By Rich Grant
People have been buying alcoholic drinks in England for more than a thousand years at a variety of taverns, ale houses, coaching inns and grog shops, but what we think of today as a typical English pub didn’t happen until 1830.
In the 1700s, to counter distilled spirits imported from Ireland and Scotland, England encouraged distilling corn into gin with the result that Shakespeare’s “green and pleasant land” endured almost a century of drunkenness. In 1740, there were 9,000 gin shops in London alone.
In 1830, to encourage more sensible drinking of beer instead of gin, the Duke of Wellington proposed that all taxes on beer be removed and for the price of two guineas anyone could brew and sell beer. Predictably, this had the opposite effect than intended and in one year, 30,000 beer shops opened.
Because many of these first public houses were actually in the brewer’s home, the early “pubs” resembled living rooms, only they were much nicer than the places people lived with better lighting, more comfortable chairs, games like darts and, of course, beer, conversations, neighbors, music, gossip and laughter. At a time when there was nothing much to do in the evening, the local pub became a great source of joy.
So it’s not surprising that when Denver was founded in 1858 in a gold rush that attracted huge numbers of lonely English and Irish immigrants, the first thing they did was open a pub. It was on Christmas Day 1858, that legendary mountain man Uncle Dick Wootton rolled into town with a wagon of trade goods and barrels of “Taos Lightning,” a concoction of distilled whiskey mixed with raw alcohol, burnt sugar and sometimes a plug of chewing tabaco for flavor. Wootton’s “Western Saloon” was the first building in Denver with a wood floor. William Byers located his Rocky Mountain News above the saloon, until the relentless gunfire and brawling down below sent him to safer quarters.
Because while Denver’s saloons were similar to English pubs in that they offered townspeople a nicer place to hang out where they could find companionship and whiskey, on the lawless frontier these saloons also offered gambling, prostitution, and as the town grew, a crazy collection of outlaws, gunmen, swindlers, dance hall girls, grifters and adventurers.
More than 100,000 men and women passed through Denver in search of gold from 1858 to 1860. Saloons became the government, social and entertainment centers.
The first capitol of Colorado Territory was a saloon, and still is – the Old Capitol Grille in Golden. The Apollo Saloon in Denver built a hall on the second floor where Denver’s first theatrical performances took place – a collection of well-known dramas, slapstick comedies and musicals put on by Col. C.R. Thorne’s Star Company. Encouraged by the success of this performance (tickets sold for the outrageously high price of $2.50) the saloon across the street, Cibola Hall, also built a theatre above the saloon and held auditions for actors. It turned out, almost everyone in Denver was an amateur actor or singer and they all auditioned.
Most Denver saloons were a far cry from the opulent dance halls depicted in Western movies. In the early days, some had canvas roofs, and most had just one long bar along the side of a wall and a scattering of chairs and tables where gambling would go on 24 hours a day. As Denver gentrified, the old idea of a pub as a “living room” came back into style.
Today, the oldest liquor license in Denver is held by the 1893 Buckhorn Exchange. The top floor bar of the Buckhorn has a Victorian seating area that would feel right at home to any pub patron in London, except of course, for the 500 animal heads, Winchester rifles and feathered headdresses on the walls.
Today, Denver and Colorado still offer more than 300 “local pubs,” only now they are called craft breweries. Like English and Irish pubs of old, the breweries close early, usually about 10pm. Though some have food, you seldom go there for the food. They have patios set aside so you can bring your dog, they are family friendly and cater mostly to neighbors and friends who come to play games and converse. And like the pubs of old, they have real beer on tap, not mass-produced lagers.
If Charles Dickens, a regular London pub-goer, was still alive, he’d feel right at home in a Denver craft brewery.