John Hickenlooper
Credit: Photograph by Edward Keating

Hick divested from the Wynkoop Brewing Company when he was mayor of Denver, but a sense of ownership doesn't go away with a bill of sale. We head up to the second floor, and he grabs my arm and points to the bar.

"Two Ukrainian girls sanded that down; they were so beautiful. So beautiful." He bashes through the swinging doors into the kitchen. The cooks look at him sideways."This place was half the size before! I'd come in, and even if I was in a bad mood, when I hit the doors I knew it was time to put on a show."

Hick wanted to be a writer until his pals read his attempt at a Catcher in the Rye–style novel. They told him it was awful. Hick made a U-turn and fell in love with geology, which meant he had to start over with basic science classes. It took him a decade to get his two degrees. He worked as a geologist in Colorado but got laid off in the oil bust of the 1980s.

At loose ends, he visited his brother in the Bay Area and went to his first brewpub. Hick thought it was an idea that would work in Denver, so he and his brother returned to Colorado and rented an old warehouse downtown. They named it the Wynkoop. Edward Wynkoop was one of Denver's founders and an iconoclastic Union colonel who tried to foster good relations with Native American tribes. (Wynkoop is also the name of the street the brewery is on.) Shrimpie wouldn't invest (too risky), but Hick caught some breaks: Beer as a fetish took off, and, in 1995, the Rockies and Coors Field moved in a few blocks away.

Hick cuts through a banquet room where a framed document on the wall catches his eye. It's a draft of a letter sent to early Wynkoop investors explaining delays in the grand opening. It's full of Hicksenian self-deprecation: "As to when the much-anticipated grand opening will appear, the tarot cards are not clear." At the bottom is a handwritten Hick note: "What do you think, maybe a little too cute?" This is a criticism often tossed at Hick by doubters, who roll their pupils at his chronic quirkiness. Hick reads the letter twice.

"Oh, this is so cool! It's to one of my partners." Hick frowns and shakes his head. "He drank himself into oblivion – he fell down a staircase and died."

When the bar opened, Denver still had a soft spot for a late-arriving self-promoter. Hick offered to pay anyone $5,000 if they could find him a bride, and the bet was picked up by Phil Donahue, who had him and his prospective brides on the show. Hick realized that making news didn't have to be about life or death; it just had to be entertaining. Riffing on Pamplona's running of the bulls, he hired pigs to run past the Wynkoop annually, until the ASPCA got involved. He invited Kurt Vonnegut to the Wynkoop, knowing he had been a fraternity brother of his father's at Cornell.

"I'm Hick's son, can you tell me anything about him?"

"You're Hick's son. He was a great and funny man."

That started a friendship, with Vonnegut sending him faxes with stories about his dad, filling in a lot of Hick's blank spots. (Vonnegut eventually did a parody video for a Colorado charity fundraiser in which he claimed to be Hick's real father, and Hickenlooper makes a cameo in the book Timequake.)

In 2001, a college friend invited Hick down to Austin, where they crashed the birthday party of Helen Thorpe, a journalist Hick immediately fell for. He courted her relentlessly until she moved to Colorado. They married in 2002, and their son, Teddy, was born the same year.

His entry into politics wasn't exactly over issues of global consequence. The new Broncos stadium was going to be called Invesco Field, leaving the classic Mile High Stadium name in the dustbin, which Hick thought was sacrilege, so he arranged protests. Few remember that Hick didn't exactly win – the new place was eventually named Invesco Field at Mile High – but it was enough to make his friends think he had the smarts and mind-set to be mayor of Denver, which was sort of funny since Hick didn't vote that often.

Hick started at 3 percent in the first mayoral poll, but won over voters with weirdo commercials in which Hick filled expiring parking meters with change and bemoaned how high meter rates were driving shoppers to the suburbs. "Helen looked over the paper after I got endorsed by the Denver Post, and her eyes got big," says Hick with equal parts pride and resignation. "She said, 'I had no idea you'd win.' "

Before we can leave the Wynkoop, a hostess says there's a group of German and Austrian tourists who want to meet him. Hick poses for pictures and informs them that the Wynkoop's first award-winning beer was made with hops provided by a German brewer. Hick tells the goggle-eyed group they gave the beer a naughty name in the brewer's honor.

"We called it slang for 69 in German." They chuckle nervously.

Now it is really time to go home. Hick piles into the backseat of a state trooper's SUV and is swarmed by his dog, Skye. He laughs and looks at his phone. "I'm in so much trouble, but that was fun!" Hick's SUV squeals away; Skye looks out the side window, tail wagging.