When some friends scheduled a Happy Hour at the Coors-owned Blue Moon Brewing Company taproom in RINO I tried to keep an open mind, but unfortunately the experience confirmed my worst fears and in some areas lowered the bar to surprising depths. On the positive side the exquisite space shows what Coors-level money can buy. On the downside the beers were generally bland and the service was abysmal. Given that Great Divide Barrel Bar,Mockery Brewing, and numerous other RINO breweries are a short walk away, if you come to this area for craft beer you can do much, much better.
BEER LINEUP: Blue Moon offers a range of styles, including a number of barrel-aged options. However our group’s consensus was that most of the beers were washed-out versions of their advertised style. The only exceptions were a few of the barrel-aged and high gravity brews that exhibited some sparks of taste.
ATMOSPHERE: Trendy-industrial. The indoor and outdoor spaces were definitely the high point of the visit. Blue Moon offers a spacious patio along with a modern-industrial take on a brewery space. Like many taprooms there are lots of hard surfaces, which are offset with colorful, quirky décor. The circular central bar looks like it could have great service potential and the taproom has a full kitchen (see service below). The patrons looked to be an upscale mixture of tourists, business people, and families.
SERVICE: Truly awful. When table service proved rarer than Haley’s comet, a trip to the bar was met with workers who shuffled past waiting patrons in a seemingly zombified state. Even getting their attention didn’t generate much reaction as they very slowly got around to providing service. The server who eventually cruised by the table compounded the disappointment with a scolding for those thirsty few who had the nerve to walk to the bar, then proceeded to ignore half the table, and delivered the requested beers at a snail’s pace.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Blue Moon occupies the fast-developing Brighton Boulevard portion of RINO. While street work currently causes some headaches in getting around, once complete the area will no doubt have a long-overdue facelift with even more convenient access. The surrounding area offers only a few retail business today but with the development slowly creeping out from downtown it will no doubt pop in the near future. In addition to some street parking, Blue Moon offers a decent-sized lot as well.
STANDOUT BEER: None, really, although I had a sip of one of their high-gravity beers that seemed to have some potential.
Running with the motto “Science Balanced With Creativity”, Grist Brewing Company strives to use science to make the best beer possible within a style and occasionally throw a little something into the mix for a slight variation. What you’ll find on tap are a number of style-fitting beers along with beers that make slight variations on those styles. Grist is not somewhere you’re going to find an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink beer combining multiple fruits, flavors and unusual production methods in a single glass. The taproom that opens to the brewery gives off a bit of a science-geek vibe that aligns nicely with their stated mission. Note: This review describes the Littleton taproom off Santa Fe; Grist recently opened another location near Park Meadows.
BEER LINEUP: You’ll find a lot of straight-shooter beer styles from light to dark, complemented by a few lightly-modified beers. Grist definitely uses a light touch when making alterations to traditional styles.
ATMOSPHERE: Grist’s trendy-looking taproom features a huge bar, industrial tables, and also a patio. One entire wall opens to the brewery and comfortably integrates the brewery operation into the taproom (or vice versa). The crowd seemed diverse in a suburban, Highlands Ranch way – young and old, couples and groups of singles, some bikers, a few people with dogs, etc. Overall it made for a very relaxed environment.
SERVICE: Bar service only and not particularly fast, but adequate.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Cookie-cutter suburban-brewery location in an office park. Finding the brewery shouldn’t be too hard, as it’s prominently located on the road that runs from Highlands Ranch to Santa Fe but you’ll need to rely on the food truck for eats since there’s not much else of interest in the area. Parking is, of course, plentiful.
STANDOUT BEER:The Belgian Strong Ale delivers the “strong” part in a lot of ways. You can taste the extra kick of the 10.5% ABV along with a strong farmhouse flavor and significant Belgian-yeasty tastes. Even the color is more intense than most Belgian strongs, with a medium-brown accented by red/copper colors. If you like Belgians this is essentially a super-size of everything you’ll like and if not then it probably swings just as intensely the other way.
With its location at the edge of the suburbs, Living The Dream Brewery may be a hard sell for city folk but the beer selection makes it worth the trip. It makes a great weekend afternoon destination, where you can grab something from the food truck and kick back on one of their patios with few beers. It also works well for a Littleton pub crawl, as there are at least four other breweries nearby along the Santa Fe corridor.
BEER LINEUP: Variety is the name of the game at Living The Dream. They put out styles ranging from a light Belgian wheat up through several IPAs to a dark, full-bodied coffee stout. Along the way they take some creative detours like a strawberry wheat and Belgian cherry.
