Francescato and Kaczmarek started homebrewing together when they attended high school in Wheat Ridge a decade ago. Their hustle involved selling the brews off to friends in order to buy ingredients for the next batch.
They continued brewing through college, when Kaczmarek went to CU in Boulder while Francescato attended University of Denver. "We continued to meet on weekends in college and just kept brewing, brewing, brewing," says Francescato.
After graduating, Kaczmarek tried to start a hop farm and worked for the Brewers Association and liquor stores as Francescato embarked on a career in finance. But they never stopped brewing. The duo decided to go pro when they were bicycling Independence Pass in 2014. The surrounding peaks provided inspiration.
"We talked about the active community and marketing a beer to them," says Kaczmarek. "The biggest thing was figuring out how to launch the beer and the brand without any capital."
They decided to begin with a contract brewer, and partnered with Crazy Mountain Brewery after a citywide search. Francescato says he was sold on the "experience of the entire brewing staff," along with the ability to piggyback on hop contracts and packaging needs.
In summer 2016, 14er launched with six packs of cans of the saison, Mt Massive IPA, and Maroon Bells Guava Ale. "All the beer buyers told us they wanted at least three SKUs to sell in the store," says Francescato.
As they got started, they decided to compete at the Great American Beer Festival. "We didn't have a whole lot of time in the market before GABF," says Kaczmarek.
The high-school escapades paid off: Despite the fact 14er had launched just five months before, the brewery took home a gold medal in the chili beer category for Rocky Mountain Saison, featuring jalapeno, cilantro, and lime. They'd started brewing it in 2008 when they were 18. "That's the beer we brewed the most," says Kaczmarek. "We must have brewed it 200 times."
Adds Francescato: "That beer came from Broncos games, wanting to have a beer to go with guacamole. We basically took the ingredients of guacamole and brewed a saison with them."
In late 2016, Double Mt Massive IPA rounded out the year-round lineup. "It basically turned into our best-selling beer," says Kaczmarek. 14er launched a quarterly IPA series in summer 2017 and has also brewed several special releases.
After initially brewing in Edwards, the operation moved to Crazy Mountain's larger facility in Denver, where the minimum batch more than doubled. "We ramped up our sales," says Kaczmarek.
14er quickly landed 120 retail accounts in metro Denver, then the founders have stood pat and focused on growing same-store sales. "We're still in the same number of stores," says Francescato. "It's worked very well."
The brewery also distributes kegs to about 30 draught accounts. "The rotating tap game in Denver is absolutely absurd," says Kaczmarek.
Within a month of winning at GABF, 14er inked a lease for a building in the RiNo Arts District. After opening the taproom in July 2017, the buildout on a 10-barrel brewhouse is slated for completion in spring 2018. Once the new brewing system is online, the plan is to continue brewing for distribution at Crazy Mountain and make smaller batches in-house for the taproom.
There's a reason for that strategy: "We don't have a limitation on the production side," says Francescato. Contract brewing and outsourcing has helped keep the operation lean; the founders continue to work their day jobs.
It's a good recipe for rapid growth. After 14er brewed about 1,200 in its first year in operation, Kaczmarek forecasts 200 to 250 percent production growth in 2018.
Beyond self-distribution in metro Denver and Bubb's Beverages handling the rest of Colorado, 14er is available in the Miami market. Expect other cities to join the roster next year. "We're looking for the markets that make sense for us to expand into next year," says Kaczmarek.
Favorite beers: "That's a really hard question," says Francescato.
"We have this limited release of this Key Lime Cream Ale that I absolutely love," says Kaczmarek, who points to Denver's Woods Boss Brewing Company as a new local favorite.
"I love our Rocky Mountain Saison," offers Francescato after consideration. "I'm a big food guy and it's great for pairing with a lot of different foods." Anderson Valley Brewing Company Blood Orange Gose in another favorite, he adds.
Challenges: Opening the brewhouse in RiNo. Turning the 1930s-era warehouse into a brewery and taproom "really stresses the physical limitations of it," says Kaczmarek. Permitting and inspections have been a bit slow due to this, he adds.
Opportunities: New markets. "We're definitely targeting craft beer places first: Portland, Seattle, Chicago, New York," says Francescato. "Anyplace with a lot of people who like craft beer."
Needs: Denver-based sales reps and capital. "Everything's personally financed through our 401(k)s," says Francescato of the latter. "We're definitely cash-strapped. For us, it's all about cash flow." While he says they're uninterested in equity deals, "We're really just looking for the right relationship, the right funding."