By Angela Rose | Aug 02, 2015
Hess adores Belgians -- Belgian beers that is. For the former aerospace systems safety engineer, the love affair began during his homebrewing years. "I learned to love the Belgian brewing tradition and its broad mix of styles and flavors early on," he says. "When my wife and I decided to open a brewery of our own, it organically evolved into our focus."
Founded with Jessica Hess in 2012, River North Brewing was the first brewery in the now popular River North District. The brews the couple offered quickly garnered a following of craft beer drinkers who appreciated the complex flavors produced by Hess' deceptively uncomplicated approach.
"I've always enjoyed making simple recipes that show off the ingredients in the beer," Hess says. "Even now, most of our recipes include just a few different types of malt and grain, one or two types of hops and then, depending on the style, one of our favorite strains of Belgian brewer's yeast."
The yeast is where the magic happens. "People tend to perceive Belgian style beers as a little bit spicy and fruity, and we're often asked what sort of spices we add to our beer," he says. "The answer, in almost every case, is none at all. That's one of the cool things about brewing with Belgian yeast. You can get all those complex esters just from the fermentation."
Hess and his team brewed 1,352 barrels of Belgian and Belgo-American beer on their 15-barrel Premier Stainless system in 2014. This year, they're on track to produce as many as 2,500. A great deal of it will be aged.
"We started barrel aging very early on after opening," Hess says. "We enjoy the flavors you can pull out of the oak when you let a beer rest in a whiskey, wine or other artisanal spirit barrel for a few months." The brewery has about 100 filled wine and spirit barrels at any given time, and he expects the number to double in 2016. "We average about one barrel-aged beer release per month," he says.
Most recently, he rolled out a Belgian quadruple aged 15 months in Chardonnay barrels called The Quad XO. He's also looking forward to sharing a past favorite again in the near future, a high-ABV Belgian quad aged in Manhattan cocktail barrels. "Plus there's my own favorite release of the year coming up in December," he adds. "Barrel-aged Avarice, a Belgian imperial stout aged for one year in freshly emptied whiskey barrels."
Favorite beers: "I think of it in terms of which breweries I'd want to sit at any day of the week and try everything they have on tap," says Hess. "Off the top of my head I'd say Hogshead Brewery, Wit's End Brewing Company, and Station 26 Brewing Company; there's probably another dozen that I would go to at least once a week if I had the time."
Challenges: Thanks to the redevelopment plans of their current location's owners, River North Brewery is looking for a new home. "It's an unfortunate turn of events," Hess says. "But it has kind of coincided with our expansion plan. We're still working out the details." He wants to keep the brewery in the River North area however, "We may have to split production from our taproom. It's a long process to make the right decision and figure out how the transition between the spaces will happen."
Opportunities: Hess' beers are available throughout Colorado, in Kansas City -- on both sides of the state line -- and in a few other Kansas locations. But he envisions a much bigger footprint. "Our biggest opportunity is adding new distributors and picking up a few more states as we get these expansion plans in place," he says.
Needs: "I could use a couple more hours in the day," Hess states with a laugh. "Running a business is basically 24/7. Jess and I are always on call, and even if we're not physically at the brewery, it's constantly on our minds. Of course, it's fun when you're passionate about it and love it."