Founder Tom Bennett has taken his blacksmithing skills to the craft brewing industry, with phenomenal results.
When Bennett set up shop in Rico in 1999, he planned to focus on woodworking, but then had a change of heart when Mike Boone of Dolores introduced him to traditional blacksmithing. "I was pretty much immediately smitten with it," Bennett says.
He picked up a century-old anvil and vice at an auction in Redvale and started making fireplace doors, stair railings, and other custom architectural products for high-end homes in Telluride and established a niche for himself in the local luxury market.
After moving the business to Ridgway in 2008, that market hit a wall and Bennett diversified and started doing a little bit of structural work. "We still do structural stuff if it's architectural," he says, noting that he's not looking to fight for commodity-level work.
But another vertical has proven more fertile: craft brewing equipment. The company began making brew kettles and tanks in 2011 after Tom Hennessy of Colorado Boy Pub & Brewery came in looking for repairs to a rusty tank. It was a perfect match for Forgeworks' skill set. ”[Hennessy] was impressed with the work," says Bennett, who subsequently decided to make a few tanks. "We gave it a whirl and it worked great."
Now the company builds "six to eight vessels a month," says Bennett. About a third of the orders come from Colorado customers, and the rest are shipped coast to coast to breweries in markets spanning Vancouver, B.C., to Miami. In-state clients include TRVE, Former Future and Little Machine in Denver and Broken Plow in Greeley.
On the hot brewhouse side, pricing is "competitive with the Chinese imports," Bennett says. "On the cold side, we're competitive with domestic manufacturers."
But it's about more than pricing. "I keep hearing about people who have nightmare stories of holes rusting out in tanks," he notes. "There's a good reason to buy domestic. . . . Our biggest edge is the quality of our fit and finish and our customer service. Our follow-up is really good. We've never left anybody hanging. When you buy the Chinese stuff, you have no recourse."
Kettles and tanks are routinely customized. "We allow brewers to totally orient their ports so it fits their space," Bennett says. "We helps them sort out how to do that."
The brewing and architectural operations are now separate businesses (Forgeworks and Bennett Forgeworks, respectively), each with five employees and a shared office manager. "They're pretty similar in size," Bennett says. "The brewery stuff is growing faster" -- doubling in 2014 and is up 35 percent as of Q3 2015. "The architectural side is steadier. We just focus on the highest end."
Challenges: "The biggest challenge is finding qualified fabricators," Bennett says. "We're really fussy. We want only the best and we want people who are easy to get along with."
Opportunities: More brewing business. "This market's continuing to grow pretty rapidly," Bennett says.
Along with kettles and tanks, he sees potential growth in grain mills. "It's one of the few things we stock on our shelves." More brewers are milling grain in-house because they "get better consistency."
Stills for craft spirits could be next. Bennett is currently working with distilleries in Ouray and Carbondale.
Needs: A bigger facility. "We're in 4,000 square feet right now and we need to be looking for 20,0000-plus," says Bennett. "It's not necessarily going to be in Ridgway." But don't expect him to move very far. "We're going to stay on the Western Slope."