By Chris Meehan | May 01, 2015
Today's thirst for American craft beer is a far cry from when Left Hand, named after Arapaho Chief Niwot, launched in the early 1990s. "The conversation back in the '70s and '80s was 'American beer is watered down piss,'" laughs Wallace.
The former member of the Air Force lived overseas and experienced all kinds of beers in Europe and Asia before he returned to Colorado in the early 1990s.
The tables have turned: Other countries are now looking to the U.S. for inspiration. "That's very cool and gratifying," he says. "When I travel over and talk to brewers in other countries, they're trying to get an industry like we've got going."
Left Hand exports beer to the United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan, and Germany, "which I thought would never happen," Wallace says, and its beers are distributed in 34 states. In the first quarter of this year, the company pushed into New England with entries into Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
The brewery also has plans for further expanding its distribution map this year. "We're working on the big one, which is California," Wallace says.
As Left Hand enters new markets, it's planning on upping production from 74,000 barrels last year to more than 90,000 barrels in 2015, which means it needs to expand its brewing capacity. Four new 480-barrel tanks arrived at the end of April. Wallace says the new tanks, along with a new hop-dosing line, will help meet the increased production needs.
That's not all. "We've broken ground on our south cellar, expanding our main production building," Wallace says. "We're adding a pilot system and some other space for production, offices and storage, all things we need." The brewery is also expanding its roughly 15-year-old barrel-aging program and cooler, and building a lab and a maintenance shop.
There are also plans for a new brewhouse within a few years. "We're not doing any single massive big rollout," Wallace explains. "We just do lots of smaller rolls."
That's partly because the company has focused on staying independent, he adds. "We limit our own growth by the cash flow coming in. We don't have any big sources of outside capital."
Wallace says he'd rather have the staff invested in the company than outsiders. "Over half of our employees own stock already. We try to create an ownership culture here."
Wallace says he's wary of equity investors sizing up craft breweries. "My opinion is that private equity is looking to place their money where they can increase their money. So they look at us as a moneymaking tool and I think that's very dangerous for us as an industry -- to allow ourselves to be basically prostituted out in the pursuit of somebody else's profits."
"All of that money has strings and loops tied to it," he adds. "I think it will change the nature of the game. It's not going to be quite as idealistic."
Favorite beers: "I'm pretty omnivorous when it comes to beer," Wallace says. "I appreciate balanced beers. I don't like cynical attempts to be the biggest, bitterest, strongest. I don't chase after that. But I'd hate to pigeonhole myself. I'm drinking everything from great pilsner to imperial stout to sours to IPAs, and I love cask ale."
Challenges: "Fully 40 percent of all the tap handles in the country are rotators now. It's hard to build confident business in the face of constant change," Wallace says. "I think it will be challenging when the growth trend flattens out. That will be the new come-to-Jesus time like we had in the late '90s and early 2000s."
Opportunities: New -- and old -- varieties that stand out in a crowded field. "There's still a lot of exploration going on around some of these old, practically extinct styles -- kind of like milk stout was," Wallace says. "Now every third brewery has one." He says sour and gose-style beers could be the next big things.
Needs: Talent. "I think a lot of the needs are finding the highest quality people we can find," Wallace says. "Our organization is growing and we're building a team for the future."