Why does billionaire Robert F. Smith’s family own a Denver brewery?


Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spangalang Brewery was struggling. A tiny beer maker located in the former DMV office in Five Points Plaza, Spangalang had opened in 2015 and become a favorite for locals, but not the kind of regional draw that drives huge growth.

So when brewery owners Darren Boyd and Taylor Rees got a major investment offer from their landlord, the Flyfisher Group, they planned to accept. Flyfisher, which owns or operates several properties and businesses in the neighborhood, would take a 40% share, and as a Black-owned business, it would lend legitimacy in the historically Black neighborhood, Rees said at the time.

John Leyba, The Denver Post

Robert Smith, the wealthiest African American and DU’s graduate school commencement speaker was photographed on June 9, 2017. He is a graduate of East High School. In 2017, Smith overtook Oprah Winfrey as the nation’s wealthiest African American, according to the Forbes 400.

But then Boyd and Rees got another offer: Norman Harris, who is a longtime advocate for the Five Points neighborhood, the president of the Juneteenth Music Festival and owner of the Holleran Group real estate and development firm, said a family was interested in buying the entire brewery, at 2736 Welton St., outright, according to Boyd. They assumed the family was associated with the Harrises, who are longtime property owners and investors in Five Points. Boyd and Rees said yes, selling 100% of Spangalang in May 2022 to an entity called WSB Holdings.

The names behind WSB, however, were a bit of a surprise. The entity is funded by a trust that was created in 2018 by Robert F. Smith, the Denver-raised billionaire who is one of the wealthiest African Americans in the United States and one of the richest men in the world, according to liquor licensing documents held by the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses. The goal of the trust, which Smith no longer controls, is to provide for his five children, the documents say; trusts like this are commonly used to pass on generational wealth.

Smith’s two eldest daughters, Zoe Smith, 26, and Eliana Smith, 21, are the directors of WSB Holdings, according to documents that are publicly available from the Colorado Department of Revenue’s liquor enforcement division, which regulates liquor licenses in the state. Zoe Smith signed the documents. California attorney John N. Staples III, who oversees the Robert F. Smith 2018 Gift Trust, is also listed on the liquor license paperwork.

WSB has a mailing address at the offices of the City Park Law Group, which is owned by local attorney Wayne Vaden, who is also Robert Smith’s cousin.

The ownership makes Spangalang one of just three known Black-owned breweries in Colorado; the other two are Novel Strand Brewing in Denver and Outworld Brewing in Longmont.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 10: Robert F. Smith (L) attends the Fifth Annual National CARES Mentoring Movement Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on February 10, 2020 in New York City. With him are his daughters, Zoe, center, and Eliana Smith. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for National CARES Mentoring Movement)
Robert F. Smith attends the National CARES Mentoring Movement Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on Feb. 10, 2020, in New York City. With him are his daughters, Zoe, center, and Eliana Smith. (Monica Schipper/Getty Images for National CARES Mentoring Movement)

But why would Smith — who is valued at $9.2 billion, making him the 214th richest person in the world, according to Forbes — or his two eldest daughters, both of whom have addresses in New York City, have an interest in a tiny craft brewery in Colorado that makes fewer than 400 barrels of beer per year (roughly 800 kegs)?

The answers don’t appear to be something anyone wants to talk about.

Boyd, who is now employed by WSB Holdings as the production manager for Spangalang, deferred questions about the brewery’s ownership to Vaden and Harris.

Harris declined to comment while Vaden didn’t return emails seeking comment. Staples responded to an email but declined to comment on his own behalf or on behalf of the Smith sisters.

Haroun Cowans, president of the Five Points Business Improvement District, who initially responded to an email from The Denver Post, didn’t return further emails seeking comment.

But part of the reason for the connection between Spangalang and Robert Smith’s family is likely his ties to Denver. Smith was raised in Five Points, attending Carson Elementary, Gove Junior High and East High School before heading to Cornell University, where he earned a degree in chemical engineering in 1986. After that, he worked as an engineer and then earned an MBA so that he could focus on technology investments.

And although he went on to found his signature software and technology investment firm, Vista Equity Partners, in California, Smith, who now lives in Austin, Texas, still has family and an extensive network in Colorado, including property and ownership of Lincoln Hills, a private fishing club in Gilpin County that was founded 100 years ago as a recreational area for Black families.

He sometimes talks about his parents and his upbringing in Denver in public appearances, like a 2015 commencement speech he gave to American University students in Washington, D.C.

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