By Eric Peterson | Dec 06, 2019
When people think of Florence, they often think of ADX Florence, or "Supermax," the infamous federal prison next door.
But more and more folks are starting to equate the south-central Colorado town of about 4,500 residents with craft beer.
That's largely due to the efforts of Prahl, 43, who retired from the military after 21 years in the Marines and the Army. He was living in Colorado Springs when a friend keyed the avid homebrewer into what was happening in Florence. "He said, 'You need to come check this place out. It'd be perfect for a brewery,'" says Prahl.
There was just one brewery in nearby Cañon City at the time, and none in Florence. "I saw an opportunity in an underserved market," says Prahl. "I sold everything, sold all my investment properties, my government 401(k). I bootstrapped everything 100 percent."
In mid-2015, he zeroed in a spot in a historic building near the railroad depot that was used for conferences in the early 1900s. The brewery and taproom now occupies 2,500 square feet on the ground floor, half of the footprint. "As soon as I saw it, I said, 'This is it,'" says Prahl. "We revamped our first space, then opened into a second space [in the building]."
After opening in May 2016, Prahl had a few growing pains. "The first year sucks, especially if you don't know what you're doing."
But the brewery started hitting its stride in 2017. Opening with five styles on taps, it now has 21, with a regular rotation of a blonde, an Irish red, a stout, an IPA, a hefeweizen, and a hard seltzer. "Our brewing philosophy is balance," says Prahl. "The IPAs aren't going to strip the enamel off your teeth and give you the bitter-beer face."
Not that Florence Brewing isn't experimenting with barrel aging and infusions with everything from peaches to glitter. "We flavor beers by the keg, and that's how we branch out," says Prahl. "That way we get a little variety. It has the same quality base beer, we just add some flavors to it on a small scale. We're able to expand our portfolio that way."
Prahl says the brewery sells about 95 percent of its beer at the taproom, but it has a few local accounts, including Elmo's Bar at Monarch Mountain. "They took off PBR and are going to put our blonde on," he says.
After self-distributing to a few liquor stores, Prahl is now focused on the taproom above all and only bottles seasonal bombers of barrel-aged beers to sell directly to customers. The model is a good match for the customer base. "We've been really well received by the local community and visitors alike," says Prahl, referencing George Wendt's omnipresent barfly from Cheers: "It's like the Norm effect."
He adds, "Everybody who comes in here likes the feel, likes the decor, likes the culture and community we've created," says Prahl. "We say, 'Exceptional beer, hometown atmosphere.' That's kind of our tagline."
Besides locals, day-trippers from Colorado Springs and Pueblo are the heart of the market. "We're getting a lot of people who are driving out," says Prahl. "We got a lot of reception from Pueblo, because there's not a lot of brewery competition in Pueblo itself."
With the Arkansas River snaking through town and easy access to the great outdoors, Prahl contends, "I think this area has the opportunity to be something like a poor man's Boulder, if you will." Compared to Boulder, however, Florence is affordable and user-friendly. "We've got two stoplights in town," says Prahl. "Rent's low, cost of living's low, a dollar goes a long way here."
Prahl points out Florence's rich history as the first oil boomtown west of the Mississippi River -- before anywhere in Texas -- and a processing center for ore from Cripple Creek. Today, that legacy has helped cement its reputation as "the antique capital of Colorado," he says. "We get a lot of customers and visitors based off of that."
And people are discovering the town at a higher and higher rate. "Florence is booming. Everybody that comes down here who hasn't been here always leaves, and says, 'Wow, I had no idea this place existed. I'm definitely coming back."
And the plan is for Florence Brewing to grow along with its namesake hometown.
"We've had steady 15 to 18 percent growth every year," says Prahl, noting production will eclipse 400 barrels for 2019 after hitting 285 in 2018. He forecasts it will hit the system's maximum capacity of 500 barrels in 2020.
Favorite beers: "My favorite is our Alpine Loop Bavarian-style Hefeweizen," says Prahl of his house selection. "You're getting more clove flavor, which is traditional to a German-style hefe. Another Florence Brewing tap he's prone to pull it the Beer Whistle Blonde Ale. "I call it the yellow lawnmower beer."
While he's also partial to Erdinger Weissbier and other Bavarian staples, Prahl says that the production capabilities of "Big Beer" also impresses him. "I probably shouldn't say this out loud -- the scale of what AB InBev and MillerCoors can actually do is mind-boggling."
Challenges: "Getting the word out, "says Prahl. "We don't have the customer base you would have in a Denver or Colorado Springs market." The main marketing strategy is targeting craft beer aficionados on the Front Range via social media: "We invite people to come down and explore the area, and stop in and have a beer after that."
A second big hurdle is "the changing landscape of the craft brewing industry," he adds, pointing to Boulder Beer's pullback and "brewstilleries" from Ska/Peach Street and others.
While a brewstillery might be in the company's future, distribution is probably not. "The way the market's going right now, we've kind of taken that off the table," he says of packaging for distribution. "It's not where our organizational and energy is going. To be honest, it doesn't fit our business model. . . . We want to know our customers one-on-one."
He notes, "I was just trying to keep three liquor stores happy, and that was a pain in the ass. I was like, 'Imagine exacerbating this and magnifying it by 20, or 30, or 1,000.' I don't really want that headache."
Opportunities: Converting more Florence locals to craft beer. "When I grew up, it was Bud and Coors," says Prahl, noting that's still the dominant mindset in Florence. "We're helping educate our customers on what's new and emerging in the market, but also what good craft beer is."
Above the brewery, the 5,000-square-foot space upstairs is in need of some work. "We're going to revamp the upstairs, put maybe up to a dozen units up there for VRBO or Airbnb as short-term or long term-rentals. Lodging in Florence is actually a problem -- there's not a lot of places to stay here."
Prahl says "the idea of the public house" is driving the strategy. "The Marine Corps, near and dear to me, was actually founded in a bar," he explains. "If you can get the public house feel, people come and share ideas and experiences, and good and bad times. We've become the local gathering place here in Florence."
There is also the aforementioned opportunity to grow with Florence. "Everybody's working together with this combined feeling of 'We are Florence,'" he says. "City government is really supportive of that as well. They're really on board with growth and making things happen."
Needs: As Florence Brewing approaches capacity, Prahl is looking to move brewing to a larger production facility in Florence and dedicate more of the current space to the taproom. In order to do so, he says he needs capital and the right location first and foremost. "That's where a lot of my focus is going," he says.
After that, a second taproom in a "location to be determined" is next, and possibly a food vendor at one or both taprooms.
Then the big need will be to continue to work hard and connect with new customers. "We plan to succeed instead of plan to fail," says Prahl.