Craft Brewing & Community: The Case of Wynkoop Brewing Co.
by Breanna Demont
ASEM: Thinking, Eating, and Writing -- Food History
Professor Carol Helstosky
HISTORY OF BEER IN DENVER
Tom Noel, better known as “Dr. Colorado,” once said that “Colorado is a state whose territorial government was conceived and born in a tavern.”  Since Denver’s founding in 1858, taverns, pubs, bars, and similar establishments “were of utmost social importance to groups of Germans, Italians and others,”  bringing these diverse communities together in various ways. Not only was alcohol likely safer than Denver’s drinking water, but until churches, schools, banks, theaters, and other institutions became well-established, saloons “served as a multifunctional institution” in the community.
In 1916, however, four years shy of the enactment of the nationwide prohibition on alcohol, Colorado voters chose to ban bars. And “[a]lthough Denver had voted 38,139 to 28,533 against the dry crusade,” as Noel remarks, “the city was forced to go along with the statewide decision.”  As a result, breweries disappeared at an alarming rate. Denver had over twenty-five breweries before 1916, but Prohibition put all but four breweries in the whole state out of business: Walter’s in Pueblo, Schneider’s in Trinidad, the Tivoli in Denver, and the Coors Brewery (now MillerCoors) in Golden.
After several years, Colorado ended up sharing a national view that Prohibition had become a failure. As Robert Athearn notes:
When a University of Denver graduate student interviewed local authorities in 1932, most of them expressed the opinion that the law had done more harm than good. The county jail warden thought that the liquor law stimulated organized crime, gangs, and corruption, while making petty criminals out of people who were not criminally inclined.
In 1933, the Eighteenth Amendment put an end to Prohibition. However, according to Noel, the resurgence of saloon-going in Denver can be more directly attributed to the demise of traditional values and institutions. As was the case in many American cities, industrialization and immigration, rapid population growth and suburbanization, and the rise of progressive movements shaped a new culture in Denver, one in which alcohol played a big part.
This culture took root in Lower Downtown, otherwise known as LoDo. Though the city of Denver features the largest collection of urban historic buildings in the Rocky Mountain region, nearly 20 percent of LoDo’s buildings were demolished in the 1980s in order to provide parking space for office workers, which gave the area its reputation as the city’s “skid row.” But Federico Peña, who was elected mayor in 1983, had great hope for the historic warehouses of LoDo, believing that the area “could be used to jump-start the revitalization of the entire downtown.”  The City Council therefore passed the Lower Downtown Historic District ordinance in 1988, which called for demolition controls and implemented design guidelines for constructing new buildings and rehabilitating old ones. This ordinance led to a rise in private sector investment and development; renovations of historic buildings gave younger residents a place to live while also making room for businesses to set up shop. Historic buildings are a scarce resource in cities, and the certainty of their preservation created value in LoDo’s real estate, especially for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Edward McMahon explains:
Small businesses and investors were lured to the area by its charm and unique character—and by the knowledge that those attributes would not change. Historic district zoning gave investors assurance that if they spent money rehabilitating a turn-of-the-century building, their investment would not be undermined by the property owner next door tearing down a building to construct a parking lot, put up a billboard, or pursue other insensitive development.
The city’s brewery revival occurred when one of these small businesses, the Wynkoop Brewing Company, opened in LoDo in 1988, sparking the opening of many other small businesses and paving the way for a community to flourish.
WYNKOOP BREWING COMPANY
Founded by John Hickenlooper, who later would be elected state governor, the Wynkoop Brewing Company is Colorado’s very first brewpub. Hickenlooper had been laid off from his job as a geologist in 1986.10 But his life changed with a visit to one of America’s first brewpubs: the Triple Rock Brewery in Berkeley, California. Dreaming of opening a brewpub of his own, Hickenlooper banded together with five other partners and made this dream of the Wynkoop Brewing Company a reality.
The partners wanted to house their new business in a historic building that highlighted the traditional role of pubs as a center of the community. After looking at thirty-four options, the Wynkoop Brewing Company was born in the J.S. Brown Mercantile Building, built in 1899. According to current Lead Brewer Greg Moore, Hickenlooper bought the building for one dollar per square foot—an unbeatable price, compared to the roughly $450 per square foot price Moore feels it could command today.
