Step into Denver’s Union Station on a Saturday morning and you’re sure to find it buzzing with people sipping coffee, reading the paper, waiting in line for breakfast and just generally hanging out. This beautiful, turn-of-the-century building has become such a popular local haunt, it’s hard to believe only a few years ago it was a rundown train station most Denverites went out of their way to avoid.
The decline of Union Station and the rest of Denver’s downtown began in the early 1980s, when the city fell into a recession. As time passed, a whole host of beautiful brick and stone buildings in the area, many dating back to the gold-rush era of the late 1800s, were abandoned and left to deteriorate.
But, over the past decade, the city’s economy has steadily grown and Denver has invested in revitalizing its historic downtown core and surrounding neighbourhoods, reimagining buildings like Union Station and bringing a new kind of energy to the forefront.
Home to 700,000 people (three million in the metro area) and nicknamed the Mile High City (it’s exactly one mile, or 5,280 feet, above sea level), Denver has long been known for its cowboys, beef and nearby ritzy ski towns. But the city is shaking off its outdated cowboy-culture image and reinventing itself as a hip and progressive city. Leading the charge is a trailblazing craft beer scene, a host of diverse culinary offerings and neighbourhoods bursting with vibrant arts initiatives.
An estimated 1,000 people move to the city each week, lured by its outdoorsy lifestyle, comparatively affordable housing and a welcoming attitude that embraces homegrown entrepreneurs. And lately, an influx of international visitors have been flocking here, too, to find out what’s behind the new Denver.
While Colorado has been brewing beer for more than 100 years (the Coors Brewery opened in neighbouring Golden in 1873), Denver’s modern-day beer scene came about in the late 1980s when an out-of-work geologist named John Hickenlooper (now Colorado’s governor) opened the city’s first craft brewery, Wynkoop Brewing, in an abandoned warehouse downtown—a radical idea, given that, at that time, downtown Denver was a nearly deserted area that locals avoided.
Wynkoop proved to be a hit, drawing thirsty Denverites back into the core and inspiring other breweries and businesses—including Coors Field, home of Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies—to take up residence in the surrounding rundown buildings. Thanks in large part to Hickenlooper and his brewery, downtown slowly turned into an appealing place to live and own a business.
Today, Denver has about 70 craft breweries throughout the city (Colorado itself has nearly 350), and it hosts one of the world’s biggest beer events every fall: the Great American Beer Festival, with more than 2,200 local, national and international breweries showcasing nearly 8,000 beers. Beer is such big business in Colorado that it has a major impact on the state’s economy, with craft breweries bringing in US$3 billion annually.
“One thing that makes Denver’s beer scene unique is that the brewers are diverse,” says Steve Kurowski, former operations director at Colorado Brewers Guild.
Indeed, the city’s tight-knit community of craft brewers is committed to taking risks and introducing innovative brewing techniques and unconventional beer styles to the city. Black Shirt Brewing Co., for instance, focuses on red ales, Prost Brewing is known for authentic, German-style beers and Crooked Stave specializes in barrel-aged sour and wild beers.
Chad Yakobson, owner and brewmaster at Crooked Stave, says that while these beers aren’t necessarily your typical offerings, consumers in Denver have developed educated palates, which is helping to make these local beers more mainstream. “The beer we are brewing is mostly for the beer geek—the educated consumer—and that base exists in Denver,” says Yakobson.
The sense of innovation that dominates Denver’s craft-brewing community is also evident in the city’s vibrant arts scene. Located on the northern tip of downtown in the Golden Triangle Creative District (so named for its high concentration of galleries and museums), the world-class Denver Art Museum hosts an impressive array of travelling exhibitions and a massive American Indian art collection, while the eponymous Clyfford Still Museum is an entire building dedicated to showcasing the celebrated American painter’s abstract-expressionist work.
Of course, the city’s art scene stretches well beyond the more formal institutions found within the Golden Triangle. In recent years, artists throughout Denver have been using the city itself as their canvas; a stroll through any of Denver’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods—including Baker, River North (known locally as RiNo) and South Broadway—reveals a dizzying array of colourful murals, commissioned by local businesses to transform industrial-looking buildings into beautiful works of art.
The municipal government is also committed to supporting local art initiatives—the Denver Public Art Program was created in 1988 as a way to bring art into public spaces; municipal funding from City Council is set aside specifically for public art each year. And in 2009, the Urban Art Fund was established to facilitate the creation of new murals by local youth in heavily vandalized areas of the city. In addition, there are currently seven certified arts districts in Denver, each with their own unique offerings of galleries, museums, murals, festivals and initiatives.
“There is a real identity here in owning your craft and having a community to support it,” says Amy Phare, former president of the local non-profit organization Art District on Santa Fe. This district is home to more than 100 galleries, artist studios and museums, including the Museo de las Americas, a Latin-American art museum. This area also attracts thousands of people during the monthly First Friday Art Walk, when dozens of businesses open their doors for this creative event. “There’s art everywhere: upstairs, downstairs, in the alleyways—people are opening galleries in their garages now—the neighbourhood just really comes alive,” says Phare.
To say that Denver’s food scene is exploding would be an understatement—245 restaurants opened in 2017 alone. And the city is basking in international attention as the 15th season of Top Chef (which premiered in December 2017) showcases various locales around Denver.
“When I was growing up here, Denver had this moniker of being a cowtown or a meat-and-potato town,” says Adam Schlegel, co-founder of popular breakfast eatery Snooze and the former president and current treasurer of EatDenver, a non-profit that supports local restaurants. “So to see what has happened over the past 10 years is phenomenal.”
While the city still offers plenty of Rocky Mountain cuisine—there’s no shortage of local meats like lamb, bison and elk on menus—Denver has diversified well beyond the steakhouse with hip fast-casual offerings, upscale fine dining and authentic ethnic cuisines. Chuey Fu’s, a quirky spot in the Art District on Santa Fe, melds Latin and Asian cuisines to create dishes like the Fuh (Pho) Burrito, packed with bean sprouts, Thai basil, rice noodles and pho broth (order it alongside the guacamole for a real explosion of delicious international flavours).
Schlegel says the city’s culinary community is also putting a larger emphasis on sustainable ingredients. “[Chefs here] spend a lot of time getting to know our vendors,” he says. For instance, Snooze works with local producers who are making everything from pickles to tortillas, and with responsible international producers for items like coffee, which is sourced from a Guatemalan farm that Schlegel visited himself.
As a result of this collective focus on local and sustainable ingredients, seasonal menus are the norm at many of the city’s best restaurants, which include Acorn, Linger and Potager. Root Down, one of six local spots owned by chef/restauranteur Justin Cucci, grows about 20 per cent of its seasonal vegetables from a 4,000-square-foot, on-site garden and sources many of its ingredients from Colorado-based ranchers and farmers to create vegetable-focused dishes.
“Colorado gets knocked for being cold,” says Schlegel. “But there’s a new greenhouse or farm popping up all the time because we have land, sunlight and this entrepreneurial spirit. We want to figure out how we can make great things in our backyard.”