A chat with Scott Witsoe of Wit’s End Brewing Co

Scott Witsoe at Wit's End Brewing Co

Scott Witsoe at Wit’s End Brewing Co

We’ve all had that feeling like we’re at the end of our rope. If you’re Scott Witsoe of Wit’s End Brewing Company you take a swig of Dale’s Pale Ale, let the familiar bite refresh your soul, and transform your anxious sentiment into a haven for those in the same boat.

The cure for what ails you? A craft brew whipped up one barrel at a time – Witsoe’s system consists of a one-barrel brewhouse, eight one-barrel fermenters and two three-barrel fermenters.

The therapist couch? Up for debate, it could be a seat at the bar across from the jolly tri-color bearded Witsoe while he reminisces about the 80s, or you could snag a slightly cozier spot on one of two antique benches donated from the shuttered Duffy’s Shamrock– the two men behind this old Denver landmark are now Witsoe’s landlords.

As the sole brewer, owner, and operator of the nano-brewery that just celebrated its first anniversary on September 26, Witsoe may no longer be at his wit’s end – the bills are covered, the seats are filled – but being a one-man operation (aside from his one employee, Pat “The Sidekick”) has its drawbacks. Witsoe dreams of the day he can bring home a 40 – in Wit’s End’s unique metal canteen “growlers” – of his own beer and not feel like he’s taking away from his patrons. And the day he can fully embrace the joke behind his gifted “brewer’s cot,” now stashed at the back of his tasting room.

"Growlers" at Wit's End

“Growlers” at Wit’s End

Starting as a one-man, one-barrel operation also means that you have a strong pride for your product, making it harder to share a part of the brewing process with others. Witsoe is working on letting go of some pieces of his ultimate man cave – the guy has three daughters, ages three, five, and eight – so that he can expand, hopefully to a five- or seven-barrel system, and possibly hire an assistant brewer, something that scares the Hell out of Witsoe.

While maintaining a brewery is a tough and arduous task, especially on your own, Witsoe does not regret a second of it. Sure, it was a big career change from his position as director of operations at a local mixed martial arts company – don’t let that deep belly laugh fool you, he still practices Brazilian jiu jitsu – but the passion was ingrained long ago in his hometown Seattle, when he sought out the local craft beer culture in off the beaten path warehouse spaces just like he has now.

Witsoe shines through in every aspect of his brewery (Hint: Look at the brewery name, if you cover the ‘n’ and ‘d’ in ‘End,’ leaving ‘Wit’s,’ the swirly and ‘E,’ it spells Witsoe). The décor may look plain, minus the menacing Mr. T façade on the wall, but look around at the grain bags lining the walls, and you realize they are the bags that held the hand-selected grist that became the brew you are holding in your hand.

From start to finish, Wit’s End is a place that “pays respect and holds craft beer in the highest regard,” cultivating the creativity of home brewers, head brewers, and those who have yet to try suds outside of Coors.

How long had you been home brewing before opening your brewery?

I was home brewing on and off for about five years prior to starting this place. I just jumped right in – I always tell people it’s like falling in love. Immediately when I made my first beer I was overwhelmed with this feeling of, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I just made this thing.’ Even when a couple of my kids were born, I maybe only brewed two batches in one year but it was just always at the back of my mind – doing a nano- on the side, keeping the day job and eventually migrating over at some point. I’m brewing anyway so if I can open a business and maybe sell a little bit, hey why not? But then getting laid-off sort of changed all that.

Where were you working before you got laid off?

It was a mixed martial arts company; I was the director of operations there and basically ran the day-to-day stuff. It was a big shock when I was laid-off. But I have a brewery now so it kind of worked out.

How did you get into mixed martial arts, did you do karate or something as a child?

I never really did much when I was younger. Actually, when I started with this company I started training in Brazilian jiu jitsu, but had never really trained prior to that. I did tae kwon do for a short period of time when I was young, but it was never really something I did. Now, I’ve been training, well, I haven’t been in like two months, but pretty regularly for the last five-and-a-half years or so.

What attracted you to having a nano-brewery as opposed to staying in home brew or joining another brewery?

When you’re getting pretty good, you hear from everyone, ‘Oh this is great you should start a business.’ I’ve always been pretty honest with myself about my beers, so once I got to the point where I was enjoying my own beer more than commercial beers, I started believing my friends a little bit more. I love brewing, I love the industry, I love everything about craft beer, and to be able to morph that into something you can do for a living is tantalizing to think about. So that’s what it really came down to, the love of brewing and thinking could I really do this as a living? Once I indulged in this, and those recipes were working out, that’s when I first thought, “yea maybe I will try to do this.”

How is it being the one person owning, running, and brewing? What has been the most challenging aspect of being a jack-of-all-trades?

