In 2005, Kevin DeLange did something crazy: he brewed up a batch of beer and sold pints of it across a small bartop in Aurora.
Today, hundreds of entrepreneurs – and more every day – make their living in Colorado doing the exact same thing, but ten years ago, that's not how the beer industry worked. There were no taprooms to speak of, and the existing breweries made their money either by packaging , kegging and distributing their beer or by selling it alongside food, brewpub-style.
“The packaging breweries, like Great Divide, might have had a tasting room, but it was only a tiny portion of their business,” says Delange, who opened Dry Dock Brewing with Michelle Reding in 2005. At the time, DeLange and Reding had owned a homebrew shop called the Brew Hut for three years. But the man they'd bought it from, Scott Newcomb, had given DeLange an idea. “He wanted to sell, but he told me that if no one had bought it from him, he would have opened up a brewery and done all of his sales with a tasting room.” DeLange filed that information away until he decided to find out if it was really legal to open a brewery that way, without food or packaging.
The answer to that question created an entirely new kind of beer-drinking scene in Colorado, the taproom-style culture we have today, and Dry Dock will celebrate that ten-year legacy with a party on Saturday at its newer North Dock location on Tower Road. They will also tap and sell bottles of a tenth-anniversary beer, a Belgian quad.
Once DeLange and Reding talked with the state's Liquor Enforcement Division and determined that it was legal to open a brewery with a simple manufacturing license, they had another question to answer: was it economically viable? Could they actually make money selling pints rather than bottles and kegs? Would anyone show up when the doors opened?
The verdict there was also yes, and Dry Dock Brewing, which was named for DeLange's love of nautical references, was on its way, starting in a very small space at 15120 East Hampden Avenue, right next to the Brew Hut. Over the next few years, the brewery grew to the point where it needed to expand, so in 2009, DeLange and Reding took out a $450,00 loan. “It freaked us out,” he says. “It was the scariest decision we ever made. But we were lucky, and since then, I keep saying the same thing – that we have been lucky.”
Luck or good business sense. Either way, Aurora continued to show its love for Dry Dock, making the investment worthwhile. And later that same year, the brewery experienced another stroke of “luck” that changed its future and turned the tiny brewery into a regional destination for beer drinkers. At the Great American Beer Festival in 2009, Dry Dock won three medals (a gold for its altbier and silvers for the hefeweizen and the marzen), along with the highly-coveted Small Brewing Company of the Year award.
“We've been lucky with the awards. You have to make good beer, but there are so many really good brewers that don't win. So, I always talk about luck. But it makes a difference for a brewery, especially in the early years. If you win one, it is great, but if you win three, it really changes things.” The medals certainly altered Dry Dock's future.
Since then, Dry Dock has grown exponentially, adding the larger Tower Road production facility in 2013 and a second taproom in 2014, while keeping the Hampden Avenue spot as an experimental brewery and taproom. The brewery also packages a slew of year-round and seasonal releases in bottles and cans. Dry Dock will probably brew about 20,000 barrels of beer in 2015. In early 2016, it will replace its canning line, from Wild Goose in Boulder, with one that can handle about twice as many cans per minute.
And Dry Dock has continued to win awards, too, adding two more last month at GABF: a bronze for its Apricot Blond – which has become the brewery's flagship, making up more than 40 percent of its sales – and a bronze for a German-style pilsner. In fact, over the past eight years, Dry Dock has won more GABF medals – 22 – than any other Colorado brewery, including the Sandlot and Left Hand Brewing.
The best part about those awards is that they have come despite a lot of turnover among the brewers who work there, in particular during the past year, when the majority of the brewing staff left for one reason or another. “Even after having that turnover, Dry Dock is still making fantastic beer. That is the biggest point that occurred to Michelle and I,” DeLange says. “We are very proud of that.” In fact, many of the brewery's award-winners were devised by people who no longer work at Dry Dock. “But we continue to do well. Every brewer who has been with us has left their footprint on Dry Dock and we are grateful for all of their contributions.”
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In 2016, Delange and Reding plan to add new fermenters, growing their brewing capacity by 28 percent – and they'll do it without taking out any new loans. They also plan to start bottling some of their sour beers – which fly out of the taproom – and to can some seasonal releases.
One thing they don't plan to do: distribute out of state. Although Dry Dock has considered expanding beyond Colorado, DeLange says it makes more sense for them to simply continue to sell beer in Colorado, especially since they can do that and continue to grow. They also plan to keep Dry Dock independent. While talk of brewery buyouts and consolidation has swept through the craft brewing industry, DeLange says it's not in the cards.
“It's just the two of us, and we love our jobs and this brewery,” he says. “What am I going to do if I sell out at 41? We want to grow conservatively and there is no need to sell out. We wouldn't entertain a buyout or private equity. We have no plans to sell.”
The Dry Dock anniversary party takes place Saturday, October 24, from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Canoe Room inside the brewery's production facility at North Dock. It includes live music, food trucks, and lots and lots of beer, from the brewery's staples, sours, barrel-aged releases, seasonals, and the tenth anniversary quad, to firkins like Grapefruit DIPA and Chocolate Raspberry Porter. Find tickets, $35, at imbibe.com. For more details and a "treasure map" depicting where are the beers will be located, go to Dry Dock's Facebook page.