"It's interesting trying to stay true to yourself, but to also stay relevant," says Black Shirt Brewing co-owner Branden Miller. "You find yourself doing stuff that you never thought you would do."
In this case, that means entering beer contests like the Great American Beer Festival, which takes place October 5-7 this year (tickets to GABF go on sale today at ticketmaster.com to members of the Brewers Association and the American Homebrewers Association, and to the general public tomorrow).
Branden and his brother and brewery co-owner, Chad, plan to send four beers — Blood Orange Double IPA, Stringbender Saison, Colorado Red Ale and Timekeeper Rye Pale Ale — to GABF. They have also applied for a table so that they can pour at the festival for the first time.
"It's weird," says Branden, because the Miller boys aren't into contests; they never have been. "We brew beers to put smiles on faces, not to hang awards around the brewery."
Since they opened in River North in 2012 — with limited hours — the Millers have always done things slightly differently than everyone else. Guarded, confident and passionate, they brew slowly and carefully, and they protect their processes closely. They rarely participate in collaborations or festivals, and they had never entered a beer in a contest. But they and their team consistently turn out lovely, powerful beers — IPAs and hop-forward brews in particular — with an edge that sets them apart from other breweries.
In March, though, Black Shirt's brand-new sales director, Brad Pendleton, convinced the Millers to enter their first contest, the Denver International Beer Competition, which took place the next month. "He showed us that there was value to it in the marketplace, that it was important. So I said, 'Fuck it, let's do it.'"
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Black Shirt submitted five beers for judging — and won medals for all five. Blood Orange Double IPA took gold; Frontman IPA and Stringbender Saison took silver; and Colorado Red Ale and Timekeeper Rye Pale Ale got bronze. "It's hard not to be proud. But pride is a double-edge sword," says Miller.
Still, that success was enough to convince them to enter GABF as well. "I understand competition and value of competition. It makes us stronger," Branden says.
As of two weeks ago, the BA had registered a staggering 2,259 breweries for the competition, up from last year's record-setting 1,752 breweries. All told, 8,218 beers will be sampled and rated by the judges, up from 7,227 in 2016 and far beyond the 1,752 beers judged in 2015.