Opened on September 30, 1996, Upstream Brewing Co. celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Ask owner and founder Brian Magee to explain how Upstream has thrived for so many years, and he talks mostly about the people involved: the friends who nudged him toward his goal of opening a brewpub, the now-governor friend who partnered with him to get Upstream going, the friend who heard of a great building going up for sale in the Old Market at a party, and all the employees who have spent time working at Upstream.
“I think the real success of our store is because of the people who work here,” says Magee. “It becomes a community. You don’t really find any place this big where it’s like that.”
Long-time employee Heather Slagle agrees. “A lot of these people are my best friends. We just all have a good sense of humor and a good vibe.” Slagle says working at Upstream is not for everyone because of the sheer volume of guests that they encounter daily. “It’s sink or swim,” she says, laughing. “You just gotta jump in.”
In addition to the right people, a series of fortunate events led to Upstream’s success. A trip to Colorado in the late 1980s led Magee to visit Wynkoop Brewing Co. and swayed him from his original intention of going into fine dining. He partnered with John Hickenlooper to open Upstream; Hickenlooper eventually became the governor of Colorado. “He was very influential for me. He’s a colorful character,” says Magee.
Magee explained how a stroke of luck led to finding the perfect location downtown: “The building was formerly the Firehouse Dinner Theater. Spaghetti Works bought it in a tax sale from the city. A friend of my wife overheard someone at a party say, ‘We gotta get rid of that Firehouse Dinner Theater,’ so she called me right way. It took a year to get the deal done, but we got it.” It was not the first building he considered, but it turned out to be the best fit. “It was the fourth building we looked at,” says Magee. “When we came in and saw it, we said, ‘what a great place!’”
Magee says the good fortune kept coming after they opened. “It’s fortuitous that Embassy Suites opened so close and then the city built a parking garage. We’ve kind of become a tourist attraction in the Old Market. We have almost a thousand reviews on TripAdvisor. It’s a big number.” Upstream has since exceeded 1,000 reviews.
As for the building itself, it has quite an interesting history. “It’s a hundred-plus-year-old building; it was a firehouse, it was a garage, it was a dinner theater,” says Magee. At least two fires have made their way through the building, and Magee supposes that one of those fires is where Upstream’s ghost came from.
Yes, ghost. Though there are few accounts of people actually seeing this ghost, the general consensus is that it is a young boy carrying a red ball. Ask Magee if there is really a ghost at Upstream and he will look you in the eye and respond emphatically, “There is definitely a ghost in this building.” He might even walk you to the back freezer in the downstairs and show you where a beer keg mysteriously moved in front of the door while an employee was inside the freezer. Or he’ll pull up a photo on his phone taken by some customers that appears to show a bright orb floating tableside upstairs.
Magee says that there will definitely be some celebrating for their anniversary. “We have a number of things that we’re going to be doing,” he says, not revealing details. When asked what the future holds for Upstream, Magee responds, “I don’t think we’re going to be changing a lot, but we’re always evolving.”
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