Aurora’s road to craft beer runs through small startups the call this burg home

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    Considering the ease with which beer nerds in Aurora can snag a top-shelf local brew these days, it’s easy to forget how rare that experience once was. Less than a decade ago, if you wanted an Aurora-brewed craft beer, there was just one place to go: Dry Dock.

    But even then, finding the city’s first — and for several years, Aurora’s only — brewery took some effort. Tucked in the far corner of a nondescript shopping center at East Hampden Avenue and South Chambers Road, Dry Dock stayed largely hidden from the public in the months after its 2005 opening. You couldn’t see it from Hampden. Or Chambers. Unless you were acutely tuned in with the local craft beer scene, you probably didn’t know it was there.

    “It kind of became this little speakeasy,” Dry Dock founder Kevin Delange says. “You had to know about it or have somebody tell you we were there. It was a very tight-knit, cool customer base.”

    That loyal group of beer nerds regularly packed into the tiny space, which had a pair of four-top tables and eight stools at the short bar. And while there was seating for 20 people, the crowd regularly swelled past 60. If you wanted a sip of Dry Dock’s vanilla porter or amber ale on a Friday night, it was wise to perfect the art of tipping your pint without lifting your elbow.

    In all, including the brewhouse, coolers and that tasting room, Dry Dock boasted just 800 square feet.

    A short distance east on Hampden was one of the other options for beer drinkers in Aurora: Royal Hilltop — which, while they don’t brew their own, has always boasted a tap list even the snobbiest beer lover would praise. A handful of chain restaurants had a rotating list of solid microbrews, too, but when it came to locally made suds, Dry Dock was the only show in town.

    That is all changing — quickly.

    In 2014 alone, two new brewers opened in Aurora: Mu Brewery on East Colfax Avenue near Dayton Street, and Coda Brewery on Ursula Street just north of the Anschutz Medical Campus. Along with Dad and Dude’s Breweria at Parker and Arapahoe roads, that makes four breweries operating in Aurora.

    And for today’s Aurora beer lover, the four beer makers in Aurora are hardly the only options. Within a stone’s throw of the city’s limits there are plenty of other options, including Two22 Brew in Centennial close to Reservoir Road and East Quincy Avenue, Caution: Brewing in Denver near Interstate 70 and Peoria Street, and Copper Kettle Brewing in Denver near Parker Road and South Valentia Street. All of them just a few years old, and all of them part of the growing beer scene in the eastern confines of the metro area. Dry Dock remains the biggest name in town, but the newcomers mean seemingly every corner of Aurora has a place nearby for beer nerds.

    For the local brewers, the steady growth in the area’s craft scene is no surprise.

    Delange said that when Dry Dock launched, he thought it was strange that Aurora didn’t already have a brewery.

    Even then, Colorado was home to about 60 breweries, including some already big names like New Belgium, Great Divide and Odell’s. But in Aurora? Zero. The city then was home to more than 300,000 people, the third largest city in a state that has always been one of the country’s more active craft brewing locales, but somehow, nobody here was brewing on a commercial level.

    “It was an under-served market, that’s for sure,” he said.

    Quickly after Dry Dock poured its first pints, DeLange said he realized that the absence of a brewery wasn’t because people in Aurora lacked the thirst for craft brew that other Colorado cities boasted. They wanted good beer as much as their neighbors in Denver, they just didn’t have anywhere to get it.

    That demand meant rapid growth for DeLange and the rest of the Dry Dock team.

    After they won a gold medal in the 2006 World Beer Cup for their amber ale, the customers really started to flock to the tasting room. That’s when those elbow-to-elbow crowds on the weekends became the norm, and when local media started paying attention to the tiny Aurora operation.

    A couple years later, when the old Checker Auto Parts location adjacent to the brewery opened up, DeLange and his partner and co-owner, Michelle Reding, made the company’s biggest leap of faith: They expanded into the old auto parts space, and by 2009, they had grown from that 800-square-foot space to more than 3,500 square feet. That four-fold expansion was nerve-wracking, DeLange said, but it quickly proved to be the right move. Three months later, Dry Dock was looking for even more space, a search that turned into their second location, a sprawling brewery and canning facility near I-70 and Tower Road.

    At each turn, Dry Dock has made it a point to proudly boast that they are “Aurora’s microbrewery.” DeLange and his crew never said they were the city’s “only” microbrewery, because they always knew a few more would one day join their ranks. But the fact that they are brewed here in Aurora — with water straight from the tap, a point DeLange proudly notes — has always been prominent in everything the company does.

    “We’ve always been hugely supported by local residents, people that were from Aurora. And they were super proud that we marketed ourself as Aurora’s microbrewery,” Delange said.

    DeLange said he didn’t expect more brewers to open up shop in Aurora right after Dry Dock did, but he always expected that one day, Aurora would have several other brewers cranking out brews, too.

    In 2011, Dad and Dude’s became the city’s second brewery, and this spring Coda and Mu opened up within a few weeks of each other.

    At Coda, head brewer Luke Smith said he isn’t surprised that the number of breweries in Aurora is on the rise. If anything, Smith said he is surprised it took this long for more brewers to make the city home.

    “This is the final frontier, no one has tapped into it,” he said with a laugh during a break from brewing on a recent morning. “Kevin was smart, he has been dominating for years.”

    Pull up a chair at Coda or Dry Dock on any given evening and there’s a good chance the person next to you will be a sort of beer tourist, someone more than happy to make the trek across town to try a new beer, or to bounce from brewery to brewery on a weekend trying the most exotic beers they can.

    Smith said he gets plenty of customers from far away, even some who use Coda as a sort of cell phone waiting area for DIA and grab a beer while waiting for a flight to land. But the bulk of the people at Coda are from nearby. Many stop in for a pint after work or class at the adjacent medical campus — a trend so popular Smith has taken to calling himself the “campus brewer.” Others
    ride their bikes the short distance
    from Stapleton.

    That is a sign that people here in Aurora still have an appetite for locally brewed beer, beer that they know is as fresh as can be, Smith says.

    Smith initially got the idea for Coda in 2008 and considered opening in Golden, where he lives. At the time, Golden had just one craft brewery, and Smith figured the town could easily support another. But he didn’t move quick enough, and within a couple years, the town of about 20,000 people had four craft brewers — that’s one for every 5,000 residents or so.

    When he was approached about opening in Aurora, right next to the booming Anschutz campus, Smith said he couldn’t pass it up.

    “It made perfect sense,” he says.

    But do all these new breweries opening up in Aurora mean they will soon be battling for customers? As you might expect in the uber-friendly world of craft beer, none of the brewers seem to think so.

    Smith said the craft beer business is almost an open-sourced industry. Brewers share their recipes. They share techniques, too. When a Coda customer says they’re finishing their pint and headed over to Mu, he doesn’t tell them they should stay for another round. Instead, he tells them to say hello to Mu’s founder and brewer Nathan Flatland, and sometimes he even sends a growler of something new for Flatland with them.

    Smith said that camaraderie of the local craft brewers is a function of the beer industry. While craft beer has exploded in recent years, it still doesn’t crack 10 percent of the nation’s beer sales. The bulk of beer drinkers still reach for something from one of the big boys, whether it’s Coors or Budweiser or any number of popular imports.

    “Because we are such a small percentage, it doesn’t make sense for us to compete, because we are only taking home such a small percentage of the market share,” he says.

    DeLange, who often lent his advice and expertise to the newbies at Mu, Coda and Two22 before they opened, said that was important for him to do because he got the same help in his early days from Odell’s and Avery and Great Divide. DeLange said the idea behind the fraternity is simple: If more places are cranking out good craft beer, it’s good for everybody.

    “They may turn another person away from industrial beer into a craft beer drinker,” he says. “Then they become all of our customers.”

    At Two22 Brew, owner and head brewer Paige Schuster said the southeast Aurora neighborhoods around her brewery have plenty of people who are looking for good beer. So many, she said, that the southeast corner of the city could sustain more breweries in the future.

    “I do think there is room for more,” she says. “I’m sure there is a breaking point, but I don’t think we are there.”