Before Six Flags, there was Elitch Gardens, a family-owned seasonal amusement park on 38th and Tennyson Streets in the Highlands. It’s been closed since 1994, but the wood from old Elitch’s bowling lanes has since popped up just a few blocks from the shuttered park that had been a Denver landmark for over a century.
Craig Rothgery, 30, used the abandoned lanes – which he purchased from a local man who pilfered them from the attraction himself eight years ago – as the bar top of his new brewery, De Steeg, that will have its grand opening today at 4 p.m.
Do you live in the Highlands neighborhood and are confused by the lack of evidence a brewery is opening at 4342 North Tennyson Street? Well, De Steeg, which translates to “alley” in Dutch, is aptly located in the alleyway behind Swing Thai on 44th and Tennyson Streets. The only marking for the brewery is a small square black sign with a white outline of a snifter glass.
Rothgery, the one-man show behind De Steeg, had originally named his brewery High Gravity until he realized Gravity Brewing would be opening in Lousiville around the same time he was set to open. But unlike the unfortunate situation Strange Brewing Co is going through, Rothgery and John Frazee, co-owner of Gravity, sat down like gentlemen, had a beer, and decided Rothgery should change his name – a decision he has not regretted for a second. “Honestly I like my new name better than my old name,” he says.
Rothgery got his start in the alcohol biz using ingredients quite a bit more fragrant than hops. In fact, as a project engineer for L’Oreal Cosmetics, he was concocting perfumes and colognes for Ralph Lauren. But once he and his fiancée decided New Jersey was not quite as cool as Colorado, they packed up and Rothgery found himself in Aurora making Hot Pockets at Nestle for almost five years until it recently shut down in April. Finally, he found his way to the bright side of alcohol, consulting for a winery before going full tilt into DeSteeg (pronounced with a soft “g” at the end), a concept he had begun to conceptualize about two years ago.
While a big-whig cosmetic company and microwavable snack foods may not sound like a recipe for a craft brewery, Rothgery – who has a mechanical engineering degree from Rochester Institute of Technology – has used his “super nerd” status to craft some pretty impressive brews on a system he hand built in his garage.
His 1.25-barrel system is all-electric, powered by a touch-screen Rothgery created from an old car computer. As far as we know, he’s the first brewer to have a touch-screen system on a homebrew scale.
For Friday’s opening, 4 – 10 p.m., Rothgery will be tapping an easy-drinking “not fruity” Pomegranate Açai Wheat, a light-bodied English Mild on Nitro that tastes like cream and sugar with a hint of mocha, and a stellar 11% ABV Imperial Pumpkin (served in a smaller 10oz pour), that Rothgery touts as his best beer.
Assuming the beer doesn’t go too quick, De Steeg Brewing will be open Friday and Saturday 4 – 10 p.m., as well as Sunday 3:30 until the end of the Super Bowl + one hour – hey no celebration or lamentation is complete without a craft brew!
When did you get into homebrewing?
Way back in college, I think I had just turned 21 when I brewed my first batch of beer. Just with moving around all the time from internship to internship I never really had the time to do it, but then I bought a house about five years ago and I was like, ‘Oh God I have a lot of space,’ so that’s when I started homebrewing again. I was kind of obsessed with it, basically every month or two I was expanding my system or building something new. It’s the engineer in me – I built a touch-screen automated system in my garage [now at De Steeg].
What inspired the touch-screen system?
I’m a nerd. I had a screen in the dash of my car, so once technology caught up, I replaced it with something a bit more stable and gutted my car computer for the system. It’s been really smooth, really easy to use. It was cool to write the software because I can kind of play with it somewhat, I can just hit a button and set a temperature and it just goes there right away – I mean obviously all the big brewers can do that, but it’s just nice coming from a homebrew standpoint, instead of using a floating thermometer.
Do you just use it to control temperature or what else can it do?
Temperatures and I use it to monitor the boil. When you’re using propane or anything like that, you just kind of dial it back and wait until your boil goes to whatever – I can just increase or decrease the electrical load going into my heating element to perfect my boil. It also takes a log of all my temperatures with a time stamp so throughout the brewing process I can see how temperatures are going and how long it took to heat batches.
So your passion is high-alcohol, high-gravity beers, is this the focus of De Steeg?
I would say I have a tendency to go towards the higher alcohol stuff, but right now it’s about a 50/50 split [on tap]. I obviously need to have something a little on the lower side for people that aren’t into that stuff, but for the most part I have a tendency to go the route of higher alcohol beers. I like really bold flavors and stuff like that so it just kind of ends up that way.
