For the first time in its 23-year history, Great Divide Brewing made less beer during a twelve-month period than it did the year before — and not just by a little bit. The brewery produced 35,300 barrels of beer in 2016, down 16 percent from 41,900 barrels in 2015.
“We didn’t hit our projections last year. It’s the first time in a long time we didn’t do that,” says founder Brian Dunn. “We were having 25 to 30 percent growth on an annual basis; we were used to that. So it was definitely a tough year, and it stings.”
The craft-beer industry began to slow in 2016, especially at the top, as the bigger breweries began to feel a more pronounced pinch — not just because of competition in liquor stores, bars and restaurants, but from the sheer number of small, neighborhood breweries offering beer to go, in Crowlers and growlers.
“We saw a lot of change in the market in the last half of 2016,” Dunn says, but that’s not why Great Divide suffered such a serious slowdown. The biggest reason, he explains, is because the brewery eliminated three big-selling year-round brands last year: Nomad Pilsner, Lasso Session IPA and and Hoss Rye Lager, which became a seasonal.
“We felt like those brands didn’t fit us anymore,” Dunn says. All three beers were strong sellers: “We have run numbers projecting that if we hadn’t discontinued those brands, we would have been up…but at some point, you need to change the lineup, you need to make decisions based on what’s best for the brewery in the long term. It’s okay. I still think those were the right decisions, even if creates short-term pain.”
Instead, the brewery moved forward in other ways, spending more time finishing its huge new storage and packing facility on Brighton Boulevard, getting its cans on the market, developing new recipes and new beers, and making sure that its beer was consistent. “We prioritized quality over a lot of other things last year to make sure the beers coming out of Brighton were as great as we wanted [them] to be,” Dunn says.
In 2017, Great Divide plans to introduce at least four new beers. The first, Hop Disciples, has already hit shelves as the first in a seasonal hop series that will change each year. The others are: Strawberry Rhubarb Sour, a popular but only occasional taproom beer that will go year-round in bomber bottles starting in June; Chai Yeti, which will replace Oak-Aged Imperial Yeti as a seasonal; and Roadie Grapefruit Radler, an easy-drinking summer brew with only 4 percent alcohol by volume.
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“We need to have fun new beers,” Dunn says. “We need to be creative and innovate. Breweries need to change. Brands need to change. People are looking for different beers, and our job is to help brew those.” To make room in its lineup, Great Divide got rid of the above-mentioned Oak Aged Yeti, Whitewater Wheat (a hoppy wheat beer) and Old Ruffian Barleywine — which was one of Dunn’s favorites.
Because of the slowdown, Dunn says, Great Divide will hold off for a while on the construction of a new brewery next to its packaging facility in River North. “We can’t justify the expenditure right now,” Dunn says. The brewery currently makes all of its beer at its original location, at 2201 Arapahoe Street, and moves it by tanker truck to the other location, at 3403 Brighton Boulevard, which was built in 2015.
Once the Arapahoe Street location is at capacity, perhaps in a few years, the company will reignite its plans to build at new brewery, restaurant and beer garden.
In the meantime, Great Divide has kept all of its staff busy — and is even hiring — and plans to grow again in 2017 with its new brands. “We anticipated that things would get tighter, and they have, but that's okay," says Dunn. "It’s not the end of the world. We will change and persevere and move forward.”