Despite certain advantages, the partners also faced significant obstacles: to commence operations required that existing laws be altered. For example, as Ed Sealover observes, “[a]fter Prohibition, state statutes allowed a business to manufacture, distribute or sell beer but not to do all three.”  However, Hickenlooper and his partners “successfully lobbied the state legislature to change the rules to allow Wynkoop to make and sell its beer in one location.”  This legislative change set the precedent for other craft breweries and brewpubs soon to come. A domino effect ensued after the brewery’s opening, with Rock Bottom Brewery opening about a year after Wynkoop. Though it took some time, Wynkoop is credited with helping LoDo shed its former “skid row” reputation. According to Moore, “People saw that you could put something in this space that was basically nothing and turn this whole thing around. Once people start spending money in places, other people want to open up nearby.”  Since the brewery’s opening, hundreds of brewpubs have been opening across the state, with over “five hundred places licensed to sell alcohol for consumption on the premises.” 
According to Hickenlooper, “brewpubs have a wide appeal because they are a social equalizer, a place where suits and hardhats can connect over a common denominator—the beer in front of them.”  With this in mind, Wynkoop has undergone several changes over the years. Within a few years of its opening, “Hickenlooper and his partners built an upscale billiards hall on the second floor and converted the building’s upper floors into residential lofts—only the second such housing in downtown.” 
These architectural additions helped transform Wynkoop from a place for patrons simply to gather and drink beer to a more community-oriented space, in which people stay for longer periods of time.
While large breweries like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch produce over 6,000,000 barrels of beer per year, Wynkoop operates on a sixty barrel system. According to current Front-of-the-House Manager Jared Hofferber, the brewery only produces sixty barrels of beer at one time for a total of 2,500–3,000 barrels of beer per year. Despite its deliberately small yield, Wynkoop brews over forty different styles of beer in “vintage, copper-clad” barrel brewing systems. These systems, combined with the brewery’s use of “the finest ingredients [it] can find in Colorado and beyond,” enable Wynkoop to produce anything from “embraceable ales and lagers to jaw-dropping seasonal and experimental rule-breakers.”  This type of production differs greatly from macro-brewers like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, who focus on the production of a few select beers in mass-quantity to generate the exact same taste every time.
Wynkoop has been honored for setting the precedent in innovative practices for other Colorado brewers. In fact, the Brewer’s Association’s annual award for innovation is named for Wynkoop’s original brewer, Russell Schehrer. The company continues to carry on Schehrer’s traditions, focusing on “small-batch, handmade, artisan beer crafted with patience, passion and big ideas.”  The brewers’ thirst for unusual beers has led them to hand-craft porters, meads, cask-conditioned beer, and “other current craft beer fixtures that beer lovers ha[ve] never tasted before.”  According to Moore, large breweries are starting to notice the craft-brewing trend of beer diversification with which Coloradans, and especially Denverites, have fallen in love. As a result, companies such as MillerCoors’ subsidiary AC Golden Brewing Company are coming out with their own “small batch styles” of beer. Moore considers this to be a good thing, as it shows companies like Wynkoop that the commercial giants “are feeling the pressure” from craft brewers such as themselves, which companies like Wynkoop “want them to feel.” According to Moore, in the last ten years, Wynkoop has taken over five percent of business away from these brewing giants, which has equated to billions of dollars in profit for the company.
While Moore doesn’t feel that the act of making beer is, in and of itself, a community service, he does believe that Wynkoop is doing its fair share to improve the Denver community at large. According to Moore, “One of the first things that most major cultures produce is some kind of alcoholic beverage, and if [Wynkoop doesn’t] make beer then someone else is going to.”  One of the biggest ways the brewery contributes to the community of Denver is by making a significant number of donations each year to various festivals and events held in the city. Examples include donating beer, donating money, or volunteering time at charitable events such as the Guerrilla Run or Coalition for the Blind. “I don’t see companies like Coors at a lot of these things,” said Moore. “I’m sure they donate money to people and tons of stuff all the time, and they’re probably great at it…but I think we do it because we are a part of a community.” 
Wynkoop also tries to help other small businesses around the Denver community whenever it can, especially when it comes to integrating new flavors into its beer. One example is the brewery’s Kurt’s Mile High Malt—whose recipe is attributed to Kurt Vonnegut’s father, a home-brewer back in his day.
According to Moore, Vonnegut and Hickenlooper became friends after the brewery’s opening, and the two hit it off so well that Vonnegut gave Hickenlooper his father’s recipe. The uniqueness of Kurt’s Mile High Malt also results from the fact that it is a Vienna lager, which the brewery makes with coffee from local Novo Coffee shop. “We’re always looking for partnerships and anything we can do to help the people around us,” said Moore. “We’re a small company who is in this community, and it only helps us if we help other people.” 
