As with many other shifts in American culture—e.g., fashion trends, culinary crazes, musical tastes—when it came to hipsterism, Denver arrived a little late to the party. Although the word “hipster” was coined during the 1940s to refer to jazz aficionados, the modern iteration of the term gained popularity in the early 2000s, mostly to pigeonhole the swell of hostile-to-mainstream-America-and-its-frenzied-consumerism twenty- and thirty-somethings living in places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s a common refrain, however, that the moment someone uttered the word hipster, authentic hipsterism died.
Not in Denver. While being a hipster in New York City or Portland or Seattle or San Francisco in 2017 might be borderline passé, the Mile High City has only become surly-chic enough to support a hipster community in the past five or so years. It took, among other things, an entrepreneurial flare-up, real estate expansion into once-dilapidated areas, the legalization of recreational marijuana, and an influx of millennials in the post-recession years to create the ideal environment for hipsterism to take hold. And take hold it has. A 2016 report from business-data giant Infogroup dubbed the Denver metro area the third most hipster city (of those with more than a million residents) in America, behind strongholds Seattle and Portland. The study zeroed in on the concentration of “hipster-related” businesses per 10,000 residents: places like liquor stores and microbreweries, record stores, thrift shops, tattoo parlors, music and live entertainment venues, bike shops, and independent coffeehouses. With those criteria, it’s little surprise Denver nabbed the bronze. What might be a surprise, however, is just how pervasive the hipsterfication of our newly with-it city really is.
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Table of Contents
The Definition of Hipster
noun | hip • ster
A loosely knit, difficult-to-define, ambiguously nerdy, somewhat acerbic coterie of young adults—usually in their 20s and 30s—who appreciate intelligence, cultural sensitivity, free thought, left-leaning politics, safe spaces, artistic creativity, and entrepreneurial aptitude and who have the ultimate disdain for overt consumerism, socially constructed notions of beauty and fashion, and anything remotely mainstream (except for Apple products).
The Gospel According to the Discontented Minority
It’s difficult to craft Ten Commandment–style directives for a group whose primary reason for existence is to buck the rules—but this decalogue seems flexible enough.
- Thou shalt not covet clothing—except sneakers—that was manufactured after 1979.
- Thou shalt live or hang out in gentrifying and/or moderately seedy urban neighborhoods.
- Thou shalt subscribe to some alternative diet, be it gluten-free, vegan, low-carbon, or macrobiotic.
- Thou shalt roll your eyes at the notion that driving a car is an acceptable way to get around.
- Thou shalt wear earbuds at all times and own an iPhone, an iPad, and a MacBook Pro.
- Thou shalt work as an artist, a software developer, a barista, a sous chef, a writer, a graphic designer, a craft beer brewer, a mixologist, or a hair stylist. Possibly all at once.
- Thou shalt be self-righteous about: politics, religion, bikes, the environment, corporate America, consumerism, the media, indie music, fine art, full-contact sports, and beard oil.
- Thou shalt relish all things local, independent, and artisanal—and be eminently capable of dying your own yarn and knitting your own sweaters.
- Thou shalt revere revolutionary groups and icons—Che Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi—of the past.
- Thou shalt not (ever) cop to being a hipster, because labels are lame.
Where To Buy “Cool”
The terminally hip eschew brand names and labels—for people as well as T-shirts. Still, they can’t buy everything at the thrift shop, right?
Buy Messenger bags
At Chrome Industries
Because This Boulder-born company makes nearly indestructible gear specifically for bike messengers, fixed-gear freestyle riders, and urban commuters.
Buy Flannel shirts, canvas pants, geeky-cool backpacks
At Topo Designs
Because Topo’s dialed-back palette reflects the colors of Colorado’s natural landscape, the apparel is made in the United States, and the company’s marketing materials read like a page out of the hipster manual. Exhibit A: “The idea around simplicity and the sense of connectedness with the things we own is a huge part of Topo Designs.”
