Jackson / Alpine, Wyoming
Tofte ski-bummed his way around the West before opening Thai Me Up restaurant and bar in Jackson in 2000. "It's a kung fu sports bar," he explains. "All we play is kung fu movies."
It's also the birthplace of Melvin Brewing, a nano-brewery set to scale up in a big way.
Armed with $3 million in funding from the state's Wyoming Business Council, Tofte is opening a shiny new brewery in Alpine, 38 miles west of Jackson, with a target finish date in Dec. 2015.
"We have 15 years to pay back just over $2 million of the $3 million they gave to the town of Alpine for our project," explains Tofte, noting that Lincoln County has the highest unemployment rate of any county in Wyoming. For this reason, the loan is interest-free if Melvin creates 24 jobs by 2020.
On day one, the new brewery will have an annual production capacity of 15,000 barrels, and the plan calls for five year-round cans and 22-ounce bottles by springtime.
That's a 7,500 percent step up from the 2015 projection of 200 barrels brewed in Jackson.
"We can make more beer in one day in Alpine than we can in one year in Jackson," says Tofte. Can he hit 15,000 right off the bat? "We can if people like the beer," he answers.
And so far, people have liked it. Melvin took home the "Small Brewpub of the Year" and "Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year" at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival.
It's come a long way from the early days. Melvin graduated from a 20-gallon to a three-barrel system at Thai Me Up. The facility in Alpine will feature a 30-barrel, four-vessel system.
The brewery currently rotates distribution between Denver, Portland, and Seattle. "Once a month, someone's getting 28 kegs," says Tofte. That number is set to go way up soon.
The long-term strategy includes brewpubs in Melvin's markets, as well as Bellingham, Washington (Tofte's hometown), and San Diego. Bellingham is first, targeted for opening in mid-2016. As for San Diego, he says, "A brewpub down there is our ultimate goal, so we can go surfing."
The plan is to use the brewpubs as marketing and branding tools. "It doesn't have to be a 5,000- or 6,000-square-foot space, just like a 1,000-square-foot space," he says. "The goal is to break even."
Tofte plans to spend six months of 2016 in Denver developing sales with Melvin rep Travis Cook, formerly of Crooked Stave, and scouting for a mile-high brewpub location.
Melvin's graphic designer, Kelly Halpin, comes up with a character for each variety, from Hey, Zeus! Mexican Lager (the Greek god honcho in a mariachi outfit) to Killer Bee's Honey Ale, with a hive-headed hero.
"Everything she does I love," says Tofte. "It's dark and mysterious, which don't belong in the beer industry."
And each one has a superpower. Take the 2X4 Double IPA's 2X4 Man. "He has the ability to saw crappy cans of beer in half," laughs Tofte.
Favorite beers: "Melvin IPA is my fave Melvin beer for sure," says Tofte. "It's full frontal of hop smell, and then the flavor of the tropics and dried apricots brings it all home."
Beyond Melvin, he's a huge fan Barley Brown's in Baker City, Oregon. "I make it there a couple times per year and everything they do is so spot on," he says. "They are masters of many styles."
Challenges: "Housing is one of the big ones," he says of brewing in both Jackson Hole and Alpine. "There's no housing left up here. All of the second and third homeowners are tearing down the single-family homes."
He says he has people moving to the area to open the new Alpine facility, but hasn't been able to find them a permanent place, plus he's looking to make about four more hires by spring 2016.
Opportunities: Exponential growth from 200 barrels to 15,000 barrels a year. Tofte says he needs the support of his distributors -- Crooked Stave in Colorado and Great Artisan Beverage Network in the Pacific Northwest -- to fulfill his expansion plans.
Needs: "We just need Bud and Miller to stop buying our friends and pushing us off the shelves," says Tofte.