In addition to supporting local businesses around Denver, Wynkoop reaches out to community members on a personal basis as much as it can. Aside from building rapport with regulars, Moore says, Wynkoop is welcoming to any and all patrons that walk through its doors—as long as people have an open mind about trying beer and trying new styles:
We like to change people’s minds. We get tons of people who walk in here and are like, “Hey, can we have a Coors Light?” and we’re like, “We don’t have any Coors Light, but here, try this, and this.”…We’re not going to be like, “Oh, you want a Coors Light, get the heck out of here.” 
This perspective is significant, as many people believe that the craft beer culture only welcomes those “beer connoisseurs” who know everything there is to know about the beer they drink. While there are craft beer lovers that fit this description, craft breweries like Wynkoop understand that it is part of their job as brewers to show passion for what they do. Having an understanding, inviting presence that does not discriminate against those new to the craft beer world is important in maintaining a good reputation in the community.
Wynkoop tries to welcome community members to its brewery in unique ways. One example is the communal participation it encourages in the production process that goes into the making of Wynkoop’s Belgorado beer.
According to Moore, Wynkoop purchases its fresh hops during the hop harvest season from local Colorado Voss Farms. As soon as the fresh hops are delivered to Wynkoop’s doorstep, the brewery sets everything up on its terrace and encourages customers and passers-by to help Wynkoop employees pick the hops off the vines, rewarding helpers with a free beer of their choice. This type of behavior distinguishes Wynkoop from large brewers, as the fresh batches of Belgorado made during hop harvest season taste entirely different from the batches the brewery produces during other times of the year; large brewers try to steer as far away as possible from this level of inconsistency.
To further its efforts to improve LoDo, Wynkoop has made a conscious effort to remain environmentally friendly over the years. The brewery “began recycling glass and cardboard almost from the start,” and “today those measures are joined by extensive composting, recycling and water and energy conservation efforts.”  Wynkoop not only composts its biodegradable waste, but it also feeds its spent brewing grains to local livestock—a common practice by craft brewers that also sets them apart from their macro-brewing opponents.
In addition to caring for the environment, Wynkoop has made an effort to adhere to the highest standards of brewpub cuisine, its menus providing “updated brewpub classics to globally inspired dishes.”  On its Website, the company boasts that one will find “the same contemporary sensibilities of fresh, local ingredients prepared in-house throughout both the restaurant and banquet menus.”  What is more, Wynkoop aims to keep those who come to tour the brewery entertained. While its staff-led tours take visitors “through the meticulous process of brewing the Wynkoop’s acclaimed beers,”  the company’s creative tour makes add-ons available for purchase, such as an all-natural lip balm made with some of the same malts and hops found in the brewery’s beer.
Finally, Wynkoop’s attitude toward competition sets it apart. According to Hofferber, a brewpub’s culture is not so much about competition as it is about supporting others in the industry.
“The whole craft beer community is kind of a culture,” Hofferber remarks. Patrons do not go into one craft brewery or brewpub and find employees putting down another craft brewery or brewpub. “Everybody really supports each other,” Hofferber says. This cooperative mindset is significant. According to Moore, while all brewers essentially fight for shelf space, craft brewers have banded together with a shared view that the “big guys” such as MillerCoors have been doing what they do for a long time. It is now craft brewers’ time to shine, and most of the craft brewers in Denver want to support each other in the process.
While beer has been consumed across the globe for centuries, its history in Colorado is unique, especially when it comes to the craft brewing industry. In a market dominated by commercial, “macro-brewing” giants like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, whose focus is on producing mass quantities of a limited variety of beer in an efficient, consistent manner, Denver’s craft brewers show a unique sense of community and a passion for innovation. Independent craft brewers like Wynkoop Brewing Company have made a name for themselves by taking the process of brewing and distributing beer to a new level. According to New Belgium Brewing Company spokesman Bryan Simpson, one of the greatest assets of a craft brewery is its story and its ability to connect with a community in which its beers are made. Those assets are hard for the “big guys” to compete with. The Wynkoop Brewing Company is a perfect example of a Denver craft brewery that upholds these standards of community and innovation today. It maintains a sound presence in and devotion towards community affairs, while operating its facility in ways that create a unique, intimate environment.
In so doing, Wynkoop has paved the way for an increasing number of craft breweries to emerge in Colorado, and the numbers aren’t expected to decrease. The Brewers Association estimates that, in 2013, 2,768 out of the 2,822 total breweries in the United States were craft breweries.
And according to an article recently published in the Denver Post, Colorado craft breweries are opening at a rapid pace. Colorado Brewers Guild spokesman Steve Kurowski notes that, while over forty breweries opened just last year alone, there are now seventy in the planning stages.