Buy Hand-sewn clothing, upcycled home decor
Because This quirky Broadway boutique walks the walk when it comes to creative reuse.
Buy Graphic T-shirts, distressed military jackets, reworked vintage dresses, Euro sunglasses
At Fancy Tiger Clothing
Because “Graphic,” “Distressed,” and “Vintage” are all chapter headings in the Hipster Style Bible. Plus, the store is in the Baker neighborhood; ’nuff said.
Buy Vintage furniture, funky clothes, locally made jewelry
Because Even if the cute top you find in the back isn’t secondhand, the price—and the grandma’s attic setting—will make it seem like it is.
The Aesthetic Of Going Against The Grain
Illustration by Marcus Chin
Mile-High Hipster Must-Haves
Our counterculture diverges from other iterations around the country thusly.
The unofficial beer of hipsters elsewhere: Pabst Blue Ribbon
The unofficial beer of Denver hipsters: Anything in a growler that’s higher than six percent ABV
The recreational drug of choice of hipsters elsewhere: Cocaine, because everything ’80s, even the drugs, is now considered classic
The recreational drug of choice of Denver hipsters: Weed, because you won’t end up in jail
The indie bands loved by hipsters elsewhere: Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective
The indie bands loved by Denver hipsters: Tennis, Sympathy F, Mesita, Confluence, In The Whale
The preferred outerwear brand of hipsters elsewhere: Filson
The preferred outerwear brand of Denver hipsters: Patagonia, because our hipsters still ski
How To Hang With Hipsters
We’re not sure if hipster-driven businesses opened first and subsequently drew the bearded masses to Denver or if the nonchalants came here for tech jobs and companies were born to meet their needs. Either way, over the past several years the Mile High City has come alive with independent coffeeshops, microbreweries, live music venues, and a host of other trendy enterprises where you might need to up your style game to blend in.
Attempt to fit in at…Coffee Shops
Such as…Prodigy Coffee, Corvus Coffee, or Steam Espresso Bar
By…Ordering a cup of coffee made with a Chemex from delicately roasted, fair-trade beans, the provenance of which your barista can articulately explain
Then…Snag a two-top and talk about Denver’s disappointing recycling rates, which a November 2016 report called “abysmal”
Attempt to fit in at…Artisanal Markets
Such as…The Stanley Marketplace, the Denver Flea, Horseshoe Market
By…Grabbing a wildly pricey salad or sandwich (hey, organic ingredients from local farmers don’t come cheap)
Then…Peruse gluten-free muffins, handmade jewelry, and hemp clothing, but walk away empty-handed because you blew your budget on lunch
Attempt to fit in at…Craft Breweries
Such as…Trve Brewing Co., Our Mutual Friend Brewing Company, Grandma’s House Brewery
By…Asking the bartender which, if any, of his or her brews are fresh-hopped, preferably using Western Slope varietals
Then…Inquire about the Wi-Fi password, insert your earbuds, and break out your MacBook so you can finish your blog about what is—and what is not—compostable while sipping your IPA
Attempt to fit in at…Bicycle Shops
Such as…The Urban Cyclist, Turin Bicycles Ltd., Define Cycling
By…Spending an inordinate amount of time talking with the salesperson about building a custom steed for your everyday commute
Then…Geek out about the newest, totally-unnecessary-but-still-sweet-looking aero fixie wheel sets
Attempt to fit in at…Live Music Venues
Such as…Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, the Hi-Dive, Herman’s Hideaway
By…Screaming, verbatim, the lyrics of the completely unknown band onstage
Then…Buy a T-shirt (and poster and pin and trucker hat and belt buckle) promoting said unknown band
Attempt to fit in at…Thrift Shops
Such as…Buffalo Exchange, Plato’s Closet, Arc Thrift Store, Rags, Goodwill Thrift Store
By…Fighting with a 97-pound vegan over the last Fred Perry polo on the rack
Then…Gloat, then surreptitiously ask Siri who Fred Perry was, exactly
Attempt to fit in at…Record Stores
