Later this month, Black Shirt Brewing will bring four canned beers back to the market with a new look, new names and updated recipes. The four-year-old brewery had been forced to pull out of stores last year because it couldn’t get cans from its supplier in a timely way.
But the rebrand is just the first of several major changes that Black Shirt, founded in 2011 by Chad, Carissa and Branden Miller, plans to make in the next year or so. The brewery has also taken the unusual step of converting its liquor license from one that allows manufacturing and sales — which is what most tap rooms have — to one that allows it to make and serve food. The goal: to open a restaurant with dishes that can hold up to the brewery’s beers.
The timeline on converting to a brewpub, however, is up in the air, Chad says, because Black Shirt needs to expand — something it may have to do outside of development-crazy River North.
That means the Millers are looking for a second location where they can expand their brewing operations — or, if they lose their lease because of development pressure (in the same way that River North Brewery did last year), to relocate entirely.
“I’m juggling more balls than ever before. It’s stressful times in the craft-beer industry right now. Things are changing so rapidly I feel like I need 27 hours in a day, with no sleep, just to analyze everything and make the right decision,” says Chad. “At our size, one misstep would be catastrophic. I’m trying to be very careful about how we do things.”
Black Shirt's “size,” as Chad says, is still very small. But the brewery faces pressure from all directions. For starters, it is competing for space on liquor-store shelves with more breweries every day. “We learned some hard lessons from our original branding,” says Chad, adding that Black Shirt hired Narwhal Collective Branding & Design to come up with a look “that better tells our story and explains our philosophy and who we are, that gives us a more concrete identity.”
The brewery also need to stand out in the ever-more-crowded tap-room scene in Denver. When Black Shirt opened, it was virtually alone in RiNo. It has since been joined by at least ten other breweries, from nano breweries to bigger craft companies to corporate-owned entities.
As for the location: “Everything around us has been bought by developers,” Chad says. “We are the last one on our block, and they want it very badly. The building we are in just got rezoned for a sixteen-story building — it’s worth seven times the money it was when we opened.”
The Millers would like to stay and operate a brewpub in the neighborhood they call home, but they don’t know if they will be able to, so they are looking in other neighborhoods for a larger site, either for a production facility or for their entire operation — restaurant, brewery and all. That’s not easy either: “It’s a dance. Anything we felt like we could take with what little money we have gets snapped up.”
In the meantime, they plan to move forward with the restaurant portion of the business, though seating will be a little cramped. “Space is tight,” Chad says.
But the change is worth it, so that Black Shirt can stop relying on food trucks, which Chad says have been unreliable, inconsistent, difficult to deal with and with varying quality of food.
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“We basically followed the model that every other brewery has followed to bring in food trucks, but for us, it was no-show after no-show. Or they would show up late and be mad that we didn’t have parking saved for them, and they would drive off in frustration,” says Chad, who finally stopped calling on food trucks entirely about a year ago. “We felt it was best to have this under our control so that we could better serve our guests.
“You are so proud of these beers that you put out, and then a food truck throws a plate of stale nachos in front of you.... If our customers have bad food, they feel like they had a bad experience, and guess who gets the bad Yelp review?” he adds.
The Millers don’t want to reveal yet what the menu is going to look like — “We want to be original and the first to do this, not the second,” Chad says — but they’ve hired Bill Greenwood, formerly of Beano’s Cabin in Avon, to design it. Black Shirt will also hire six people to staff the restaurant so that it will continue to have table service, which is important to the owners.
"We have lots of competition in RiNo, everywhere, and now even the big guys are here,” Chad says, referring to the MillerCoors-owned Blue Moon Brewery, which just opened a huge brewery and restaurant nearby, and the Anheuser Busch InBev-owned 10 Barrel Brewing, which is also putting in a brewpub in the neighborhood. “So the experience we offer has got to be a better one.”