Colby Rankin didn’t expect people to line up for beer and breakfast burritos. But that’s what they did on March 20, even before he’d opened the window of Gates Deli & Grog, which is attached to Platt Park Brewing. Over the next two hours, Rankin and his employees busted their butts, selling 250 Crowlers of beer and selling out of the same number of burritos.
The following morning, a Saturday, was even busier as people turned out not just for the special — a 32-ounce Crowler of one of Platt Park’s beers and one burrito for $10 — but to help show their love for the two South Pearl Street businesses.
Just a few days earlier, on March 17, Governor Jared Polis had ordered every restaurant, brewery and bar in the state to close for dine-in service in order to help slow the spread of coronavirus. They were allowed to keep selling to-go orders, but that was it. At the same time, Polis had shut down movie theaters, gyms, coffee shops and casinos.
“A line isn’t what we were going for. We didn’t know everyone would be so close together,” Rankin says sheepishly, especially since Polis and Mayor Michael Hancock subsequently ordered people to stay home unless they have essential business — and to practice “extreme social distancing,” meaning they should stand at least six feet apart.
Still, the turnout was incredibly gratifying. Last July, after running Platt Park Brewing for five years, Rankin and his family had opened Gates in a tiny space next door. Serving sandwiches, salads, wine and cocktails, it doesn’t have any seating of its own, but rather opens into the brewery through one takeout window and out onto the street through another.
To change the business to allow that, though, Rankin had to change his liquor license from one that permitted only making and selling beer to a brewpub license, which allows for wine and spirits, along with food. It was a difficult and time-consuming process — but worth it.
“Switching to food was difficult because I hadn’t done it before, and the first few months were hard, figuring out food costs,” Rankin says. “But I got some good help through people I met in the industry…and it has been a lifesaver over the past two or three weeks.”
Brewpubs have been a fixture in Colorado since 1988, when John Hickenlooper and his partners opened Wynkoop Brewing in LoDo. Before that, the idea of a small brewery at a restaurant was virtually unheard of. Their heyday was in the 1990s, when every decent-sized Colorado town had one. Some of the most famous are still around, including the Wynkoop, the Rock Bottom, Breckenridge Brewery, Phantom Canyon Brewing, Coopersmith’s Pub & Brewery, Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs, Carver Brewing in Idaho Springs and Mountain Sun Pub in Boulder. But starting around 2010, brewpubs began to go out of style, outmoded by the rapid growth of beer-only taprooms.
Like bars, taprooms can be small and intimate. Customers can stop in for one beer or three, without having to make a serious commitment to a meal. They also make a perfect companion for food trucks, which also began to grow in stature and popularity around 2010.
But as the number of breweries and brewpubs in Colorado jumped from about 125 in 2010 to more than 300 in 2015 and to more than 420 today, competition began to take a toll, and brewery owners began to look for ways to separate themselves from the pack.
One answer: going back to brewpub basics, but with a twist. In 2017, Black Shirt Brewing, founded in 2011 and one of Denver’s oldest beer-only taprooms, became the first in the city to switch to a brewpub license and add food (pizza), wine and spirits. “We always said that we were just going to concentrate on the beer,” Black Shirt co-owner Chad Miller explained. “But as we grew and the world changed around us, we said maybe we need to concentrate more on the experience that people are having here. I love brewing beer more than anything, but...it’s not just about us. It’s about the people who are coming in.”
Since then, several beer-only taprooms in the Denver area have followed suit, including Platt Park, Downhill Brewing in Parker, Wonderland Brewing in Broomfield and Big Choice Brewing in Brighton. Los Dos Potrillos Mexican Restaurant, meanwhile, added a brewery and brewpub license to its location in Parker, while the Rackhouse Pub and Bierstadt Lagerhaus joined their brands into one name (Bierstadt) and one brewpub license.
But two recent moves lend even more credence to this trend. Late last year, Renegade Brewing and Good River Beer Company merged into the Brewers Co-Hop and added a brewpub license. Backed by the Little Pub Company, which owns twenty bars in the metro area, Renegade and Good River were working to add food — and possibly spirits — before the recent coronavirus closings.
And in February, Durango-based Ska Brewing — founded in 1995, and the sixth-largest independently owned brewery in Colorado — drastically altered its model as well, shouldering a new brewpub license so that it could open a combination brewery/distillery/restaurant in Boulder. That opening took place on March 16, which meant that Ska wasn’t able celebrate the switch as it had planned to. But it is still a dramatic shift for the brewery — and shows that some old dogs are willing to learn new tricks.
When Ska was still just a concept in the early 1990s, co-founder Dave Thibodeau would drive around Colorado with friend Kyle Karstens, a Wynkoop brewer, and point out buildings that looked like they would make a cool brewpub. But when he realized that he could open a manufacturing brewery — like Odell or Great Divide — without having to serve food, he changed plans. “We didn’t have any money or any food experience,” he explains. “We knew that all we knew was beer, and we still didn’t even know that very well.”
Two decades later, after Thibodeau and business partners Bill Graham and Matt Vincent had moved into a big new space just outside Durango, they brought in a taqueria to keep taproom visitors fed. Since they didn’t want to compete with the restaurants in town that bought beer from them, they limited its hours and kept their distance.
But as mid-sized breweries like Ska have struggled to grow their package beer sales amid stunning competition, they decided to explore the idea of opening a brewpub in the metro area — a seven-hour drive from their base. When the former Fate Brewing building and kitchen became available last last year, they knew it was their chance. “We predicted we would be losing sales outside of Colorado as people went hyper-local, and we knew we needed to support the business in a sustainable way.
The answer was to switch to a brewpub or open a satellite tasting room,” Thibodeau says. “But at the end of the day, the thing that would set us apart was to merge the brewery” with Peach Street Distillers (which is partially owned by Ska’s founders) and bring in food and cocktails.
Thibodeau acknowledges that brewpubs had become a tired concept for a while, especially when a number of chains moved in, serving basic beers along the color or shade spectrum: a red ale, a blonde, a brown, a wit (white) and a pale. As a result, the newer ones, including Ska Street Brewstillery, are going for a different feel from classic brewpubs, with their old-style booths and big plastic menus.
Counter Culture Brewery + Grille is one of the new models. “I look at us as a taproom that provides kickass food, not as a brewpub at all,” says Counter Culture co-founder Kevin McCrossin. “Our goal was to maintain the taproom environment while having food on premises. If I was a sit-down restaurant, I would lose seats.”
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For McCrossin and business partner Justin Martinez, the plan was always to have food. “It does require a significant investment up front to build out a kitchen,” McCrossin adds, “but from my perspective, the food revenues are super-helpful for being in the neighborhood we are in.”
They’re even more important right now, when breweries and restaurants are closed for dine-in service. Although Counter Culture’s entire business was built around getting people in the door and keeping them there, the brewpub — like everyone else — had to switch its service model almost overnight to a takeout model, of both food and beer.
“It’s the new normal,” Counter Culture wrote on its Facebook page — and for now, instead of going out to the brewpub, people can take their brewpub home with them.
Jonathan Shikes is the author of Denver Beer: A History of Mile High Brewing, which was released in March 2020. The book explores the past and present of the city's favorite beverage, from 1859 to 2019. It is available online at the Tattered Cover, Book Bar, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.