Such as…Wax Trax Records, Twist & Shout, Independent Records
By…Simply walking in; anyone who doesn’t exclusively stream music will be taught the secret handshake
Then…Buy a used CD, because CDs are retro cool—and because you need some new coasters
Attempt to fit in at…Pot Shops
Such as…LivWell, Peak MJ, the Giving Tree of Denver
By…Asking the budtender which edibles are certified as animal-product free
Then…Take home an eighth of Sour Diesel for your Pax 2 portable vaporizer, because there’s just no reason to choke on smoke
Attempt to fit in at…Tattoo Parlors
Such as…Sol Tribe, Think Tank, Certified Customs, Ritual Tattoo Gallery
By…Discussing imagery—penny-farthings and Cubist birds and anything that seems wanderlusty, like a vintage compass or the word “wanderlust”—with the artist
Then…Leave, promising to return after working up some designs on your own
Chasing The Original Hipsters
Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and their Beat Generation cohorts (that is, yesteryear’s hipsters) found inspiration, and like-minded folks, in many Front Range locales in the 1940s and ’50s. We explore their one-time hideaways—and reveal the modern-day, hipsterific equivalents.
Then: The Rossonian Hotel A Five Points bastion of black culture in the 1940s and ’50s, the Rossonian’s lounge was considered the best jazz club in town. Jack Kerouac visited the hotel and immortalized it in On The Road.
Now: The Meadowlark At one of the more intimate music venues in town, trendsters bob their heads to indie rock and sidle up to the bar hoping to catch the attention of the heavily tattooed, somewhat unresponsive bartenders.
Then: Casino Cabaret The stage at this Five Points live music venue hosted Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, among others. Although no proof exists that the more famous Beats swayed to the music here, their disciples definitely did.
Now: Cervantes’ Masterpiece Born in 2003, this music hall took over the Casino Cabaret, which closed in 1965. Cervantes’ musical repertoire is likely more diverse than its predecessor’s, but a steady dose of up-and-coming bands attracts a bohemian crowd.
Then: My Brother’s Bar This dimly lit watering hole in what was a somewhat seedy part of Denver was a favorite meeting place of the Beats. Neal Cassady wrote what amounted to an IOU letter to the bar, saying he owed it “about 3 or 4 dollars.”
Now: My Brother’s Bar The bar still exists. And Cassady’s original IOU note is posted near the pay phone.
Then: Larimer Street dive bars Following World War II, Larimer Street was home to sketchy bars, flophouses, and pawnshops. It’s said Kerouac was a near-permanent fixture along what was then not a street of dreams.
Now: Star Bar Larimer came out of its skid row phase by the end of the 1960s, and today, it’s difficult to find a Kerouac-worthy dive bar with a Larimer address. That is, except for Star Bar, a cold-beer-from-the-can kinda place where distressed jeans are required for entry.
Unenthusiastic Hipsters And Where To Find Them
These five Denver neighborhoods—subjectively judged on our skinny-jeans scale—have charmed everyone’s favorite counterculture.
The recent entrepreneurial explosion along Tennyson Street between West 38th Avenue and West 46th Avenue has been inciting something akin to euphoria amongst a group that’s perennially tough to arouse. This burgeoning area is evidence that although their affect may be flat, the purposefully meek will inherit the Earth (or at least the gritty-cool corners of it). If you sit inside Downpours Coffee on Tennyson long enough, you’ll hear some iteration of the following conversation:
“Have you been to BookBar?”
“Yeah. It’s just so nice to finally have an independent bookstore nearby—and it doesn’t hurt that it also has wine.”
“For sure. I kinda love that craft brewery that’s near it, too. What’s it called?”
“Oh, I like that one, too, but I was talking about Call To Arms. Their Clintonian Pale Ale is smooth.”
“Hey, is that a new tattoo?”
“Yeah, you like it? The guys at Mammoth American Tattoo down the street did it. They completely understood what I was going for with the twist on the Eye of Ra.”
New To The Scene
- Vital Root, which runs exclusively on wind power to deliver delicious organic eats
- Any piece of outdoor gear you might need at Feral Mountain Co.
As ground zero for hipsterati culture in the Mile High City, the Broadway corridor, which hosts leafy residential streets just blocks off an alluringly gritty main thoroughfare lined with hipster strongholds such as Sputnik, ticks all of the necessary boxes. Tattoo parlors…check. Thrift stores…check. Craft breweries…check. Record store…check. Coffeeshops, dive bars, cycleries, and pot shops…quadruple check. Plus, the area has live music venues covered. Broadway has long been a magnet for the subculture du jour, but the recent revitalization of the area—characterized by the shuttering of some of the most off-color purveyors and the opening of farm-to-table restaurants, kitschy bars, and twee boutiques—has no doubt elevated its status as a desirable ’hood for those who profess not to care but really kinda do.
New To The Scene
- British muffins and avocado toast at Moxie Eatery
- Battleship, Risk, and a full bar at Board Game Republic
It’s not exactly clear why coffeehouses are the preferred hangout of hipsters, but it is clear that Cap Hill has one of the best java scenes in Denver. Hence, it’s overrun with twenty- and thirtysomethings looking for pourovers and fiber-optic Wi-Fi connections. They find what they crave at spots like Black Eye Coffee Cap Hill, Amethyst Coffee Company, Thump Coffee, Pablo’s Coffee, and Roostercat Coffee House. But even a hipster cannot live on coffee alone. Some sort of organic, gluten-free, vegan fare (like what you’ll find at City, O’ City on 13th Avenue or at the Corner Beet on North Ogden Street) helps mitigate too much caffeine intake. As day bleeds into night and beverages move from Americanos to IPAs, the fun—perusing vinyl at Wax Trax; committing to some new ink at Bound by Design; or listening to live tunes at the Ogden, the Fillmore, or DazzleJazz—only runs out when you realize you’re too tired, or too high (there are dispensaries nearby), to ride your bike home.
New To The Scene
- Wine and shared plates at Clyde
- Hudson Hill’s artfully crafted cocktails served by knowledgeable staffers who spin vinyl over the bar’s sound system
For the purposes of this story, we’re pairing adjoining microhoods RiNo and Curtis Park to make one giant fiefdom of hipness. The unifying theme between the two urban enclaves is like catnip to the young and the restless: artisanal everything. Over the past several years, this swath of northeast Denver has changed from an industrial-warehouse wasteland into the artistic—and we use that word loosely—hub of the city. Flannel-shirt-wearing hordes are drawn to a bevy of craft breweries (Ratio Beerworks, Beryl’s Beer Co., Black Shirt Brewing Co.); a cider house (Stem Ciders); two massive artisan markets (The Source and the Denver Central Market) with organic bakeries, nose-to-tail eateries, and handmade chocolates; a jazz club (Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club); socially responsible restaurants (The Populist, Hop Alley, Work & Class); coffeeshops (Crema Coffee House, Ink! Coffee, Novo Coffee); and—until they’re completely priced out of the burgeoning neighborhood—dozens of art galleries and artists’ studios. In short, it’s hipster heaven.
New To The Scene
- Serious seafood in a denim-encouraged atmosphere at Fish N Beer
- Comal’s Latin American food, which is served with a side of community outreach—on-site job-training classes help low-income women
Consider LoHi where hipsters go when they grow up—or at least when their paychecks do. A little less intense and a lot more expensive—the average listing price for a home is about $609,986—this dense district has a roster of socially conscious businesses (e.g., even the local ice cream shop supports hunger relief programs), its own summertime farmers’ market, an independent theater, art galleries, and a collective eatery, making it just hip enough. What it lacks in thrift stores and tattoo shops, it makes up for with its proximity to downtown (urban commuters, rejoice!), delightfully unscuzzy dispensaries, and plethora of craft breweries. It also has…wait for it…coffeeshops: Maci Cafe, Metropolis Coffee, Gallop Cafe, and Black Eye Coffee’s original location, to name just a few.
