In late January, Great Divide Brewing made a fascinating move. Rather than forge ahead with a growth plan that no longer worked, the storied Denver beer maker reversed course, announcing that it would close its second taproom, the Barrel Bar,
next year, along with the huge packaging facility that it opened just six years earlier, at a time when sales were booming. In doing so, Great Divide may have avoided the fates of Breckenridge Brewery and Avery Brewing, both of which were forced to sell to international brewing conglomerates in order to help pay off their own expansions.
In fact, that was one of Great Divide founder Brian Dunn's stated objectives: "We’re fortunate to be in a position to adapt our business plan and make a decision that will benefit the company and our employees," he said in a written explanation of the surprising decision. "One of the largest benefits is that the consolidation...will allow us to remain fiercely independent.”
As a result, Great Divide no longer makes for a juicy buyout target. But there are plenty of other Colorado breweries that do. In 2015
published lists of ten Colorado breweries that looked like they would make a good acquisition by another brewery or company. Of the seventeen breweries on those three lists (several have appeared two or three times), nine have either sold, closed or undergone significant ownership changes in the ensuing years. And that means it’s time to update the list again, removing a few candidates, like Great Divide, and adding new ones.
The criteria for what makes a good buyout target is purely subjective here — and it's important to note that this isn't a list of breweries that might want to sell, but rather one of breweries that would be attractive to other companies or investors. In addition, the qualities that make a brewery attractive have evolved as the craft-brewing landscape has changed, especially over the past two years with the upheaval that the pandemic brought to the brewery industry.
Here is the 2021 list of ten breweries that would make good buyout targets:
Theoretical Buyer: New Belgium/Lion Little World Beverages
Eddyline has been growing by leaps and bounds. Even as the pandemic raged, the Buena Vista beermaker was able to pivot and overcome its challenges, adding capacity and introducing new beers. That kind of strength is attractive since it means the brewery has a deep presence in Colorado — Eddyline is quietly one of the fifteen largest beer makers in the state — and something that could add a new weapon to New Belgium's already ample armory. How? Well, the beers and brands and packaging are very different, but they could make a fun combination for bars and restaurants that are always looking to change things up in the easiest and least expensive way. In addition, there could be some leverage among people who love to get outdoors onto mountain-bike trails and into rivers as both breweries target that audience. When Kirin-owned Lion Little World Beverages bought New Belgium in 2019
, the company said it planned to create a network of U.S. breweries. But the landscape has changed quite a bit since then, so maybe a network of Colorado breweries would work better.
Theoretical Buyer: Auraria Higher Education Center
Tivoli Brewing appears to have lost its way, which is sad, because it occupies a unique space in Denver history, both literally and emotionally. Founded in 2012, Tivoli's modern iteration of the brewery takes its name, logos and beers from the original Tivoli Beer Company, which operated in the same location inside what is now the student union on the Auraria campus from the late 1800s through 1969. But the current ownership, GD Holdings, which took over in 2016, has struggled: in December, GD — a real estate investment group run by the owner of Grupo Denim, a Mexico-based clothing manufacturer — laid off most of the staff and temporarily closed the taproom. Tivoli finally reopened on August 16
, and hired a new president to lead the company forward, but success is anything but certain. Still, the brewery has a prime location on campus, not to mention a second location at the Westin DIA — assets that would be attractive to many local breweries, big and small. But the best solution would be for GD Holdings to sell Tivoli to the Auraria Higher Education Center, which manages the facilities and properties on the campus. AHEC should then lease it to Metro State's School of Hospitality, which already uses it to train students in its beer-industry programs. Tivoli is important to both the history of Denver and to its spirit — and is something that would fit in well with MSU's educational mission.
Theoretical Buyer: a Canadian cannabis company
It was big news when Utah's Epic Brewing announced in 2012
that it would open a second, larger brewery and taproom in Denver's still-nascent River North Art District. Epic had a dedicated following of beer geeks, and the move added cachet to the city's beer scene. Epic flourished for several years, but the combination of increased competition on liquor-store shelves and the pandemic has made things harder for smaller breweries that rely on far-flung distribution to take things to the next level. That someone could be a cannabis company like Canada's Tilray,
which bought SweetWater Brewing in Atlanta in 2019 in order to leverage its craft beer connections and customers. Although Epic is not nearly as big as Sweetwater, which just opened a spot at Denver International Airport in addition to buying the former Red Truck Brewing in Fort Collins
, it does have a wide distribution network, good name recognition and great beer. It's likely that cannabis players will continue to seek out diversified investments in companies with customers who fit their demographics, and Epic Brewing, with its scrappy demeanor and location in Colorado, could be a good place to start.
