By Eric Peterson | Jan 02, 2018
In 2000, Pat and Amanda Weakland opened The Windsor Gardener. At the time, their son, Zach, was in high school.
Pat and Zach started homebrewing together in the same time frame. "Interesting fact: 1.4 million barrels of beer is being homebrewed in the U.S.," notes Zach. "That's more than New Belgium -- which is really cool."
Jumping ahead to 2007, a national hops shortage led the Weaklands to plant hops at the shop. "We have about 15 acres here," says Zach. "We started with 32 varieties of hops on one acre."
After graduating from Colorado State University, Zach opened a homebrew shop at The Windsor Gardener in 2010 and expanded the hop farm to more than 50 varieties on 2.5 acres.
They sold some hops to such breweries as Grimm Brothers Brewhouse in Loveland and Pikes Peak Brewing Company in Monument, and used them in their own homebrews. "We still had a lot of hops left," says Zach.
The surplus gave the Weaklands a good excuse to launch High Hops Brewery in 2012. "We said, 'This is going pretty well. Why don't we open a brewery?'" says Zach.
Production has grown sharply in the years since, from 600 barrels in 2013 to 1,000 barrels in 2014 to 1,600 in 2015 to more than 2,000 in 2016. "Here we started with eight taps," says Zach. "Now we're at 40 taps."
Growth leveled off in 2017 during a significant expansion project. "We had to focus on construction instead of sales," says Zach.
High Hops' creative and diverse catalog is one of its strengths. After starting with bottles in 2013, the brewery acquired a Cask canning line the following year. "We have seven year-round cans, and we have the Colorado Can Series," says Zach.
The latter is a new beer every two months that launched in late 2016. "That's been killing it," says Zach. Production is "60 barrels and that's it" -- enough for statewide distribution of 300 cases and some kegs. It's included the spruce-tinged Picea Pale Ale and coffee-infused Shot in the Dark Stout and several other small batches to date.
The series is a microcosm of High Hops’ broader strategy. There's no single flagship beer. The bestseller "comes down to the season," says Weakland. "In the summer, it's Blueberry Wheat. It really varies month to month."
Habanero Hunny Ale, featuring honey malt along with namesake peppers grown onsite, has a loyal customer base. "It started with a five-gallon batch and it just rolled into this cultish following," says Zach. "We really like to concentrate on what we can grow and put in products we can sell."
Bad Mama Java, a blonde coffee stout with vanilla, "was a collaboration between all of the employees," says Zach. "It's blonde in color with the body and mouthfeel of a stout. You get the body from the oats we put in there and the flavor from the coffee."
The expansion was on the front burner for all of 2017. The original 10-barrel brewhouse has been paired with a new 30-barrel system that went into operation in late 2017. A new five-head Codi canning line replaced the old three-head Cask system. With more tank space, the system's annual capacity is 40,000 barrels. "We could crank it if we want to," says Zach.
The second part of the expansion, The Heart Distillery, is set to open in March 2018 with its own tasting room onsite. The plan is to make Overland Distillery's Trinity Absinthe ("We've grown their herbs for five years," says Zach), along with gin, vodka, and bourbon. Zach shares plans to utilize high pressure and vibrations to catalyze the aging process for the last spirit.
Having a brewery and distillery at the same location involves different licenses, tax structures, and even fencing between brewing and distilling areas."They have to be separate; you can't use anything on the brewing side for the distillery and vice versa," says Zach. "But you can have a shared space where it's alternating."
Favorite beers: Zach highlights High Hops' One Knight Stand, a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout, as a favorite. Beyond his brewery's taps, he's a big fan of Sad Panda Coffee Stout from Horse & Dragon Brewing Company in Fort Collins.
Challenges: "Everyday operations are one of the biggest challenges," says Zach, highlighting wastewater as a hurdle. Since Windsor's system can't handle wastewater with particulates, High Hops trucks 6,000 gallons to a local farm every two weeks at a cost of 13 cents a gallon, says Zach, noting that the requisite processing system at the brewery would cost about $100,000.
Another challenge: Getting the hop farm going again after a flood. "A culvert was clogged," says Zach. "It killed all of our hops." That will take three years -- the amount of time it takes a hop bine to reach maturity.
Launching the distillery is another challenge, but a good one, he adds. "There are just so many challenges, but that's part of every job. That's what makes it fun."
Opportunities: Getting High Hops' beers "more shelf space in Colorado," says Zach. "It's still moving along. People are focusing more on local and smaller companies."
After dipping a toe in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and South Dakota, High Hops retrenched distribution in Colorado in 2016 with American Eagle and Tivoli as the in-state distributors. "Our capacity wasn't big enough, so we decided to focus on Colorado," says Zach. "With the expansion, we'll should be able to broaden the horizon again."
The upcoming release of a new canned craft lager could spark sales: The Cold One will be available in six-packs as well as 30-packs, the latter priced competitively at $29. Zach calls it a "porch-drinking beer" that could steal shelf space from the macro-breweries. "I think that's going to do really well," he says.
Needs: "I want more local ingredients," says Zach. High Hops sources malt from a number of craft operations, including Troubadour, Grouse, and Root Shoot Malting, but the goal is to source as much as possible from local producers.