By Eric Peterson | Jun 08, 2015
"You might have wanted a '66 Corvette," says Usry. "I always wanted a Steinecker."
He's referring to the state-of-the-art Steinecker brewing and packaging system from at the heart of Breckenridge's new $36 million campus a stone's throw from the South Platte River in Littleton.
All of the gleaming new stainless steel was manufactured by Krones AG in Germany, and German engineers and brewmasters came to Colorado to help train staffers for the transition after Breckenridge turned on the lights in March. "Even the tile is from Germany," says Usry.
It looks good, but it tastes good, too: The new kettles help bring out the aromas and flavors of the hops. "We're really liking the beers and how they're turning out over here," says Usry. "We're picking up three to four times the aroma of the hops."
Usry wants his new baby to keep shining, just like that '66 Corvette. "I want to make sure we maintain it -- from the brewing equipment to the bathroom doorknob."
But it's not just aesthetics. "Not only is it beautiful, it's highly, highly efficient -- form and function," says Usry. "You can't buy a more technologically advanced brewhouse right now."
Now Breckenridge's brewing process is automated from start to finish. Brewmasters can monitor a proprietary Siemens production portal on a computer screen instead of patrolling the entire brewery. That's a major change for Usry's crew. "I've been turning valves by hand for 20 years," he laughs. "This system really is a brewer that uses our team for guidance."
It's also an engine for growth. Breckenridge was the 50th largest craft brewery in the U.S. at 64,371 barrels in 2014, driven by 21.4 percent growth for the Vanilla Porter brand. Usry forecasts production will top 80,000 barrels in 2015.
The new digs in Littleton are designed to accommodate this uptick, and more some. Annual capacity nearly doubles to 120,000 barrels, and the design allows for expansion onsite to 300,000 barrels.
Built with recycled materials, LEDs, and plenty of natural lighting, the brewery is also greener. With steam reclamation, Usry says it's a stunning 400 times more heat-efficient than the boiler at the old brewery in Denver. "It's really designed to heat mash and malt and keep the system hot when you're doing 10 brews a day," he explains.
But the 400-barrel system allows for brewing in 100-barrel increments, so Usry says the added capacity won't impede creativity. "The brewhouse will not limit us in terms of specialties." To this end, Breckenridge has 13 new beers slated for release in 2015, many of them barrel-aged specialty offerings.
Founded in Breckenridge, Colorado, in 1990 -- the year Usry started as a delivery driver -- the brewery moved production to Denver in 1992 for logistical reasons, real estate prices and access to transportation, workforce, and customers being chief among them.
After two years in downtown Denver, Breckenridge moved production a couple of miles south to 471 Kalamath St. in 1996. After 19 years, the site was maxed out. "We needed the space to grow," says Usry. "We were pinned down by the city -- by the sidewalks and the streets."
Thus, the move to Littleton is the equivalent of Breckenridge Brewery 3.0. "We wanted to do something cool," Usry says. "We're happy we took the extra effort."
Formerly home of an orchid greenhouse -- an old smokestack at the back of the outdoor beer garden is "a tip of the hat to the history," says Cerknovnik -- the farmhouse-inspired property includes the brewery and a new, 276-seat restaurant, the Farm House, and there are plans for a nano-scale hops farm.
"We're excited about how [the restaurant] fits into the entire campus," says Cerkovnik. "Todd has a vision for a bucolic look and feel. . . . It's just a beautiful setting with the views of the mountains, the river, and open space. I'm not sure there's anything like it anywhere."
Breckenridge's annual Hootenanny celebrates the brewery's 25th anniversary on July 18, with a performance from 25-year-old Leftover Salmon and other bands. There are plans for other events in Littleton, including "table-in-the-field" beer dinners.
Favorite beers: "Gotta have some hops," says Usry, picking Breckenridge's 471, a double-hopped, small-batch IPA, and Avery's Maharaja Imperial IPA. Cerkovnik says Breckenridge's Nitro Vanilla Porter is his in-house go-to, and he also likes beers from Firestone Walker in California.
Challenges: Learning a new production system. "The first month, all of us were dumbfounded," says Usry. Now that peak's been bagged, and the next big mountain to climb is "the enormity of the campus," he adds. "I get intimidated by the sheer size of it” -- 76,000 square feet spread across three buildings.
Cerkovnik says the restaurant's challenge "is to exceed the expectations of every guest who walks through the front door."
Opportunities: First and foremost, to better serve existing accounts. "We're playing catch-up," says Usry. "We've been shorting orders to wholesalers for 2.5 years now."
To complement Breckenridge's catalog of more than 15 bottles, Usry says there's also a "very aggressive plan" to expand canning in Littleton. "We're going into cans in a big way in September."
Geographically, the West Coast is Breckenridge's next big target. The brewery has distribution in 35 states -- after Colorado, Texas, Ohio, and Illinois are top markets -- but it's only in Southern California on the Pacific, and there's a lot of ground to cover between Los Angeles and Seattle.
Needs: "Fire up the '66," says Usry. "Keep it running well and keep it shiny."