The COVID-19 pandemic era was undeniably challenging for craft breweries, but another sector of the beer industry suffered even more significantly, and that’s the classic craft beer bar. Almost entirely dependent upon in-person draft sales, some of these beer geek hangouts simply closed their doors for the duration. Others made a go of staying open by selling food and beer to go. But the pandemic took its toll anyway, exacerbating underlying issues that were already challenging the viability of many classic beer bars. And all together, these challenges have just cost us one of the country’s most famous watering holes: Denver’s Falling Rock Tap House. The Colorado icon announced online yesterday that it will permanently close its doors on Sunday, June 27, after 24 years in operation.
Founded in 1997 by brothers Chris, Steve and Al Black, and primarily run by Chris, the Falling Rock was by far the most famous beer bar in Denver, a city known for truly copious numbers of breweries. It was a trend-setting place that was one of the first in the city to put any specific focus on a wide craft beer selection, but it committed to that aesthetic more thoroughly than anyone else, with more than 90 draft lines and the motto “no crap on tap.” With a full kitchen and extensive vintage/bottle list, Falling Rock was a popular locale for business lunches, where patrons could marvel at the more than 2,200 beer bottles in Chris Black’s collection, which covered every wall. The business was known for its support of craft luminaries such as California’s Russian River, and was one of the only locations where drinkers could expect to find beers such as RR’s Pliny the Elder DIPA, in a time when it was arguably the most sought-after beer in the world.
Behind the scenes, however, the beloved beer destination increasingly began to struggle in recent years, as it contended with far more local competition (especially from brewery taprooms), as well as changing demographics/migration of offices, which heavily cut into its lunch business. This had made business a struggle for Falling Rock before the arrival of COVID-19, but it’s safe to say that the pandemic just made things worse. It even canceled the Great American Beer Fest for multiple years, robbing Falling Rock of its role as the unofficial kickoff location for the country’s biggest beer festival. As the Black brothers wrote in their letter to fans:
I know this may come as a shock to those of you out there, but this last year has just been the icing on the cake of the last 5 years. A year-long construction project that caused a 30% drop in sales, changes in the neighborhood that have impacted our business negatively (like crazy late-night crowds and decreased office usage), continued increasing competition from our suppliers, challenges in finding kitchen staff plus rapidly increasing costs all have added up to a financially unsustainable situation. After consultations with our landlords (who have bent over backwards during COVID to help us and have been amazing for the last 24 years to work with) we have all decided that us closing will allow both parties to move on without causing financial harm to either one.
The closure of Falling Rock, an institution with thousands of diehard fans, speaks to the challenges faced by many iconic beer bars today, some of which have arguably been edged out of the market by the breweries themselves. In the greater Denver area, there are literally hundreds of small brewery taprooms, all of which are now functioning as miniature beer bars. Many simply serve their own wares, but others also pour beer from many other local or national breweries, further blurring the lines between the role of a “brewery taproom” and a business like Falling Rock. In recent years, Chris Black publicly objected to this inundation of taprooms serving beer from other breweries, notably penning an open letter to Oskar Blues when that company began pouring beer from all over the country in Denver at its taproom. Black could clearly see the danger of the Falling Rock’s niche being eroded, and that sadly appears to be exactly what happened in the end.
During its final week of operation, Falling Rock will be closed on Monday, June 21 and Tuesday, June 22 to prepare for its final few days of business. It will then open on Wednesday, June 23 and spend the next five days selling through 24 years of signage, decorations, tap handles and vintage cellar beers. Denver beer geeks will no doubt want to swing by the pay their respects to a beer bar that doubtlessly converted thousands of drinkers into craft beer lovers over the years.
What’s particularly scary, though, is that reality that Falling Rock likely won’t be alone, in terms of famous beer bars that may have seen their time come and go. There are many, such as Churchkey in Washington, D.C., that remain closed due to the pandemic and have not managed to reopen even now. Others, such as the Flying Saucer or Hopcat beer bar chains, have also shed locations. The legendary Toronado in San Francisco finally reopened recently, but satellite Toronado locations in San Diego and Seattle both closed in 2020. All face far more difficulties in the marketplace now than they did 10 or 15 years ago, when there were fewer ways for the average consumer to find craft beer on tap.
Ultimately, access to those draft lines has been a two-edge sword. There’s more beer around to be had than ever before, but the price may be saying goodbye to some of the intuitions that helped build up the culture in the first place.