Monthly Archives: September 2017

Denver, Charlotte, and Craft Beer Culture

I got off the airplane and weaved my way through DIA to the train platform, bought my ticket and took the 25-minute ride all the way to Union Station in downtown Denver.  Once I got off the train I found a local coffee shop and grabbed an Americano and a Danish.  Since my check-in was still a couple of hours away and I didn’t want to wander too far, I went to the Terminal Bar and had lunch and a couple of Colorado beers.  That was all within the first 3 hours of me being in Denver.  I don’t think you can do that in Charlotte. First, the light rail gets nowhere close to the airport and our transportation hub isn’t quite as well stocked.

Whenever I go to Denver, I’m struck by how Denver is 10-15 years ahead of Charlotte in so many ways.  I think I do that because the cities are so similar in population and ambition.  You see it from the way the light rail works to what I care most about, how the beer culture in Denver is ahead of Charlotte’s. I sit on the airplane on my way back home and I can’t help but ruminate on the greater idea of where Charlotte is compared to Denver, but especially where it is in comparing beer cultures.

There are two primary ways I think about this.  First, how the beer culture is an excepted part of the overall city culture.  Second, how there is no such thing as peak brewery.

The first thing you truly get when you stay in Denver for a few days is the beer culture is part of the overall area’s culture.  Denver is the mecca for beer.  It may not have been the first city with craft breweries, but it is the city the first embraced the idea of craft beer culture.  Let’s put it this way, there are not many other cities in the US that would work with the NFL to make sure its team didn’t have a home game during a beer festival.  Denver does that with the GABF.  Every time I go to Denver, my love and my faith in this little part of American culture I’ve fallen in love with and want to see succeed is renewed and strengthened.

In Denver, for instance, the mid-level restaurants curate their beer selection.  I went to multiple restaurants that had all craft beer on tap and most of that craft beer was from Colorado and it wasn’t just New Belgium or Great Divide.  In Charlotte, that niche of dining is filled by chains that let the distribution reps and corporate mandate decide what gets put on tap. Craft beer is a thing they must do to appease a certain segment of potential customers. In Denver, you have restaurants where the beer buyer thinks about and curate their craft beer selection.  That is why in Charlotte, I can almost guess the “craft” and local beer a restaurant has before I walk in to eat.  That is slowly changing.

I only get that renewal in little pockets in Charlotte.  That is because while there is a growing craft beer culture, a lot of people in Charlotte view craft beer as this little fad over in the South End and NoDa that all the millennials are playing in until they get real jobs.  That is why buying craft beer for most bars is an afterthought.  In Denver, breweries are competing to get on tap.  That is slowly coming to Charlotte.

To go hand in hand with that, recently, there has been a lot of talk of reaching peak brewery in Charlotte.  What the discussion centers around is when will there be more craft breweries in Charlotte then Charlotte can support.  Denver proves that concept is a fallacy.  The Denver MSA has only a slightly bigger MSA then Charlotte’s as far as population (MSA estimates for 2016 put Denver at about 400k more people) but has many more breweries. Denver has somewhere like 5.2 breweries per 100,000 people. Charlotte is around a little less than half that number. 

One of my favorite places to go in Denver is Ratio Beerworks.  It is a great brewery and a great place to hang out and have a beer.  There are at least another 4 breweries within a 10-minute walk of Ratio including Epic’s Denver brewery and taproom.  Do you know what that kind of proximity does?  It creates a mostly friendly competition in which each brewery pushes the other.  You can’t be mediocre and you can’t rest on your laurels from 2 years ago much less 8 years ago.  Everyone has won medals.  Yours aren’t special and you have to keep getting better or you will fail. If your brewery sucks you can’t continue to coast on being the local brewery.  If I don’t like your beer, I can walk out your front door, turn left, and get better beer with a five-minute walk.

That is why we need more breweries in Charlotte.  Especially breweries started by experienced brewers who will come out strong and push the already established breweries to be better and stop coasting.  That doesn’t mean breweries won’t fail.  It means the ones with bad beer or a bad business plan or no real plan at all will fail.  The breweries with the best combination of beer, plan, and culture will succeed.  That isn’t a bad thing. It is how every other business works.

Th thing about this idea of beer culture is that it takes time and Charlotte is an impatient city when it comes to things like culture.  This is a city that grew and became an economic power overnight. That kind of growth is the kind that is bought and built quickly and overnight.  Just look at all the condos and apartments going up around town like so many Lego houses.  Charlotte is the embodiment of a boomtown in our microwave culture.

You must explain why Asheville, Denver, Portland, Portland, and Seattle (and maybe even Raleigh to an extent) have better craft beer cultures to many in Charlotte.  They are simply older and more mature.  Yes, we have breweries, but the vast majority are less than 5 years old.  Wynkoop Brewery opened in downtown Denver in 1988.  While many breweries opened and closed in Charlotte beginning around the same time, the oldest still in existence is Olde Mecklenburg which opened in 2009. That is a huge difference.  There were people who were born and came of legal drinking age in Denver between the time Wynkoop served its first pint and Olde Meck celebrated its 1st anniversary.