New To The Scene
- Plenty of elbow room and outlets at new coffee spot LoHi Local
- Kombucha floats—really—from American Cultures
Liberal-leaning millennials-cum-hipsters have been pouring into the Front Range, so it should’ve come as no surprise the state voted against the Donald.
Although it seems like every demographic stat possible is collected during election years, we’ve yet to see a form with a checkable box for “hipster.” Which makes accounting for this group’s political influence challenging. However, if we, like many other media outlets, conflate hipsters with millennials, it becomes a wee bit easier. Although we’re not comfortable with saying all hipsters are millennials or that all millennials are hipsters (a 2013 Public Policy Polling study suggested only 50 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds characterized themselves as such), it’s probably safe to conclude that a large portion of this subculture’s members were born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s.
Another safe conclusion: Millennials love Denver like they love a Warby Parker clearance sale. According to a 2016 Brookings Institution study of population movement from 2009 to 2014, Denver had a net annual migration gain of 12,682 people ages 25 to 34, the greatest number of any metro area in the United States.
Combine those factors with the reality that younger millennials tend to lean left—even if they’re registered as independents—and you’ve got all the ingredients you need to mix up a nice shade of electoral blue. To wit: Of the 35 percent of registered Colorado voters between 18 and 40 years old in the 2016 general election, 331,182 registered as Democrats; 253,635 did so as GOPers; and 414,460 remained unaffiliated. While stats revealing how Coloradans actually voted on November 8 aren’t available (ballots are secret, folks), there are a few numbers that make it clear Colorado’s recent millennial explosion is at least partly responsible for the change in the state’s political landscape. The 2016 election was the first time in 32 years that active registered Democrats—of all ages—outnumbered active registered Republicans. It was also the third consecutive presidential election in which Colorado went blue, something that hasn’t happened since Woodrow Wilson was president.
The Downside To Hipster Hegemony
A Portland expat warns against too much carefully cultivated facial hair and artisanal, well, everything.
In a city of roughly 50 percent transplants, it’s natural that small talk with new acquaintances follows the where-are-you-from thread. In my case, the conversation has become particularly scripted. It goes like this:
“So are you from Colorado?” asks a new friend/PR professional/Uber driver.
“No, I’m from Portland.”
“Oh wow. I want to visit there. I’ve heard it’s cool.”
I nod, a smile carefully arranged on my face. It is cool. In fact, it’s too cool. And that’s precisely why I left.
Today, thanks to the popularity of IFC’s Portlandia, luxe lumberjack fashion à la Pendleton, and weird culinary sensations like Voodoo Doughnut, Portland regularly ranks among the country’s most hipstery cities. Second, in fact, on a recent survey from Infogroup. But take it from a lifelong Portlander who, yes, even briefly had a pet chicken—all that funky eyewear and tattoo ink has its downsides, too.
When I moved to Denver, it wasn’t just for the mountains and a bigger city and to get out of the goddamned rain. The move also promised an escape from what felt like the tyranny of a homogenous hipster culture. It’s not that I don’t love a good cup of locally roasted coffee, an esoteric bit of ink, or a hand-knit beanie (albeit actually pulled down over my ears). My problem is with the groupthink associated with any overly pervasive school of thought—be it hipsters, rabid Broncos fans, or Wall Street investment bankers circa 2007. It’s particularly irksome—hypocritical even—coming from those who vehemently reject conformity yet become near identical in their attempts to out-weird one another.
