Beer Man

River North Brewery, "Nearly Destroyed," Coming Back Strong This Weekend

“I don’t wish this on anyone. I don’t wish it on my worst enemy. It very nearly destroyed us, but we are coming back stronger than we ever were.” Those are the words of River North Brewery founder Matthew Hess, who was forced to close his doors last fall after being unceremoniously kicked out of the neighborhood space he had carefully nurtured for the previous three years.

The closure left the brewery scrambling for a new spot — one that it finally found, in a large warehouse at Denver’s northern city limits. And on April 2, less than six months after shutting its original location on Blake Street, River North Brewery will reopen at 6021 Washington Street, Unit A, with a new brewhouse, a new tap room and plans to grow quickly.

“It’s a good feeling,” says Hess, who opened River North in February 2012 with his wife, Jessica, in the former Flying Dog Brewing space. “We were in dire straits there for a while. I’m happy to see everything finally coming together. It looks like a brewery again.”

The 9,000-square-foot spot is twice the size of the brewery’s original location and includes a four-vessel, fifteen-barrel brewing system that will allow River North to make twice as much beer in the same amount of time. Together with new fermentation tanks, the brewery has the capacity to make 5,000 barrels per year right away and up to 10,000 down the road.

As for the tap room, it has much more floor space than the original and should be able to seat more people. Although Hess says it has nicer finish than the old one, it is located right inside the brewery itself, without a separation wall. Hess hopes to put that openness to good use at events.

The first event, of course, will be the grand reopening party, which begins Saturday at noon with eight beers on tap, food trucks and tours. River North will also be open Sunday at noon.

River North hasn’t started production on its new system yet — that should happen sometime next week — but once it gets up and running, the tap room will expand to sixteen tap lines. Over the past few months, River North has brewed a few of its staples at another brewery in order to keep its bar and restaurant accounts satisfied. “We had multiple offers to help from any number of breweries we're friends with,” says Hess says, who declines to name the brewery they used.

The brewery had revealed last May that the building where it was located was going to be torn down to make way for an upscale apartment or condo project. Although River North had kicked off a wave of brewery openings in RiNo, it was now a victim of the neighborhood’s success.

In addition to having a new location and added capacity, River North will also be revamping its cans and bottles, switching its flagships, River North White and FarmHouse, from 16-ounce four-packs to 12-ounce six-packs, and getting rid of its 22-ounce bomber bottles entirely in favor of smaller, but more elegant, 375-ml bottles. Most of the brewery’s specialty beers, like Hoppenberg, J. Marie, Quandary and Tripel, will be packaged in those.

“We’ll be hitting the ground running,” says Hess, adding that there are seventy aging barrels full of specialty beer in the cellar that River North plans to bottle and sell soon, including Anniversary Ale 4 ¼, Funk the Man #4 and Whiskey Barrel Quandary. The smaller bottle size “will give us more flexibility to do more projects, some sours and limited-edition stuff, that we can push out more frequently. The goal is to use that a springboard for that,” he notes.

And once River North is earning money again — it’s hard to do that when you aren’t making beer, Hess points out — the brewery will begin looking for a second, smaller taproom in its namesake neighborhood of River North. “We have lots of leads, but we don’t have any specific plans yet,” Hess says. But when they find the spot, there are definite plans to put a brewing system there.

The new River North Brewery taproom will only be open on weekends for a while; Hess says the taproom will add weekday hours once the brewery is up to speed and has more beers to tap.
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes