beer and helping each other out whenever we could. Those days were a lot of fun. I would not trade them for anything.

click to enlarge SARAH COWELL
Sarah Cowell

"Since the day we left RiNo, almost four years ago, our plan was to come back as soon as possible," he continues. "We missed the neighborhood every day we were gone. Returning to RiNo with the new taproom has been the culmination of years of hard work. Seeing all the familiar, friendly faces across the bar again is a great feeling. It's amazing to see how RiNo has grown and changed over the years."

In addition to the seven-barrel brewhouse, the new River North contains a private event space on one side and a south-facing patio. The brewery plans to use this location as "a small-batch research lab to develop new recipes and explore new styles — it will primarily feature pilot beers."

But River North will still maintain its brewery on Washington Street because, in addition to brewing and packaging all of its year-round core beers, the taproom there has attracted a good group of regulars. While Hess says that he wasn't sure what to expect when it first opened, the tap room has found its niche with people who live nearby or who use the corridor during their commute, and that the location has worked out surprisingly well.