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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.