Falling Rock / Photo by John Holl
On the first day of the last week of its existence, Falling Rock Taphouse opened promptly at 5:00 p.m. Late in the afternoon of June 23, patrons lined the sidewalk outside the downtown Denver beer bar to get in. As they walked up the long ramp to the entrance, Paul Vismara, the former longtime bartender and artist who produced the murals that hung in the courtyard, stood at the front greeting customers.
It felt like a funeral.
Since the bar opened in 1997, Chris Black, Falling Rock’s co-owner and public face, was a frenzied force in the large yet cozy space, ping ponging from behind the bar, where he checked taps and pulled pints, to monitor the kegs in the cold room directly behind it, through the kitchen, or to the cellar in the basement, all while holding snippets of conversation with everyone who wanted his attention. This night was no different, except that several patrons also wanted to express their sadness that this lager- and ale-soaked institution would soon be gone.
The average restaurant in the United States has a five-year lifespan, according to a study held several years ago. Falling Rock made it to nearly 25 years thanks in part to its commitment to craft beer, long before it was popular, and because of relationships it built with customers and breweries.
Falling Rock’s bottom line had been declining for a few years, Black says. Covid made things worse, as did near continuous construction on and around the bar’s Blake Street location over the last two years.
“It would have been nice to make it to 25,” Black said in a telephone interview after the bar closed. “Making it this far was good, but it wasn’t easy.”
It would be easy to chalk up Falling Rock’s closure to just another great bar becoming a memory, but its end came when beer drinkers need craft beer bars the most. With a focus on microbrews and imported beer, Falling Rock was the kind of eccentric place where beer nerds could feel comfortable, adventurous drinkers could find satisfaction and brewers could find a hospitality ally.
Black made Falling Rock an international beer destination, a place where rare kegs were tapped without fanfare, where it was not uncommon to see famous brewers in a booth having pints, where the service was thoughtful if a little gruff.
As 2021 comes to a close, other bars cut from the same bar towel also called it quits. Among them are The Blue Tusk in Syracuse, New York, and The Tap & Mallet and Unter Biergarten in Rochester, New York.
“When the pandemic hit it came at a tough time as the pub was already feeling the effects of changes in the craft beer industry that we all continue to enjoy,” the Tap & Mallet posted on social media in early December. “We all soldiered on but have reached the tough decision that it’s time to call last orders.” The bar is scheduled to close at the end of the year.
That’s not to say that beer isn’t still being sold across bartops. It is. Many major cities have beer bars like Falling Rock or Tap & Mallet. There’s also The Avenue Pub in New Orleans, Hopleaf in Chicago, The Blind Tiger in New York City and Toranado in San Francisco. Plus, there are around 9,000 breweries in the country right now, most with a taproom selling direct to consumers.
But the list of bars and taverns that serve to educate and excite beer pilgrims with an array of offerings from different flavors, styles and breweries seems to get shorter every year.
Some of this is due to the success of craft beer itself. The growth of the category has led to more than just American light lagers sold at chain restaurants like Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings, or in convenience and grocery stores. With craft beer available in even the most mainstream places, drinkers no longer need to seek out specialized taverns.
Falling Rock was special because each year the beer fans and industry would descend on Denver for the Great American Beer Festival, the largest gathering of beer enthusiasts in the country. Even as more bars and breweries opened, a good percentage of the 70,000 festival attendees would make the trek to Falling Rock at least once.
There were some who hoped the bar would become a permanent institution, like famed bier cafes of Belgium or beer halls of Germany, but Falling Rock was ultimately brought down by the very industry it helped foster.
Denver is the fastest growing city in Colorado. As the area grew, more breweries opened, taking away beer-centric customers who wanted to drink from the source. Larger in-state breweries like Odell, Oskar Blues, Left Hand and more opened their own taprooms near Falling Rock, which siphoned off some customers.
In 2019, city construction blocked off road access to Falling Rock’s block and was followed soon thereafter by the outbreak of the pandemic. Black and his brothers, Al and Steve, did all they could to keep things going, including putting its famed bottle list online for sales in December 2020. That netted a needed infusion of cash that kept the lights on for a few more months.
Falling Rock was ultimately brought down by the very industry it helped foster.
Tom Peters, the owner of Monk’s Café in Philadelphia, a similarly beloved craft beer bar, is gearing up for its 25th Anniversary celebration in 2022. He too has faced increased competition but has also managed to keep regulars coming in for a meal and an expansive beer list. Its longevity has been a selling point.
“A lot of people celebrate their 21st birthday here,” he says. “That means a steady influx of new blood that will become regulars.”
He isn’t trying to compete with the multitude of bars and taverns that sell macro beer or are simply a spot to gather with coworkers after a shift or to watch a game. He’s focused on the beer-dedicated, the beer tourists and those who want a drinking destination.
“Beer tourism, huge thing for us,” says Peters. “The beer bars stay true to the original vision are still destinations for people from around the world. We get people from all over. We get people from Belgium that come here to drink beers that they can’t find a Belgium!”
As brewery taprooms become the newest beer-drinking destination for customers, what’s lost is variety. Yes, breweries can offer different beers on tap, but they are almost always all made in house, and can only tell the story of its four walls. Beer bars like Falling Rock and Tap & Mallet could curate beer lists to provide broad choices of flavors, styles and breweries.
“I don’t know if there is still a market for what I’m trying to do,” says Polly Watts, the owner of New Orleans’ Avenue Pub. Previously owned by her father, Avenue Pub stayed open 24 hours a day pre-pandemic. In 2009, Watts shifted the bar to rely heavily on specialty craft beer as well as imported beer of note.
Since the pandemic began, she scaled back the hours and days that the pub is open, and put a heavier focus on the kitchen offerings. Keeping full-time staff employed has remained a challenge and she said that a focus on lunch service is helping keep the lights on. She also offers a full bar alongside Avenue Pub’s well-curated beer list.
“You’re not going to find 12 IPAs on tap here, because you can go to any brewery or other bar and find that,” she says. “We’re offering truly special beers and a staff that knows how to store and pour them correctly.”