By Eric Peterson | Feb 20, 2017
More than 20 years ago, Thibodeau and Graham started Ska Brewing to kickstart new careers, and Vincent bought a piece in 1999. Today it's easily the biggest brewery in the Four Corners region: Production rose to 34,300 barrels for 2016, with a forecast for 37,000 barrels in 2017.
In the early years, Ska scrimped and scraped, buying used dairy equipment to repurpose from brewing and slowly expanding at its first facility. The big investment came in 2008, when Ska built its current brewery south of downtown Durango and installed a canning line.
The canning line was upgraded in 2014. The new custom one from SBC in Italy is five times faster at 200 cans per minute. "It's one of the only things we've ever bought brand-new," says Thibodeau.
Ska's stalwart beers are Modus Hoperandi IPA and Pinstripe Red Ale, but Ska produces numerous seasonal brews. Part of the reason is market demand, but it's also about letting the brewers have some fun. "It keeps the brewers, who are a creative crew, from feeling like they work in a factory," says Thibodeau.
The brewery also has a new pilot system, dubbed the Mod Project. "There are so many ideas flying around," says Thibodeau.
Case in point: Due out in the spring, Pink Vapor Stew represents Ska's first canned sour beer, featuring apples, beets, carrots, and ginger. Describing a pink-hued blend of sour-mashed and kettle-soured brews, Thibodeau says, "It's crazy beer."
Ska discontinued its 12-ounce bottles in 2016 and moved exclusively to cans for most of its beers. (It still bottles a few special releases in 22-ounce bottles.) "I was the last holdout," says Thibodeau. He was convinced by taking a good long look in the mirror. "Somebody asked me, 'What do you drink?' Every time I leave here, I grab a six-pack of cans."
The move was also about space constraints: Thibodeau says Ska pretty much "maxed out" the brewery in 2011. "We're focusing on efficiencies," explains Thibodeau. "We don't have much physical space to continue growing."
That means renegotiating contracts with suppliers and looking at other ways to bring efficiencies of scale into the operation, as well as rebranding and tweaking the core catalog. "It's going to be noticeable," says Thibodeau. "It's going to be constant new products for the next two years."
As far as expansion goes, Ska's solid footing -- plus Thibodeau and Graham's investment in Peach Street Distillers in Palisade and Vincent's involvement in Ska Fabricating -- means the brewery can bide its time before making a big move in the coming years.
"We've got all sorts of things going on," says Thibodeau. "We're in a sweet spot right now. If we didn't have the other businesses, we'd be more likely to jump into [an expansion] again."
Maybe it will involve a second production facility on the Front Range, or a brewpub or two in New Mexico, but Thibodeau hints it won't be long before Ska upshifts once again. "No options are out by any means, but there's not a feeling of panic or hurry," he says. "Things are running really smooth right now."
With signs of a brewing bubble in Colorado, Thibodeau says Ska will take a wait-and-see approach. "It's going to be interesting to see if there's a shakeout," he explains. "We feel we're kind of lucky that we can sit back and see what happens."
Challenges: "We can't really expand production on our existing property," says Thibodeau. "Should we try to figure out something in Durango?" Shipping beer over mountain passes is difficult, he says, so Ska can't rule out a production facility in metro Denver. "How can we expand without leaving our home?"
Another challenge: workforce for continued expansion. "It's always difficult to get people to move to a small town," says Thibodeau.
Opportunities: With distribution in 10 states plus Sweden and the U.K., Ska has plenty of room to grow geographically, but Thibodeau looking at the map strategically after pulling out of North Carolina in 2016. "We might open one more market in the fall," says Thibodeau.
Needs: In the brewing business, there are two necessary ingredients in perpetuity, says Thibodeau. "Space and money, always." He says he's got a great local banker, but might need another for future expansion.