The Beer Depot (4231 West 38th Avenue) is not, as I thought when I first heard the name, a liquor store. It is one of three bars that form part of the Berkeley neighborhood's "Beermuda Triangle," something I learned about at the Beer Depot itself. When a friend and I stopped in on a Sunday and again on a Saturday night, we discovered some cheap Bud Lights and a got a lesson in Denver history.
The first chapter in this lesson was the Beermuda Triangle itself, the name created by patrons of the Depot, Tennyson's Tap and the Berkeley Inn, which form a triangle along the corner of West 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street. If you walk in a straight (or mostly straight, depending on how many beers you've had) line from the Beer Depot to Tennyson’s Tap and from there to the Berkeley Inn (as many neighborhood residents do), your path forms a triangle. Like sailors and pilots entering the original Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic Ocean, people who venture into Berkeley's Beermuda Triangle are easily sucked in — and might never come out. But I like to think that any extended disappearance can be chalked up to people having fun, and not because sea monsters or aliens have destroyed their ships or planes.
The Beer Depot is probably the best place to start a journey through the Beermuda Triangle, mainly because of the bar's old-school north Denver vibe and large cast of friendly, quirky characters. On any given day, at all hours, the bar is full of a diverse crowd that spans ages, races and personalities. Women with big hair playing pool, guys wearing sunglasses inside while sitting at the bar, bikers, dudes rocking various athletic jerseys and backwards hats, ladies in shiny tops who appear ready for LoDo, and Dad-looking fellows wearing Dad-looking sneakers and windbreakers from the ’90s are among the variety of people and styles that can be found at the Beer Depot.
The bar is two-sided, with two entrances to each section of the bar. The smaller side contains two cramped seating areas, a foosball table, a vending machine and bar stools where you can spy on the people across the bar. The other side has darts, billiards, a small stage and a skeleton riding a motorcycle hanging from the ceiling. According to Vangie, a bartender who rides "real" bikes, the downsized motorcycle inside the Depot once cruised the streets of the neighborhood; owner Mark Musso bought it and rode it a few times before it became a bar decoration.
Other decorations include framed posters of Mafia movies (like Goodfellas), Elvis memorabilia, and black-and-white posters of movie stars like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Vangie, who was born and raised in the neighborhood and went to North High School, says that Musso is a "Northside Italian," so I could see the connection between the Northside (as longtime residents call it) neighborhood history and old-school Mafia movies. There are also, according to rumors, "Italian tunnels" under the bar that stretch to the Berkeley Inn, and all the way to near downtown. Said to have been used for bootlegging and transporting liquor during Prohibition, most of the underground space is just used for storage these days.
The Depot is clean, bright and well stocked; even if there aren't any fancy light fixtures or hipster art exhibits, things are clearly kept up. The bartenders tell us Musso is serious about keeping things clean and organized, but it's obvious they love working here and wouldn't have it any other way. Musso has owned the place for more than 28 years, and it's been the Beer Depot for even longer than that. In the ’80s, half of the building was a 3.2 bar/package store, a Colorado phenomenon I recently learned about. It seems that until 1987, Coloradans between the ages of 18 and 21 were allowed to buy and drink alcohol in bars, as long as the bar served only lower-strength 3.2 percent alcohol (by weight) beer. It's obvious in the layout of the Beer Depot that it used to be more separated; the rectangular bar is smack in the middle of two different rooms. The name Beer Depot seems to aptly capture the place's divided history.
On both of my visits, I was befriended by different older gentlemen who shared details about the bar and the neighborhood. Several of the regulars were happy to converse about the Beer Depot, the Berkeley area and life in general, including a biker guy who drives for RTD and a retiree who recently moved to Golden to help out his daughter but still comes to the neighborhood as much as he can to see his friends at the bar. Everyone expressed their love for the bar and their fellow patrons, and talked about how everyone there keeps an eye out to make sure there "aren't any problems."
The bartenders and patrons explained various inside jokes to me. We talked about the rumored ghosts in the basement of the bar, which also houses the entrance to the aforementioned tunnel that supposedly connects to the Berkeley Inn. The ever-changing Denver landscape was also a topic of discussion: the new people coming into the Berkeley area, the new buildings, bars and rent prices. The general consensus was that nothing has changed too terribly much at the Beer Depot just yet, possibly because newcomers don't notice it as much as the other bars on Tennyson Street.
On our Saturday night visit, the place was packed. We had just missed open-mic night, which happens every Saturday from 3 to 7 p.m. We were introduced to several regulars with names straight out of a movie script: Big Will, Sleepy and DJ Pauly Wally. An open-mic musician noticed my purse slung from the back of my bar stool and was very concerned that it was vulnerable to theft, "even though everyone here is all good people."
That's the general style of conversation from the the mostly older regulars at the Beer Depot; they assume, in the kindest possible way, that you need some advice from someone who has seen more of life than you have.
Later in the evening, a woman came in selling fresh green and red tamales. We had plans to get food elsewhere so we didn't buy any, but some other folks gave us one of theirs (it was spicy and delicious) as thanks for taking a group photo of them. There isn't a kitchen at the Beer Depot, but Musso often cooks up food to bring in for Broncos games, holidays, and birthday celebrations for regulars and staff. Vangie tells us that he cooks for funerals as well and does anything he can to help out his customers if they are having a tough time. Fliers on the walls get the word out about benefit concerts for hurricane relief and other events in the neighborhood to help raise money for charities and local residents in need.
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Customers are loyal here; they consult a list of which bartenders are working on which days so they always know when to come in for their favorite. But even if the bartender doesn't recognize you, you can still partake in specials like free pool on Monday nights, two-fer Tuesdays and $2.50 for all wines, wells and domestic beers on Wednesdays. And during the Super Bowl on Sunday, there will be $10 buckets of beers. But the more complicated drink specials aren't really the main attraction here. The drinks are always cheap, as an $8.25 round of drinks my friends and I got during prime time on Saturday night proved.
After nearly getting sucked into a night in the Beermuda Triangle, we finally escaped to get some sushi — which seems the exact opposite of the Beer Depot, but in changing north Denver, there happen to be two different sushi restaurants within walking distance. But that's also the beauty of Berkeley: You can get Japanese cuisine on artfully presented plates in a modern-looking restaurant filled with bamboo plants — and you can also get homemade tamales from a cooler and drink Bud Lights in the slightly divey environs of the Beer Depot.
See our overview of the Beermuda Triangle in the February 1, 2018, edition of Westword, and stay tuned for more visits to the Beermuda Triangle over the next two weeks.