Before hazy IPAs and pastry stouts swept the nation, before sour ales went mainstream and bomber bottles were overwhelmed by cans from trendy new breweries, there was a single beer maker in Colorado with the most cachet, the longest lines and the geekiest fans: Avery Brewing.
On rare but highly anticipated weekends beginning in 2009, Avery would host releases for the latest beer in its Barrel Aged Series — or “gold foils,” as they were called, because of the elegant little foil tops that Avery placed over the bottle caps — and they would draw hundreds of frenzied beer fans, who would wait in sprawling lines outside the brewery’s ramshackle cluster of buildings in Boulder. The first of these highly experimental beers was Brabant, a wild ale fermented with Brettanomyces yeast and aged in Zinfandel barrels. The next was Sui Generis, a sour blend aged in Cabernet, Chardonnay, Port and bourbon barrels. From there, the concoctions got weirder as the brewery continued to play with yeast and souring agents, ingredients, styles and barrels.
Each gold foil was more sought after than the last, and at each release was the almost-always smiling face of Andy Parker. A former keg washer at Kona Brewing in Hawaii, Parker took a job with Avery in 2003 and moved up the ladder, becoming a brewer soon after. In 2007, he asked Avery founder Adam Avery if he would buy thirty empty wine barrels for an experiment — and the Barrel Aged Series was born.
But in January, after eighteen years and 59 gold foil releases — not to mention a wide-ranging career spent helping craft Avery’s wide variety of other beers, from major flagships to niche offerings to small-batch one-offs — Parker, who became known as the Barrel Herder, left Avery for a newly created position of Director of Brewery Innovation at Denver Beer Co. In this job, Parker will oversee recipe creation and brewing at DBC’s LoHi and Arvada taprooms, as well as the soon-to-open third taproom in Denver’s Rosedale neighborhood and Cerveceria Colorado, a DBC offshoot that focuses on beers brewed with Mexican ingredients.
The move is a fascinating one for several reasons. For starters, it symbolically closes the book on Avery’s once-vaunted position as Colorado’s king of barrel-aged beers — a legacy that includes high-alcohol hall-of-famers like Uncle Jacob’s Stout, Rumpkin and Tweak. It’s also a high-profile statement-hire for Denver Beer Co., which is more often seen as a backyard partier’s brewery than a geeky destination for experimental beers.
Before he was hired, Parker says, he didn’t know that much about DBC aside from having tried a few of its beers, but he felt like the job description had been written specifically for him — especially since it called for talents that were no longer in demand at Avery. “The nature of the business at Avery has changed over the last four years,” he says, and not just because the brewery was purchased in 2017 by Spanish brewery conglomerate Mahou San Miguel. “It’s more that they have this big facility and they need to be filling these massive 800-hectoliter tanks and finding ways to sell that beer. My skill set isn’t as useful for that.”
The change began four or five years ago when the sheer number of new breweries opening across the country made it difficult for existing beer makers to play catch-up and compete. At the same time, Avery had just made a stunning move to a 5.6-acre, $30 million campus and taken on a lot of debt. The brewery's first idea at the intersection of this change and growth was to take barrel-aged beers into the mainstream, so Avery scaled up its barrel collection to around 4,000 barrels. But instead of relying on the the high-ABV specialty beers that had made Avery famous (and were no longer selling well), the brewery began producing more approachable barrel-aged offerings, including Vanilla Bean Stout, Raspberry Sour and Tangerine Quad.
When that strategy didn't work well, Avery tried again, this time with two canned beers: Night Warden, a whiskey barrel-aged stout; and Pomona, a barrel-aged tart ale with pomegranate and blueberry. But it also re-molded its beer lineup with seltzers and hazy IPAs, mirroring every other brewery. “We tried to swing for the fences and go really big. But for any number of reasons, it didn’t quite work out that way,” Parker says.
The barrel program now includes just 500 barrels, Parker adds, and although Avery will continue to create beers for its Barrel Series, it won't do so as frequently as before. “When I gave my resignation, it was zero hard feelings. Adam said, 'I hope we can do a collaboration someday.'”
As the new Director of Innovation at Denver Beer Co., Parker will help plan out the beer menu for the brewery’s two — and about to be three — very busy taprooms, finding a balance between what he likes to make and what sells well. He’ll also lead the sensory program and staff education and have an opportunity to “hang out with” new hops and malts and yeast strains that he hasn’t had a chance yet to work with. "I want to help fill taprooms, but I also want to court beer geeks," he says. "I want to appeal to all customer groups."
That message is echoed by Charlie Berger, who founded Denver Beer Co. with business partner Patrick Crawford. “We have a rich tradition of producing an exciting mix of both fun and approachable beers, and complex award-winning barrel-aged beers,” Berger says. “With [Andy's] strong history in barrel aging, willingness to explore new styles, and ability to create recipes for those delicious patio-drinking beers, Andy will be the perfect brewer to lead Denver Beer Co.’s innovation team.”
As for a barrel program, Parker says he’s not looking to do anything dramatic, stating, “I’d rather have thirty to fifty barrels and make it fun.” And he won’t be starting from scratch, either. Jason Buehler, who died in a tragic climbing accident on November 6, was DBC's head brewer for five years; over that time, he and Berger and Crawford built a barrel program that has raked in an astonishing five Great American Beer Festival medals since 2016, including two last October for Amburana Graham Cracker Porter and Amburana Dream.
"That doesn't happen as a fluke," Parker points out. And Parker is also mindful of honoring and preserving Buehler’s legacy at Denver Beer Co., especially at Cerveceria Colorado, which was his passion project.
But he'd like to add some of his own spin to a few new beers. "I love talking about beer, drinking beer and talking with other people who love talking about beer," he says. "I really didn't want to leave the industry, so this was magic when it happened. I can't imagine a more promising opportunity to reboot."
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