Beer Man

Ownership Dispute at Tommyknocker Settled as Founder Steps Away

Ownership Dispute at Tommyknocker Settled as Founder Steps Away
Tommyknocker Brewery
Tommyknocker Brewery, an iconic I-70 stopover since 1994 and one of Colorado’s first microbreweries to package its beers, has been embroiled in an ownership dispute since co-founder Tim Lenahan died in January 2017. But the angry impasse appears to have been resolved after the other co-founder, Charlie Sturdavant, agreed to be bought out by two of the Idaho Springs brewery’s original out-of-state investors.

The brewpub is now controlled by Gerry Ware of California and the family of the late Richard Cohen of New York. Longtime head brewer Steve Indrehus has taken over as president of the operation.

Sturdavant, whose family also founded Golden City Brewery in 1993 in Golden, says he doesn’t get along with Ware or with Cohen’s son, Stephen, but that if he was going to sell his share, he wanted to make sure that nineteen of his friends, early investors in the brewery, got paid if they sold their shares as well. In the end, he says, he feels like he was able to take care of those investors through mediation.

Tommyknocker Brewery
As for the brewery and restaurant, Sturdavant believes it still has potential but worries about its future — in what has become a very competitive market in Colorado — since the owners live in other states. “I hope they make it,” he says. “I put too much blood, sweat and tears into it to want to see it fail.”

The early 1990s were a boom time for microbreweries in Colorado. After beer makers like Wynkoop, Odell, New Belgium and Breckenridge found success, other would-be brewers jumped in, too.

But Lenahan and Sturdavant were’t just any would-be brewers. Lenahan had been the first brewmaster at Breckenridge Brewery, which started up in 1990, and Sturdavant was a former geologist who had founded Golden City Brewery in a garage behind his Golden property in 1993.

click to enlarge Before it was Tommyknocker, this building held the Placer Inn and a bowling alley. - TOMMYKNOCKER BREWERY
Before it was Tommyknocker, this building held the Placer Inn and a bowling alley.
Tommyknocker Brewery
The two were interested in starting something together, though, and in 1994, Lenahan found the perfect location in Idaho Springs. Built in 1898, the property had served as a stage stop, a bus station, a restaurant (the Placer Inn) and later, a bowling alley. When Sturdavant walked in, he could visualize the brewery immediately. They signed the papers on December 9, 1994, and brewed their first beer in April 1995.

But then as now, breweries required money, and Sturdavant and Lenahan had gathered together more than two dozen investors, including Cohen and Ware. Tommyknocker did well, and Sturdavant eventually stepped away from day-to-day operations to open a third brewery, the Cheshire Cat Brewpub in Arvada. He later closed that brewery and sold it to the owners of the Yak & Yeti/Spice Trade Brewing, who still run it today. Lenahan, meanwhile, who had worked at Stroh’s and Coors for many years, helped start Backcountry Brewery in Frisco (now Highside Brewing) and opened a short-lived Tommyknocker branch in Phoenix, Arizona.

Charlie Sturdevant (right) founded Golden City Brewery in addition to Tommyknocker. - GOLDEN CITY BREWERY
Charlie Sturdevant (right) founded Golden City Brewery in addition to Tommyknocker.
Golden City Brewery
But they both returned to help oversee operations at Tommyknocker, which underwent a large expansion several years ago, adding new fermentation tanks and a canning line.

When Lenahan died, however, it triggered a clause in the company’s organizational agreement, Sturdavant says, that requires all of the investors to agree on whether to continue the business. But Sturdavant’s ever-increasing battles with Cohen and Ware convinced him to use the opportunity to cash out. At first he put the brewery on the market, but got no takers. At that point, Sturdavant and his friend/investors owned 42 percent of the company, but they disagreed with Ware and Stephen Cohen on how much it was worth.

“It took a while, but twenty of us made our exit,” he says. Lenahan’s daughter also cashed out.

Stephen Cohen didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Sturdavant says he's focused on Golden City Brewery, where his son is the head brewer and his daughter manages the taproom. "It's been an interesting trip, and I'm glad I have one brewery where it's just the family in charge," he says with a laugh. "We don't argue much."
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes