By Eric Peterson | Apr 01, 2018
Since Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine named Outer Range one the nation's best new breweries in late 2017, production has gone into overdrive. "We've been brewing twice a day every day," says Emily.
Monthly production has tripled year over year in 2018. After brewing about 800 barrels in 2017, Lee forecasts 2,200 to 2,400 in 2018.
It's a fitting trajectory for a couple who met over beer in 2009. "We actually met homebrewing at my apartment in Manitou Springs," says Lee.
Both Lee and Emily were in the Army at the time, and introduced through mutual friends. "I went there not knowing what to expect," says Emily. She came away from Lee's homebrewing get-together with a newfound appreciation for good beer. "In college, I was just a typical Bud Light drinker," she says. "I was converted that night."
Their first real date -- the next night -- was at a craft beer bar, and they were engaged four months later. Beyond beer, the Cleghorns bonded in Colorado's great outdoors. "Our dating and engagement was spent in the mountains," says Emily.
Emily retired from military service in 2010 and gave birth to their daughter in 2013. Lee left the Army after his third tour in Afghanistan in 2014. "When he came back from that last deployment," says Emily, "it was time to live our dream."
Frisco was an obvious location. "Let's do it right and move up to Summit County," says Emily. Their passion for the outdoors is reflected in the brewery's tagline: "Leave the life below."
There were a few stumbling blocks. "We didn't have any funding yet," says Lee. "We got an SBA loan. We went to 50 banks before one said yes."
Finding the right site was another. After combing through possible locations in Summit County, they landed at a 2,000-square-foot location in the same retail development as Whole Foods. "We found about the only spot that would work," says Lee.
Emily says the high ceilings, location adjacent to a restaurant, and the mountain views were all big lures -- as well as the larger-than-life portrait of legendary musher Jim "Snow Cap" Pasholka on one of the walls.
Size is the only issue. Maximum capacity is 74 people, so the Cleghorns added a seasonal yurt on the patio that can accommodate another 25 in winter. "I wanted to do something very Outer Range," says Emily. "People really love drinking in a yurt."
Outer Range specializes in Belgians and IPAs. In the first year, Lee brewed 100 different recipes, roughly evenly split between IPAs and Belgian styles. "We definitely have a new beer every week, and sometimes two beers a week," says Lee. "I love to brew different beers, and the creative process of coming up with a new recipe."
When the brewery first opened, the ever-changing selection proved difficult for locals to grasp, but locals soon understood the strategy.
Of course, certain beers are available more often than others, including In the Steep and Blocks of Light, both IPAs, and Two Pound Tent Double IPA. "The locals just tear through that beer," Lee says of the last of the three.
Outer Range started using a mobile canning service to package its beers in June 2017, beginning with In the Steep; Craft Canning is its current partner. The brewery has since canned more than 20 different beers that it sells exclusively through the taproom.
There's a reason for that, says Lee. "We want to take care of the product," says Lee. "We can keep it cold, we can keep it fresh, we can monitor it. The last thing I want is it to sit on a shelf for 30 days before somebody buys it."
It's especially important for hoppy IPAs, he adds. "After 60 days, for sure, the quality drops."
Taproom sales total a bit more than that from about 100 draft accounts from Aspen to Fort Collins. "We're kind of at at this central spot that's far away from everybody," says Emily, noting that Outer Range's delivery drivers are Cicerone Certified Beer Servers. "We take pride in self-distributing so we can control the beers at every touch point."
Since the brewery opened the day after Christmas 2016, Lee has been the lone brewer. He brought on a cellarman in mid-2017, but he continues to brew all the beer.
In late March, they brought on an employee to help him out with the brewing, Jack Sullivan, formerly of Casey Brewing & Blending in Glenwood Springs, and he's taking ABG classes remotely to get up to speed with Lee. "That's been a big challenge, keeping up with demand," says Lee. "I didn't want to hire just anybody."
His cellarman, meanwhile, is about to take a few months off to hike the Continental Divide Trail. "That's what our brand is about," says Lee. "We have to support him."
Favorite beers: "I love our Blocks of Light IPA," says Emily. "It's so smooth and citrusy. It's a beer lover's beer because it's well-balanced. It's also a beer novice's beer -- it's not a flavor bomb -- because it's so approachable."
Lee says Outer Range's Final Summit Farmhouse Ale is one of his favorites. "I kind of brew that one for myself," he says.
Beyond their house taps, Lee likes Casey's sours and Cerebral's IPAs, and likes to revisit his youth: He went to high school in Brussels, where he was introduced to beer by brands like Chimay. "We like to raid the Bottle Shop for a bunch of Belgians," he laughs.
Challenges: Managing rapid growth. "We're not taking on new accounts," says Lee. "We want to keep current accounts happy."
"The brewing tempo right now is pretty intense," Emily adds. "Lee is physically breaking down from brewing so much. We're all pushing really hard."
Summit County's seasonal tourism presents another challenge: Winter and summer are "insane," says Emily, but fall and spring are unpredictable. While late snow bolstered sales in spring 2017, she adds, "I think this year, it'll drop more because we have less snow."
Opportunities: Lee sees room for growth in all three sales channels: taproom draft, cans, and draft accounts. "All of the above," he says. "In the future, we'll grow, but grow slowly."
Adds Emily: "We're excited to do more events to promote the mountain lifestyle." The brewery has recently hosted workshops on avalanche safety and splitboarding and might organize some summer hikes -- with beers at the end, of course.
Needs: If they can shoehorn it into their limited space, a canning line is at the top of the Cleghorns' list.
Otherwise, the plan is to stay put and focus on quality over quantity. "We can increase our production to about 5,000 barrels in our current space," says Lee. "Our plan is to not move. We're more comfortable with staying small. We don't want to be a 10,000-barrel brewery."
"Some breweries grow out of their relevance," notes Emily. "We want to stay small and stay relevant."