Experimentation, expansion and flat growth: This is the Denver brewery scene in 2019

The skills of survival are changing, so breweries like Call to Arms and Liberati are adapting.
9 min. read
Chris Bell of Call to Arms Brewing Company poses in his bar on Tennyson Street, Oct. 1, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Eric Gorski, for Denverite

Since opening four years ago in Denver's Berkeley neighborhood, Call to Arms Brewing has stayed true to its identity as a dependable place to drink quality beer in good company.

Wait staff are trained to detect "off" flavors and to keep their phones stashed in the back while at the bar, efforts to provide the best customer service possible. Each batch of beer is subjected to a battery of tests by an independent lab. The bad stuff is dumped.

It's not unusual to see visiting brewers, regulars and staff collectively throw down a "beer shot" -- what began as an end-of-shift tradition that's now on the menu for anyone to experience.

"Every place serves its purpose," said owner Chris Bell, reflecting on the Denver beer scene on the eve of its annual big moment in the limelight, the Great American Beer Festival, which will draw an estimated 62,000 attendees Thursday through Saturday. "We have our purpose: Quality, community, camaraderie. We want to keep that rolling forever."

But to keep anything rolling forever -- let alone another year -- businesses must adapt and change. That kind of nimbleness has always been part of the DNA of the craft brewing industry, where experimentation and creativity are the norm. It's all but required in 2019 as a constellation of factors including slower industry growth, the arrival of full-strength beer in grocery stores and an ever-expanding definition of what goes in your glass is testing small independent brewers.

The challenge for those in an industry that takes authenticity as an article of faith: How do you pivot and change while remaining true to your identity?

"The message of the next five years should be, 'remember your initial vision," said Bill Eye of Denver's Bierstadt Lagerhaus, which has never wavered in its commitment to brewing traditional lagers. "Stop caring about what anyone else is doing. You can't be everything to everyone. Authenticity can't be faked or purchased and customers can smell a fake."

Call to Arms poured its first pints in 2015 as the craft beer industry nationally began a period of slower growth after an unprecedented boom period. The trade industry group the Brewers Association reported a peak of 18 percent year-to-year growth in both 2013 and 2014, then a drop to 13 percent in 2015, 6 percent in 2016, 5 percent in 2017 and 4 percent in 2018.

"Flat is the new normal," said Comrade Brewing's David Lin, who reports flat sales this year at his award-winning Denver brewery after growing double-digits since opening in 2015.

Call to Arms founding owners Bell, Jesse Brookstein and Jon Cross came from Avery Brewing with about 25 years of experience combined. They never wanted to "take over the world," just brew high-quality beer in a comfortable neighborhood. Bell said the aim was "that we wanted to drink every beer on tap, and that everyone is getting a quality experience out of the beer."

After some lean times at the beginning, Bell said Call to Arms experienced double-digit growth in year three and is still growing but more slowly, like most everyone.

"Where we missed the mark, probably, was that we didn't realize there would be this hype machine around how beer styles changed," Bell said. "That might have been a little shortsighted or ignorant on our part." While other breweries plowed serious resources into their Instagram accounts, Call to Arms largely watched from the sidelines -- another lesson learned.

You still won't find on the pour list a hazy IPA, a style of hoppy beer that is intentionally cloudy and smooth on the palate, with little to no hop bitterness and a juicy, tropical flavor. The style has grown so popular, even some breweries that initially resisted have come around. Going out on a limb with a hoppy beer at Call to Arms means using an experimental hop in a traditional "clear" IPA.

Experimenting isn't everything -- but it helps.

But Call to Arms did come around to another trend that is inescapable in local taprooms this year: hard seltzer. Brewers can make it legally, quickly and cheaply, allowing them to put a new offering on the board attractive to spirits drinkers and those in search of fewer calories.

At Call to Arms, though, cheap went out the window. The brewery puts 100 percent organic fruit in the seltzer, making it no less expensive to make than most beers. The seltzer has color, unlike the clear White Claw that is probably stacked up to the ceiling of your local Safeway.

"If we can see a product we like and we can bring another element to it that we don't see somewhere else, then we're going to do it," Bell said. "That to me is a small definition of what craft is."

