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My Beercation To Beer Mecca & Beyond: Denver Part 1

Among craft and independent beer enthusiasts, Colorado is known as the “Beer Mecca.” This is due to the vibrant and well-established culture of breweries and brewpubs that number over 300. I first visited the rocky mountain state in 2015. I fell in love with the people, pace of life, and the beer. In celebration of my 40th trip around the sun, I decided that it would be fun to beercation out west again and check up on the beer scene.

As I drive into town on I-76, the buildings and civilization are a welcome site from the flat prairies of Nebraska and eastern Colorado. After getting settled in my Airbnb, I sit down at the kitchen table to do some writing. I login and get the wifi kicking up and about ten minutes later, the power goes out. Instantly, I am transported back to the 80s and I have no connection. This is typically not a bad thing, however, I need to write some beer musings. Then, I pause, and think to myself that this is the universe telling me that I can write later; the breweries are open now!

River North Brewery

River North

Way back in 2013, River North Brewery knocked my socks off with its incredible array of beers. From Belgian-inspired beers to classic American styles, they have it all. On my 2015 beercation to Denver, I missed them and found out that they had moved out of the River North (RiNo) neighborhood and into their current location.

Letting the monotone and slightly frustrated robotic voice of Google Maps guide me, I find myself pulling into an industrial complex. The sun is beating down on me with reckless abandon, and I look up to the building that represents my oasis. The circular logo is the only sign that there is beer being made in this otherwise nondescript building.

River North

I walk in and that bar is pretty crowded. Humans and beings of the canine variety are chatting, drooling, and sipping. I am seeing a lot of Colorado Rockies Purple in the taproom. I come to find out that this is a popular pregaming spot for home games. The vibe inside completely contrasts the drab and concrete exterior. There is an air of happiness and camaraderie in the air. I am sure this is mainly due to the beers that people are enjoying. However, as I sit down and peruse the menu, I find another reason why the vibe here seems so inviting.

A Great Taproom Manager Goes With Great Beer

The tattooed, intelligent, and happy person pouring pints is absolutely great at her job. Her name is Fonda and she seems to know everyone at the bar and manages to keep the glasses full during this pregame rush. She knows the beers being poured like the back of her hand. This sounds like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how often that a person tending bar knows little about their product. She answers a few of my questions so I can select the best flight. Before long I have a wonderful flight of beers in front of me.

Notice the cool taster tray!

Beer Time!

I start with the pilsner and discover that my hundreds of beercation miles listening to podcasts and looking at flat grasslands are all worth it. This beer is crisp and clean-a hallmark of quality in a pilsner. If you want to find out whether or not a brewery has the chops, get their pilsner. It is a measuring stick style of beer. This beer is has a white bread malty flavor with a cracker aroma. It sips so refreshing and the carbonation is spot-on for the style. I am getting my relief from the heat with each taste of this masterpiece.

Get ready to do some tasting!

The River North White is a take on a Belgian Witbier. The esters from the yeast are aromatic and citrusy. It is almost like I have an orange on the bar next to me. Visually, this beer is as picturesque in the glass as it gets. Cloudy with an angelic white head on top. It shines like a beacon of hope in the mini tulip glass. If the pilsner is the measuring stick, the River North White is the portkey to Belgium.

Next up is the FarmHouse, a Belgian Session Saison. This beer is bright and effervescent. I am enjoying the slight funkiness from the yeast. I also enjoy how refreshing this beer is on such a hot Denver afternoon.

The Colorado IPA is the answer to my hoppy hopes and dreams. It has a wonderful grassy and floral aroma. There is a balance between citrus and resin that results in the perfect hoppy bitterness. Unlike several underwhelming NEIPAs I have had on the trip so far, this is great hoppy offering.

Flight #2 at River North Brewery

The first flight leaves me enchanted and wanting more. I order up a second flight of some maltier beers along with their NEIPA. If there is a developing theme to my beercation is is the ever-present NEIPA. This is the most popular style in the country right now. As I press forward on my beercation, I hope to find more good iterations of the NEIPA than bad. So far, it has been kind of a mixed bag.

The Mountain Haze is a 6.5% NEIPA. It is bright yellow with a nice head of white foam. One could easily mistake this for a glass of fruit juice. They would even take a sip not thinking twice due to its juicy aroma of mango and pineapple. However, once they swallowed, they would get a nice bitter hop bite that balances out the sweet and realize that what they just drank was an excellent version of a NEIPA and not Tropicana.

Mountain Haze IPA from River North Brewery

After the Mountain Haze, it is time for the darker and fuller bodied malty beers that I have been yearning for from River North since my last visit.

The 2019 Whiskey Quandary is delightful. The bourbon aroma is full-on in the nose along with a mix of toffee and cherries. As I take a sip, my palate is titillated with more flavors of luscious dark fruits-plums, cherries, and figs-along with some molasses richness. This Belgian Quad is sensational and shows how a whiskey barrel can only make this amazing style of beer better.

Mmm. . . Bourbon barrels. . .

The 2018 Bourbon barrel-aged Mr. Sandman is dynamite! Aromas of chocolate and bourbon are splendid in this imperial stout. The flavors of vanilla, dark chocolate, molasses, dark cherry all sit abed a viscous and velvety beer that is as full-bodied as a Brazilian Carnival dancer. This beer is so delicious and complex that it is making the hairs on my next stand up! If Denver continues to provide me with such liquid wonders, I may never return from this beercation.

Last, but certainly not least, is the Mayan Mr. Sandman. Take all the wonderment of this special imperial stout and add in some chiles. What a fantastic treat!

As I am tasting my way through the second taster, the Rockies crowd thins out as the first-pitch time nears. Fonda has a little down time and I ask her for some suggestions about places that she frequents. Fonda’s suggestions read like a Rick Steve’s tour of Denver. I am now equipped with bbq places, more breweries, and some cool dive bars to check out.

If my experience at River North Brewery is any indication of all the beer wonders that await my palate in the Mile High City, or Beer Mecca, I am in for a treat. I decide to call it a night and hope to find the power restored in my airbnb. I am picking up a friend from the airport tomorrow and it will be all systems go on the beercation meter. With a drinking partner, I should be able to make some hay and get to plenty of breweries per day. Prost!

Dan Beaubien has been involved with Beerploma since 2014 although his passion for craft beer dates back to 2006 when he started traveling for beer.  Dan mostly covers craft beer events, festivals, brewery openings/releases, and beer reviews. Dan has a soft spot in his heart for authentic British Style ales, IPAs, and all things barrel-aged.  If you have any questions or comments about this article feel free to email Dan at dan.beaubien@beerploma.com .