By Angela Rose | Sep 05, 2018
They say good things come to those who wait. That's definitely true for the Porns, whose thoughtful actions over the course of several years finally led to the release of Atom Brewing Company's first beer on April 29, 2016.
"If you go all the way back to the beginning, when we first sat down with our original partners and decided to start a brewery, until the day we released that first beer, it was almost five and a half years of planning and direction changes," Jeff explains. "We originally had the idea of opening with a traditional brewpub type of business model, and we went through all the work of going in that direction, before our partnership fell apart. Then Chris and I took a step back and reevaluated what we truly wanted to do."
Because Jeff's passion had always been for barrel-aged wilds and sours, the couple refocused in that direction, albeit with half their original capital. "As you can imagine, when half the partnership left, half of the money left as well," Jeff continues. "Then we had to decide if we wanted to find more partners or try to work with investors. We decided to just fund the brewery on our own and started setting aside every extra penny we had towards being able to open."
Their decision to forgo financial assistance may have added a few years to the timeline, but it also guided them to their brewery's location, one of the many things that make Atom Brewing Company unique. "We had this building on our property here in Erie that we weren't doing anything with," Jeff says. "We decided to use it to help get our brewery off the ground instead of getting a lease or buying another location."
The 80-year-old building, which sits behind the Porns' residence in Olde Town Erie, now houses Atom Brewing Company's custom-made 10-barrel open-top wood foeder for primary fermentation, as well as enough oak to allow for the aging of 65 barrels of beer at any given time.
They've been creating their wort on Odd13's 10-barrel system in Lafayette. However, Jeff and Chris recently installed a custom-built copper kettle in their backyard and will begin using it for the creation of smaller batches as of September 2018.
"We'll be brewing five-barrel batches of beer in the copper kettle over open wood fire," Jeff says. "We've converted a couple 500-liter oak puncheons and those will be our mash tun and hot liquor tank. While we'll continue to do our bigger batches at Odd13, our copper kettle is going to allow us to do a lot more experimentation. Plus, we'll be one of only three breweries in the United States that brew this way."
Jeff estimates Atom Brewing Company has produced 24 different beers, most of which are organized within four series: Farmhouse (which includes their flagship Arlo), Harvest (with bestseller Blueberry), Sour, and the newest, Uit de Grond.
"Uit de Grond is Dutch for from the soil," Chris explains. "It was inspired by our extensive garden, which is full of herbs and things that we enjoy growing. For the first release, we combined blood orange and chamomile. It had a great color and a wonderful combination of sweet, earthy, tart and tangy flavors."
Many of the couple's beers, including the next release in the Uit de Grond series, a watermelon and basil concoction, are inspired by travel as well as food. "Often, aromas will trigger something for us, too," Chris adds. "Also, just meeting people in different countries and tasting the flavors they're using that we never would have thought of."
Atom Brewing Company produced 175 barrels in 2017, and Jeff says they're on track for around 200 this year. Increasing production is a slow process because of the time invested in each beer. At present, the variety with the fastest turnaround requires eight months from the day it's brewed until the day the bottles leave the brewery. Most require significantly longer, in some cases more than two years.
"We brewed a 14 percent wheat wine that has been aging in 40-year-old rum barrels for 18 months," Jeff says. "We're going to be packaging that towards the end of the month for release later in the fall or early winter. It's a beer that has taken a year and a half to make."
"The brewery runs a lot more like a winery or a distillery," he adds.
Fans can find Atom Brewing Company bottles throughout the Front Range and in most major Colorado mountain towns. While the couple started out self-distributing, they've been working with Colorado Craft Distributors for more than a year and were picked up by Tavour in August.
Favorite beers: "We're always buying bottles of this and cans of that, and I don't think our beer refrigerator even has two cans of the same beer, unless it's PBR," Chris laughs. "But true to craft as well as what we make, I absolutely love sour beers. The more funk and sour they are, the more I enjoy them."
"I keep Orval in the refrigerator at all times," Jeff adds. "It's one of my favorites. But another brewery I'm really enjoying is De Blaugies out of Belgium. They're a tiny farmhouse brewery that has been around since the '80s and 30 years later, they're still running things the same way. I found them while researching farmhouse breweries that were doing things like we are."
Challenges: Though they love their tiny barrel house with its cedar-lined ceiling that allows the local microflora to flourish, the couple says a lack of space is continually an issue. "Overall square footage is definitely our biggest challenge," Jeff explains. "We have to try to maximize what we can do given the space we're currently in."
Opportunities: However, being a small brewery is often a positive. "Because of the size we are, we're able to be a lot more fluid," Jeff says. "There are always multiple opportunities coming our way." These opportunities have included exciting collaborations and, recently, the chance to become the featured brewery at the 2019 Denver Rare Beer Tasting. "I think it's monumentally huge for us to be recognized at that level and be up there with the big boys," Chris adds.
Exporting is another opportunity for Atom. "We haven't officially signed anything yet, but we're also in talks with a couple distributors to see about getting our beers over into Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands in 2019," Jeff says.
Needs: "Aging space is our biggest need," says Jeff. "We're starting a new project right now to reorganize how we're arranging our barrels to maximize the amount we can ferment. Our storage space is currently 65 barrels, but we want to increase that within the four walls with better organization."