It was mid-summer 2020, and Kyle Carbaugh had a choice. He could either continue to brew and can beer for distribution to the Denver-area liquor stores that were demanding it during the rush for stay-at-home drinking, or he could focus on making a new line of pulpy, somewhat controversial fruit beers that were selling out within minutes at Greeley’s Wiley Roots Brewing, which Carbaugh and his wife, Miranda, founded in 2013.
“In a pandemic, how do you choose between being able to make money in the taproom or satisfying orders from your distributor?” he asks. “We wanted to do both.”
So that's exactly what Carbaugh is doing. In early December, Wiley Roots took delivery of a huge new thirty-barrel brewhouse that will replace the seven-barrel system that has done the job for the past several years. Only a few Colorado breweries own systems this big, and most are among the state’s largest beer makers.
The upgrade will allow Wiley Roots to more than double its output, from 860 barrels in 2020 to nearly 2,000 barrels in 2021 (and possibly to quadruple it by the end of 2022), and to support its aggressive marketing efforts, which the brewery has employed over the past few years in order to differentiate itself in Colorado’s crowded market. “It’s a much needed move and a little bit overdue,” says Carbaugh, adding that he and his brewing team were operating six days a week and eighteen hours a day to keep up with demand — all while using a grouping of 1950s-era former dairy tanks as their primary pieces of equipment.
The reasons for the dramatic increase in demand for Wiley Roots beer are twofold.
The first is distribution. In June, Wiley Roots signed on with TwoSix Craft Distributors, a branch of Station 26 Brewing that also works with Arvada’s New Image Brewing. The arrangement has introduced the northern Colorado brewery’s beers — primarily fruit-heavy sours, New England-style IPAs and imperial stouts — to tens of thousands of new customers in the metro area.
The second reason is the stunning popularity of its new line of “smoothie-style sours,” which are beer-based beverages made with as much as 40 percent unfermented fruit purée. Wiley Roots has two main lines of smoothie-style sours: A Visit From the Fruit Lady, which includes flavors like Blueberry Lemon, Raspberry Mango and Banana Orange Passionfruit; and Ice Cream Truckz, which adds sweet adjuncts like caramel and chocolate to the fruit purée, making the beers taste and feel a lot like melted ice cream.
Only a few craft breweries around the country are experimenting with unfermented fruit beers, including Urban Artifact Brewing in Ohio, The Answer Brewpub in Virginia, Pennsylvania’s Imprint Beer Company, and 450 North Brewing in Indiana. In Colorado, New Image Brewing, WeldWerks Brewing and a few others have also made versions of this kind of beer.
“Over the last year, the popularity of that has grown so much that...they are selling out the day we release them, or the next day,” says Wiley Roots spokesman Scott Davidson. “That has been an unexpected surprise, but also some of the momentum behind the new equipment.”
But smoothie-style sours are controversial for a couple of reasons. For starters, many people see them as the latest, and the most egregious, violators of traditional beer styles, lumping them in with New England-style IPAs, milkshake IPAs and pastry stouts. These beers typically have a wide variety of added ingredients, like lactose and flavorings. Their appearance and texture is also thick or even pulpy, like an actual smoothie, which is a far cry from saisons and pilsners, and can shock or delight drinkers, depending on their mindset.
But the most incendiary charge against smoothie-style sours is that because they are packaged with unfermented fruit, leftover yeast from the brewing process can activate in the can and ferment the sugars in the fruit if the beers spend any time above 45 degrees Fahrenheit. This creates carbon dioxide, which has the potential to make the cans explode — a not-uncommon result for the breweries that make these beers.
To help mitigate that second issue, Carbaugh says that for now, Wiley Roots will only sell unfermented fruit beers directly from the taproom; that way, it can make sure to explain to customers that they have to keep the beer cold — even on the drive back to Denver — and they can't ship it or age it. For distribution to liquor stores, Wiley Roots makes a line of very popular tart, kettle-soured Slush beers, which are similar to smoothie-style sours except that the fruit purée is added earlier in the brewing process and won't re-ferment in the can.
As for the issue of traditional styles, Carbaugh is unconcerned. “I see this as exciting and an opportunity to do something different. A lot of breweries don’t. They see it as ruining American beer history,” he says. "But to me that is ironic, because American beer is all about bigger and badder, sweeter and hoppier.”
“I don’t know why the industry is so adamant about putting rules and regulations around what is and isn’t craft beer,” Davison adds. “If you want a [traditional] lager or a dortmunder, there are places to go to get those.” But if you want beers that are made with Carbaugh’s “mad scientist” approach, then you come to Wiley Roots.
Carbaugh, who won his first Great American Beer Festival medal the year he opened — for a traditional American-style wheat beer — also points out that smoothie-style sours begin their lives as regular well-made beers before they are kettle-soured and the fruit is added.
“When we started in 2013… our immediate intention was to make as good a beer as we possibly could…and Super 77, our wheat ale, won right away,” he says. But then I started realizing that our original goals weren’t going to be enough for what we wanted to do.” As a result, he took the advice of a friend who told him that in addition to making good beer, he would also have to "be his own megaphone."
Since then, he adds, “We have peeled back the curtain and showed people what is the most interesting to us and what we can do in terms of beer and in terms of process, and we have opened up the doors and shared that. And I think it resonates with a lot of people.”
Wiley Roots hopes to have the new brewhouse up and running early next year. The upgrade follows a physical expansion in 2018 in which the brewery took over an adjacent building, growing its production footprint from 800 square feet to 5,000 square feet.
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