They say you never forget your first, and with craft beer that’s very true; that first heavenly taste you had on tap, in a can, or in a bottle will get you hooked for life. My first taste of what became known as craft beer was probably something from Sierra Nevada, Boulder Beer, or one of the many others from what are now considered the pioneers sometime in the early Eighties. But it wasn’t until I visited Wynkoop Brewing in 1988 that I first tasted it on tap, and that first time was a revelation that led me on my path to seeking out fresh beer wherever I traveled. Wynkoop is the whole reason that there is a Brew Trek, and it is near and dear to both my family and I.
LoDo (Lower Downtown) in the late Eighties was a landscape of empty buildings and never ending viaducts, transients and punks, and pockets of businesses shining in the gloom that those viaducts cast. The area was a regular hangout for me and my extended crowd of artists and musicians, dancing till closing time at Rock Island or 23rd Parish and then wandering to one of several late night coffee houses and hanging out till the sun came up. Daytime, usually late afternoon, found us exploring the railyards seeking out hidden graffiti murals in vacant buildings. It was a complete contrast to the vibrant bar-centric neighborhood it is now. Most nights back then I’d walk from a club on one end to a coffee shop on the other, rarely seeing another soul along the way.
It was in this landscape that a friend’s fiance got a job as one of the first hostesses at the Koop in late 1988. For weeks after her first day, Sarah would pester my brother and I to come in, knowing how we liked stronger beers from our younger days when we had lived in Germany and France.
From the minute we walked in the door, it felt as if this was a place we were always meant to be in, the structural embodiment of a comfy sweater. Vast expanses of wood and a vintage tin ceiling enveloped the renovated 19th century space, suggesting an establishment of greater age, welcoming us in to its beery goodness. The first sips we savored taunted us, making us feel our previous twenty-some years walking this earth were nothing until that moment.
The mainstay back then, Railyard Ale, was a full-bodied alternative to the light macro lagers of the time, and while it may be tame compared to most of today’s craft beer, it is still a good session beer. Those early years brought new wonders to my palate; ESBs, Milds, and what became my favorite style of beer, IPAs. My memory escapes me as to what the IPA on tap at that time was called, but I strongly suspect it was London Calling, which can be had regularly these days, as opposed to it being on rotation when they first brewed the style.
We soon found out an ulterior motive to why Sarah had practically dragged us in, all of the Koop’s employees were doing the same to drum up business. Everyone involved knew that once one came in and tasted the liquid treasures, they’d be hooked like a junkie seeking out his next fix. But it was a fairly empty place during the work week outside of the lunch hour. And while you couldn’t hear the crickets chirping, it was sparse enough that we would often times sit and talk to head brewer Russell Schehrer, or even John Hickenlooper as they came out to gauge the bar traffic, having long chats with us about the sublime German beers we’d all had.
Over the next few years, it became a place to celebrate Mother’s and Father’s Days, going away parties, birthdays, and promotions. The food was good, the staff always on the ball, and the beer always fresh and good. I think back fondly on an early entree favorite of ours, the pinon-nutted lamb burger, an item they should definitely bring back.
We rejoiced when they announced plans to expand upstairs with an additional bar and tournament-sized pool tables. We spent nearly as much time up there playing pool as we had previously wiled away in the bar and restaurant downstairs. It came as no surprise when we learned that Wynkoop was the largest brewpub in square footage during that time, at least for a few years. And when I finally got jobs that allowed me to work Downtown, it became, as it still does to this day, a pleasant alternative for lunch and a pint, allowing me to pick up punches on my free lunch card.
As with its sister brewery, Phantom Canyon in Colorado Springs, it was felt by many that the Koop rested too much on its laurels for many years. The beer was still good, but not keeping up with tastes for stronger, fuller beers; and to be honest, the food started sucking. But being the world class brewpub they are, things have changed for the better during the past decade. Both the food menu and beer lineup were overhauled expertly without dropping perennial favorites, proving that Wynkoop deserved to be a craft beer drinker’s destination, not only locally, but nationally.
I still frequent the Koop on a regular basis, although for the time being you’re more likely to watch the new transit terminal going up than the trains coming and going across the street. The amount of foot traffic is astronomically higher than the early days as well. Businesses that couldn’t have been conceived of in the neighborhood 24 years ago are flourishing due to the vigor infused from the ballpark. And the debate on how to pronounce both the street and brewery continues.
When they first opened, both my brother and I debated with our friends on whether it was ‘Wine-coop’ or ‘Win-coop.’ Hickenlooper, as well as my grandfather, pronounced it ‘Win-coop,’ and since my father’s family has been here nearly 150 years, I say father, as well as the Governor knows best.