BEER is to Denver what cream soda is to New York, vodka is to Moscow and wheat grass is to West Hollywood: an unofficial civic beverage that leans toward undesirable stereotype.
Men's Health magazine, for instance, named Denver the most "sloshed" big city in America last year, cheerily citing data that included alcohol-related deaths, arrests and accidents. Beyond police reports, anecdotal evidence abounds. The mayor earned his fortune through an empire of brewpubs. This is where Modern Drunkard magazine is published. The major league baseball park is named for a beer company.
"It's kind of a vacation mentality here," said Cindy Jones, marketing director for the Brewers Assn., based in nearby Boulder. "Anywhere you are, it's always time to crack open a beer."
Never more so than the last weekend of September. That's when the Great American Beer Festival is in town, luring 28,000 ale aficionados. About 1,600 varieties of beer are ready for tasting in 1-ounce servings.
But visitors can drink their way across Denver any time of year. There are about 30 brewpubs in the city and its immediate suburbs. Many in downtown are within walking distance of one another and major hotels.
The Wynkoop Brewing Co. is the city's oldest microbrewery. John Hickenlooper, now the mayor, founded it in 1988, helping initiate the revitalization of the Lower Downtown district. These days, it's not unusual to see politicos in ties in one booth and snowboarders in tie-dye in the next.
Despite the restaurant's size — it's in an immense restored warehouse with billiards on the second floor and a comedy club in the basement — there's often a wait for a table. The menu has items such as gorgonzola ale soup and grilled elk medallions.
Among beers on tap are the lightly carbonated Sagebrush Stout and Patty's Chile Beer, which gets assertive but not overpowering heat from Anaheim chiles. The flagship draft is Railyard Ale (a nod to the pub's proximity to Union Station), which is an Oktoberfest-style deep amber. For kids and teetotalers, the honey-accented Tiger Root Beer is on tap.
The largest brewery in Denver is Flying Dog, whose bottles are easily recognized on market shelves by their unruly labels illustrated by gonzo artist Ralph Steadman. But the whole litter of canine-themed brews — including In Heat Wheat Hefeweizen and Horn Dog Barley Wine — can be had from the tap, breathtakingly fresh, at the adjacent Blake Street Tavern. Windows from the bar look right into Flying Dog's 50-barrel brew house.
Its latest brew, Gonzo Imperial Porter, is a special release to commemorate the passing of writer Hunter S. Thompson, who lived outside Aspen. (Given the inspiration, this Steadman label seems tame: a skeleton with hat and cigarette, saying, "OK! Let's party!" The brewery previously tussled with the Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division over the slogan "Good Beer, No [expletive]" on its Road Dog Scottish Ale label, though the brewer prevailed.)
Breckenridge Brewery, maker of Avalanche Ale and coffee-scented Oatmeal Stout, started out in Breckenridge in 1990 and later added two outposts in Denver. The livelier one is across the street from Coors Field, making it a crowded destination during and after Rockies games.
The other, Breckenridge Brewery & BBQ, is in a less-hopping industrial area south of downtown. The kitchen closes at 9 p.m. on Friday nights, and most of the customers have cleared out long before then. But in the earlier hours, it offers a generous pulled pork sandwich and other barbecue staples, as well as a tasting room in the microbrewery where its wares are bottled and put in kegs for off-site sales.
Rocky State symbol ROCK Bottom Brewery, based in Louisville, Colo., is one of the few brewpubs that has expanded nationwide, including restaurants in Long Beach and San Diego. In Denver, Rock Bottom attracts a boisterous after-work crowd on the bustling 16th Street Mall. Successfully jockey for space on the patio and you can sip a Hefeweizen and watch the shoppers and office workers pass by. Rock Bottom also operates the more upscale, 1940s-themed Chop House & Brewery on 19th at Wynkoop Street — a purported favorite hangout of Denver's pro athletes.
The Bull & Bush Pub & Brewery is more of a neighborhood hangout. It's modeled after the bar of the same name in London's Hampstead Heath — right down to the warped copper bar and British knickknacks. It's dark like a London pub too; even the fireplace fails to bring in any light. The food, however, leans more toward chicken wings than shepherd's pie.
