One third of the small businesses that opened across the country in 2010 had closed by the end of 2012. Half of them will be gone by the end of this year. Those numbers, which are kept by the U.S. Department of Labor, stay roughly the same year in and year out for new ventures. So when Tim Myers opened Strange Brewing in a nondescript strip of commercial buildings near the underside of a viaduct in Denver that year, there was only a 50 percent chance that he'd still be pumping out beer by the brewery's fifth anniversary.
Today, Strange Brewing — now called Strange Craft Beer Company — will celebrate that milestone with a party. “Our main goal still, even after five years, is not to run out of anything,” says Myers. Which isn't any easy task. Because even after a couple of expansions, Strange only plans to make about 900 barrels of beer this year.
But that's how Myers likes it. Strange famously started with a tiny, one-barrel brewing system – which meant he worked very hard the first year. But he also started without any debt. “I was hyper-conservative because we had been laid off in the middle of the recession,” he says of himself and co-founder John Fletcher, who both worked for the Rocky Mountain News before losing their jobs when the paper closed in 2009.
Still, the brewery has been a poster child for what not do – something that Myers has always stressed to the would-be brewers who have followed his lead, the brewers who continue to rely on him for advice on all aspects of running a brewery tap room. Over the years, Strange's owners have dealt with zoning, permitting and paperwork problems; a high-profile trademark battle; a name change and plenty of competition. Still, Strange has grown by 25 to 35 percent each year, won medals and built a position as the grizzled grandfather of Denver's exploding tap-room scene. “After only five years,” Myers says.
“Tim is the epitome of a small brewery success story and is a pleasure to point to,” says Julia Herz of the Boulder-based Brewers Association, the nationwide trade group for craft brewers. “He is not taking over the world, just doing things they way he wants to.”
As Myers tells the story, it was Herz who “cornered” him at the Craft Brewers Conference in the spring of 2010 and convinced him to open his doors during American Craft Beer Week that year; this year's version of that nationwide celebration of the craft-brewing industry just ended on May 17 – but the party will continue at Strange through its birthday.
And that anniversary will symbolize more than just one business's success. In the years since Strange began pouring pints – kicking off Denver's version of what is often referred to as the “fourth wave” of craft brewing – at least 45 other small breweries have opened inside Denver city limits. Not a single one of those has closed. (Del Norte Brewing, which opened before Strange in 2007, closed in 2012.)
“It's pretty astonishing, but we are still in a growth phase where those long-term equilibrium rates don't apply,” says Brewers Association economist Bart Watson in reference to the labor department numbers. “Right now, breweries are far more successful than businesses in other industries, but it's unrealistic to expect that in the long run. We will reach a point down the road when new entrants will fail at a higher rate; it's a natural cycle. People need to be prepared for that.”
But in the meantime, breweries are still opening and growing in response to what Watson says is a “pent-up demand.” In 2014, 615 breweries opened across the country – while only 46 closed. “That's pretty astonishing,” he says.
Numbers don't mean much to Myers, though. If they did, he might have been daunted by other Colorado brewery owners who warned him back in 2009 and 2010 that he'd need at least $2.5 million to get started. But that was because those breweries were all packaging in order to make a profit, rather than relying on tap rooms and bar-top customers.
Now it's hard to imagine Denver, or the rest of Colorado, without a brewery tap room or two in every town and neighborhood. “But at that time, no one was charging for a pint over the counter,” says Myers, who points out that breweries like New Belgium, Great Divide and Left Hand were giving away free tasters at their locations as a marketing tool. “The only brewery that was doing what I wanted to do back then was Dry Dock.”
In fact, Dry Dock will celebrate its tenth anniversary this year in Aurora. The brewery is often credited with pioneering the tap-room business model in the Denver area.
But many more have followed in Strange's footsteps. Myers welcomes all of them – usually with advice and suggestions – and believes that Denver can handle at least twenty or thirty more breweries. When Renegade Brewing opened just a mile and a half away in 2011, “People said they would brew us out of business,” remembers Myers. But the opposite happened. Rather than stealing his customers, the other brewery made the area more of a destination for craft-happy drinkers from all over the city.
These days, breweries have opened within blocks of one another in some neighborhoods, and the result has been the same for the most part. “We're nowhere near saturation,” says Myers. “We can beat Portland, I think, and they have eighty-some breweries.
But he does believe that new breweries will have to distinguish themselves now that there are so many of them. “You have to set yourself apart. You can't brew the same-old, same-old,” he says. And that is something Myers works on as well. In 2013, he brewed 65 different beers, including a series of one-offs that were served each Wednesday. In 2014, that number decreased to 55 different beers – or roughly one new one per week.
“I felt bad,” Myers says with a smile.
But he doesn't plan to cut down on the experimentation. “Even though we have a ten-barrel system now, I hope people see us as a brewery that has stuck to its homebrewing roots and one that is willing to try new things," he explains.
“And I hope they still see us as the little guys.”