When Black Shirt Brewing opened just over a year ago, it had limited hours, a glorified homebrewing system and three owners with fulltime jobs elsewhere -- but plenty of ambition. One year later, the RiNo brewery, which only makes red ales, has become an integral part of Denver's ever-expanding craft-beer scene and just completed a major expansion that will give it an even bigger presence.
Part of that expansion is physical. Black Shirt now has a fifteen-barrel brewing system (its second expansion in 2013) and six thirty-barrel fermenters. It purchased a canning line (from Boulder's Wild Goose Engineering, which has also supplied Dry Dock, Uplsope, Sanitas, Caution and others) that will allow it to begin selling four flagship beers to liquor stores -- and allow customers to take those beers with them wherever they go.
But part of it is about community-building, says co-owner Branden Miller, who took time out from moving tanks around to answer the questions below:
Westword: The equipment is expensive, especially the canning line. What enabled you to upgrade?
Branden Miller: A year's worth of huge support from our community as well as a bank and a manufacturer that really believe in us, our beer, our perseverance, and our ability to go to this next level. It has been an incredible year for us as a company, and the response to our beer has been overwhelming. Since day one, people have been asking us to open more days/hours and to take our beer to go.
Until very recently that hasn't been an option because we have been running so thin. However, my assistant brewer Adam, my brother Chad, our newest employee Ian, and I have really pushed ourselves and have been able to catch up to current demand, dig deeper into the Red Ale Project, and package a decent bit of our beer to go in counter-pressure filled growlers, though they're cost-prohibitive and laborious. We're not ones to back away from a challenge or shy away from hard work, but we also realized that to get our beer beyond the walls of the brewery and to reach new audiences, we needed a bigger system and a faster packaging line.
How fast is your canning line, what will you can, and when?
It was manufactured by Wild Goose Engineering in Boulder and it is an expandable system as well -- meaning it can grow as we grow. In its current configuration, if everything is optimal, it can fill forty cans per minute. We have labels approved for four cans and are currently going through the process of art extraction and preparation for Ball Manufacturing to begin production. It's been a long, expensive process, but hopefully we are on the downhill slide. We will be packaging in six-packs, twelve-ounce cans, and we're eying the first part of 2014 for release.
As for the beers, we'll be canning our Colorado Red Ale, Red Saison, India Red Ale and Red Porter. These beers represent the brewery really well, give us a great range of flavors, and are definitely our most popular.
Early on, you were afraid about the beer being sold off-premises because it changes the nature of the drinking experience and could impact the quality. Did you change your mind, or had you always planned to package in cans?
Part of this is true, especially our belief that tasting our beer in the place that it is made, with our dedicated and educated staff guiding the way, and with our intention to elevate the experience to a whole new level, can't be topped. We have always had that goal in mind. We want people to come to our brewery and be inspired and blown away.
As for off-site sales, our first priority has always been and always will be our brewery and our tap room, and everything else will happen when we're ready. Our hesitation in putting beer out to other restaurants and bars has been a product of our dedication and commitment to perfection. Quite simply, we wanted to know that the beer we are putting out is perfect. Once it leaves our hands, it's no longer in our control, and we have to feel confident that it can stand on its own. That means that the color and clarity are right, the carbonation is perfect, the flavors and aromas are spot-on. This takes time. None of us [with the exception of our assistant brewer Adam] has ever worked in a commercial brewery -- we're all homebrewers with more ambition than we know what to do with. So we've moved slowly but methodically and intentionally with off-site sales. We are finally at a point where we are ready. We won't stop our constant pursuit of perfection and, yes, the beers will continue to evolve over time, but we're ready to share on a larger stage.
How many people are you hiring?
When we opened, we all had other fulltime jobs. I was the first to go full time at the brewery, then my sister-in-law, Carissa; and finally in August my brother Chad was able to join the brewery full time. We've also hired a great assistant brewer, Adam; two wonderful taproom employees, Andrea and Cassie; as well as our newest employee, Ian, who is both bussing and assisting in the brewhouse and cellar. So the brewery is currently supporting seven employees and we'll probably be adding to both the tap room and the production area in the next few months.
Are there other upgrades/changes in the works, or is this it for now?
We have another project that we are working on, but it's too early to start telling anything about it. Stay tuned. As for adding anything else in the brewery, let's hope not for a while. This has been a huge undertaking and I think we are all excited to take off the construction hats and start brewing again.
Westword's Beer Man on Twitter at @ColoBeerMan and on Facebook at Colo BeerMan
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