Besides being annoying, ubiquitous hipsterism can be a serious wet blanket for political debate and business growth. I witnessed it regularly: As soon as one of the city’s revered artisan brands made it big, hipsters’ cheers turned to jeers. There may be no better example than Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Debuting as one of the city’s first modern microroasters in 1999, Stumptown grew into Portland’s artisanal darling. What started as a cafe roasting and selling fair-trade beans grew to 10 roasteries and coffeeshops around the country. In 2011, however, when owner Duane Sorensen took funds from a private equity firm, Esquire deemed it “The End of Stumptown, America’s Hippest Coffee Brand.” Then, in 2015, Stumptown had the audacity to sell to Bay Area caffeine godfather Peet’s Coffee. Many Portlanders were incensed: How dare Stumptown insult their artisanal sensibilities by realizing the American entrepreneurial dream? Social media and the comments sections of news stories covering the sale were peppered with angry sentiments. Money magazine even ran an article about the spectacle titled “Why Hipsters Are So Angry About Peet’s Buying Stumptown Coffee.”
Were Stumptown an app or gadget from Silicon Valley, we’d be celebrating. Yes! Sell to Google! Make bazillions and seed other socially conscious startups! But no. That’s not how many Portland hipsters roll. They’ll sport vintage Nikes while simultaneously sneering at the entrepreneurial spirit that built the Oregon shoe empire to begin with. (And we wonder why Portland only had one Fortune 500 company in 2016 while Denver had 10….)
“My problem is with the groupthink that comes with any overly pervasive school of thought.”
Look. Don’t get me wrong. I love Portland. The food. The landscape. The derision of umbrellas and people who can’t properly operate them. But there’s more to life than left-leaning circle jerks and a pervasive all-things-indie affectation. There’s got to be room for growing a business. For shoppers who can’t afford to spend $90 on a handmade leather belt but still need something to hold their pants up. For uncomfortable discussions about immunizations and fluoride, about fracking and flag-burning and the right to bear arms, about gentrification in the ’hoods hipsters love, and about more important things, like, you know, whether or not the NFL should get rid of the point after.
For me, that’s the beauty of Denver. I can walk into just about any LoDo restaurant and see a skinny-jeaned hipster swilling Dad & Dude’s Sativa IPA two tables away from an Avalanche-jerseyed fan debating the merits of the 16th Street Mall with a suit sipping Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. Yes, the hipsters have found Denver, but so far there’s still room for all kinds in the Mile High City. I hope it stays that way, because conflict, debate, and compromise are where the best ideas come from—not from some aesthetics-driven dream of the ’90s that should have died right along with the Macarena. Then again, maybe I’m just not that cool. —Kasey Cordell
The Hipster Approval Matrix
In 2015, youth-advocacy nonprofit Young Invincibles analyzed numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the top 25 jobs for millennials. Gigs in IT, finance, and health care, all ubiquitous in Colorado, were on the list. But what if you’re a millennial who wants to wear Chuck Taylors to work? We scrutinized YI’s career catalogue with an eye toward a hipster’s need for a creative outlet and disdain for corporate culture.
What Comes After Hipsterdom?
If hipsterism really is on its way out in places other than Denver, which subculture could replace it?
The yuccie is essentially the love child of the hipster and the yuppie. Minted by Mashable in mid-2015, this hybrid word refers to “young urban creatives” who may still display some of the outward affect and retain many of the social justice beliefs of a hipster but for whom yuppier ideals—like profiting hugely from their beetle-kill furniture business—prevail.
Millennial survivalists are more socially aware, more willing to collaborate, and more keen on eco-living than old-school doomsday preppers. They also don’t necessarily believe a reliance on firearms will save them, preparing instead by learning outdoor survival, food preservation, and basic mechanic skills. Their number one fear? Climate-change-induced apocalypse.
Advocacy groups say urban travelers are really just homeless youth; others say it’s an off-the-grid lifestyle that attracts societal dropouts and conspiracy theorists. Travelers seem to be drawn to cities they perceive to be laid-back, including Denver, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. Most of these cities are in states that have legalized weed. Coincidence? Probably not.