Colorado’s Newer (and Smaller) Breweries

With nearly 2,500 breweries in the U.S., it would seem like a new, small brewery would struggle to develop a market for its product. But that’s not the case here in Colorado. Our beer-friendly culture has allowed new breweries of modest size to flourish over the last few years.

Look no further than Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project to see how a new brewery can immediately gain a foothold. The brainchild of Chad Yakobson has received widespread acclaim for its Brett beers from major news outlets like the New York Times and the Denver Post. The brewery has been raking in the awards, too. In less than two years of operation, Crooked Stave has captured a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer category for its Sentience, as well as a bronze from the World Cup of Beer in American-Style Brett ales for Wild Wild Brett Rouge.

CrookedStave Aside from expanding palates around the state, Crooked Stave also pioneered one of the small brewery staples – a membership club. Crooked Stave’s Cellar Reserve has proven to be immensely popular and shows no signs of slowing down. The idea has spread to other new breweries in the area like TRVE Brewing and River North Brewery, both of which created unique membership programs around the time of opening. (Crooked Stave, TRVE, River North, and 20 other breweries are attending  the New Kids on the Block party.)

Like many of the younger breweries around the state, Crooked Stave is also poised for expansion in the near future. While the brewery moved from it’s original home in Fort Collins to Denver’s Highlands neighborhood in 2012, Crooked Stave is still in growth mode. 2013 brings another move – this time to The Source in River North – as well as a 20 barrel pilot brewing system for future experimentation.

Growing Pains

While Crooked Stave is a great success story of Colorado’s new breweries, it isn’t the only young brewery that’s taking off the training wheels. Two other area breweries that have been in business less than two years, TRVE Brewing and Wit’s End Brewing Company, recently added more fermenters to alleviate a problem that some brewers dread: running out of beer. Both breweries have been forced to pull some of their regular beers, or even temporarily shut down, due to overwhelming demand.

Trve Beer list The best way to avoid running out of beer is to increase fermentation space, which is exactly what TRVE did when they replaced their original trio of four barrel fermenters with three new seven barrel fermenters. The upgrade allows the brewery to increase production from just under 200 barrels to-date to approximately 350 barrels per year, said TRVE’s owner Nick Nunns.

Wit’s End understands the issues faced by TRVE all too well. Despite a location a bit off the beaten path, Wit’s End has occasionally kicked the supply of its regular rotation over the past year and a half. Owner Scott Witsoe has taken steps to alleviate the problems of being popular by seeking out some help from one of the pioneers in Denver’s small brewery niche – Strange Brewing Company, who Witsoe cited along with Dry Dock as the pioneers of the taproom model. Witsoe purchased two of Strange’s three barrel fermenters in a move that will, similar to TRVE, help Witsoe nearly double his output to approximately 200 barrels this year and keep his customers’ glasses full.

Collaboration, Experimentation and a Friendly Face

So what makes these smaller breweries so successful in Colorado, a state that has high-quality craft beer available in spades? According to Nunns, the ability to have your beer poured by the brewer makes a big difference.

“People really seem to dig being able to go straight to the source,” said Nunns. “Drinking at a place where the dude or lady that brewed the beer is serving it to them too is a rad experience you can’t get in every state.”

Going straight to the source was a sentiment echoed by Witsoe, who also cited the incredible craft beer community and his crew of regulars to the success of Wit’s End.

“Without the amazing craft beer fans out there, and their incredible support of this industry, none of the growth and successes we’ve experienced would be possible,” said Witsoe. “We have so many awesome regular customers, as well as new folks coming in and becoming regulars. Their support and encouragement mean the world to me . . . this amazing environment is something we should all be very proud of and continue to contribute to its growth.”

Another reason for the abundance and success of Colorado’s smaller breweries – the collaborative and experimental culture that allows for the use of interesting ingredients that usually result in beers that don’t fall into mass-market categories. For example, Wit’s End and Renegade Brewing recently collaborated on Judge Whoppner – a stout that used Whopper candies as an ingredient. TRVE brewed Prehistoric Dog, a gose style salted wheat, and Crooked Stave is always cooking up something unique.

All of this fun and boundary-pushing exploration is, in a way, made possible by the likes of Breckenridge Brewery, Great Divide Brewing Company and Avery Brewing Company (all part of the Legends & Rarities event). These stalwarts of the brewing industry make amazing beer that can fulfill any of the major style categories – Avalanche Amber Ale, Titan IPA or Ellie’s Brown – and can be purchased at nearly all local liquor stores. With these brewing giants producing high-quality and easily available beers like those listed above, Colorado’s smaller breweries are free to experiment and create one-off beers for the taproom. This built-in supply has been particularly helpful for TRVE, according to Nunns.

“The thing that’s helped us out the most is that we’re not a whole lot like other breweries. We’re not focusing on the standard issue beer styles like browns or ambers. We believe beer drinkers in Colorado are beyond those,” said Nunns. “We’re not pretending to be anything we’re not. We’re making great beer and listening to metal, and if people want to come along for the ride we’d love for them to join us – People really seem to appreciate that.”

From a favorable beer drinking community to nationally recognized products and the rich craft beer tradition, Colorado has become a welcome home to smaller breweries looking to make a mark and pursue a passion. For the sake of all beer drinkers in Colorado, it’s a trend we hope is just getting started.

About Peter MacKellar

A native Coloradan who thinks our fine state offers the best beer and snow anywhere in the U.S., Peter recently moved back to Denver after spending a few years in New York City.