Avery Brewing's got good taste — and the science to back it up

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But his passions lay elsewhere — in rock climbing and in homebrewing. So when two friends who'd already gone to law school warned Adam that the legal profession might not be the right choice for him, he came up with another career path. "I talked to my dad and to another guy, and $90,000 later, we were in business," Adam remembers. That was in 1993, and twenty years later, Avery is still located in the same office park where it was founded — and still makes two of the three beers that Adam originally created: Ellie's Brown Ale and Out of Bounds Stout. (A third, Redpoint Amber Ale, is no longer in production.)

Avery didn't make a profit for the first ten years, growing slowly, if at all, but Adam planted the seeds for his success — and reputation — early by delving into some big, bold beer styles that most breweries weren't touching at the time, including its barley wine, Hog Heaven; its Belgian quadrupel, the Reverend; and Salvation, a Belgian golden ale.

Over the past five years, Avery has become best known for these specialty, barrel-aged and high-alcohol beers — creations that attract a cult following not just in Colorado, but with beer lovers across the country, who scour liquor stores and bars for brews like Maharaja, a double IPA that is both powerful and intricately delicate; Mephistopheles, an imperial stout that weighs in at around 16 percent ABV; and the Barrel Series of super-limited, one-off sour and wild ales.

And the company's growth — from twenty employees in 2010 to 91 today — has allowed it to plan for a new, $27 million, 68,000-square-foot campus in north Boulder. The project, which was announced in 2011, has been delayed by financial and bureaucratic factors, but it is now on track to break ground by the end of the year and could open in late 2014 or early 2015.

But specialty beers account for just a small percentage of Avery's output. The vast majority is its lineup of year-round "core" beers — two of which, White Rascal and Avery IPA, make up a whopping 60 percent of the brewery's annual production.

They're not Avery's sexiest beers, but that doesn't matter: Every Avery batch has to be perfect — or close to it — every time. If the batch doesn't have certain characteristics, what the brewery calls "specifications," then it doesn't leave the building. In 2012, Avery dumped 7 percent of all the beer it made because it didn't taste the way the brewery wanted it to taste, says Avery national marketing director Darin McGregor.

Determining whether the beer meets the specifications is a job that falls to Rob Christiansen. He heads up the quality-assurance department, which has a $300,000-plus annual budget and includes five people in addition to Christiansen: two biologists, a chemist, Antone and a yeast specialist and propagator. It's a huge staff for a brewery of Avery's size.

A molecular biologist by training, Christiansen has been at Avery for nearly eight years, and he cares a lot about the way his beer tastes and looks. He once found a shelf full of Avery anniversary beers going back seven years in a liquor store in Houston. Most were beers that weren't supposed to be aged. So he bought them all and dumped them. "That's just not how you want people to be experiencing your beer," he says.

Last year, Avery's brain trust started talking more and more about introducing a sensory panel to complement the technology they were already using. Technology like a cellometer, which counts the yeast cells and measures their health; a spectrophotometer, which uses light absorption to test for chemicals that produce off flavors, not to mention the bitterness of hops; and other meters that test for whether oxygen or CO2 has dissolved into the beer.

"But sensory panels are very expensive to set up," Christiansen says. There's the cost of the training and taking people out of their normal jobs to do the tasting, as well as purchasing the necessary supplies, like the flavor capsules that Antone drops into pitchers of beer during her sessions. "But we were always talking about it and about what we would be able to do when we had one," he continues, "and so finally we felt like it was ridiculous to wait any longer."

The sensory lab has now become one of the most important tools in the quality-assurance program. "You can have a whole bunch of things in a lab that tell you what's in the beer, but if it doesn't taste good, none of those things matter," Christiansen says. "That's where sensory comes in. That's the human part of the equation."

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes