Since Colorado's craft-beer boom began around 2010, the majority of the new breweries have opened using the taproom model; they make and serve beer, but not food. The trend has been a departure from what the state's breweries were doing in the 1990s, when most of them had kitchens and served food in some form.
To bridge that gap, taprooms have relied on food trucks, many of which have rolled onto city streets entirely because of the increase in taprooms. But in the past few years, some breweries have gotten tired of that relationship. Trucks break down frequently, especially in bad weather, and the cuisine isn't always fresh — or good. And the breweries, for their part, can't always ensure that the trucks see steady business.
As a result, several brewery owners have added their own, in-house food options. Sometimes this takes the form of a separate business with regular hours at the brewery. And in a few cases, the breweries have actually taken the trouble to change their licenses from manufacturing breweries to brewpubs.
"We want to have a reliable food source and be able to keep that revenue in house," says Jake Minturn, who bought Elk Mountain Brewing (18921 Plaza Boulevard in Parker) last year with his business partner, Doug Hyndman. The two plan to change the name of the business to Downhill Brewing this summer and add a pizza kitchen. But first they have to apply for a brewpub license, a process that can take a long time and involve sheaves of paperwork.
Still, Minturn says it will be worth it. The former taproom manager at Copper Kettle Brewing, he saw firsthand how difficult it can be to maintain a steady stable of quality food trucks.
Black Shirt Brewing (3719 Walnut Street) also made the long and difficult transition from a taproom to a brewpub last year, opening a small pizza kitchen inside the brewery in April 2017. At the time, co-owner Chad Miller had no problems explaining his reasoning. "We basically followed the model that every other brewery has followed to bring in food trucks, but for us, it was no-show after no-show. Or they would show up late and be mad that we didn’t have parking saved for them, and they would drive off in frustration,” he said then.
“You are so proud of these beers that you put out, and then a food truck throws a plate of stale nachos in front of you," he added. "If our customers have bad food, they feel like they had a bad experience, and guess who gets the bad Yelp review?”
Robert Lucero, the owner of Wonderland Brewing, at 5450 West 120th Avenue in Broomfield, also got frustrated with trucks and decided two years ago to take matters into his own hands by adding an on-site burger joint. Applying for a brewpub license wasn't feasible, however, so Lucero opened the Wonder Grill as a separate business. It has its own hours and its own space; customers walk up to a window, order food and wait until it's ready.
"It’s not easy to do it in this manner, but we own our property and wanted to get it right," Lucero says. "We also added more tasting room seating and office space as part of the addition as well."
In addition to the Wonder Grill, Lucero is adding a stage and a larger patio. He also hopes to put in a miniature golf course on the property. "That should be something different in a state that by then will have 400 breweries, I bet," he adds, saying food helps set the brewery apart. "It’s very competitive out there."
Station 26 Brewing founder Justin Baccary also cites competition as one of several reasons why he decided to open his own permanent food truck, Order 26, on site at 7045 East 38th Avenue. "Food has always been an important element of a brewery, even if the brewery doesn't serve its own food," he says. "But the brewing industry in Denver in 2018 is incredibly competitive, so food is probably more important than ever."
Baccary says he was lucky to have had solid, long-running relationships with the food trucks that came to the brewery before he and an employee decided to invest in Order 26 — and acknowledges that "operating your own kitchen is not easy; we struggled out of the gate" — but he prefers the new arrangement.
"We think Order 26 Food Truck provides a better experience for our guests at Station 26, in part because we are better able to integrate our food with our beers. For instance, we incorporate beer into several dishes: our Braised Lamb Sandwich is topped with Colorado Cream Ale fondue, our poutine is topped with American Copper gravy, and our Roasted Cauliflower Wedge is poached in Colorado Cream Ale," he says. Order 26 also incorporates spent grain into its pork meatballs and adds hopped pickles to its burgers.
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And while Order 26 is outside the brewery, the owners of Denver Beer Co partnered with the owners of Lucky Pie Pizza to open a food truck — actually a 1978 Airstream trailer — inside their Arvada location (at 5768 Olde Wadsworth Boulevard) last June. The Mighty, as it's called, is an artisan-burger kitchen; patrons walk up to the window to order.
Ska Brewing in Durango and Sanitas Brewing in Boulder also have permanent relationships with specific food trucks: the Container and McDevitt Taco Supply, respectively.
The newly opened Thirsty Monk (1604 East 17th Avenue), meanwhile, offers "food flights," which are customized boxed snacks that range from cheese and chicken salad to meatballs, pulled pork and smoked trout dip, mostly sourced from the kitchens of neighboring restaurants.