Editor’s note: One of an occasional series on the 25th year of Major League Baseball in Denver.
In the 1880s, St. Louis Browns owner Chris von der Ahe became the forefather in the long link between beer and baseball when he renovated Sportsman’s Park and added a beer garden in the right-field corner. On the playing field.
It was a wildly profitable and popular move for von der Ahe, a saloonkeeper by trade, who had noticed the boost of sales at his business before and after games. But the fact that fans wanted to drink beer during the game was a revolutionary idea at the time, and by capitalizing on it, von der Ahe intertwined the fates of beer and baseball forever.
Fast-forward more than a century later, and downtown Denver had its own von der Ahe moment.
The city — buoyed by entrepreneurial brewers as well as the unbreakable bond between beer and baseball — was on its way to becoming America’s capital of craft brew from the moment Coors Field opened its gates for the first time on April 26, 1995.
“What Coors Field did was become a real marketing engine for local breweries,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper, who founded downtown’s first brewery, Wynkoop Brewery, with three other partners in 1988.
“When the stadium first opened in 1995 — I’ll never forget this — that first April, sales at Wynkoop were up almost 50 percent. And then in May, they were up over 50 percent, and in June, July, August, September and October, they stayed at above a 55 percent increase.”
Hickenlooper, who went on to become the mayor of Denver before becoming the governor of Colorado, expected sales to die down come wintertime. They didn’t. Two other original downtown breweries that opened after Wynkoop — Breckenridge Brewery (opened in 1992 at 22nd and Blake) and Great Divide (1994, at 22nd and Arapahoe) — began their ascent into national brands in the years following the debut of Coors Field.
“That’s what you’d expect from a really successful marketing effort — to get people to come down and try your product, and if you’re doing a good enough job, people come back on their own without that original marketing effort,” Hickenlooper said. “The difference was our marketing was a baseball game.”
Rockies fans watch a game on TV and enjoy beers atop a pack rooftop bar at The Tavern Downtown.
When Hickenlooper bought the J.S. Brown Mercantile Building on Wynkoop Street across from Union Station with the intention to turn it into a brewery, LoDo was far from the enticing historic district it is today, with 25 blocks of revitalized, turn-of-the-century warehouses.
Both LoDo and what would become the Ballpark neighborhood were mostly abandoned in the mid-1980s, and the craft beer industry was in its infancy. Wynkoop, Breckenridge and Great Divide needed a catalyst for growth, and Coors Field, which attracted more than 11 million people in its first three years, sparked it.
“Hickenlooper and the other founders were ahead of their time in that respect, because they foresaw how craft brew could be done, and when the stadium came, that really got the movement going,” said Ashleigh Carter, head brewer at Beirstadt Lagerhaus in the RiNo neighborhood just northeast of Coors Field and a professional brewer in the metro area for more than a decade. “In that environment, they created something from nothing. They started an industry.”
Other factors contributed to craft beer’s meteoric rise in downtown Denver — most notably, the opening of light-rail lines connecting the suburbs to downtown beginning in 1994, as well as the rise of the annual Great American Beer Festival, which debuted in Denver in 1984 and has since morphed into the industry’s pre-eminent convention.
But it was Coors Field that got baseball fans — thirsty for a downtown experience — interested in craft.
“When the Rockies came to town, that was early on in craft, and people still didn’t really know about it,” said Todd Usry, president and brewmaster of Breckenridge Brewery. “People would come into our Blake location and ask for a Fat Tire, because they thought that was a style, not a brand. It was really craft beer 101 in those days, and Coors Field gave us an opportunity to educate people on the industry.”
The relatively small number of parking lots built around the stadium — about 4,500 spaces for a venue with a capacity of 50,200 seats — also helped the brewhouses get discovered. Breckenridge and Great Divide have since opened additional locations.
“There were a bunch of businesses in Lower Downtown that persuaded the stadium district that they didn’t need to have 20, 25 thousand spaces — the sea of parking that you saw at that time in literally every city in America,” Hickenlooper said. “No one had ever tried that before, but what happened was people parked in those garages along 17th and 18th and then they walked through Lower Downtown right by our brewery.”
A pair of Rockies fans enjoy beers at the Great Divide Brewery before a game in April. Craft beer and baseball in LoDo have had their fates intertwined since the Rockies came to town in the early 90s. One just isn’t the same without the other.
Interest in craft explodes
In the 22 years since the debut of Coors Field, the craft brew scene has exploded on a local and national level.
Per the Brewers Association, craft remains one of the fastest-growing segments of the beer industry, and the association has “a stated goal of 20 percent share of (market) volume for the craft segment by 2020.” There are more than 350 breweries in Colorado, according to a June 2016 report on the industry released by the University of Colorado.
Wynkoop, Breckenridge and Great Divide still maintain their status as the founding fathers of local craft beer. Meanwhile, newer breweries such as Denver Beer Company (opened in 2011 at 17th and Platte) and Jagged Mountain Craft Brewery (2013, at 20th and Lawrence) have increased consumer choice in the walking distance around Coors Field. So have craft-dedicated taprooms such as Falling Rock and Tap Fourteen, which features 70 rotating taps of Colorado-only beers.
But no establishment is as iconic — or as able to cement the modern-day relevancy between beer and baseball — as The Sandlot.
The Sandlot, located in an old warehouse on Blake Street that was incorporated into the architecture of Coors Field, took von der Ahe’s beer garden vision to another level. It was the country’s first brewery inside a ballpark, and, along with Wynkoop, Breckenridge and Great Divide, it pioneered the art of experimental craft while being owned by the behemoth Coors Brewing Co. (now MillerCoors).
Craft has since become the norm at stadiums across the nation, and several other ballparks have brought breweries inside their premises in recent years.
Bull Durham Beer Co. opened inside the Durham (N.C.) Bulls’ Athletic Park in 2015, and this season, Terrapin Beer Co. unveiled its “ATL Brew Lab” at the right-field gate of the new SunTrust Park in Atlanta. Also, for the first time in major-league history, a team has an official craft beer partner via the Kansas City Royals and Boulevard Brewing.
“Coors is really forward-thinking, because if you look back to 1994, beer was obviously not what it is now,” said John Legnard, who was Sandlot’s brewmaster from 1995 to January 2016. “For them to go out on a limb and say, ‘We’re going to open our own little microbrewery inside the baseball stadium that bears our name’ — that’s a really cool part of the story.”
The Sandlot originally was open only to Coors Field ticket holders on game days, but in May 2013, the 10-barrel brewhouse began opening its tasting room to the public on nongame days too.
It’s where Blue Moon was invented in the summer of 1995, though back then, it was called Bellyslide Belgian White. That beer — which has now become a MillerCoors commercial staple — and other themed creations, such as Squeezeplay Wheat, Slugger Stout and Pinch Hit Pils, made The Sandlot a quintessential part of Denver’s baseball-driven craft explosion.
“Over the years, we developed this mind-set of, ‘Let’s try this beer and see what happens,’ ” Legnard said. “It was great to have baseball fans to test those beers because six months out of the year, we’d know in a busy weekend how well a beer would sell commercially because of those people.”
Breweries catalyze growth around Coors Field
While Denver never quite got on von der Ahe’s level with an in-play beer garden at Coors Field, the opening of The Rooftop before the 2014 season gave fans the modern-day equivalent.
The Rockies took out 3,500 seats in the upper deck of right field to create the two-level, standing- room-only bar area that’s dominated by the sale of local craft beer. The lure of craft — along with The Rooftop’s open gathering areas, corn hole and outdoor sofas — made the stadium a draw for people who are willing to buy a ticket just to socialize, and not actually watch the game itself.
“It was clear people here enjoyed their craft beer, and as a club we needed to be in that space,” said Greg Feasel, the Rockies’ chief operating officer. “For us, The Rooftop was about creating a space that hasn’t been done in baseball. And in The Tavern at The Rooftop, there’s 52 beer taps and the bar is 52 feet and 80 inches long because we embraced the mile high (mind-set), and craft beer is definitely a part of that.”
And in the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium, beyond now-swanky LoDo where Hickenlooper once raised money from whoever he could — including $10,000 from his Little League baseball coach — to start Wynkoop and pay the $1-per-square-foot rent for his building, ambitious brewers are taking the same leap of faith Hickenlooper and his fellow founders once did.
“Coors Field was the starting point, but all the redevelopment and all the good things that have happened in Denver have helped everyone, and now you’re seeing breweries in areas that are driving some of the growth,” Legnard said. “Brewers are going out to neighborhoods where they can afford a building or afford rent and they’re making it happen, and you’re seeing the people starting to infill behind that with more building of apartments, rehabbed lofts, stuff like that.”
The RiNo neighborhood is a prime example of this, where Blue Moon RiNo (where Legnard is now the brewmaster) and other locally owned craft breweries, such as Bierstadt Lagerhaus, Ratio Beerworks and 10 Barrel Brewing are sparking industrial revival around them.
And as long as Coors Field keeps opening its gates, local brewers expect to keep finding — and driving — success.
“We’re all grateful that Coors Field allowed breweries like Wynkoop to survive and thrive,” said Ashleigh Carter, head brewer at Bierstadt Lagerhaus. “But now, it’s the breweries’ turn to play the role of little Coors Fields all around Denver, and to keep leading the growth of this city and this industry.”
A beer vender works the upper concourse during a game at Coors Field last July.
Coors; Coors Light; Budweiser; Bud Light; Miller Lite; Colorado Native Amber; Colorado Native Golden; Fat Tire; Dales Pale Ale; Crispin; Right Field Red; Blue Moon; BMBC West Coast IPA; BMBC Mango Wheat; Leinenkugel Summer Shandy; Leinenkugel Grapefruit Shandy; Mojo IPA; Laugunitas IPA; White Rascal; 90 Shilling; Drumroll Titan IPA; Vanilla Porter
Bards; Easy Street; Guinness; Lagunitas; Modelo; New Castle; Omission IPA; Sawtooth; Stella Artois; Titan IPA; Upslope
90 Schilling; Angry Orchard; Avalanche Ale; Avery IPA; Blue Moon; BOM; Budweiser; Colorado Native; Coors; Coors Light; Corona; Corona Light; Dales Pale Ale; Fat Tire; Grapefruit Summer Shandy; Hazed & Infused; Heineken; Mike Lemon; Mikes Black Cherry; Miller Lite; Modelo; New Belgium Citradelic; New Castle; Old Style; PBR; Ranger IPA; Redds Apple; Sam Adams; Sam Adams Seasonal; Smith & Forge; Summer Shandy; Upslope