This is the beeriest week of the year in Denver, and perhaps any city in the United States, with more than 700 breweries -- along with a horde of faithful fans -- descending on downtown for the 32nd annual Great American Beer Festival, beginning on October 2. The GABF is a great opportunity for this state's beer makers to put their best products in the national spotlight; more than 130 breweries from Colorado alone will be pouring ales and lagers. Tiny Wit's End Brewing -- which brews on a one-barrel system -- will be one of them, hoping for attention and maybe even medals for the five beers it will be serving.
"It's nerve-wracking," says Wit's End founder Scott Witsoe, who notes that criticism from judges can sting as much as winning can bring elation. The two weeks leading up to the judging portion of the festival were fraught with worry, as Witsoe and his team -- one part-time and two full-time employees -- tasted and re-tasted each beer to make sure it was the perfect choice for bottling and mailing to the contest. And at the same time, they were also preparing for the brewery's third-anniversary party, where they served twelve beers to regulars and newcomers.
"I was blown away by the incredible support from customers," Witsoe reflects. "None of this happens without folks coming in."
Witsoe grew up in Seattle, one of the birthplaces of the modern craft-brewing movement. But his love of beer started during trips to Germany with his mom, who was born in the southern part of that beer-loving country. He lists a well-crafted helles, a malty German style of lager that unfortunately doesn't travel well, among his all-time favorites. In Seattle, he had an "a-ha" moment the first time he tasted an ESB from Redhook, an early Washington microbrewery that opened in 1981. And as a student at the University of Washington, he spent many nights at the Trolleyman Pub near the campus, trying to wrap his head around the flavors. "Back then, it was a malty, hoppy, fruity, crazy thing," he remembers.
He toyed with the idea of brewing his own beer, but he was put off by the attitude of a Seattle homebrew shop he visited. "They weren't friendly," he says, "and I felt like an outsider."
And he soon was: After layoffs in the aerospace industry, where he worked, Witsoe and his wife decided to give Denver a go, making a deal with each other to give the city at least five years. When a friend here shared some good homemade beer with him, Witsoe decided to try brewing his own. His first batch of homebrew was a revelation, he says: "I remember it so vividly. The aroma, the sound of cracking the first bottle. It truly felt like falling in love."
Still, it was three years before he felt like he was making beers good enough to stand up to what the pros were producing -- and all along he was buying bigger and more expensive pieces of brewing equipment. The investment had run into thousands of dollars before he had everything assembled for a scaled-up recipe. But even then, things didn't go quite as planned. "The first batch was a disaster and took thirteen hours," he recalls. But he kept working on it, and when he was laid off again from a corporate job, he made the commitment to go pro -- with his wife's encouragement. A month after he lost his job in March 2011, he'd signed a lease on his warehouse space.
"Once the lease was signed, I thought, 'Shit, this just got real,'" he recalls. Witsoe served his first beer to a Wit's End customer just six months later. During those six months, he'd done everything himself -- working at the brewery twelve hours a day, six days a week, and putting in more time planning once he got home every night. "I tried not to talk to people who told me it wouldn't work," he says, joking that those early months were all about "passion, energy and ignorance."
Now, even during busy times like the last couple of weeks, "I look around and think, 'I get to run a brewery.' I'll always respect that," he says.
Keep reading for more about Scott Witsoe and Wit's End Brewing.
This past spring Wit's End invested in a seven-barrel system; since then, it's been experimenting with scaling up recipes and production. Witsoe and his team are still brewing on the one-barrel system, but he plans to move production over to the bigger system by the end of this year and use the smaller setup for experimental beers, which he approaches with the mind of a cook.
For Witsoe, brewing is an art as well as a science -- but since he was never much of a scientist, he leans toward the artistic side of the endeavor. Like a sommelier, he enjoys pairing food and beer, "looking for that third flavor," as he puts it, where the cuisine and the beverage come together.
Since his brewery is close to Federal Boulevard, he shops for exotic ingredients at a nearby Vietnamese market and finds spices and sugars at an Indian grocery a little further south. Recently he brewed a batch of beer using eight pounds of tamarind paste; he also includes Indian jaggery sugar in a semi-regular English-style ESB called Mick Jaggery. One of the brewery's other standards is the Ambition stout, which uses Kaladi Brothers coffee beans for an extra dose of rich, dark flavor. Thinking about how Italians enjoy a lemon twist with their espressos, Witsoe once roasted a batch of lemons and added them to the stout for a one-off beer intended to conjure that unique combination of citrus and roasty flavors.
Witsoe loves Asian food as well as beer, and he enjoys the Chinese dim sum restaurants in the area, which remind him of Seattle. His favorite is Super Star Asian, but he also hits King's Land with bigger groups or for family outings. He jokes that it would be amazing to have a dim sum cart rolling through the tap room on a busy Saturday.
But Witsoe appreciates his brewery's location for reasons other than the food and shopping. It's close to his home, for one, and the rent in this warehouse district tucked between Sixth and Alameda avenues is considerably lower than in retail areas or even warehouses in hipper locations. He also has a great relationship with his landlords -- the Lombardi brothers, who used to own Duffy's Shamrock downtown -- and was able to land a one-year lease when he first opened, which was important because he wasn't sure he'd be able to keep the brewery open for even a year. But he managed, and this west-side industrial area has been growing in popularity with beer drinkers as well as brewers: Renegade on West Eighth Avenue and Strange Craft Beer on Zuni have both been open for several years, and newcomer Chain Reaction opened earlier this year just to the south.
"The camaraderie in the industry, the help and incredible support" has been the most surprising aspect of turning pro, Witsoe says. "It's an honor to be a part of that." He points to Great Divide as one of the town's models for success, but almost every brewery he's visited has something great to offer: "I'd put Denver up against any city in terms of quality and diversity."
Producing events, brewing three to five barrels a week and setting up his seven-barrel system are keeping Witsoe busy, but he hasn't stopped making plans. He'd like to bring in a mobile canner at some point to begin packaging beer for distribution while continuing to serve one glass at a time at the tap room. That space, filled with pop-culture detritus like a Darth Vader figurine and a set of Jarts (still in the original package), reflects the owner's eclectic and '80s-oriented personality. "It feels like an extension of me," he says, mentioning the cult-movie classics he projects on one wall during tap-room hours and the fermentation tanks named for A-Team characters.
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Although getting rich isn't really part of the plan, Witsoe wants to grow enough so that he and his employees -- current and future -- can feel good about the money they make while also feeling good about their quality of life, work-life balance and producing something by hand. Concludes Witsoe: "I want to do this in a feasible way for the rest of my life."