Beer lovers poured into Denver International Airport last week, as they often do, from easterly points like Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. But many of the passengers on those flights didn't start in those cities. Rather, they'd begun their trips even farther east, in Copenhagen, Brussels, London, Prague and Stockholm. Others made their way from Paris, Milan, Belfast and Tallinn.
Their destination was a little-known beer fest called simply The Festival. Hosted annually by Shelton Brothers Importers, it has taken place in a different U.S. city each year since 2012 and boasted some of the rarest or most sought-after beers in the world. While many of these come from American breweries like Trillium, Tired Hands, Weldwerks, Monkish and Jester King, many more come from overseas beer makers like Cantillon, To Øl, 3 Fonteinen, Toccalmatto, Magic Rock and Tilquin.
This year's version, at Denver Rock Drill last Friday and Saturday, was well organized, well staffed, intimate and uncrowded — in short, an amazing beer-sampling experience. Aside from the very long lines for Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen, two famed Belgian breweries, attendees could try the best of the best, four ounces at a time. They could also talk to the owners or brewers at many of these breweries, take selfies, and toast to their health.
But while they were here, these beer luminaries got another treat that they may not have been expecting. They fanned out around Denver to try the local beer scene, and I'm hoping they realized something that we may take for granted: Denver now stands among the best cities in the world when it comes to beer.
This wasn't true a decade ago, when there were a measly eight breweries in the city, and even fewer craft-beer bars. At that point, Denver's biggest claim to fame was the Great American Beer Festival.
But things have changed, and they've changed quickly. There are now around eighty breweries in the city, and another 150 or so in the surrounding cities, towns and suburbs. There are also dozens of craft-beer bars of all sizes and shapes, along with unusual festivals, events and a wealth of knowledge.
Even more important than quantity, however, is quality. For every amazing beer I tasted at The Festival — and there were many of them — I would think of a local counterpart that was just as delicious, just as imbued with love or care of tradition, and just as well made by brewers with creativity, skill, passion and know-how.
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Six Colorado breweries were invited to take part in The Festival: Black Project Wild & Spontaneous Ales, Cannonball Creek Brewing, Casey Brewing and Blending, TRVE Brewing, WeldWerks Brewing and Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project. Every one brews beers that will make you cry with joy — and you can visit any of them (except Casey) this weekend without flying out of state or going to a festival.
But beyond that, you — or any beer lover coming to Denver from anywhere in the world — could drop into places like Cellar West Artisan Ales, Cerebral Brewing, Novel Strand Brewing, Avery, Black Shirt, Our Mutual Friend, Dry Dock, Bierstadt Lagerhaus, and many others to find brews that rival any in the world.
I hope that tourism officials in Denver and in Colorado as a whole will begin to acknowledge that craft beer is no longer just a cute part of our cultural scene or a trendy fad to make us fun. Rather, it is a force to be reckoned with and a reason for people from around the world to travel here.