Has Denver finally surpassed Boulder as a beer city? Is Portland next?

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Denver has always been a center of the beer-making world. From our rip-roaring past to the Great American Beer Festival to the beer-fueled redevelopment of LoDo. But until recently, you could have argued that Boulder was a better craft beer town.

Not anymore.

In 2011, Denver surpassed its smaller, hipper neighbor to the northwest, both in the number of breweries (the first time in a long time that we've been able to make this claim) and with the culture that goes along with craft beer drinking. As 2012 approaches, Denver has fourteen breweries within its city limits, according to the Colorado Brewers Guild (although I count fifteen), while Boulder has nine.

Four of Denver's breweries -- Denver Beer Co, Wit's End, Caution and Renegade -- bubbled up in 2011, and there are already seven that have announced their intentions to open (or move to Denver) in 2012. Many more are in the early planning stages.

More important than quantity, though, is the way Denver's beer culture has grown, changed and matured in a very short time.

Hundreds of new tap handles were added in 2010 and 2011 at beer-centric restaurants like Ale House at Amato's, Freshcraft, Hops & Pie, Euclid Hall, Yard House and Mellow Mushroom, and more on on their way in 2012 (watch for Lucky Pie Pizza and Tap House, opening in February or March). But that was just the beginning. Many of these spots now bring in rare and special beers, host tap takeovers and special events and lure celebrity brewery owners on a regular basis; and Hops & Pie is in the midst of doubling its size, while Euclid Hall added a massive tap handle sign a few months ago.

Even bars that typically favored mass market beers are slowly recognizing the importance of catering to craft beers, especially Colorado-brewed beers. Choppers, Blake Street Vault and Boone's Tavern all revamped their tap lists in 2011.

Existing breweries have also made changes, from the Wynkoop's upstairs bar, which always has something special on tap to Great Divide, which blew out its tap room. And food trucks can also be found outside many tasting rooms on a daily basis, adding a more festive mentality -- not to mention a reason to stay longer -- to the atmosphere.

The texture is also shifting as each new or planned brewery comes up with a way to distinguish itself with a certain attitude, neighborhood affiliation or brewing style.

Denver Beer Co, for instance, brews new, seasonal beers constantly rather than sticking with mainstays, while Black Shirt Brewing (opening next year) will only brew red ales. Prost Brewing will specialize in German lagers while Three Saints will focus on Belgian styles; both are slated to open in 2012. Renegade Brewing, meanwhile, has become closely associated with the Art District on Santa Fe, while TRVE Brewing (opening next year) will give its love to the Broadway corridor and the Baker neighborhood.

And lastly, the sense of community between these breweries and the beer lovers (and beer bloggers) who frequent them has grown and become strong. Many of the brewers know each other from homebrewing clubs and give advice to each other as they open.

Their customers share the love by rotating between them and touting events on Twitter and Facebook, with beer groups like BrewDEN and on blogs like Denver Off the Wagon.

Boulder is a fantastic beer city, and it is in the midst of yet another beer Renaissance as well (see Avery, the Kitchen Upstairs, West End Tavern, Upslope). But Denver is finally starting to realize its potential not just as the capital of the most important beer state in the nation, but as one of the top beer cities in the nation, one that should soon rival the likes of Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia and Asheville, North Carolina -- if it doesn't already.

Follow Westword's Beer Man on Twitter at @ColoBeerMan
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