Here’s a bit of local knowledge: When Great Divide Brewing opened in 1994, owner Brian Dunn was taking a huge risk. Although it seems strange to think about now, there weren’t any breweries in Denver back then that didn’t also serve food. There were no brewery taphouses or craft-beer bars or tasting rooms. Great Divide started out with just two beers that Dunn had worked on in his kitchen, but just a decade later, the brewery was a well-recognized medal winner and a leader when it came to trying new styles.
Today, the brewery is the largest in Denver, with brands like Yeti and Titan and Colette that are sold in thirteen states across the country. Great Divide has two taprooms, state-of-the art equipment and packaging lines, the capacity to make 60,000 barrels of beer per year, and plans to eventually build a $38 million brewery and restaurant on five acres of land it purchased in 2014 along Brighton Boulevard in River North.
All of that growth and change means that Great Divide isn’t as nimble as it once was. It’s a stiffness that is hurting medium-sized and large craft-beer makers nationwide as the sheer number of small neighborhood breweries continues to grow: There are now more than 5,000 breweries in the United States.
Still, while Great Divide is an old dog, it is trying to learn new tricks, says spokeswoman Shannon Berner.
One of those tricks is Local Knowledge, a planned series of beers that will be packaged in bottled six-packs, but only available for a short period of time in Great Divide’s two locations, the original brewery taproom and the Barrel Bar on Brighton Boulevard. The first of those, a hazy, New England-style IPA, debuts Saturday. An apricot Colette will be released in May, followed by a raspberry sour in June. Each six-pack will include a bookmark with a tip or trick from a Denver local — thus the name of the series — about places to eat and drink, things to see and do. The suggestions come from beer writers, Great Divide employees, beer drinkers and other party people.
“We have beer coming off of our pilot system all the time...but they are usually one and done, without getting a lot of attention or promotion,” Berner says. The beers that are brewed on this seven-barrel system — as opposed to Great Divide’s much larger production equipment — are often created by employees who are experimenting or having fun, or by brewers who are working on new recipe ideas. Packaging these small-batch beers isn’t easy or efficient, though, since Great Divide is focused on its major brands.
But last year, Great Divide, along with many other breweries in Colorado, noticed how craft-beer lovers were choosing to line up at breweries like Lafayette’s Odd13 Brewing and Greeley’s Weldwerks in order to get their hands on tasty offerings that were made in such small quantities that they would never see distribution.
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“There has obviously been a lot of enthusiasm for places like that,” Berner says. “We have had excitement about our beer releases as well, but we realized the trend that people aren’t just going to breweries to drink beer in the taproom. They also like to take away something that they can’t get anywhere else.
“It’s not the easiest thing for us to fit into the production and packaging schedule, but if that is what the consumer wants, it was important for us to find a way to make that happen,” she adds.
The packaged bottles will last longer and come in smaller sizes than growlers and Crowlers, which are usually poured into 32- or 64-ounce containers and only stay fresh for a few days. “There are only twenty cases of each beer available,” Berner says. “So each of our taprooms is only getting ten cases.”
As for the name of the series and the tips, Berner adds that “people come to the taproom all the time and ask the bartenders for recommendations about what to do and where to go around town, even if they live here. That is what sparked the idea to name it Local Knowledge and include some of those recommendations with the package.… It’s insider scoop, the kind of stuff you don’t read in a guidebook.”