The wood-paneled pub claims it was the nation's first sports bar when it opened in Denver's Cherry Creek neighborhood in 1971. Sports broadcasts continue to this day on a phalanx of televisions while a microbrewery next door pumps in Stonehenge Stout and Big Ben Brown Ale.
Falling Rock Tap House makes good on its promise to offer "Colorado's Best Selection of Beers." Three shelves of bottles, representing the offerings, circle the restaurant's interior, and dozens of Colorado ales, including Avery Karma and Rockies Hazed & Infused, are on tap. Hard-to-find foreign issues such as Young's Double Chocolate Stout from Great Britain and Belgium's Chimay are on tap as well. It's the sort of place that has giant video screens playing Rockies games, and maybe a beer tasting going on in the basement.
If you push your stool away from the bar and step briefly into the Colorado sunshine, you can learn a thing or two about how beers are made. There are about 90 craft breweries in the state; many offer tours or tasting rooms. Three of the best known — New Belgium Brewing Co., Fort Collins Brewery and Odell Brewing Co. — are in Fort Collins, about 70 miles north of Denver. Anheuser-Busch Cos., though based in St. Louis, has a major plant in Fort Collins that offers tours and a swing through the stalls of the renowned Budweiser Clydesdales.
Of course, it was the advertising of Coors, based in Golden, Colo., that made the Rocky Mountain State synonymous with beer. A free 40-minute walking tour of the plant's malting, brewing and packaging processes ends with a tasting in a room conveniently located near the Coors gift shop.
When you're done with the tours and tastings, though, you may want to head back to the bars. As the Czechs say, "A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it's better to be thoroughly sure."
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What's brewing around town
From LAX, United, American and Frontier offer nonstop flights to Denver. America West, Continental and Alaska offer connecting (change of planes) service. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $232.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotels: Downtown hotels put you close to many of the city's pubs. The Executive Tower Hotel (1405 Curtis St.;  525-6651, http://www.exectowerhotel.com ), renovated in 2002, features an outdoor running track to work off any nascent beer belly. Doubles from $90. The Brown Palace Hotel (321 17th St.;  321-2599, http://www.brownpalace.com ) is a 112-year-old architectural gem. Doubles from $189.
WHAT TO DO:
The Great American Beer Festival runs Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at the Colorado Convention Center, 700 14th St., Denver; (888) 822-6273, http://www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com . More than 1,600 beers on tap from 370 breweries served up in 1-ounce cups for tasting. Tasting sessions $35-$40.
Bull & Bush Pub & Brewery, 4700 Cherry Creek Drive S.; (303) 759-0333, http://www.bullandbush.com .
Blake Street Tavern, 2401 Blake St.; (303) 675-0505.
Breckenridge Brewery and Pub, 2220 Blake St.; (303) 297-3644 and Breckenridge Brewery & BBQ, 471 Kalamath St.; (303) 573-0431, http://www.breckenridgebrewery.com .
Falling Rock Tap House, 1919 Blake St.; (303) 293-8338, http://www.fallingrocktaphouse.com .
Rock Bottom Brewery, 1001 16th St.; (303) 534-7616, http://www.rockbottom.com .
Wynkoop Brewing Co., 1634 18th St.; (303) 297-2700, http://www.wynkoop.com .
TASTINGS AND TOURS
Coors Brewing Co., 12th and Ford streets, Golden; (303) 277-2337, http://www.coors.com . Tours 10 a.m.4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.
Fort Collins Brewery, 1900 E. Lincoln Ave., Fort Collins; (970) 472-1499, http://www.fortcollinsbrewery.com . Tasting room only, open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-6 p.m. Saturdays.
Flying Dog Brewery, 2401 Blake St., Denver; (303) 292-5027, http://www.flyingdogales.com . Tasting room and free tours at 2 and 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 2 p.m. Saturdays.
New Belgian Brewing Co., 500 Linden St., Fort Collins; (888) 622-4044, http://www.newbelgium.com . Guided tours at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays and hourly 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays.
Odell Brewing Co., 880 E. Lincoln Ave., Fort Collins; (888) 887-2797. Free tours at 11 a.m., 2 and 4 p.m. weekdays; 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Saturdays. Tastings, $3, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays.
— Joyzelle Davis