By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Feb 29, 2016
A homebrewing hydrology major at CU Boulder, Fish saw his career plans in water spill over to beer when he took a year off and worked at Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery. After stints cooking and waiting tables, "I begged the brewmaster to let me into the brewery," he says. "I never went back to school."
Fish moved to the now-defunct Steamboat Brewery for a year before stumbling into a "drunken job interview" with Smuggler's Brew Pub at the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival in 2002. "I couldn't say no to Telluride," he says.
After graduating from Colorado College in 2004, Thacher moved to town and likewise started working at Smuggler's after a similarly inebriated interview. "Fish and I became great buddies," he says.
Thacher later taught middle-school history at Telluride Mountain School. "I loved the school. I loved the kids," he says. "I wanted to figure out how to make a living to live in Telluride.
The concept of opening a production brewery in town started in 2009 as "a pipe dream," Thacher adds. "People said, 'You can't do what you want to do.'" But he and Fish checked out library books, crafted a business plan, and got a serendipitous assist from a sluggish economy when they found a possible location in a vacant industrial park just west of town.
"Once we found this space, the process kind of snowballed," says Thacher. "We got lucky there was a downturn when we started. It was all open -- now it's all full."
They raised capital for the launch and poured their first beers in 2011. In 2014, production hit 4,400 barrels and it jumped nearly 25 percent to 5,400 in 2015. Growth "has been rowdy," says Fish.
Winning a gold medal at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival for Face Down Brown Ale didn't hurt, nor did a repeat performance at the 2014 event. "The brown has been an unexpected rock-star beer for us," says Fish.
About 65 percent of Telluride Brewing's sales are packaged beers -- the catalog includes four year-round beers canned on a four-headed Wild Goose line -- and 35 percent is draft. (Canning started with volunteer labor process on a manual Cask machine, but that proved problematic, says Thacher. "Anytime it would snow, nobody would show up.")
With a pair of new 45-barrel fermentation tanks in place, annual capacity will surpass 12,000 barrels. "At many points in the year, we're not brewing at capacity," says Fish. "During beer season in the summer, we're completely maxed out." In spring and fall, he adds, not so much.
From day one, our business plan was to get distribution rocking to counter that seasonality," says Thacher. "We have such great support from the local community. It's kind of mindboggling how much presence we have on draft locally."
The local focus extends beyond Telluride's remote corner of Colorado. "We sell everything we make here in the state," says Fish. The brewery self-distributes in the immediate vicinity and Elite Brands handles the rest of the state.
Fish says the Telluride brand is a big differentiator, and the brewery supplanted New Belgium as the official beer of Telluride Ski Resort. "It's been a killer way to continue to drive local traffic," says Thacher.
In the end, he adds, quality is king. "When I started doing tastings, I got nervous," he says, "but then I said, ’This beer's really good. Give them the beer. The beer will sell itself. Relax.'"
Favorite beers: "My go-to beer is probably the Freaky Fish Double IPA," says Fish. Beyond Telluride, he says Cannonball Creek Brewing in Golden, Mountain Sun in Boulder, and Funkwerks in Fort Collins are favorites.
Challenges: "Our constant battle is what differentiates us from other breweries: being all alone out here," says Thacher. "Real estate is at a premium of all places in the state. Everything is more expensive here. Affordable housing for employees is becoming a really big problem in all of the resort towns."
Opportunities: Continued in-state growth. "We see so much potential in Colorado," says Thacher, citing the Front Range as the primary target market. "We're very happy to see where sales are going right now."
"We get approached weekly about going out of state," he adds. "Our plan is to build this brand in Colorado."
Seasonal cans represent another opportunity. "Everything seasonal is draft at this point," says Fish. Look for Whacked Out Wheat, which won silver at the 2012 GABF, as the brewery’s first seasonal can in summer 2016.
Needs: More space. "We're constantly playing Tetris here," says Fish. "Getting things in and out of here is brutal, especially in the winter. . . . We've got seven total leases."
A new facility could be on the table soon. "We're exploring local options," says Fish, citing a possibility to build a bigger brewery from the ground up, but if it doesn't work out, no biggie. "We can be happy as a maxed-out brewery here," he says. "We have no intention of building anyplace but Telluride."
"We have everything in place to succeed," adds Thacher. "We definitely have to be creative to continue to grow."