In short, the brewery is making hard seltzer -- but in a Call to Arms kind of way.

One of last year's biggest brewery openings in Denver was Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers, which debuted just after last year's Great American Beer Festival. The place's namesake and visionary, Alex Liberati, a leading light in the blossoming of craft brewing and beer bars in his native Rome, moved to Denver and took years to plot and plan the $3 million project.

In a crowded marketplace, many breweries seek to carve out a niche and stand out, with everything from English cask-conditioned ales to corn-based pre-Columbian beers from Latin America. Liberati certainly checks that box: He brews beer/wine hybrids he dubbed "oenobeers." He wasn't chasing a trend, though. The relentless experimenter was just doing what he wanted.

The crowds, however, didn't flock in. Liberati said he underestimated one key factor: He figured he'd experience the same success he'd enjoyed in Italy as his projects expanded. In fact it was more like starting again in Italy, "where you'd do your first events and 15 people would show up."

The location on Champa Street wasn't quite the draw you'd think at first glance, either; as Liberati notes, Larimer Street, though nearby, is where the heart of the RiNo beats.

So Liberati made a number of sweeping moves, including overhauling the food menu, changing the name to the more straightforward Liberati Restaurant & Brewery and -- most painfully -- cutting wages and laying people off, including his head brewer.

More recently, Liberati has pushed into marketing the restaurant and brewery as events space, with big plans to stage monthly events in the warmer months on the parking lot adjacent to its Tuscan-style patio.

The beer list has expanded beyond the grape beers, too. Liberati is slowly introducing -- or rather re-introducing -- hoppy beers from his groundbreaking Roman brewery Revelation Cat. IPAs almost always lead the sales figures at independent breweries. Not so at Liberati, where the IPA has accounted for about 8 percent of sales in the last two months, Liberati said.

"The stats show people come here for the grape beers, which is really good," he said.

"I think we're in a grand position now," Liberati added. "I see it growing day by day. The stats are what we expect. It's enjoyable, finally. Not, 'Oh God, I have to do this or that.'"

Still, Liberati is not alone among experienced brewers lamenting some recent trends in craft brewing, including "adjuncts" such as candy being added to beer.

"I feel quite sad that the kind of beer that creates a sensation is brewed with green gummy bears," he said. "It is out of control. People can't complain about the rise of seltzer or kombucha if the only thing they have been doing the last few years is to feed people something new and not really feed the culture, history, or brewing tradition. Obviously, the consumer is confused."

"The world of beer has been corrupted, I'm afraid, in a way that it's going to be hard to get back to where we were, unfortunately."

While some Denver breweries are trying to expand, others are hoping to entrench.

At Call to Arms, a brewery that featured its three owners' family crests on its original logo, has changed in other important ways. Brookstein left a few years ago, and Cross, while still he still holds an ownership stake, recently stepped away from brewing and being a part of operations.

Eventually, Bell would like to open another taproom elsewhere. This is another growing trend: A number of Colorado breweries -- Great Divide, Denver Beer Co., Weldwerks, 4 Noses and others -- have either opened satellite taprooms or announced plans to do so. It's a way to sell more beer and use idle capacity.

There's been a backlash from some beer bar owners, however, who didn't anticipate competition from the very brands they've been championing. The impact that spinoff taprooms may have on nearby breweries content to stick to one neighborhood is uncertain, too -- they could take a chunk out of sales or help create a buzz and bring brewery-hoppers to the area.

Bell for now is focused on the one and only Call to Arms, where he joined a group downing a beer shot on a recent early evening despite suffering from a cold and working a long day brewing.

"I would love to be here for 20 years," Bell said. "I'd love to be the My Brothers Bar of Berkeley. Dependable, you know what you are getting. If you decided to leave Denver for four years and come back, you know what you are going to get. That would be the pinnacle for me. That is not because you have spent a ton of money on marketing or breaking barriers, but because you've built an honest business making quality beer for good people in a great atmosphere."

Eric Gorski is a Denver-based journalist. He co-founded The Denver Post's First Drafts blog and has written about beer for BeerAdvocate, Draft Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and PorchDrinking.com.

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