Little Pub Company, which owns Don's Club Tavern, the British Bulldog, the Elm and twenty other metro Denver watering holes, is putting its money where its customers' mouths have always been: on a beer glass.
Founder Mark Berzins says that Little Pub Company has taken a 40 percent stake in the Brewers Co-Hop, which was formed late last year as a holding company for Renegade Brewing and Good River Beer. Little Pub has also created its own beer brand, Rocky Mountain Sector, and the beers are being brewed by the Co-Hop.
"I like what they brew and I like their mission," Berzins says of Good River owners Adam Odoski, Preston Hartman and Matt Knippenberg; their brewery donates 2 percent of its sales to nonprofits that benefit Colorado waterways. "I really feel like the headwinds for craft breweries are only starting to mount, and it would have broken my heart to see these guys lose everything they had worked so hard for," he adds.
But Berzins and his investors also have a "keen interest in brewing creative products" for Little Pub Company's pack of neighborhood bars and restaurants. "That is ultimately the reason I was convinced that I should participate in this project, and I have gotten way more involved than I thought I would," he says.
Renegade and Good River first came together last fall, when they decided to merge their operations as a way to help both companies stay afloat in an increasingly competitive craft brewery market. Since then, Good River, which had been solely contract-brewing its beers for three years, opened its first taproom inside Renegade's large production space in the Yard at Santa Fe development at 900 West First Avenue.
Little Pub Company, which was already buying and serving Good River kegs at a number of locations, joined the group, now called the Brewers Co-Hop, when Berzins launched Rocky Mountain Sector, a brand that makes beers with nicknames based on the party exploits of Berzins and his close friends, including Rocko and Hauser.
Eventually, the Co-Hop plans to open a third spot that will serve food and sell beers from all three breweries. While Little Pub Company, which started in 1994, does build some of its own locations, it specializes in buying existing neighborhood joints from owners who no longer want to run them. According to Berzins, there's a wide variety of places like that currently on the market in Denver.
Over the past few months, many of Little Pub's locations have added multiple handles of Good River, Renegade and Rocky Mountain Sector beers, though Berzins says that he leaves the selection up to his managers. He also stresses that Little Pub buys the Co-Hop beers in the traditional manner, through a distributor, to keep things legal, above board and in compliance with the state's "three-tier system" liquor laws.
Berzins's bars go through "several thousand barrels of draft" each year — almost all of it craft — along with 30,000 cases of cans and bottles, which include both industrial brewers and craft. "We pay the same prices as everyone else," he says.
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One of his goals, though, is to remind breweries that there is more to having strong beer sales in Colorado than simply distributing to grocery and convenience stores — something that became a much bigger deal thirteen months ago, when those chains gained the right to sell full-strength beers at all of their locations.
"Craft beer is a great commodity for this state, and I don't want to see it in trouble, and a big part of sustainability for them is on-premise," he says of breweries that sell kegs to bars and restaurants. "Little Pub Company can give [Good River and Renegade] a stable base of volume, or draft volume. It's a big thing, and a great way to get in front of new consumers rather than battling for shelf space. It's very old-school."
There's no timetable yet for the new Co-hop location, but both the Renegade taproom and Good River Beer should be selling food soon. The combined company converted to a brewpub license late last year.