Crazy Mountain Brewery
Theoretical buyer: Sleeping Giant Brewing
Crazy Mountain Brewery, which was founded in Edwards in 2010, has gone through tough times since it took over the former Breckenridge Brewery space at 471 Kalamath Street and attempted a major expansion into Denver. Not only was it evicted from its original location and various other spots around town, but it has had trouble figuring out how to operate its taproom and manage its contract brewing operation; in addition, the brewery's founder was replaced and is currently suing for back pay. The most recent blow came during the pandemic, though, as the brewery was never able to reopen its taproom. Crazy Mountain is now out of that space and has outsourced its beer brewing to Sleeping Giant
, a dedicated contract brewery in Denver, while it tries to move into a new, smaller space. But Crazy Mountain has been in a protracted downward spiral for years, so the best answer might be to simply cut its losses. Along those lines, it could sell its brands — which still have some decent distribution in supermarkets around the state — to Sleeping Giant, which has also managed Boulder Beer Company's brands since the brewery closed the doors to its taproom in 2020, along with a few other taproom-less beer makers like Good River Beer and Saint Patrick's Brewing. In fact, maybe Sleeping Giant should buy all four and open its own taproom to serve them.
Denver ChopHouse & Brewery
Theoretical Buyer: Brooklyn Brewery
The ChopHouse has been around for so long that you may have forgotten it was still there — and still brewing beer — which is a problem when new and shinier breweries open every month. It is also owned by SPB Hospitality, an investment company that bought the bankrupt Craftworks
restaurant group last summer. SPB now runs more than 200 restaurants and breweries across the country, including the Rock Bottom and Old Chicago chains. But it has also closed a significant number of them, and companies like that are apt to offload properties that don't fit the mold, or to streamline operations. Brooklyn Brewery, meanwhile, is one of the oldest and largest craft brewers in the country — coming in at number fourteen on the Brewers Association's list of the biggest
. Despite its cachet, it has always had a hard time getting a foothold in Denver — something that is particularly strange since Brooklyn Brewery owns a significant stake in Funkwerks, a saison specialist in Fort Collins. One way to remedy that would be to open a big retail presence in LoDo, right next to Coors Field, where it could make a splash and get some local recognition, not just for its own beers, but for Funkwerks and San Francisco's 21st Amendment Brewery, another of Brooklyn's holdings.
Liberati Brewing (closed)
Theoretical Buyer: Little Pub Company
Denver's Little Pub Company
has a very successful business model: it buys distressed bars and restaurants and turns them around using a formulaic approach that relies, ironically, on creating a neighborhood feel at each location. Little Pub currently owns or operates fifteen watering holes, including Don's Club Tavern, the British Bulldog and the Spot Bar & Grill. In 2019, it tried to get into the craft-beer industry by investing in a newly formed partnership between Renegade Brewing and Good River Beer Company, with the goal of brewing and serving its own beers at its pubs. The pandemic brought a messy end to that venture
, but Little Pub may still be interested in craft beer — at least once it's able to recover from its own distress (labor shortages, pandemic effects). A good candidate: the space that was once home to Liberati Brewing, which closed in February 2020
, because nothing is more distressed than a big, beautiful building without a tenant. Not only would this give Little Pub a way to make its own beer in a very large building, but it would provide a crown jewel of a restaurant and patio in Five Points — and hey, why not just really own the name and call it Little Pub Co.?
