Craft breweries are one of Denver’s signature industries, but for many people, they also are also a symbol of gentrification — of mostly white-owned companies moving into lower-income neighborhoods and pushing out the businesses or residents who were already there.
Taylor Rees was acutely aware of that when he and two partners opened Spangalang Brewery in 2015 in a former DMV office in the heart of Five Points. To honor the historically black neighborhood and its jazz tradition, they named the brewery after a jazz term, "spangalang," and made it clear that they wanted to welcome a diverse group of customers.
Over the past five years, Spangalang has developed a good following, won awards, hosted jazz events and tried to fit in. But running a brewery was tough in beer-heavy Denver — even before COVID-19 — and as the health crisis exploded in March, forcing bars, breweries and restaurants to close, it became almost impossible.
“Our sales fell to about one-fifth of what they were prior to the pandemic,” Rees says, something that “vastly changed the dynamics” of the brewery’s financial picture.
Prior to COVID-19, Spangalang had been in talks with its landlord, the Flyfisher Group, to give back about 2,000 square feet of space that it had never used in order to reduce the rent. But with sales plummeting in April and May and back rent piling up, the two businesses struck a deal, one that should be final this month.
The Flyfisher Group, a Five Points-based private equity investment firm headed by businessman Matthew Burkett, will take a nearly 40 percent stake in Spangalang (as first reported by the Denver Business Journal ). In return, the brewery will be able to add a small canning line and will convert into a brewpub so that Flyfisher can operate a restaurant out of the same space.
“It’s a big chunk,” Rees acknowledges. “We are definitely giving up some control, but we are kind of at their mercy because we owe them rent.” Still, both sides are excited to work with each other. “Converting to a brewpub will allow us to serve food all the time, which we think is becoming more and more important for breweries these days," Rees adds. "Additionally, while we will always be focused on the beer we brew, we will be able to offer a small selection of wines and ciders" and other adult beverages.
As a result of the investment, Spangalang will also become a part of a newly created consortium of eating and drinking establishments in Five Points that will work together under the direction of Ryan Cobbins, the longtime owner of Coffee at the Point. The group includes the coffee shop at 710 East 26th Avenue, which will add a new menu and craft beer; Mimosas, a breakfast restaurant planning to open this month at 2752 Welton Street; and MPB, a happy hour and dinner spot led by chef Daniel Young in the former Dunbar Kitchen and Taphouse, at 2844 Welton Street. MPB is still in the planning stages, but should open this summer as well.
Burkett and Cobbins both live in Five Points — and both are black, a rarity among Colorado’s brewery investors, owners and brewers. In fact, there are only three other breweries (that Westword knows of) with significant black ownership in the state: Novel Strand Brewing, Outworld Brewing and Hogshead Brewery.
The lack of diversity in brewing — something that is being increasingly discussed around the country — is similar to the lack of diversity in the coffee world, says Cobbins, who opened Coffee at the Point ten years ago. And when a business is black-owned, sometimes “expectations are lower,” he says. “What makes me proud is that people say [Coffee at The Point] looks like Cherry Creek. I get that from black people and white people.”
Cobbins adds that he loves doing business in Five Points. “I like a good challenge, and I like that it is politically charged,” he says. “Gentrification means a lot of different things to different people. It can be disenfranchising to some or enfranchising to others.” Now he wants to help Flyfisher turn the word "gentrification" on its head.
“This is a privately funded group that has been investing in the neighborhood for years," Cobbins explains. "We are not waiting around for grants for public money. And it is part of a larger picture. We want to take other concepts and grow them from the ground up...all while adhering to the history of Five Points.”
Burkett's Flyfisher Group itself is also a consortium of businesses and investments that includes Ascendant Realty, a full-service brokerage firm, and the Five Points Development Corporation, which owns and operates Five Points Plaza, the Hooper and the Rossonian Hotel, among other properties.
Burkett, who has spent time as a lobbyist, consultant and entrepreneur, is also a partner in Gilpin County's Lincoln Hills Country Club, a historical mountain getaway used by African-Americans since the 1920s, which he has turned into a private fly-fishing club and a nonprofit called Lincoln Hills Cares, which "works to shift the 'white space' narrative to make the outdoors a more comfortable and accessible place for all people." His business partner in the endeavor is none other than Denver-born billionaire Robert F. Smith, who is often noted for being the wealthiest black person in America — just above Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan.
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"It's a large organization, larger than you can image," Cobbins says, adding that Burkett "knows how to put the right people in the right spots."
For Spangalang, one of the benefits of its connection to Flyfisher will be an increased customer base as a result of more people coming to Five Points. The brewery will also be able to sell more beer in cans to go — something that has become extremely important in COVID times, when breweries can’t allow that many people inside. It will also be able to sell those beers to the other Flyfisher restaurants, which will serve them.
But it also means that Spangalang will be part of a group of black-owned businesses. “And we are excited to be a part of that process,” Rees says. “We want revitalization to happen here, but we also want to help maintain the history and culture of Five Points.”