Despite Big Changes in the Craft-Beer World, Denver's Small Breweries Keep Chugging Along

Despite Big Changes in the Craft-Beer World, Denver's Small Breweries Keep Chugging Along
Anthony Camera

Like most people who make their living off beer, Greg Matthews worries about what’s happening to the craft-brewing industry, which is suddenly overflowing with infighting, trademark disputes and buyouts. Anheuser Busch InBev, in particular, has made waves by purchasing craft breweries such as Breckenridge Brewery, 10 Barrel and Elysian, and consolidating the ways that beer is distributed.

“Every time somebody like Breckenridge gets bought, we lose a big brother, one that is replaced by an unfriendly entity,” says Matthews, the head brewer at Denver’s Platt Park Brewing and a twenty-year veteran of the business. In the old days, Matthews remembers, he used to drop in at Breck to borrow yeast even though the brewery was so much bigger than his own. He doubts he could do that today — not with all the corporate bean-counting. “It hurts,” he says. “It hurts a lot. It’s not the family it used to be. It’s not why I got into this business.”

This summer, growing frustration with the twenty-year-old Colorado Brewers Guild resulted in fourteen breweries — including the state’s four largest — splitting off to form their own trade group. The breweries cited several reasons for their action, including frustration with the leadership of longtime CBG director John Carlson (who has since taken a leave of absence), the continuing presence of Breckenridge Brewery in the group, and a lack of transparency and effective advocacy as the guild dealt with SB 197 — now a law that will soon allow grocery stores and supermarkets to carry full-strength beer at multiple locations.
Liquor stores and craft breweries had fought the effort for years, but gave in to this “compromise” measure in 2016.

The stakes are high: Craft brewing was a $1.7 billion industry in Colorado in 2015, and shelf space is getting tighter every day.

There’s a lot to think about, a lot to worry about. But not today. Right now, Matthews is just struggling to keep up with the thirsty drinkers in the Platt Park and Washington Park neighborhoods. Every time he finishes brewing a beer, they drink it all down and ask for more. “The neighborhood appreciates the neighborhood,” he says. “People enjoy supporting the small businesses who support them.”

In 2014, the year that Platt Park Brewing opened, Matthews brewed 390 barrels over seven months, or about 800 kegs. In 2015, he brewed 900 barrels, and this year, he expects to make about 1,400 barrels.

By comparison, New Belgium Brewing, which is Colorado’s largest craft brewer and the fourth-largest nationwide, will produce more than one million barrels in 2016 (most of it in Colorado). Oskar Blues, the state’s second-largest beer maker, brewed about 200,000 barrels last year. Left Hand, Odell, Avery, Great Divide and Ska all made more than 50,000 barrels, while Dry Dock, Upslope, Bristol, Tommyknocker, Crazy Mountain, Fort Collins Brewery and Epic each made between 10,000 and 25,000.

Nationwide, 10 percent of the 4,300 craft breweries make 87 percent of the beer; the other 90 percent make the rest, according to the Boulder-based Brewers Association. Roughly 3,000 (or 70 percent) of those make fewer than 1,060 barrels per year (or about 2,000 kegs). That means that the vast majority of breweries are tiny. The CBG estimates that in Colorado, which has more than 300 breweries, 85 percent brew fewer than 1,000 barrels per year. In Denver, only a handful of breweries are bigger than that. The rest are very small, making enough beer to supply their taprooms and some liquor stores, bars or restaurants. They are more worried about keeping their equipment working than they are about whether supermarkets are allowed to sell beer. They think more about whether their next shipment of hops will arrive on time than they do about the latest AB InBev purchase. They fret more about making payroll than they do trademark applications.

And more breweries are opening all the time, replacing neighborhood bars as local hangouts. Although small, these breweries are the engine that powers the beer world — from early morning until late at night — making good beers, creating cool places to hang out, helping each other in a way that has always set the craft-brewing industry apart from other businesses. In advance of the Great American Beer Festival hitting Denver, we recently visited seven breweries — a group that runs north to south through multiple neighborhoods in Denver’s core — to see how they were doing and what they were doing. Which turns out to be were working hard, thinking about the future and toasting their independence.

Baere Brewing co-owner Kevin Greer gets to work early.
Baere Brewing co-owner Kevin Greer gets to work early.
Jonathan Shikes

8:45 a.m.
Baere Brewing
320 Broadway

For only the third time since Ryan Skeels and Kevin Greer opened Baere Brewing in 2014, every shiny stainless-steel tank they own is full of beer. But there’s still work to do.