You know, it’s one of those things where the brewing itself is something I love to do – there’s nothing more satisfying than creating beers, and having folks in here enjoying and buying them, it’s just such an incredible high. The downside is the time. Obviously, it takes a lot of time to do this, in addition to all of the other aspects of the business. Then just the pressure of knowing this beer has to turn out, I have to sell this – this has to taste like Green Man or Jean Claude Van-Blonde, whatever.

Scott Witsoe with his one employee Pat

Scott Witsoe with his one employee Pat

How do you feel about being the sole brewer? Does anyone ever help you?

At the beginning I would never have anybody in here when I would brew – I’m brewing, everyone leave me alone – it was just this frenzy to get my beer done. Now I don’t get as stressed out about it because I know my system well enough. I just still have not gotten to a point where I can let go; I need to, but I’m such a control freak. Heading out on my own like this, doing everything my way – it’s hard, you don’t want that passion diluted. The one-man show is great for like the first six months, but I can’t do it anymore. Running the front and the back can be a little overwhelming. It’s good though; it means it’s growing. It’s a good problem to have.

What is your favorite aspect of having your own brewery?

The actual act of brewing I enjoy – I find it very peaceful to just do my thing, throw some headphones on and just brew – but that really is in anticipation of knowing that in two-and-a-half weeks, people will be drinking this beer at my bar 30 feet away and I get to talk to them about it and tell them what’s in it. I would say that relationship is the biggest factor for me; there’s nothing quite like it.

What has been your fondest memory since starting your brewery?

I used to have a different one, but to this point it was my one-year anniversary. I put it out on Facebook, but you never really know how many people are going to show up, especially for something like that, so I was just like ‘God I hope people come.’ And it was incredible. Every customer I’ve almost ever seen come in the door, came in that day. If it weren’t for the fans of craft beer none of this would exist. So I get to indulge in this dream of mine because of my customers and to have that kind of support from them, especially on my anniversary, and to just see so many people wanting to see me succeed is incredibly humbling.

Scott Witsoe chatting with a customer

Witsoe chatting with a customer at his brewery

What kind of name are you trying to have in Denver?

I want to have everyone coming here for the love of beer. I wanted to have a place that was not a pretentious environment, kind of like a Cheers sort of mentality. Not having TVs in here, having my crazy music mix on that people either love or hate, just an environment that creates more socializing. A lot of folks who come in here, it’s the first time they’ve ever had craft beer before and that’s a great opportunity for me to talk to them, make them feel comfortable. It’s just hilarious, I get these guys coming in here now who say ‘I can’t go back to Bud Light now, I can’t go back to Coors Light.’

How do you determine what you will brew next?

As a home brewer I was, and still am, influenced by all different types of brewing styles and traditions. The idea of making something specifically to meet a style guideline isn’t exciting for me. I like to explore different ingredients, different methods, and some can be really stepping outside of that stylistic guideline. I brew what interests me, what excites me, what I find compelling, and I just cross my fingers and hope that everyone else likes it too.

When you get off work, what do you like to imbibe most?

Well, it kind of depends on what kind of night it was. I’ll stop by the store and look around, but I’ll usually pull something from Great Divide, especially if Rumble is around; I love that beer and I will drink it until it’s gone. Dales’ Pale Ale is just a standard; I almost always have that around. Or Leopold’s Whiskey, on the rocks or neat; that would be for when the nights were a little rougher.

Is there a beer that surprisingly knocked your socks off upon first sip that still stands out to you to this day?

I would say one of the ones that really jumped out at me was right when I first moved here. Oddly enough I didn’t really drink a lot of Belgian beer in Seattle; I don’t know why, I guess I was just drinking whatever local places were doing and there weren’t a lot of Belgian styles being made. When we first moved here, I tried Avery Salvation and I remember thinking Wow, – the alcohol strength and all the flavors – What is this thing, what is this beer? And that sort of prompted me to research a little bit more about Belgian beers, which led to an incredible love affair with Belgian beers – I love Belgian beers now and they influence a lot of the beers I make today.

About Sarah Haughey

Editor, Denver off the Wagon. Sarah is a native of the "Napa Valley of beer," but her beer-drinking roots stretch all the way back to the Emerald Isle where Haughey (Haw-hee) is famous. Sure, our name may have got it's rap from the corrupt prime minister, but we like to think it stands strong due to our long-standing ability to pound a few too many pints. After stints on the East Coast and in San Francisco, Sarah came running back to Denver where her full-time job is exploring all the city's new craft breweries one sip at a time. Follow me @sarahhaughey4 to see where I'm grabbing a beer or for news about local breweries. Like to cook? Me too, check out: Lifewithalittlespice.com