What beer are you most excited to release to Denver?
Honestly, the Imperial Pumpkin is just hands down awesome. I hate to brag about my own beers but it’s a really great beer. It’s something I’ve made for a long time – we used to have Halloween parties every year and I would always make the Imperial Pumpkin. I love the punch it kicks, the flavors are great, it’s really smooth, and super clean to drink. Its 11% but you really don’t taste the alcohol, so it’s a little dangerous. I like to keep things subtle – I really don’t like blowing people’s palates away with way too much pumpkin flavor, so it’s there and you can taste it, but it’s not overpowering.
With Crooked Stave just east of you, Hogs Head, and Hops n’ Pie down the road, how are you trying to set your brewery apart?
I guess I got kind of lucky because those guys are so specialized and I’m really not. Honestly, I think it’s becoming a cool little microbrewery area. People love to walk up and down the street here; if they’re motivated, they can walk from Hog’s Head to here, and from Hops n’ Pie it will be a real easy walk, especially a couple of beers in. I’m not really too worried about trying to differentiate myself from other breweries, people are coming here for the beer scene that’s popping up.
When you were developing your concept, you had a naming issue with Gravity Brewing. Now we have the Strange Brewing Co and Strange Brew controversy – how do you feel about them going through all this crap to get right to where you are, basically, by just sitting down and having a beer with someone?
It’s kind of crazy how all this is popping up. I think the craft beer industry is starting to get huge in the US and it’s starting to cause these naming issues. The thing that’s awesome about the craft beer industry is how much everybody works together –I went to Wit’s End every day and drank beers and was like ‘Scott, dude, what do I do?’ And he was totally cool. The guys over at Strange were awesome too, I talked to them. Everyone is just so welcoming and to have naming stuff pop up and to get lawyers involved, as far as the Colorado scene is concerned, it’s kind of a bummer. We should be able to settle this stuff. Everyone is super nice to each other and just really willing to help out.
How did you and the guys at Gravity settle things?
With the whole Gravity thing, we knew, we both knew, for like two months, that one of us was going to have to change our name. I had gone down to their place to try and get in touch with them, but they were closed. Then they got in touch with me on Facebook and it was just how it should be: We sat down, talked about it, and in the end, yea it made sense for me to change my name. I wasn’t open yet, we had both signed up in I think it was 2010 for the name and he signed up 20 days before I did, which is crazy.
How did you settle on De Steeg as your new name?
After that whole thing went down I had to think of a new name and it’s funny, De Steeg is one of the first things I had thought of. It was like a nightly thing, we would sit down for an hour or two and just brainstorm, type the name into Google and see if anyone had it. The names out there that people have are crazy. Every name you can think of is taken. So it was difficult, but then I finally went back to De Steeg. I honestly like my new name more than my old name. With where we ended up, I think it’s going to be really awesome for what we’re trying to do.
Why De Steeg?
I really love Belgian beers so I was trying to find a way to do something with that. I don’t really focus on them in any way, I really like Belgians personally. So when we picked our spot, I Googled the Belgian translation for “the alley” and I thought it was a cool play off that alley feeling. No one else had it – there is a De Steeg, Netherlands, which is an actual city, so I think I’m OK.
What are you most excited for this year in introducing your brewery to Denver?
It’s been a lot of work; it’s really awesome to kind of see it come together. Opening a business is a pretty cool and stressful venture, so I’m hoping to see it become a success – it’s exciting.
What’s your go-to beer or drink when you get off work?
Commercial? I have too much beer in my basement to drink other people’s beer. I’m kind of in a hoppy or Belgian mood right now. I go down to Wit’s End all the time where Scott Witsoe is making some great beers. Avery is great; every time we have friends in town I’m like ‘we’re going to Boulder.’ But, Oskar Blues Deviant Dales is fantastic. They just do great stuff, but everybody knows that and that’s why they’re blowing up. We all kind of hope we get that far – I don’t know if I’d want to get as big as Oskar Blues though, that just seems huge.
So if you had the opportunity, how big would you want to get before you say no more expansions?
One of the reasons I got out of corporate America was I felt that the companies were just too huge and so much gets lost in that. Obviously I want to get bigger, but I still want to be involved, I don’t want to get to the point where people are saying my name and they’ve never even met me. I wouldn’t mind having a production facility because I’d like to start distributing at some point – right now I can’t distribute, I just don’t make enough beer. I’d like to get to that point, but where I’m not way out of touch with everything.