Dry Dock Brewing
Theoretical buyer: Duvel Moortgat
At sixteen years of age, Dry Dock Brewing is one of the oldest and most decorated taproom-only breweries in Colorado. It boasts one of the top-selling beers in the state, Apricot Blonde; it has taken home more than 25 medals at the Great American Beer Festival; it is one of the ten largest independently owned breweries in the state; and it wields a certain beer-geek credibility that is worth more than advertising. But somehow, Dry Dock doesn't distribute outside of Colorado — garnering all of its sales within our borders. And although owners Kevin DeLange and Michelle Reding have said they aren't selling, Dry Dock makes for a tasty target. Duvel Moortgat is a widely respected, 150-year-old family-owned Belgian brewery that now has a major stake in American craft beer, having bought Ommegang in 2005, Boulevard Brewing in 2013 and and Firestone Walker in 2015. While the company missed its chance at a Colorado plum when Avery sold to Mahou San Miguel, it could make a nice pickup in Dry Dock (or even with Upslope Brewing, below), especially since Duvel (which is still considered to be "craft" by the Brewers Association) could expand Dry Dock's distribution quickly into other states through its existing distribution channels.
Theoretical buyer: Duvel Moortgat
From its beginning in 2008, Upslope has been one of the most brand-conscious breweries in Colorado, having built an outdoorsy image, a recognizable look and an easy-to-sell portfolio backed by cred-boosting smaller batches. Today Upslope is one of the state’s ten largest independently owned breweries and a supermarket sales juggernaut; it also hosts multiple-stage concerts at its popular production facility and taproom in Boulder, while a smaller taproom continues to produce those smaller batches. While Upslope is nowhere near as big as Duvel Moortgat-owned Ommegang, Boulevard or Firestone Walker (see Dry Dock Brewing, above), it does make for an attractive acquisition target for its lineup of approachable canned beers and its market saturation in Colorado, where there is significant competition for shelf space. Adding a brewery like that to its portfolio could help Duvel leverage its distribution power even further while still keeping its portfolio at the higher end of the brewing spectrum.
Theoretical buyer: Left Hand Brewing
Boulder is Colorado’s original craft-beer town, but it's a hard one to break into because of the tight real estate market. That’s what makes Sanitas, with its stellar patio, huge brewing system and abundance of space, so attractive. While the brewery appears to be doing fine, it hasn’t yet gained mass appeal and has been contract-brewing for other companies to help pay for all that capacity. As a result, it would make a great target for another Colorado brewery with a desire for a sweet Boulder location. Left Hand Brewing, which is building a taproom-only space next to the Mission Ballroom
in Denver, would make a great fit — especially since it has just completed a big new biergarten and stage at its Longmont headquarters. The Sanitas space would go nicely with the music-and-patio vibe that Left Hand is now cultivating, and would also give it another salesroom and another brewhouse to quickly make and can a wider variety of interesting or on-trend beers.
Theoretical buyer: Omnipollo
Few modern breweries have gone through as many twists and turns as Crooked Stave. Founded as a Fort Collins passion project by Chad Yakobson in 2010, the brewery moved to an industrial park in Denver in 2011 and immediately garnered worldwide acclaim for its wild and sour ales. Part of a brash collection of smart and trendy upstarts across the country, Crooked Stave later opened a gleaming new taproom in the Source, Denver's first industrial-chic food hall, followed by a second taproom in Fort Collins and a company-owned distribution arm called Crooked Stave Artisans. In 2019, Crooked Stave left the Source and refocused at its original location, investing a lot of energy into "clean" beers, like canned lagers and hazy IPAs, as well as pastry stouts; many of these stand out in a crowded field — a testament to the brewing chops at Crooked Stave that go far beyond sours. Along the way, Yakobson has become friends with breweries all over the world, some of whose products Crooked Stave distributes in Denver. Among these is Omnipollo, the Swedish gypsy brewery founded in 2010 by an artist and a brewer. In fact, Crooked Stave has collaborated with Omnipollo many times on beers. Would a merger of the two make sense? Probably. It would give Omnipollo a bigger presence and a dedicated place to brew in the U.S., where it sells a lot of beer, while allowing Crooked Stave to reach further into the high-end beer market around the world. In addition, Crooked Stave's lineup of clean (and sour) canned beers give it a more approachable feel that would be attractive to any craft brewer now, as distribution has become so important in these lingering pandemic times. But the artistic worldviews shared by Crooked Stave and Omnipollo seem particularly suited to one another.