By most standards, the nearly universal success of tap rooms at our local craft breweries is an illogical anomaly that just doesn’t make sense. Because when you think about it, serving only beer (with maybe some free peanuts or pretzels thrown in to make sure patrons stay thirsty) in the sparse setting of a warehouse with no television (well, okay, Twisted Pine and Boulder Beer have one), no food, no mixed drinks and a last call way before a third-grader’s bedtime just doesn’t sound like a formula for success.
But without exception, tap rooms large and small around north Metro Denver enjoy robust business from a loyal and growing group of fans that seem oblivious to what they’re missing.
“The whole thing has become a fun type of atmosphere,” said Bob Baile, president and brew master of Twisted Pine Brewing Company. “It’s about the camaraderie.”
And games; no self-respecting tap room would be complete without Scrabble, dominoes, cribbage and Trivial Pursuit.
The fun of the destination must be the lure, because as locations go, tap rooms are married to the brewery and the brewery—unlike smaller operations that support brew pubs like the Draft House, Walnut, Mountain Sun and BJ’s breweries—is relegated to office and industrial parks.
This is where tap rooms collectively thumb their noses at conventional wisdom. To pack a warehouse like Oskar Blues’ Tasty Weasel on a Firkin Friday afternoon or the Lefthand Taproom all day Saturday you’d think you’d need a spot on Main Street, the Pearl Street Mall or some other high traffic locale. And you’d be wrong.
“We don’t have specials or a happy hour,” said Chris Asher, co-founder and brewer at Asher Brewing Company, located on Nautilus Court in Gunbarrel. “People come here for the beer.”
For Asher, that means getting his certified organic beer—one of only a handful in the country—served fresh from the tap; he doesn’t sell it in bottles or cans and it’s only on tap at 18 restaurants and bars in Boulder, Longmont and Denver. But as Twisted Pine’s Baile points out, there’s a lot for a beer lover to love at a tap room.
“We serve beers you can only get here,” Baile said, noting that a fiery hot beer made with wasabi, horseradish and other incendiary vegetable matter recently flew out of his taps. “We are truly a batch craft brewer and people come here to see what kind of crazy beer we’ve come up with.”
The regulars are all about what’s new and different on tap. Lefthand has cask-conditioned offerings at its tap room and on Friday afternoons the Tasty Weasel pops a funky firkin of something special, as does Avery Tap Room. But for those who just like good beer or who are educating their palate, tap rooms are where you can immerse yourself in one brewery’s goods.
“On Saturday, I’m pouring samplers all day long,” says Chris Asher. “People are into doing beer tours and will hit three or four tap rooms in an afternoon.”
The business is so robust that it’s showing up in bottom lines and square feet. Baile says he’s seen double-digit growth at Twisted Pine over the past 10 years and is up 50 percent from 2009 to 2010. He will max out his 5,000-barrel capacity soon and is “looking at ceiling height now.”
It’s the same story at Asher. They’ve signed a lease that will let them double their tap room to 4,000 square feet, also effectively doubling his outdoor patio space.
That’s another aspect of the tap room phenomenon: food. Most tap rooms don’t serve more than free peanuts and/or pretzels. But some are slowly putting a toe in the water. Avery offers Nick and Willie’s pizza and Boulder’s Upslope Brewing has teamed up with Dubbin’s Sandwiches in Boulder for offerings that can be toasted in the brewery’s panini machine. And then there are regulars who turn their local tap rooms into an extension of their home. Asher said one of his regulars dropped off a grill and popcorn machine and fires them up on weekends. It’s not unusual for Abo’s Pizza to be yelling someone’s name at the Lefthand Tap Room or for someone to show up at the Tasty Weasel with a bag of burgers from Five Guys.
Food or no food, the scene is all about beer and people.
“They have a wonderful atmosphere and great people,” said Larry Smith, a Boulder County aficionado of tap rooms. “That’s why people go there; it’s a great bunch of people that hang out in tap rooms.”