By Eric Peterson | Apr 01, 2017
20 (35 in summer)
Employees: 20 (with a seasonal increase to about 35 in summer)
Industry: Brewing & Beverage
Owner Sean O'Brien started Palisade Brewing Company at the same site of Palisade Brewery. A New York-based contractor, O'Brien's visits to the Western Slope often involved a pint or two at the old place, and after it shut down in 2009, he didn't want to go without.
So he reached out to Wilson, who'd worked for the defunct brewery before it closed, then got a "ground-up, grease-and-sweat" education in craft brewing working for a mobile bottling operation in Seattle in 2007. But the weather in the Pacific Northwest drove Wilson back to Palisade. "Being a Colorado boy, it was rough without the sun," he laughs.
Upon his return to Colorado, Wilson worked for Peach Street Distillers for two years before O'Brien recruited him to run the new brewery, located in the same old fruitpacking shed right next to the railroad tracks in Palisade.
The relaunch was a huge hit. "We saw about 100 percent growth for the first three or four years," says Wilson. It's since dipped to 25 percent annual growth; in 2016, production hit 3,300 barrels.
One of the big drivers of growth: Dirty Hippie Dark American Wheat, which now accounts for about 60 percent of sales.
Wilson came up with the recipe in July 2010. "I was actually planning on brewing a weiss beer that day and the yeast never came," he remembers. That led him to improvise with an American ale strain, resulting in a beer that melds the refreshing and clean notes of a wheat beer with the chocolatey flavors of a darker beer.
"It's an odd style of beer," he says. "People were not doing dark refreshing beers, people were focusing on light refreshing beers."
Wilson's happy accident with Dirty Hippie exemplifies his brewing philosophy. "I'll give the people what they want, but I'll also give them what I want," he says. "That's always how I've brewed. I'm not going to compromise my morals and what I think craft beer is just to make a buck."
But the contrast with the status quo wheat and the creative branding proved a great match for the market. "People just fell in love with it," says Wilson. "Before I knew it, the demand was there to put it in cans."
Other year-round beers include Hula Hoppie Session IPA and Soul Shakin’ Imperial Red. The latter was "inspired by my time in the Northwest," says Wilson, citing "bold citra and simcoe hops" and "a really rich red caramel background."
The catalog of seasonals includes the Let It Grow series of Double IPAs that changes recipes with the season. "Spring, we want it to be a little softer and brighter," says Wilson. Winter recipes use New Zealand hops "to pay homage to the Southern Hemisphere."
The brewery expanded by "adding tanks and equipment when we need it" and without the help of outside investors, says Wilson. "Having zero overhead is pretty awesome."
Wilson forecasts production of 4,000 barrels for 2017 -- and maximum capacity of the brewery is about 4,200 barrels. That means the focus is on efficiency over experimentation. "Being a 20-barrel system, we're a little reluctant to go absolutely crazy," says Wilson. "We know our market. We know our clientele."
That said, he's working on a New England-style IPA. "I always fall back to the roots and feel taking a really, really good traditional beer and elevating it, that really hits the market."
Favorite beers: "Right now, I've been drinking our Porter of Love," says Wilson. "It's kind of hitting the mark. That and Let it Grow winter for the last few weeks
Beyond Palisade Brewing's taps, he's a big fan of Casey Brewing and Blending in Glenwood Springs -- "Just his philosophy on beer is pretty remarkable . . . just amazing flavor profiles" -- along with Denver's Bierstadt Lagerhaus and Wiley Roots and WeldWerks in Greeley. "I've been blown away by WeldWerks' IPAs," says Wilson.
Challenges: "One of the biggest challenges our facility has is managing the wholesale side as well as the retail side," says Wilson. In the summertime, Palisade's tourism and festivals demand higher production, but they also make for a busier taproom. "How do you balance that? We don't want to take away from the taproom, but we also don't want to take away from wholesale." He says his five-person brewing team "makes sure they're out of the taproom staff's way" when it opens, and the key to the balance is "mutual respect."
In winter, it's a different dynamic, says Wilson. "It' s the industry way: Have fun in the winter and work your ass off all summer."
Opportunities: Growth in existing markets. Palisade Brewing self-distributes in Colorado only, and all accounts are west of the Continental Divide, but there's no big rush to expand to the Front Range. "Fothe last six years, I've been trying to make it over to Denver," says Wilson. "I'm no closer now than I was six years ago." That's largely due to rising demand in the Grand Valley and other markets from Crested Butte to Steamboat Springs. "Our distribution is 60 percent in our backyard," says Wilson. "That's a beautiful thing."
He adds, "I don't see why to get into the rat race of Denver right now. It's almost cutthroat. It reminds me of business, and I'm not in this industry for business"
Needs: More space. The plan calls for building a new brewery from the ground up at a parcel adjacent to Peach Street Distillers, about a block away from the existing facility. "We own the land," says Wilson, describing a new facility with a ceiling of about 10,000 barrels a year. "We'd like to break ground this year."
In the meantime, the focus is on improving productivity. "I'm pricing out a new canning line right now," says Wilson. The brewery's current three-head Cask system might be replaced by a new system from American Brewing Equipment in Nebraska. Other needs include "another brite tank and a new fermenter," he adds.