ATMOSPHERE: This definitely seems to be the Highlands Ranch hangout. During our rainy visit the industrial-minimalist taproom was packed with families, large groups, and dogs, and light on the hipster crowd often found at downtown breweries. No doubt during nicer weather people spread out onto the patios and the taproom becomes much less chaotic. Living the Dream has a decent-sized front patio adjacent to the parking lot and food truck, and a large back patio with pleasant mountain views. I believe the back patio is also 21+ so maybe a haven for those looking to avoid the kiddos running around the taproom.
SERVICE: You’ll need to go to the bar for a beer and while not exactly speedy the servers are friendly.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Like many breweries, Living the Dream located themselves in an industrial park area. It can be a bit tricky to pick the correct turn off of Santa Fe and once you find it, it becomes apparent that Living the Dream the only retail business for far around. Fortunately they usually have a food truck. Most people would consider this a destination brewery and as such, it fortunately has ample parking in the lot and on the street.
STANDOUT BEER:Cherry McGuire Belgian cherry beer. Very few places make a Belgian kriek-style beer so I always enjoy running across one. With Cherry McGuire, cherry is pretty much all you taste – sweet on the front and a little tart/bitter on the back. While not the best kriek-style beer I’ve had, given the rarity of the style it puts on a good show and stands out from the standard beer styles.
Black Sky Brewery is all about the rock! From the hard rock soundtrack, to the Kiss artwork, to the ACDC pinball game, to the warning on the jukebox this place crushes it. The long beer list generally rocks too, with a good variety of well-crafted brews. Best of all, the 5th & Santa Fe location lets you roll it into a bigger experience if you want, combining Black Sky with other breweries, restaurants, art galleries, or all of the above.
BEER LINEUP: Diverse. Black Sky makes a number of traditional styles interspersed with modifications that kick things up a notch like high-gravity imperial versions. Many are cleverly-named such as the Demon seed IPA. They offer additional beers in bombers and for non-beer-drinkers they have a full bar.
ATMOSPHERE:The interior has a hard-core feel – dark, with heavy-metal art and a hard-rock sound track – but also a friendly vibe. Despite the theme the brewery doesn’t fill up with tattooed, leather-clad patrons, but rather an interesting cross-section of metalheads, young professionals, and even families. On the occasional evening that features live rock the crowd becomes more fan-based but still welcoming. Black Sky has a small patio and is one of the few breweries that also serves food, with a focus on delicious pizzas.
SERVICE: Decent. It didn’t seem like the servers were big on chitchat outside of the regulars but anyone coming to the bar with an empty glass didn’t have to wait long for a fillup.
NEIGHBORHOOD: The South Santa Fe neighborhood has been transforming for many years from rundown and vacant to a trendy gallery strip. Today it sits at a crossroads where you can combine a visit to Black Sky with high-end art shopping or a burrito at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint. Or, if you want to make a pub crawl out of it Crazy Mountain and Renegade are just blocks away. Overall the area is packed with very diverse business, generally safe despite the grungy look, and offers decent parking so you can either just drop into Black Sky or make a day or evening of it.
STANDOUT BEER: The adventurously-named A Pussy Riot Beer is a dark saison that combines mild farmhouse flavors with light peppercorn flavors and hints of other spices. In general I found it to be a smooth and balanced beer with little hops but a rather savory profile. The mild flavors and medium body mean make this beer enjoyable even in the summer heat. Note, Black Sky also makes a similarly-named (but lighter) beer called Pussy Riot v3.
Brewery or cantina? Cheluna Brewing Co.’s beer list reads like a craft brewery but the taproom looks like an industrial cantina with steel, Mexican tilework, and Lucha Libre masks. With a beer list that goes far beyond Mexican-style beers and a location in the latest trendy Denver-area entertainment development, Cheluna seems poised to succeed once the buildout is complete. Even though many business are still under construction, the whole Stanley Marketplace complex was busy on a random weeknight. Parking was already becoming scarce, so if you want to check out Cheluna, now’s probably the time before the area becomes unbearably popular.
BEER LINEUP: With more than just the light lagers you’d expect from a Mexican place, Cheluna covers a good chunk of the style spectrum by offering IPAs, a saison, a stout, a porter, and even an adventurous gose. Bottom Line: If you like more robust beers than Mexican lagers you’ll find them.
ATMOSPHERE: Like the Stanley Marketplace where it resides, Cheluna feels busy and vibrant but still trying to find its niche. The diverse crowd of young, old, singles, couples, and families seemed like they were checking out the next new thing and once the initial interest passes many will move on and leave Cheluna with a set of regulars. Cheluna’s space gives off a funky vibe that mixes modern touches with traditional Mexican decor (and some cheesiness). The taproom flows nicely into the larger building and has the obligatory brewery windows, but also features an ample balcony on the second floor. It seemed like one-beer place for most patrons, perhaps before or after dinner at one of the marketplace eateries (though you can bring food in too).
