Kelissa Hieber had read just about every brewing manual she could find. She had studied beer, brewed it at home since the age of 21, and drank plenty of it, too. What she needed now was an internship, a way to get some training for her eventual goal: to be a head brewer somewhere.
The problem was Cincinnati, her hometown. The city didn’t have that many breweries when she started looking for an internship seven years ago. And there wasn’t a single female head brewer among them, as far as she knew. So, Hieber moved to Denver, one of the centers of the craft-brewing world.
Denver has treated her well. Last Tuesday, Hieber, who became the head brewer at Goldspot Brewing in 2016 and a 30 percent stakeholder in 2018, bought out the brewery’s other two owners, Ryan and Winnie DuBois. It's an unusual story arc that allowed her to join a tiny number of women in Colorado (and across the country) who are both a head brewer and sole brewery owner.
“I want to take Goldspot to another level,” Hieber says. “Making good beer is a huge part of that, but just making beer doesn’t cut it anymore. We have created a space at Goldspot that people really care about. We hire educated, knowledgeable, friendly bartenders. We focus on the whole picture.”
Now Hieber plans to tighten that focus even further by “really leaning in to the community-building part of this — on the more progressive side,” she says. “It’s something this industry really needs." Her vision includes support for environmental issues, women and LGBT communities.
“I’m very intense about these things. I live this industry. I live everything about it, and I want to create a really cool brand,” she adds. Hieber’s unusual story makes her the perfect person to do that.
After graduating from Miami University in 2010, Hieber looked toward a career in professional organizing for workers' rights and progressive issues. But after two years, she was burning out and looking toward her other passion, beer. After being rejected for internships at several breweries in Cincinnati, she moved to Denver and got a job at a coffee shop at Regis University.
That’s where she heard about the debut of the school’s brand-new certificate in Applied Craft Brewing. “I was the first person to turn in an application the first year,” she says. The program landed her an internship at TRVE Brewing, where she was later hired as a cellarman (the person responsible for monitoring fermentation, cleaning tanks and transferring beer, among other duties). But Hieber also got a job as a bartender at Goldspot, where she kept bugging co-founder Matt Hughes about becoming an assistant brewer. “He finally hired me,” she recalls.
Within six months, she was the head brewer. “I wasn’t necessarily ready for that then, but I grew into it,” she says, crediting local brewer friends like Bess Dougherty and Mitch Leavelle for helping to show her the ropes and for answering questions about everything. She was also able to return to her activist roots by co-founding Makin' Noise, a brewery collaboration project that raised money for progressive causes.
In 2018, Hughes and business partner Alex Sward sold Goldspot to the DuBoises — who took Hieber on as a minority owner. Over the next few years, she continued to build a neighborhood following and to focus on her signature beer recipes. Then the pandemic hit, and although Goldspot’s sales were only down 2 percent in 2020 over the previous year, the owners had planned for them to be up by 30 percent. “I think that helped hasten the end for them,” Hieber says about Ryan and Winnie, who decided they needed to exit the business. In addition, she notes, “my personality and influence was already so cemented here.”
Hieber, who is 31, scrambled to find investors — which ended up not being that difficult. “I’ve had a lot of people over the years who have offered to help [financially],” she says. “But I’d saved them in case something like this happened.” In the end, a combination of brewery regulars and friends loaned her the money she needed to keep their favorite neighborhood watering hole open and running.
Now Hieber has the challenging job of keeping a very small brewery open — not just in a city where competition has become fierce, but during a pandemic. But she's ready. “Did I know there was going to be a pandemic in 2020? Absolutely not. But did I know it was going to be a tough year? Yes,” she explains. “It’s a tough industry, and it has been tough the whole time I’ve been in it.”
One way to be competitive is to focus more on selling cans — something Goldspot hadn't done before the pandemic. Another is to hire an outside sales rep who can sell kegs to bars and restaurants later this year when they start to reopen on a wider scale. And Hieber also plans to continue to show local communities how important they are to her. For instance, she says, her customer base is 40 percent women, which she thinks is unusual for most small craft breweries, which tend to skew male.
Hieber also loves to do collaborations with other breweries — and she’s planning a “Kelissa world tour” soon with at least ten of them, including frequent collaboration partner Jagged Mountain Craft Brewery. But part of her goal isn’t just to work with friends on the brewing side, she says, but to learn about the business side of running a brewery, as well. “So many people have reached out to help, people from other breweries. It's wonderful."
Coincidentally, this week is Goldspot's sixth anniversary. Although the brewery isn't going to hold a celebration because of COVID, Hieber says she is planning something for when the weather warms up. It will also be a nice "housewarming" for Hieber, who has found the right spot to be in in Denver.
Goldspot Brewing is located at 4970 Lowell Boulevard and is currently open from 2 to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Call 303-955-5657 or visit the brewery's website for details.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.