In a town where the average beer enthusiast is likely to know as much about brewing as the pros, the competition among bars that specialize in suds is stiff — so stiff, in fact, that newcomers tend to undergo a bit of a trial period as customers size up not only their selection but their expertise. In other words, unlike restaurants, many of Denver’s most popular taphouses are also its most established, having earned their patrons’ loyalty over time with ever-changing lineups emphasizing hard-to-find and cult brews as well as proper storage and service.
In honor of the Great American Beer Festival this week, here’s a rundown of the city’s 15 hottest beer bars right now — both new arrivals and longtime favorites. (Note: We’ve excluded brewery taprooms as a separate category.)
Why it’s hot: Aside from the fact that none other than Tom Colicchio gave it his seal of approval while in town to film the next season of Top Chef, we like to think of this as the wine bar of beer bars. As a specialist in sours and wild ales (aka the brews most likely to convert oenophiles), it’s about as sophisticated as taprooms get, with snacks to match.
Number of beers: 25 on tap, plus many more in can and bottle
What to eat: What not to eat? Tinned cockles, confit pork leg, a butter flight with French bread, carefully assorted cheeses with house condiments — the menu is your oyster (which you can also get here).
2801 Welton St.; 720-749-2709
Why it’s hot: One of Denver’s most serious watering holes is also one of its most fun-loving — with an enormous yard to play in and multiple on-site food vendors to serve as a collective kitchen, it would draw crowds no matter what the bar poured. Nevertheless, what it pours is spectacular, especially when it comes to non-local breweries. It's virtually guaranteed there will be at least one beer you’ve never heard of, plus the cider, spirits and cocktail lists are connoisseur-level too.
Number of beers: 16 on tap, plus more in can and bottle
What to eat: On any given day, your options could include anything from pad Thai to Puerto Rican–style rice and beans to fried chicken sandwiches.
First Draft Taproom & Kitchen
Why it’s hot: In a wide-open two-story space lined with community tables and outfitted with a sunny patio, this RiNo hangout won hearts and minds on day one with its high-tech self-service tap bank, dispensing dozens of beers (as well as a few ciders, wines and kombuchas) for purchase by the ounce. It’s a fickle drinker’s fantasyland.
Number of beers: 40 on tap, 45 in can/bottle
What to eat: Simple but solid pub grub includes hot pretzels with beer-cheese sauce and grilled sausage samplers.
1309 26th St.; 303-736-8400
Why it’s hot: A GABF industry hub since it opened several years ago, this cozy (albeit often crazy-busy) LoDo pub boasts one of the biggest, geekiest selections in town by far — and a friendly staff who can answer any curveball question you throw its way. If you’re up for an adventure, the brown-bag special’s a mystery beer you’ll have to buy to try.
Number of beers: 25+ on tap, 100+ in can/bottle
What to eat: The full kitchen turns out an extensive menu of comfort food; we’re partial to deep-fried cheese balls with smoked-onion ketchup and the signature Iowa pork tenderloin sandwich.
1530 Blake St.; 303-758-9608
Crafty Fox Taphouse & Pizzeria
Why it's hot: Here’s another good bet for geeking out. This cheerfully modern LoHi two-story option, with patios upstairs and down, boasts dozens of drafts, almost none of them the usual suspects. Even the big-name breweries tend to be represented by their seasonal releases rather than their flagships.
Number of beers: 60 on tap, 25 in can/bottle
What to eat: Nobody doesn't love the French onion pizza or the smoked chile wings.
3901 Fox St.; 303-455-9666
Hops & Pie
Why it’s hot: As beloved for its pints as its pizza, this Berkeley mainstay sources beers to impress the most jaded customer even as it welcomes the neighborhood with killer deals like $2 Craft Can Wednesdays and Session Saturdays — three drafts and two slices for a measly $16 from noon to 5 PM.
Number of beers: 20+ on tap, 30+ packaged, mostly large-format bottles
What to eat: The menu specials here change as often as the tap list. Over-the-top pizza combos could be inspired by loaded baked potatoes or turkey pot pie one day, deli ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches with yellow mustard (!) the next. Sandwiches get topped with everything from pork loin, cheddar grits and green chile to duck sausage, cranberry mostarda and cream cheese.
3920 Tennyson St.; 303-477-7000
Highland Tap and Burger / Tap & Burger Sloan's Lake
Why they’re hot: Certified cicerone Lee Caldwell oversees the beer lists at this LoHi staple and its year-old sibling off West Colfax, and the room he makes for local breweries, including smaller producers like Idaho Springs’ Westbound & Down and Arvada’s New Image, adds to the character. Using landscape terms to categorize the brews by complexity (from Grasslands to 14ers), he also favors the eclectic: think poblano stout or beet lambic amid cult favorites from the likes of Evil Twin and 5 Rabbit.