All photographs of Wynkoop Brewing Company courtesy of author Breanna Demont.
A note from the author
This piece was taken from the final essay I wrote spring quarter of my junior year for Carol Helstosky’s ASEM, “Thinking, Eating, and Writing: Food History.” The original paper, entitled “Various Ways Denver Craft Brewers Distinguish Themselves From Commercial, Macro-brewing Giants in the Industry,” was a case study of three Denver craft breweries—Wynkoop Brewing Company, Great Divide Brewing Company, and Denver Beer Company—that provided a series of historical snapshots of the first craft brewpub in Denver to one of the most recent.
In learning about the anecdotes behind many of these breweries’ prized beers, as well as the social and environmental efforts they consistently work to uphold, I was able to shed light on the ways Denver craft brewers distinguish themselves, both intentionally and unintentionally, from macro-brewing industry giants like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch. The most significant way they distinguish themselves is through their devotion to connecting with the Denver community on a personal level and contributing to its development at large. I conducted secondary research with historical texts and articles found both online and in newspapers like the Denver Post; my primary research included participating in brewery tours and conducting interviews with the head honchos of these facilities. Through this research, I hoped to gain better insight into the process of craft brewers as they produce their beer and to get a feel for all three establishments in person.
About the author
Hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Breanna is a senior journalism major with an undying passion for the creative arts. In addition to starting a freelance photography company her freshman year of college, she has also been fortunate enough to gain experience working for Snowboard Colorado magazine, and she currently holds the titles of Production Manager and Social Media Director for the University of Denver’s student-run newspaper, The Clarion. When she is not snowboarding, journaling, writing poetry, or partaking in countless photography adventures around this breathtaking state, Breanna might be singing, traveling, exploring nature, and attending concerts with friends. She plans to pursue a career in the photojournalistic sector of the snowboarding industry after graduation.
1. Thomas J. Noel, Colorado: A Liquid History & Tavern Guide to the Highest State (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1999), xv.
2. John Peel, “History Can Be Fun, Especially in a Bar,” The Durango Herald, February 2, 2014, http://www.durangoherald.com/.
3. Thomas J. Noel, The City and the Saloon: Denver, 1858–1916 (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1996), 15.
4. Ibid., 12.
5. Ibid., 109.
6. Noel, Colorado: A Liquid History, xvii.
7. Robert G. Athearn, The Coloradans (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976).
8. Noel, The City and the Saloon, xii.
9. Ibid., xii-xiii.
10. Edward T. McMahon, “From Skid Row to LoDo: Historic Preservation’s Role in Denver’s Revitalization,” UrbanLand, Urban Land Institute, October 11, 2012, http://urbanland.uli.org/development-business/from-skid-row-to-lodo-historic-preservation-s-role-in-denver-s-revitalization/.
11. Ed Sealover, Mountain Brew: A Guide to Colorado’s Breweries (Charleston: History Press, 2011), 42–45.
12. According to the Brewers Association, a brewpub is “a restaurant-brewery that sells 25% or more of its beer on site.” See “Craft Beer Industry Market Segments,” Brewers Association: A Passionate Voice for Craft Brewers, Brewers Association, accessed April 18, 2014, http://www.brewersassociation.org/statistics/market-segments/.
13. Greg Moore, “Interview with Wynkoop Brewing Company Lead Brewer,” Personal Interview, June 1, 2014.
14. Sealover, Mountain Brew, 43.
16. Noel, Colorado: A Liquid History, 80.
17. Moore, “Interview.”
18. Sealover, Mountain Brew, 44.
19. Jared Hofferber, “Interview with Wynkoop Brewing Company Front-Of-House Manager,” Telephone Interview, May 15, 2014.
20. “Brewery,” Wynkoop Brewing Company, accessed May 18, 2014, http://www.wynkoop.com/brewery/.
21. “Brewery Tour,” Wynkoop Brewing Company, accessed May 18, 2014, http://www.wynkoop.com/brewery/brewery-tour/.
24. David Young, “What Qualifies as Craft Beer?” USA Today, (Jan.14, 2013), accessed April 27, 2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2013/01/13/1566338/.
27. Alastair Bland, “As Craft Beer Starts Gushing, Its Essence Gets Watered Down,” The Salt: What’s On Your Plate, NPR (May 9, 2014), accessed June 1, 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/05/09/310803011/.
28. Moore, “Interview.”
39. Hofferber, “Interview.”
41. Bland, “As Craft Beer Starts Gushing.”
42. Jon Murray and Josie Klemaier, “Some Tap Dancing,” The Denver Post, April 24, 2014.