One of those tanks needs to be emptied into kegs this morning so that Baere will be ready for the crush of beer drinkers who’ll visit during the week of the Great American Beer Festival. The partners also need to bottle thirty cases of another beer that will go on sale the same week. They don’t bottle often: Baere can only cap one bottle at a time, like a home brewer, so they reserve bottles for special releases and sell most of their beer over the bar or to bars and restaurants.

After that’s done, there are plenty of other tasks to keep them busy: supplies to order, parts to pick up, books to balance. Baere opens for business at 2 p.m., so they’ll be on hand for that, too. “It’s rare that we are not here early every day,” Greer says. “We usually work 8 to 4 or 5 or 6 p.m.”

Located in a Broadway strip mall next to a Chinese food place offering $1 beers (the sign often leads to some confusion at the brewery), Baere has five full-time employees and five part-timers. They brew three to five days a week. “It’s kind of a moving target,” Skeels says. “We are trying to figure out how to grow in this limited space.... We need more room, more room for bigger tanks, more bottles.” They are looking at leasing a warehouse to help create that room.

Commuters, tourists, neighbors, brewery hounds and after-work happy-hour hunters are the bulk of their daily business, drinking down the 450 or so barrels of beer — or roughly 900 kegs — that Baere will make this year. So Skeels and Greer aren’t really looking to get their beers into liquor stores — not yet, at least. They’ve thought seriously about a major expansion somewhere, though, maybe a second location. But the setup they have now works pretty well, even in a city with sixty or so breweries.

“I don’t fear our current model,” Greer says. “It scares me to go into something bigger.”

But they do want to get their name out there. Oddly, that happens when other breweries recommend them, sending business their way from all over town. That helpfulness is a hallmark of the craft-beer business, one that brewers have always prided themselves on: They compete, but they also collaborate. Baere is located within two blocks of two other breweries, TRVE Brewing and Banded Oak, but Greer wishes there were even more in the area. “I’m not fearful of competition,” he says. “I kind of like it.”

Skeels and Greer send their customers on to other breweries: Spangalang, Mockery, TRVE, Factotum, Our Mutual Friend. And like most of the other small-brewery owners in town, they like to visit their friends, too. They go to openings, anniversary parties, special tappings.

“We do as much as we can,” Skeels says. “That’s the way it works.”

Chain Reaction Brewing.
Chain Reaction Brewing.
Jonathan Shikes

10:15 a.m.
Chain Reaction Brewing
902 South Lipan Street

Amos the mailman doesn’t drink much — and never on the job. But Chain Reaction is one of his favorite stops anyway. “Good food, good times, good beer,” he says as he drops off the brewery’s mail this morning. All the other businesses along his route tell him the same thing about Chain Reaction; that’s better than any Yelp review.

Built from scratch by cousins Zack and Chad Christofferson and their family members, Chain Reaction is on the west side of the tracks, along Lipan Street, which separates a series of light-industrial businesses on one side from the modest homes on the other. “We get the working folks, blue-collar,” says Chad. “Some of our best locals, we can see them walking out their front door.” But the neighborhood, like all Denver neighborhoods, is changing. There are more young families with kids moving in, coming in to the bar. “People who are sick of the bullshit,” he explains. “They just want to be with their family and have a good time. They love having a place they can walk to.”

Zack and Chad have that blue-collar ethos, too. They do things the hard way because, to them, that’s the right way. And it has paid off. Chain Reaction is growing quickly. The cousins recently installed two new twenty-barrel fermenters, and they’ve got two more on the way. Last year, they signed on with Tivoli Distribution Company, which takes their beer and puts it in bars and restaurants around town. To do that, the brewery had to buy 300 new kegs, and now it has to keep them filled.

This morning they plan to clean some of those kegs and transfer beer into them. Chad is using a hydrometer to take a gravity reading on one — a Hatch chile beer made from peppers that the staff bought from a vendor on Alameda and roasted themselves. They’ve got to finish doing payroll and other paperwork, schedule food trucks, comedy nights and trivia nights and make sure the sixteen tap lines are clean. They’ve got to mop the floors and get the brewery ready for opening at 3 p.m.

All that doesn’t leave a lot of time to think about what’s happening in the industry, but they do think about it — a lot. Zack, in particular, is worried about the Brewers Guild.

Although Chain Reaction is only two years old, the Christoffersons are part of Denver’s old guard when it comes to the modern wave of craft breweries. They’re closer in proximity to breweries like Strange, Wit’s End and Renegade, which were among the first of the new-style taprooms to open in town. They have helped and been helped by all of them. They have a lot of allegiances, a lot of friends.

