Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Co-founder and Director of Operations Branden Miller brings a punk ethos to creating beers and running a popular, music-centric brewpub.
Blue Öyster Cult notably sang, "Red and black, that's their color scheme."
There's a similar, visual pattern at work at Black Shirt Brewing Co. According to Miller, the brewery has cultivated a "rock 'n' roll, punk aesthetic," while also incorporating images of country music's "Man in Black," Johnny Cash, within its brewpub.
And the brewery prides itself on its red-hued beers. With that color choice, Miller says they're "paying homage" to Colorado (which translates as "red colored" from Spanish), as well as the Sangre de Cristo ("blood of Christ") mountain range, which he and his brother grew up nearby in Westcliffe.
Branden opened Black Shirt in 2012, partnering with his older brother, Chad, and his sister-in-law, Carissa. Branden came from the restaurant industry, Chad worked within the family business of auto body repair and dabbled in real estate, and Carissa was pursuing a career in interior design. It was a longtime dream of the partners to open a business of their own, either a winery or a brewery. Beer won out.
They've been joined, Miller says, by "an incredible sales team, a passionate and dedicated front-of-house team, and a pizza kitchen crew that is knocking it out of the park."
The brewery has increased from seven employees to 25 since opening its pizza kitchen in April 2017. "That's triggered the most explosive growth for our brewery," says Miller of their newfound food offerings. "We've grown pretty wildly in the last four months."
Here's what "wildly” means: "Gross sales in August of this year have surpassed the entire yearly gross sales for the brewery in our first, second, and third years of business. Not combined, but more than each one of those years individually."
Miller says he expects Black Shirt to produce 2,500 barrels in 2017; almost half of that is made offsite and canned by contract brewer Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, with the rest brewed in-house in a 15-barrel brewhouse (incorporating eight 30-barrel fermenters and two 30-barrel foeders). Three of its six-pack offerings make it to liquor stores, and the brewery has multiple tap accounts, mostly in the Denver metro area. "We're in over 300 locations," says Miller.
The brewery calls Colorado Red Ale, a red IPA, its flagship beer. But, due to the its floral quality, Miller likes to say it "drinks blue" -- reminiscent to him, for example, of pinching spruce tips between his fingers and inhaling the aroma. There's a red grapefruit flavor, as well, and a moderately dry finish. "We build our beers to be relatively lean," Miller says, "and so, even though there's sweetness, they're also nice and dry, which makes them very palatable and very digestible and sets them apart, for sure."
Continuing with the red theme is its Common Red, a red kolsch. It smells like Germany, but there's an unexpected cherry-like kiss to the flavor. Miller calls it "nice, bright, crisp, with a little bit of malt sweetness behind it." The Black Shirt team pilot-brewed the beer using a unique, specialty malt originating in Germany called Red X.
Then, its selection moves from red to orange: a Blood Orange Double IPA that's double hopped and re-fermented on blood oranges -- and loaded with wild yeast and bacteria. "That's what we're after," says Miller of the orange-tinted ale.
They call their Hypeman a "No-Coast IPA." Explains Miller: "We kind of had a little chip on our shoulder that everything had to go East Coast, West Coast." Given such experiments with red IPAs, he says, "Maybe we've been creating styles all along and we should actually make claim to that."
They can claim a stand-out saison, Stringbender: "I think we get this nice, clean, sort of stone fruit quality . . . a weighty mouthfeel, so it has some texture and some heft behind it that's not sweet. It's bone, bone dry . . . refreshing, snappy, bright."
Take that base saison, age it in one of their two foeders for eight months, and then re-ferment it on 500 pounds of raspberries, and you've got Electric Ladyland. "It's nice and dry, not sweet," says Miller." We create these nice apricot, tangerine, pear qualities."
A rack of previously-used barrels -- some from the likes of Buffalo Trace Distillery and Leopold Bros. -- attests to Black Shirt's expanding sour and experimental beer program. One batch of beer, aging since December 2013, has chai spice added. "Last time we pulled a nail, it was tasting like an Italian amaro," says Miller.
Until this year, the brewery hadn't entered any contests or festivals. But it medaled with all five of its beers at the Denver International Beer Competition: a gold, two silvers, and two bronzes. The results were a pleasant surprise for the brewery: "We always thought our beers were kind of outside of spec," says Miller.
Next, they'll be pouring at the Great American Beer Festival. Why hadn't they appeared there before? Miller cites their "punk mentality," which has tempered over the years. "That wasn't our ideal brewfest," he says, noting how it's not outdoors, not along a river, and doesn't have a band playing, like his ideal Colorado festival would incorporate.
Miller is sitting outdoors in his brewpub's beer garden in the RiNo Art District in Denver. There's a stage with a backdrop made of wooden pallets. So far, over 200 acts have played there, sometimes to nighttime audiences of 200 people. The brewery also hosts a popular, early Sunday afternoon "Beer, Bacon and Bluegrass" event. Given that this part of RiNo is still mostly industrial, Miller says they can sonically "raise as much hell as we want."
Miller says of the business he's also helped raise, "What we're after here is to create a brewery that's not necessarily New Belgium or Odell size at all, but to create a brewery that has a compelling story behind it: These idealistic kids set out on a mission to separate themselves from everyone else -- and we created some incredible delicious beer in the process."
Favorite beers: Branden says, "I really enjoy drinking Ashley and Bill's beer from Bierstadt Lagerhaus, although I never make it into the Rackhouse -- I just happen to find it around town. I love when I catch Juicy Banger from Station 26 on tap. I usually have some Coors Original in my fridge, as it allows me to turn my brain off and just drink a beer. My special occasion beer and one that I'll credit with changing my entire outlook of beer: Ale Apothecary's Sahalie. It's an absolute game changer from its concept, execution, everything -- mind-blowing."
Challenges: Miller speaks to monetary issues: "Our biggest challenge has been that we've been underfunded since day one. We are under-capitalized. We underestimated what it would take to open a brewery in Denver, and we have suffered every day since then as a result of that. We've never really sought out outside investment. We have taken on a few different loans that have helped capitalize some different growth, but we never went after an actual investment group. Looking forward, we may need to do that, because I don't know that we can pull of the next phase of growth on our own."
Opportunities: "We're limited only by our own imagination," says Miller. "I think for us, obviously, we're trying to make a living of this. We're trying to create a sustainable business. And I think for three or four years, we kind of ran it like a hobby. And we got really serious about a year and a half ago and started to make some smarter business decisions. That is creating a ton of opportunity for us to tell this really fun story."
Needs: Miller cites equipment, space and capital needs. "Same as every other brewery I'm sure: more space for tanks, a centrifuge, and another canning line," he says. "We also need a bigger taproom to accommodate the crowd that shows up to our place on any given day. Along with those needs comes the capital to fund it all. We're actively working on all of these things."