So, while I think Charlotte beer culture has a long way to go, I also know, it is only through time and making sure we keep our focus on good beer that we will get there.  We can’t buy it, we can’t build it overnight, but we can keep moving forward and build it with one brick every day.

Things I Did In Denver

I find airports interesting.  The people you see there, especially early in the morning.  Are a combination of exhausted, grouchy, dehydrated, and annoyed at the world, specifically the TSA.  In short, it is a good place to see humans at their most open and vulnerable.  Airports often have an aroma that is a combination of cleaning chemicals, human waste, fried food, and coffee.

I landed and after about 3 hours in Denver I was relaxed.  That is an almost foreign feeling.  My primary goal besides seeing one of my best friends get married is to only drink beer I’ve never had before or are not available in Charlotte.

So, this happened.  A weird lady with a Star of David tattooed on her forehead joined me at my table by the fountain outside Union Station.  Not dangerous weird, just weird.  She talked a lot about what I’m not really sure.  Something about waiting for her husband and his crazy family.

Then, at the Terminal Bar, I had an angry little man sitting a couple of seats down from me.  The angry elf was pissed at the whole world especially the incompetent people who were thinking about hiring him.  He muttered and talked to himself the whole time he was there calling the people he was trying to work for “dykes and faggots” in a wonderful stream of crazy.  He was mad at the bartender for carding him (its Union Station policy to card anyone ordering alcohol), didn’t like any of the 30 taps, couldn’t get cell reception, had a hard time figuring out Google Maps or something.  I stopped listening and just enjoyed my Telluride Brewing Face Down Brown on nitro.  When he left, the bartender and I looked at each and just laughed.

After dealing with a screw up by the hotel, I got a nap before meeting Dave and Ginny for dinner and a few beers.  We went to Bierstadt Lagerhaus.  Great German style beer and great food.  I had the Vegetarian Mac & Cheese and we shared a vegetarian poutine along with two excellent dunkels.  I finished the food later that night in my hotel room.  It was great to see the two of them together before the wedding both being kind of twitchy with the last of the preparations.  After Bierstadt, we walked over to Epic where I had the Smoked Porter just before they closed.

I had a nice view from the 22nd floor of the Hyatt Place in Downtown Denver

The next day I woke up and got some coffee and walked around the neighborhood a bit.  Then I walked down to Freshcraft for lunch and a couple of beers.  This is now on my list of places I must go whenever I’m in Denver. Good food, good beer selection, and better atmosphere.

The elusive Velvet Yeti

From there, my path took me to the Great Divide Barrel Bar. When I heard they were building a new tap room I was afraid it would be an overly elaborate monstrosity.  Part of the charm of the old taproom is that it is so damn small and cramped.  While the new tap room is bigger, it isn’t much bigger. There is room for a few tables and a more expansive bar, but it is still a small and decently intimate place to have a beer.

After that, I met up with Dave and Brian at Ratio.  I love this place.  First, it is great beer. Second, it has a great atmosphere and vibe that makes me feel comfortable.  That is a theme to all the places I like in Denver.  I always find places that I feel comfortable just sitting and drinking.  After that, we adjourned to Los Chingones for a little quick Mexican food.

After picking up Dan at Union Station we made our way to Hops and Pie.  I’ve been here a couple of times now and the beer is great and the pizza is great.  Another place I will tell anyone to make their way to.  Once we finished eating, we were all tired and found our way to our beds for a night’s sleep.

The next day was great.  I did nothing until the picnic at Sloan’s Lake.  There I just ate more Mexican food and hung out.  Wait, I forgot.  I timed it so I could go by Hogshead Brewery first for a pint.  Another place that I love.  Good cask ales served at the correct temperature.  Session beers all around.  After the picnic, most of the wedding guest went there for a few more pints.  Then some of us ended up at US Thai. Then we went back to the Dan, Dave, and Brian’s Airbnb where they partook in some of Denver’s finest that past guests left for others since they couldn’t get it on the airplane.

Sunday, Wedding day, I met up with the three of them again for a hike at Red Rocks.  That is an awesome and beautiful place and I want to get there for a concert at least once in my life.  We left there and had lunch and Block and Larder before getting ready for the wedding.

The wedding took place at the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms.  It was a beautiful facility and beautiful setting for a beautiful wedding.  Dave and Ginny are two of my favorite people separately and they are perfect together.  The ceremony was short, simple and beautiful.  Then before the reception got started the surprised and honored me by asking me to be one of the witnesses for their wedding license.  The more I think about it, the more honored I am and the more emotional I get about it.  Then the reception and its two types of mashed potatoes started.  There was bourbon, vodka, and beer.  I was in heaven.

The next morning, I was back in an airport in the early morning.  Being there on 9/11 was an interesting feeling.  I was struck by the transience of life and how the memories of that day are clear as a movie with the same emotional impact.  I don’t feel the same about that day as I did.  It is still a demarcation point in memory of how the world works, but for me the emotions are muted.  It is almost a wistfulness of how things were and not the sadness of a tragedy that changed how we all live.

I flew home and landed in a rain storm still relaxed from the vacation and happy to have been honored to be invited to this wedding.