Craft beer is a labor of love, sure, but the crew at Black Shirt Brewing (BSB) takes it to a whole new level. When Branden Miller, 31, discovered the spot for BSB (3719 Walnut St) around this time two years ago, the windows of the grungy run-down space sharing walls with a liquor store featured plywood boards and metal bars. But with a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and all new water lines – which the BSB crew and recruited friends hand-dug and installed – BSB appropriately had its grand opening in RiNo during the Great American Beer Festival this past fall.
Debuting a line-up of red ales to a crowd of true craft beer aficionados, enthusiasts, and nerds proved successful, as the crew (Branden, his brother Chad, and Chad’s wife Carissa) has been brewing up a storm since opening, struggling to keep up with demand.
Being a nano-brewery allows the brewers to have full control over the process and gives them the time and freedom to fine-tune their recipes – BSB brewed up at least 200 batches of their signature Red Ale, tweaking the grain bill, using different hops, yeast strains, and fermentation tactics before creating the brew currently on tap. The brewery now sources all its hops from Arvada-based Voss Farms – buying 300 pounds worth this year, almost the farm’s whole crop.
Being nano- also gives them the creative capacity to craft a unique brewery experience. Branden, Chad, and friends hand-built almost everything in the taproom, from the bar and tables out of boxcar flooring to the front door that features rustic wood slats Branden and Chad’s parents had begun pilfering off old barns at their age.
Having a small staff of three, plus a hard-working intern, has its drawbacks, however, as the brewery only has the resources to have its 30-seat taproom open on Saturdays. But, thanks to a larger 4-barrel brew house, two 15-barrel fermenters, two 15-barrel brite tanks, a counter-pressure filler for growlers, oh and Branden quitting his job in the service industry to go full-time at BSB, the taproom will be open Thurs – Sat from 4 – 8 p.m. starting the first weekend in January. The beers are the highlight, but the glasses they’re served out of are pretty badass too – with the help of Mitch Bangert of Golden-based company Offero, BSB is the only brewery in the world to have the Omnis glass.
What prior experience do you have in brewing?
My prior experience is home brewing and winemaking. I have interned with Alfred Eames in Paonia, Creekside Cellars in Evergreen, and Great Divide was generous enough to let me spend time with Taylor and Austin in their brew house.
How did you get into home brewing?
The three of us started brewing after we had made wine for a few years. Wine was fun and almost became our full-time profession. It got us into fermentation and the artistry and chemistry involved. However, when the harvest was over and the wine was resting in barrels, we were searching for something more. More creativity, more control, more of our personality shining through our creations. We were making wine and drinking craft beer. After taking a trip to Chad’s godfather who had brewed his own beer for over 20 years, the wheels were spinning out of control.
What attracted you to the brewing industry?
I have been in the restaurant business since October 2002. Initially, it was because I was looking for an industry where the customers were happy and excited to be there – a giant contrast from the industry I was leaving, collision repair. I found that it got me out of my shell and I really enjoyed entertaining and creating an environment where people forgot about their worries and stresses for a while and just smiled.
What is your favorite part about brewing?
Brewing isn’t romantic – it is hard work in a hot and wet environment and requires a lot of skill and determination. It’s funny that I have always felt that my ambition far outweighs my talent. Who’s to say? But at the end of a long day busting my ass, when I get to sit down and pour a perfectly crafted beer and sit in amazement of it and enjoy it, that is my favorite part.
How were you able to go from home brewing to opening a brewery?
I have listened to every word of advice that any brewer has offered, I have watched every video and read every book I could get my hands on, and I have surrounded myself with as many inspiring and creative people as I can. My brother is much smarter than me and he is always there with an answer when I am stuck; I have reached out to Scott Witsoe of Wit’s End Brewing, to Taylor and Austin at Great Divide, and to the entire badass crew at Upslope time and time again.
What’s the inspiration for the name Black Shirt Brewing?
We had a thousand ideas and some were taken, some were too obscure, and some were just terrible. We finally chose Black Shirt because it defines our personality and the overall personality of the business. Chad and I have been wearing black shirts since we were little punk kids. We wore black because of the way it made us feel – rebellious and badass just like our skate heroes and our favorite bands.
Music seems to play a big role in the concept of BSB, what’s the story here?
The idea of a flagship beer, a set of complimentary beers, and then a rotation of seasonals seems boring. We like to celebrate each unique batch and to celebrate its unique characteristics. We feel that the knowledge of what it took to make a particular beer and the thought and hard work behind it are very compelling. As a group of storytellers, we think of ourselves more as a band than as a group of brewers or brewery owners. The model of a band and the creation of songs and albums seems much more in line with our approach to brewing than the “standard/traditional” approach and so that is the one that we have taken.
Why did you seek out a space in the River North area for your brewery?
Initially we had considered our hometown of Westcliffe as well as other small towns for the brewery. Our location on the north end of RiNo was very deliberate. We wanted to place our brewery just far enough out of downtown that people had to seek us out. In doing so, the hope is that they will be sitting next to other like-minded people who also have sought out the brewery, creating a haven for beer nerds and enthusiasts as well as a gathering place for all of the other artists and craftsmen in our community.
What BSB beer are you most excited to release to Denver?
Our Imperial Red Rye IPA has turned a lot of heads and has a strong following already and I am very proud of it. Though, the most exciting to me are the mostly single-batch seasonally-driven beers, like the Red Beet Saison and Smoked Red Hubbarb Squash Saison, both of which were incredibly innovative, unique, and over-the-top delicious and I can’t wait to do more like that.
What’s your go-to beer/drink when you get off work?
Odell IPA is almost always in my fridge, and Black Butte Porter in the winter. Firestone Walker Wookey Jack has been in constant rotation and the occasional sour graces my palate. I’m still a broke brewer so I don’t always get what I want! If there was a way to make it happen, 3 Floyd’s Zombie Dust would constantly replenish itself at my house, as would Supplication/Consecration. I could then also afford to drink a Vieux Carre at Williams and Graham/duo Restaurant more often!
What do you like to do outside of brewing?
I’m still a small town boy at heart and I love the mountains – they are my church and my gym. I love to snowboard, hike, camp, and just sit in a meadow or on the trail and sip a beer whenever possible. Cooking is a passion, an escape from stress, and a source of inspiration so I cook as much as I can, which is not enough. Watching the Broncos on Sunday is a priority and necessity. There is always music playing, no matter what!