SERVICE: Cheluna is bar service only, and the bartender was reasonably efficient and friendly.
NEIGHBORHOOD: The neighborhood is a study in contrasts. To the west lie new/pretty/expensive Stapleton suburban homes and to the south/east you’ll find old-school Aurora with a mix of smaller, older buildings, by-the-week motels, ethnic neighborhoods, and questionable-looking apartment complexes. Regardless, the marketplace is isolated in a field and not convenient to the surrounding area or transport. I’m betting 99% of the visitors drive or uber in, do their thing, and drive out.
STANDOUT BEER: Ok, not my absolute top taplist choice but seeing as how it’s a Mexican joint I feel the need to mention the very solid Lowrider Mexican Lager. The beer met my normal Mexican lager expectations but also contained a pleasant surprise with a bit of extra maltiness and a fuller body than you normally find – sort of a Mexican lager with a bonus (or maybe just a typical Vienna lager). Overall it’s a very smooth, easy-drinking beer especially on a 90-degree day.
It would be hard to come up with a more night-and-day relocation than the one Lost Highway just pulled off, moving from gritty, central E. Colfax to a quiet, obscure office park hidden deep in DTC. Earlier this year the owners of Lost Highway Brewing Company and Cheeky Monk sold their E Colfax building to move to greener pastures in the DTC. The brewery reopened a few weeks ago and their beers have lost nothing in the move. Lost Highway still offers high-quality Belgian beers with a few other styles mixed in.
BEER LINEUP: Belgian focus with a sprinkling of other styles like IPAs, a dark, and a light. Basically something for everyone.
ATMOSPHERE: Much more chill than on Colfax. Mostly a younger crowd hanging out and kicking back with brews. The taproom is smaller than on Colfax, but uncrowded on a weekend evening and the new patio offers additional warm-weather space. Lost Highway doesn’t have a kitchen but does schedule an occasional food truck. Tucked way back in an office park there’s no other food in the area unless you’re into foraging in the nearby meadows.
SERVICE: Friendly and fast. The bartender was knowledgeable about the beers, engaging, and seemed to be having fun with the crowd.
NEIGHBORHOOD: None to speak of. Buried deep in anonymous office and industrial parks you’ll need a good map app to find it, and at night it’s the only light for miles around. You pretty much need a car to get there, but if you want to turn it into a pub crawl there are a few taprooms (Two Penguins Tap and Grill and Growler USA) 5-10 minutes away off Arapahoe Road.
STANDOUT BEER:Almond Coconut Porter. This beer will not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly qualifies in the “most interesting” category. The nutty almond flavors blend seamlessly with the slightly-sweet coconut flavors and the underlying roasted malt gives the beer depth of flavor and a full body. The dark color lines up with normal porters and there’s no discernable hoppiness.
Things are never boring at 3 Freaks Brewing. As a small-system brewer they constantly rotate new batches on tap, and the whole team enjoys experimenting with new recipes. Basically, you’ll always find something new and unusual (generally in a good way). This is also a great place to chat with your server, as they are probably the friendliest in Denver and can give you the lowdown on current pours or something interesting fermenting in the back. The only downside is the Park Meadows location, though I suppose if you’re up for some buzzed shopping afterward . . .
BEER LINEUP: Eclectic comes to mind. 3 Freaks has a relatively small number of taps and with the quick turnover and experimental brewing process you really never know what you’ll find. Generally the experiments turn out well, though, and they usually serve one or two traditional styles for the less-adventurous.
ATMOSPHERE: Things seem relatively relaxed and low-energy in the taproom. The small interior features cool industrial décor while the pleasant front patio offers shade and comfy patio furniture. The surrounding strip malls offers several food options to bring back.
SERVICE:Super-friendly. It’s apparent from the start that everyone working there is passionate and informed about beer, and most, if not all of the staff takes a hand at brewing. Start chatting with a server and you’ll get a wealth of information.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Soulless Highlands Ranch Strip Mall best describes the scene. Unless you’re foraging for food or get a drunken urge for new jeans at the mall there’s little reason to explore the area. On the plus side, 3 Freaks has ample parking, which you’ll need since this is definitely a drive-to brewery.
STANDOUT BEER:Brad Pitt-less Watermelon Blonde. While chances are good this one’s gone already, if you see it you’ll want to grab a glass before the keg blows. An awesome light-bodied (but honey-colored) beer, this blonde offsets juicy watermelon flavors with a hint of saltiness and sweet maltiness, all riding on a backbone of a solid wheat beer. Truly a pleasant patio-sipping beer! If you miss it here, look for it as a 3 Freaks entry at GABF.