God I hate the suburbs. The vast expanses of strip malls, chain restaurants, and cookie cutter houses stacked one on top of the other. There’s a certain vibe (a word I’ll be using a lot in this post) that screams of sameness and conformity that you usually don’t get in urban and rural neighborhoods. And I speak from experience not like many urban sojourners who’ve always lived in a city and look down on their outlying brethren. I’ve lived in all three, and phases in-between of the places we all reside; urban, suburban, and rural. People gravitate to where they feel comfortable, or more likely, where they can afford. And for me, I just feel more comfortable in an urban environment.
That’s why I usually avoid going out to the burbs for anything, much less to visit a brew pub or brewery. The visits to the two brew pubs in this post, Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora, and Rockyard Brewing in Castle Rock, came about from two different circumstances and expectations, and two different final impressions. Both are award winning breweries, and I’m sure both have rabid patrons ready to expound on why they love their favorite drinking establishment. But for me, it’s all in the vibe.
When I got the idea to write this post, I debated with myself on which one to start off with. Do I do the best one (in my opinion) first? Do I do a side by side comparison listing the merits and negative impressions of each? In the end I decided to go chronologically, mainly because of the circumstances and I hope not too lengthy descriptions of my past experiences in each community. The whole shtick of this blog after all is not just to be a review of breweries, brew pubs, and beer, but to relate the experience.
So, chronologically, the first up is Rockyard, which we visited in late June of 2010 on our way back from the Rails and Ales Brewfest in Alamosa.
I lived the better part of ten years in Elizabeth, Colorado from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties during my junior and senior high school years and the time shortly after graduation. I knew Castle Rock well, watching it grow from a larger rural community with a few outlying subdivisions, to the suburban behemoth it is now. I went to church there, dated girls in the town, partied there, and hung out in the only video arcade that was there then; I spent quite of bit of time there. So when we were driving back to Denver and were getting thirsty, I pulled out the handy Colorado Beer Map that’s always in the car and found Rockyard. “Great,” I thought, “a craft beer in my old stomping grounds.”
Now some of you may be wanting to point out that this article is about “suburban” brew pubs, and that Castle Rock is rural.Those of you who live in the area might be saying “I moved to Castle Rock to live in the country, to be one with nature.” If you think that, then you are deluding yourself, especially about the north area of town that Rockyard is located in.
There was a time, before Castle Pines was a twinkle in the eye of a developer, that the north end of Castle Rock was occupied by the county high school, a warehouse here and there, and a couple of moderately sized subdivisions with large expanses of grassland and scrub oak between. Now it’s populated by the vast wasteland of strip and outlet malls, grocery stores, and one subdivision blending into another. Which is fine if you like that and feel comfortable there, more power to ya. I would make the argument that since the I-25 corridor south is an almost unbroken string of developments, that Castle Rock is just a suburb of Denver.
The brew pub was built in that timber and stone slab style that I like to call “early Colorado brew pub” look. It’s ubiquitous throughout the state, and not just for breweries, it’s used wherever an upscale rustic feeling is desired. It’s mainly seen in newer commercial construction in the mountain communities, but the front range has more than it’s share.
A large bar off to the side dominates as you walk in, but so do the vast number of dining tables and booths,and that was the first of the vibe I got of the place. “Get on with it!” you may be mumbling at this point, “What about the beers?” I’m getting there, but it’s important to understand the atmosphere of each of our topics in this post.
I understand that most brew pubs make more money off of the food than they do from their beers, it’s an economic reality. Some places balance these necessities better than others; Wynkoop, Thirsty Bear, and Oskar Blues are perfect examples of how it can be done right in my opinion. Some don’t even bother with food and just have tasting rooms, as per our other brewery in this post, Dry Dock.In some places the beer is secondary to the food without any detriment; Chop House comes to mind in that respect. No model is better than any other, but it’s all in how it’s pulled off.
At Rockyard, the bar is surrounded by dining tables. We arrived in the late afternoon between lunch and dinner hours on a Sunday, and the place was packed. The tables were that is. The bar was empty, except for some guy who was more interested in his cell phone conversation than in the beer he was drinking.
