Happy hour is about to take on a whole new meaning in Denver. Starting June 1, Denver business owners can officially apply to the city’s common consumption program, which will allow clusters of businesses with liquor licenses to create shared, designated spaces where Denverites can move about freely with their beverages.

“This can be a real opportunity, maybe a boost for [local businesses], that they can have an expanded area where people can travel with their drink, outdoors, and sometimes indoors as well,” says Eric Escudero, director of communications for Denver’s Department of Excise and License.

While the program will be a much-appreciated bonus for a hospitality industry that was hit especially hard during the pandemic, the vision for these settings has actually been several years in the making—and even then, Denver was late to the game. In 2011, Colorado passed a law allowing cities to issue common consumption licenses. And while other municipalities took the change and ran with it, Denver launched a five-year pilot program through 2017 to study how the concept panned out across the state, and how it could work in the Mile High City. After common consumption areas finally passed Denver City Council in late 2019, the novel coronavirus brought any hopes of implementation to a screeching halt. But after some extra time to prepare, and with local COVID-19 restrictions easing as we head into the summer and fall, the city’s common consumption plan is back on track—and Denver might see some of its first iterations by early this fall.

The final rules and regulations—which were approved by City Council on April 15, along with some minor tweaks that were made on May 10—are robust. You won’t be able to just roam the streets of Denver with an open container, and each area will likely look a bit different, depending on the circumstances. All that’s required is at least two businesses with liquor licenses that share an adjacent space, be it indoors (in a market or food hall, for example), or outdoors through private or shared streets, parking lots, or alleyways that are closed off to cars. Escudero notes that there’s currently nothing in the ordinance that excludes public parks either, so it’s legally possible that one day, folks might be able to have their alcohol in a Denver park if one were to be part of a licensed common consumption area. Such a situation is very unlikely, however, given the additional permits required, and general lack of businesses with liquor licenses next to a city park and a closed street to get there.

The process is a bit more complicated than simply wanting to build a booze-friendly space, however. Before any businesses can apply for the common consumption license, they’ll have to form what’s called a promotional association, to then apply to create an “entertainment district,” which will have to be approved by City Council first, and would need to be larger than 20,000 square feet but smaller than 100 acres. Once an entertainment district exists, any groups of qualified businesses in its boundaries can form their own association and apply for a common consumption license. That means several different common consumption areas can then pop up within that entertainment district.

“So the first applicants to create that entertainment district really could open up the floodgates for a lot more [common consumption] applicants,” Escudero says. Given the requirements, Denverites can expect to see downtown’s big players—the Dairy Block, Denver Central Market, Larimer Square, McGregor Square, and Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe—to be first to try out the concept. The Dairy Block wants to be one of the first to apply, which Don Cloutier, general manager of the market, attributes to its indoor space, secure alley, and extended patio setup that are all well designed for a concept like this.

“This program should be really wonderful, world-class icing on an already very, very good cake,” Cloutier says. “We’re going to be as smart as possible about this, but we’re going to be pretty quick about it. Because we do want to set the tone within the city and showcase how it can be done well, and how it can be done right.”

Safety is front of mind for the city, as well as interested bar and restaurant owners, all of whom echo similar sentiments that Denver won’t suddenly look like Las Vegas or Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where open consumption is legal. Instead, for example, if McGregor Square and the Dairy Block were to hypothetically join forces and create an entertainment district near Coors Field, you wouldn’t be able take your drinks across busy Wazee Street from Dairy Block’s area to McGregor Square’s, or vice versa. (Or near the ballpark, for that matter.)

Bringing drinks from one bar to another within a common consumption area is also a no-go. And along with airtight security, precautions like labeled cups and sanitation methods are also baked in to the program’s rules. Escudero notes that, much like with general liquor licensing, common consumption areas won’t be approved without hearings open to the public. “[Common consumption] is not going to come to people’s neighborhoods unless they approve of it,” he says.

Folks in the hospitality and retail industries are expecting the added level of freedom to be well-received, however, and positive for business after what’s been an overwhelmingly difficult year. Common consumption has already been popular in nearby areas like Fort Collins, Edgewater, and Aurora. “I think the Stanley [Marketplace in Aurora] is setting a wonderful tone for the city to understand,” Cloutier says. “The vibe in the Stanley is really sip and shop. Right? You can have your beverage, and wheel your stroller around, and you’re going to the boutiques, maybe you’re getting a haircut—that’s a similar atmosphere that we have at Dairy Block, and that’s what we’re going for.”

Stephen Julia, co-owner of Curio inside the Denver Central Market, is also looking into the logistics of setting up a common consumption area surrounding the RiNo food hall, meaning visitors could move around with alcohol inside the market, as well as the popular mural-clad alleyway. And after helping spearhead common consumption at his other outpost, Roger’s Liquid Oasis at Edgewater Public Market, Julia wants to make sure it is an additive experience.

“I think, always, these common consumption areas, they need to add some sort of value to the community as well,” he says. “It’s not just like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is cool, everybody can get drunk outside.’ That’s not what it is.” Julia says he’s already been discussing how, in a post-pandemic world, they might be able bring in events to a possible common consumption area in the alley, and collaborate with the arts district to bring in more artists and showcase their work more often.

At the end of the day, common consumption areas will be a natural expansion of what the pandemic proved was possible through programs like extended patio spaces and to-go alcohol—and something that business owners are expecting Denverites to appreciate just as much.

“It’s a boon for business, people are asking for it, and now Denver’s giving us the ability to provide that to them,” Julia says. “It just makes sense.”

Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill is 5280’s former associate digital editor.