This month, the state’s 220 guild members have the opportunity to tell the organization how they see the industry’s future. The guild is negotiating with its new competitor, Craft Beer Colorado, to see if they might form a third organization that would reunite them all. Zack and Chad would like that to happen. “Hopefully everyone can get up and remember what it’s all about,” Zack says.

Craft Beer Colorado includes the four largest breweries in the state: New Belgium, Odell, Left Hand and Oskar Blues. “We need the big guys as much as they need us small guys,” Zack adds. “We are all brewers. Brewers fix things. We should be able to fix this.”

TRVE Brewing owner Nick Nunns does what he wants.
TRVE Brewing owner Nick Nunns does what he wants.
Jonathan Shikes

12:10 p.m.
The Acid Temple
2620 West Second Avenue

Nick Nunns flies through the open garage door of his 8,000-square-foot Valverde neighborhood warehouse on his road bike, rounds a corner past a pair of 1,300-gallon wooden foeders (for aging beer) and a drum kit (he plays), and comes to a sudden halt at a huge desk that serves as TRVE’s office. He pulls a bunch of foil-wrapped Illegal Pete’s burritos out of his backpack and hands them around the room — fortification for his crew. Today they’ll be bottling a new batch of Buried Sun, a mixed-culture farmhouse ale, and wrestling with a high-tech Meheen bottling line.

Nunns opened TRVE in 2011 in a former art gallery on Broadway, and has since built a solid clientele of heavy-metal music lovers, Broadway hipsters, beer geeks and other locals. Although the brewery has the look and feel, and pulsating sounds, of a black-metal clubhouse — complete with a goat’s-head altar and a bathroom sign that reads, “Employees must carve Slayer into forearms before returning to work” — the staff behind the bar is all about smiles and beer knowledge.

In 2012, Nunns started brewing sours to accompany his other beers and hired Zach Coleman to run a wood-barrel aging program. It was a good move. Sales of sour beers funded this warehouse and a second brewhouse, the Acid Temple, where TRVE’s real work gets done. “Sour beers is what made this possible. This place wouldn’t exist without that,” Nunns says, looking around the Acid Temple warehouse space.

But Nunns didn’t brew sour beers because people cried out for them. He brewed them because he wanted to. That’s how he’s always gone about his business. Nunns doesn’t do many festivals. He doesn’t have a distributor, and he plans to keep it that way. He plays the music he wants to play, and he probably won’t turn it down if you ask him. He helps other breweries in Denver, but he’s also refused to help if he was too busy. He doesn’t suffer fools, and he doesn’t worry about hurting people’s feelings when he posts his thoughts about craft brewing on Facebook. “I like everybody,” he says. “I don’t say things in a mean-spirited way, but I speak my mind. I don’t pussyfoot around.”

That’s why TRVE was one of the only small breweries to leave the guild and join Craft Beer Colorado after it formed in June. He was simply frustrated with the way the guild was operating, Nunns says. He also thinks that Denver could use its own guild for small breweries, since so many of the city’s breweries are very small. But that might be something to do later. For now, he’s brewing and bottling beer.

TRVE will brew 800 barrels of beer this year, but demand for sours from the Acid Temple is so strong, that number is likely to grow by 50 percent or more in 2017. Nunns also has plans to distribute out of state; he’s already dropped beer in Washington and North Carolina, and is looking at Massachusetts next. As a result, he doesn’t much care about whether Colorado grocery stores are allowed to sell full-strength beer or not.
“It’s not my fight. I’m not doing canned IPAs,” he says. “The supermarkets don’t carry us anyway. I’ll be in Whole Foods, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s. That’s where I shop.”

Declaration Brewing.
Declaration Brewing.
Jonathan Shikes

1:35 p.m.
Declaration Brewing
2030 South Cherokee Street

Mike Blandford doesn’t really understand why so many breweries have been so opposed to supermarkets and grocery stores being allowed to sell full-strength beer. “It was inevitable. I don’t think it hurts breweries at all. Every other state does it,” he says, then pauses, thinking about how the new law might deal a serious blow to many Colorado liquor stores. “But you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, I guess. You want to be responsible, support the retailers.”

Those retailers are going to be important to Declaration, which just secured two buildings next door to its taproom. With this expansion, it plans to add grain silos, expand beer production and ramp up operations for its own distribution company, Liberty Craft Beverages. The goal of the silos is to help other small breweries in Denver buy grain in bulk so that they can get a price benefit. The distribution company is going to be designed to showcase other small breweries, and might even include a taproom.