One of the things I’ve come to recognize about the vibe in brew pubs is that if the bar is full and the tables are empty or sporadically occupied, the experience is probably going to be one to remember. If the reverse is prevalent, most of the patrons and staff could care less about where the beer comes from, much less how good it is. The latter is the vibe I got here.
Don’t get me wrong, if I’m out with a group of four or more, the bar is the last place I’d want to sit; it’s just not conducive to conversation in a group that size. There were plenty of two-tops and even singles in this place while the bar sat empty.
After ordering our beers, I tried to start a conversation with our bartender about their beers, naming a few popular craft brews in comparison to try and gauge what the house beers were like. All I got was a blank stare and a “I don’t know about those.” Instead, she rattled off a rehearsed spiel about how their beers had won awards and how this one had this character and this one had that. Oh well.
What we drank, the Hopyard IPA and Redhawk Ale were very good, and the taster of the stout was equally tasty, but with the environment, the vibe, we didn’t feel compelled to go beyond a second beer. We just rested up from the long drive from Alamosa, quenched our thirst, and got ready for the final leg back to Denver. About the only reason we stayed as long as we did was that my wife was looking for a new kitten to adopt and was engrossed in surfing the listings on her smart phone.
I came into the Dry Dock visit with considerably less expectations than Rockyard. First off, it was an afterthought. My mother had bought me a new bottle capper for Christmas from the Brew Hut, which is next door to and owned by the same as the brewery owner. Unfortunately the model of capper wasn’t what I required and I needed to exchange it. Secondly, I hadn’t realized that the two establishments were related, Dry Dock was just another listing on my Beer Map that I would visit someday when I felt the urge to trek to the burbs.
After consulting the map and seeing that the brewery was in the neighborhood, we planned to exchange the capper, get some ingredients for a couple batches of beer and have a couple of pints. But just our luck, the store was closed for expansion and we had over an hour’s wait until the pub opened. We put it down as a nice long drive (to us) and would return another day. Plus it was my birthday and I was thirsty, so we headed back into town for beers and Czech food at Sobo.
We returned the following weekend for what turned out to be a pleasant afternoon even though it was a chilly January day. The Brew Hut exceeded my wildest dreams. The selection, layout, and helpful service are beyond compare. A good many times I’ve had to alter my recipes on the fly based upon what was in stock or what that particular store carried; Brew Hut had everything I wanted and more, not one substitution was needed.
After some marathon shopping we went into the pub which is directly connected to the store. We barely squeezed into the last two open stools at the bar, even though there were a number of tables free. The vibe began to hum. The decor, with a name like Dry Dock, was nautical in theme without trying too hard to make the point. Rustic silver-weathered wood backs the bar and is prevalent throughout, but still sparsely done.
We started off with the Seven Seas Double IPA that was smooth and not quite as tangy as most ultra-hopped IPAs, and the Urca Vanilla Porter that the wife immediately fell in love with. Many times when visiting a new brewery, I’ll order a pint and then ask for a taster or two to decide whether or not to order the full-range of tasters that are the standard at most breweries. What I sampled impressed me enough to request the taster tour. Dry Dock has such an extensive number of brews on tap that they give you a form to indicate which six you would like to sample.
All of the beers we sampled were well above average, but the three that impressed me most were the Enterprise IPA that was hoppier than the average, but not too aromatic; a well balanced ESB that was slightly hoppy and very malty; and the Cascadian dark ale that was hoppy and slightly akin to a Scottish ale.
While we tasted, conversations were struck up with many of the patrons who were enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The same goes for the barkeeps who all have second jobs, but love being part of the brew pub on their time off. They performed admirably, keeping up with the bar orders as well as filling the many growlers brought in by people getting their weekly top off. Like devout followers lining up to pay homage to a favored deity, there was a continuous stream of empty growlers waiting to be filled.
The afternoon was idly spent sipping beer, eating the plentiful popcorn which is the only available food on-site, and talking beer culture with each and every person to belly up to both sides of the bar.
It’s hard not to have preconceptions about anything, and I consciously try not to, but these two breweries definitely reinforced the old adage; don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
editor’s note 3.16.11: After posting this I realized that the original name, a tale of two (suburban) brew pubs, was misleading since one of the locations is in fact a tasting room.