Number of beers: 20 on tap, 60 in can/bottle (Highland); 30 on tap, 50 in can/bottle (Sloan’s Lake)
What to eat: We’ll pit the Shroom Luva’s with optional foie gras and the Tap burger with pulled pork and onion rings against any burger anywhere. But the kitchens here are more chef-driven than you might guess from the names, so don’t hesitate to branch out to curries, barbecue and desserts like bread pudding. (Note: The two locations’ menus differ slightly.)
Why it’s hot: How many beer bars have a James Beard award-winner for a chef-partner? In Jennifer Jasinski, this LoDo gastropub does. It also has a lively, loftlike atmosphere in a historic building and a rotating list of domestics and imports (primarily Belgian), helpfully organized according to beer complexity.
Number of beers: 10+ on tap, 50 in can/bottle
What to eat: Signature dishes include the brat burger, pad Thai pig ears and poutine with duck and foie gras. But this being a Jasinski joint, you can hardly go wrong.
1317 14th St.; 303-595-4255
Falling Rock Tap House
Why it's hot: Owned by local legend Chris Black, the granddaddy of Denver beer bars has served as the unofficial headquarters for brewers attending the GABF for 20 years. But it's hopping with special tappings, release parties, reserve sales and so on the rest of the year too. If you're looking for highly allocated cult rarities like Pliny the Younger, look here first.
Number of beers: 75+ on tap, 130+ in can/bottle
What to eat: Expect your basic American bites — wings, chile cheese fries, sandwiches — which get the job done in terms of alcohol absorption.
1919 Blake St.; 303-293-8338
Esters Neighborhood Pub
Why it’s hot: Though its selection is smaller than that at the majority of our listings, this Virginia Village haunt is run by a vet of the beer-distribution industry who knows a thing or two about pouring what people want to drink, from New Belgium’s sour brown ale La Folie to Epic’s salted Mexican lager Los Locos. Turns out he also knows a thing or two about hospitality, given the way the neighborhood has embraced Esters as its number one home away from home.
Number of beers: 22 on tap, plus a handful in can/bottle
What to eat: Pizza’s the prime mover here, a heavy favorite being the Catapult with sausage, caramelized onions and peppadews.
1950 S. Holly St.; 303-955-4904
Dunbar Kitchen & Tap House
Why it's hot: Much like Esters, this feel-good Five Points joint hit it big in a relatively quiet neighborhood by putting everyone at immediate ease. Cozy inside and breezy out on the back patio, it too maintains a tighter selection in which every beer counts, like Diebolt Postcard Porter or Blackberry Farm New World Cuvée.
Number of beers: 12 on tap, 30 in can/bottle
What to eat: Go for the "not wings" (fried fingerlings with wing sauce and blue cheese), the grilled cheese and tomato soup and, when available, bread pudding.
2844 Welton St.; 720-630-7641
Kline's Beer Hall
Why it's hot: Just as its sibling Union Lodge No. 1 has the sepia-toned vibe of a pre-Prohibition cocktail bar, this Arvada beer hall exudes vintage European charm — though its drafts skew local and regional and the live music ranges from bluegrass to funk.
Number of beers: Nearly 60 on tap
What to eat: Sausages are the house specialty, so get a sampler (just make sure one of them is lamb). Thumbs up to latkes as well.
7519 Grandview Ave., Arvada; 303-351-7938
Recess Beer Garden
Why it’s hot: With its abundant foliage, colorful schoolyard theme, picnic tables and games, this multilevel, indoor/outdoor LoHi go-to puts the actual, delightful garden in the oft-abused term “beer garden.”
Number of beers: 24 on tap, 30 in can/bottle
What to eat: Go for a big bad burger like the McKlusky, topped with pepper jack, smoked pork, fried onion strings and a smear of bourbon BBQ sauce.
2715 17th St.; 720-638-0020
Bull & Bush Brewery
Why it's hot: Though we ruled out brewery taprooms, this family-run Glendale institution, a dead ringer for an English local, is actually classified as a brewpub — meaning it can serve guest as well as house beers. And boy, does it ever, with a roster that's especially strong on European imports, including cellared vintages — some quite rare.
Number of beers: 40 on tap, 20+ in bottle
What to eat: Prime rib and an order of the green-chile mashed potato skins
4700 Cherry Creek South Drive, Glendale; 303-759-0333
Stanley Beer Hall
Why it's hot: Aurora's Stanley Marketplace is pretty much an instant landmark, and its stylish, spacious beer hall and garden has become a magnet for area families in need of a kid-friendly place for an adult beverage. But not just any adult beverage: The list here is an impressive and pretty even mix of national darlings like Cigar City and Lord Hobo with local brands like Weldwerks and Horse & Dragon.
Number of beers: 30 on tap, 20+ in can/bottle
What to eat: Signatures include the double cheeseburger, mac 'n' cheese with bacon and green chiles, and apple pie à la mode for two.
2501 Dallas St. #100, Aurora; 720-749-5098