“We need each other to be successful,” Blandford says of the other beer makers in the neighborhood. “The better a reputation we get down here, the more we will draw from River North.”

Declaration has certainly enjoyed a measure of success. When it opened in early 2015, Blandford and co-owner Greg Schlichting, both of whom have engineering backgrounds, went big. They bought a twenty-barrel, four-vessel brewing system as well as several large fermenters, installed a quality-control lab, made various technology upgrades and put environmentally friendly practices in place. They also built an enormous, well-decorated taproom (which recently took on the name Preamble at Declaration) and a spacious patio.

Shortly thereafter, they began canning beer. They now package six varieties, including an IPA, a double IPA, a Scottish ale and a strawberry wheat. To accommodate all that canning, they are buying one of the first beer-canning lines made by Golden’s Codi Manufacturing. This year, Declaration will brew about 4,000 barrels, and it’s started distributing to the ski town of Jackson, Wyoming. Next year it will brew 10,000 barrels, and it has plans to expand distribution into other ski towns in Utah, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico.

Blandford, who ran an action-sports clothing line before opening the brewery, has a lot of friends and colleagues in the skiing and snowboarding industry, and his beers have taken hold in that world. “We take more of a lifestyle approach, and people dig that,” he says.

People dig Declaration, too, though they can’t always find it, tucked away as it is on Cherokee Street. But that is changing as the city and developers revamp buildings, parks and streets on all sides of the brewery.
“It’s important to keep people in this neighborhood longer,” Blandford says. “And we want to help give this neighborhood the attention it deserves.”

Platt Park Brewing is a neighborhood hot spot.
Platt Park Brewing is a neighborhood hot spot.
Jonathan Shikes

3:15 p.m.
Platt Park Brewing
1875 South Pearl Street

Greg Matthews likes to brew on Fridays. “It’s cathartic,” he says, “to end the week doing what I love.”

Today he’s brewing Madagascar Dream, a light cream ale made with vanilla beans. It’s one of Platt Park’s most popular offerings. “As soon as I brew it, I rack it,” he says of the beer, which is also on tap at bars and restaurants. “I struggle to keep up.”

Even harder is keeping up the quality. “An IPA takes 22 days, damn it, not eighteen,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you want it now.”

Matthews, who has worked in California and Colorado, brews three to five times per week on his ten-barrel system, keeping the neighborhood spot loaded with beer. The rest of the time, he troubleshoots draft lines or makes sure he’s filling out tax paperwork. He also works the front of the house, greeting customers, pouring pints, washing glasses and keeping the tables and the bar clean.

Like most brewers, Matthews has a glass of beer nearby in the afternoon. And like most brewers, he’s chosen one of the lowest-alcohol beers on the menu — in this case, half a glass of Platt’s Pillow Fight Pilsner, which has a rich, foamy head and an ABV of 5.3 percent.

He’s not the only one who wants a beer. It’s just after 3 p.m. on a weekday, and already the taproom is nearly one-third full. The customers are drinking Vienna lager, coffee porter, IPAs and a watermelon Berliner weisse. “At our level, it’s all about innovation,” Matthews says.

Platt Park does about 70 percent of its business in the taproom. The other 30 percent comes from outside accounts. “They drive people back to the taproom,” Matthews explains. Platt Park doesn’t can or bottle its beer, though this week it will begin selling beer to go, thanks to a new Crowler machine. And Matthews hasn’t ruled out packaging entirely. “But I don’t want to take that step and then fall on my face,” he admits.
In the meantime, there’s more cream ale to make.

Black Sky Brewery.
Black Sky Brewery.
Jonathan Shikes

4:20 p.m.
Black Sky Brewery
490 Santa Fe Drive

The special today is chicken-enchilada soup, but most people come to Black Sky for pizza and beer. One of Denver’s few new brewpubs (meaning it makes its own food in addition to beer), Black Sky has a small brewhouse, a bar, a pleasant patio and a hot kitchen, where two or three people are slinging pies for the rush-hour crowd. The ambiance is nothing to scream about — unless you like heavy-metal music, in which case the gory album posters will make you feel right at home.

But most people feel at home here anyway. This afternoon there are as many ear gauges as neckties, as many sleeve tattoos as pairs of khaki pants. “It surprised me. It’s pretty much everybody,” says Harry Smith, who opened Black Sky in 2013 with his wife, Lila Mackey. “A lot of parents come in here during the day for pizza with their kids. We get the heavy-metal guys at night. It’s diverse from beginning to end. I didn’t think we would get that.”

