Beer Man

River North Brewery Repositions Itself, Moves Beyond Belgian Focus

Belgian-style beers may be royalty when it comes to their history, variety, flavors and technique, but in America, IPAs are king. Last week River North Brewery, which has brewed primarily Belgian-style beers like saisons, quadrupels and wild ales since its inception in 2011, announced that it will “broaden its malty world view” by introducing styles from other brewing traditions, including a porter, a pilsner and, yes, a series of American IPAs.

The change comes just five months after River North opened a new, 9,000-square-foot production facility and tasting room in north Denver. The spot is twice the size of the brewery’s original location in River North and includes a four-vessel, fifteen-barrel brewing system and new fermentation tanks that will allow it to make twice as much beer in the same amount of time.

“Now that we have a bigger brewery, we finally have some breathing room to brew a lot more styles that we weren’t able to do before,” says brewery founder Matthew Hess. “It’s not that we don’t like other styles of beer. I love all kinds. It just so happened that when River North started, we loved Belgian beers. But it’s not like we weren’t all drinking IPAs as well.”

But a broader selection may also help the brewery compete in the increasingly crowded Colorado market, where liquor stores, bars and restaurants have a huge number of choices when it comes to building beer menus. The arena will tighten even more in the next decade, Hess points out, now that supermarkets are going to be allowed to carry full-strength beer in multiple locations.

“The landscape is going to be changing pretty drastically in the next few years. It’s going to get pretty competitive,” he says. “All we have ever wanted to do is hang our hat on great beer… to make the best beers we can and let the people taste them and decide.”
To help do that, River North has jumped into the canned-beer market “with both feet,” Hess says. “We love cans. We have been canning for a few years, and now we have the capacity to delve into new styles.” That's thanks to a new canning line. The brewery already packages two flagships, River North White and River North Farm House, in twelve-ounce cans; it plans to add two or three new ones this spring (although it hasn’t decided which ones).

It’s a good bet that an IPA will be one of them. River North tapped its first full-batch American IPA on September 14. Hooray for Hops Vol. 1, Inexplicable Hoppenstance, was made with Cascade, Columbus, El Dorado, Falconer’s Flight and Simcoe hops. In the next few weeks, it will tap the second in the series: Hooray for Hops Vol. 2, Electric Lupuloo, with more versions to follow.

“Yes, IPA is one of the best-selling styles…and we are pretty damn proud of ours,” Hess explains. “For some Belgian-style brewers making some of their first American batches, I am pretty proud. We think it is as good as any West Coast brewery’s IPA.”

For now, though, the IPA is only available on tap and in 32-ounce aluminum Crowlers to go. The same is true for River North’s new dry-hoppped German-style pilsner, which has been in the tasting room and in a few bars around town. (For now, its other staples, such as J. Marie, Hoppenberg, Tripel, Avarice and Quandary, as well as its one-off specialty beers, will continue to be packaged in 375-ml bottles.)

“Our goal is to keep making fantastic beers,” Hess says. “And we are trying to find that foothold that will keep us around for the long term.”
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes