Boulder Beer Company is Colorado’s oldest craft brewery — founded in 1979 — but it has never been the city’s most prominent. The brewery’s beautiful restaurant and taproom are hidden in an out-of-the-way east Boulder business park on Wilderness Place. That will change in July, though, when Boulder Beer takes over the Walnut Brewery space at 1123 Walnut Street, which is front and center in Boulder, just off the Pearl Street Mall.
Walnut Brewery, itself one of the oldest breweries in Colorado, will close on June 4 after a 27-year run as a sudsy fixture. Founded in 1990 by restaurateurs Frank and Gina Day, Walnut Brewery is now owned by Tennessee-based CraftWorks Restaurants & Brewery Group, a holding company that also owns the Rock Bottom, Old Chicago and ChopHouse chains, as well as several other restaurants across the country.
“We have been talking about opening a downtown Boulder location for years. It’s nice that when it finally came about that it’s in such a fantastic location,” says Jeff Brown, president and part owner of Boulder Beer, which will maintain its taproom, restaurant and production facility on Wilderness Place.
“Boulder is a world-class destination...and a beer destination. But many of the tourists who have so much of an influence downtown aren’t that into beer. So for us, having a location downtown with all of those people who come through, it will give our brand a lot of more exposure and hopefully translate into more sales,” he adds.
Like many medium-sized craft breweries across the country, including several in Colorado, Boulder Beer felt the pinch of increased competition and declining sales last year; the brewery’s production numbers were down by 9 percent between 2015 and 2016. As a result, Brown says, Boulder Beer was looking for ways to get its name out there through marketing. The new location downtown will help with those efforts.
Once Walnut Brewery closes, Boulder Beer plans to renovate the space and rebrand it, opening again over the Fourth of July weekend. The space has a seven-barrel brewing system that Boulder Beer will use to try out new recipes that it could eventually scale up for production on its fifty-barrel brewhouse at the Wilderness Place facility.
The spot will have twenty different taps and two cask beers on at all times, which will include both Boulder Beer staples like Mojo IPA, Shake Chocolate Porter and Sweaty Betty Blonde, along with many beers made on site. The brewery will also continue to offer lunch and dinner service and plans to bring in live music. In addition, the brewers may keep brewing some of Walnut Brewery’s beers from time to time and put them on tap.
The deal that paved the way for Boulder Beer goes back a few years, says Brown, and involves the complicated and decades-old connections between Frank and Gina Day, Boulder Beer, Brown and Craftworks.
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Brown worked for Frank Day when he opened the Walnut Brewery in 1990. But in addition to Walnut Brewery, Day also founded the Old Chicago and Rock Bottom chains (the first Rock Bottom in downtown Denver was based on the Walnut Brewery) before selling them in 2010 to an investment group. That group later formed Craftworks, which also rolled up the Gordon Biersch brewery and restaurant chain.
Meanwhile, Day and real estate business partner Bob Greenlee, a former Boulder mayor, held onto the building where Walnut Brewery was located.
Not to be outdone, Day’s wife, Gina, and Greenlee’s wife, Diane, invested in Boulder Beer Company along with Brown and brewmaster Jeff Zuckerman, who had taken over from the brewery’s founders in the 1990s. Although the foursome sold the brewery’s name and intellectual property to Craftworks at one point, they later bought it back.
A few years ago, Frank Day approached Craftworks about taking over the space where the Walnut Brewery is located, since he owns the building. Craftworks finally agreed, and Day has now formed a joint partnership with Boulder Beer to run the new brewpub. Craftworks didn't return an e-mail seeking comment for this story.