He also didn’t expect to be located where he is, just a block from Breckenridge Brewery’s old headquarters on Kalamath Street, where Smith was a lead brewer for twelve years. “I really enjoyed working there and their style of what they did,” he recalls. “But there was no creativity for me as a brewer, because we had to make everything specifically the way it was supposed to be made. I wanted to do something different. I was getting to the point where it was just a product. The craft part of the beer just wasn’t there anymore.”

Now Smith can do what he wants. “Today, we have an empty fermenter, and we were standing here and saying, ‘What do you make now?’ We bounced a bunch of ideas off each other because we can do anything,” he says. “So we are going to make a Belgian-style red, just because we can.”

Last December, AB InBev, which makes Budweiser, announced that it was buying Breckenridge Brewery, which had moved six months earlier from Kalamath to a twelve-acre, $36 million Littleton campus. The news hit Smith hard. “I was sick to my stomach,” he says. “I love those guys — they’re my family. But this was just appalling. After all that time just doing things on your own — I understand that it’s hard to turn down that much money — but after working that hard to be yourself, to do things your way, it was a bad decision.”

Black Sky is growing, too, but at Smith’s pace. “We might hit 500 hundred barrels this year,” he says. “The demand is always there. Every once in a while, we get new kegs or a new tank. But I never want to be big. Being in production for so long, it’s never something I wanted to get into.”

It’s more important to be able to call your brewery neighbor up the street and borrow a bag of malt or some yeast and trade tips on how to make beer better. “It’s a blast,” Smith says. “It’s different and fun, and the whole reason we got into it.” And he likes the competition, too: “The more breweries there are, it breeds better beer. When I go somewhere and taste something that is the best beer I’ve ever had, I want to make something just as good, or better. It’s friendly competition and good competition.”

Find big beers in little glasses at Fermaentra.
Find big beers in little glasses at Fermaentra.
Jonathan Shikes

5:35 p.m.
Fermaentra Brewing
1715 East Evans Avenue

Garage doors thrown open to the Colorado sunshine. Food truck parked out front. Brick and wood and stainless steel. A dozen or so choices, from a Russian imperial stout to a Belgian witbier to a dry-hopped IPA on the chalkboard beer menu. Right now this is one of the most familiar scenes in Denver — in all of Colorado, for that matter.

Tucked into a spot on East Evans Avenue, next to a Snarf’s and across the street from an Illegal Pete’s, Fermaentra Brewing screams Colorado from the outside. It does the same on the inside, where there’s a woman sitting alone with a beer and a laptop, six people at the bar chatting, and a group of seven men at one of the tables, each with three, four or five tulip-shaped tasting glasses in front of them.

Founded in late 2014 by Spencer O’Bryan and Brennan Mann, Fermaentra is in the heart of the University of Denver’s territory, but it doesn’t get a lot of college kids — they hit the Stadium Inn down the street for cheap beer. Instead, the brewery is usually full of locals from the neighborhood just to the north, a few graduate students and Denver beer drinkers looking to try something new.

Neither owner is here right now; both have full-time jobs elsewhere, and both are dads. As a result, they don’t get out as often as they’d like. But they still take care of the brewing operations by themselves, mostly at unusual hours. “Swing by on a Tuesday at midnight and you might find me cleaning kegs,” O’Bryan says by phone.

Last year, Fermaentra hit 350 barrels. This year it will do 450 to 500. “It’s beyond our expectations from when we first started, but it’s still pretty modest compared to others,” O’Bryan says. “Like a lot of breweries, we’re at a crossroads right now.” The two owners don’t care that they haven’t pushed outside sales very hard, but one of their goals for 2017 is to get into more restaurants and even a few liquor stores, in bottles and maybe in cans. The problem is that those outside accounts always want the same beer. “That doesn’t help, because it cuts down on the variety that our neighborhood customers are used to,” O’Bryan explains. “Right now we enjoy a lot of freedom.”

O’Bryan and Mann also want to get more involved with the Colorado Brewers Guild. They haven’t participated much so far — and because they are new, they don’t always feel like they have the right to speak up, especially with all the recent drama. “Most of the things that affect breweries like us aren’t being discussed,” O’Bryan says, then admits that it’s on him “to be more proactive and have an effect. If small breweries don’t get involved, then there won’t be very much attention paid to us.”

O’Bryan’s biggest goal for 2017, though, is to get out more. He attends as many events with fellow brewers as he can, but he misses many more. “The hard part is time,” he says. “But for us, it’s important to support our friends — and to drink beer. To be honest, I just really enjoy drinking beer.”

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