According to President Jeff Brown, the craft beer industry may have changed, but the philosophy of Colorado's first craft brewery remains the same.
The former general manager and current president of Boulder Beer Company has seen a lot change during his more than two decades in the craft beer industry.
He watched the Great American Beer Festival grow from a small gathering at Boulder's Harvest House in 1982 into the premier beer event in the U.S., with more than 750 breweries participating and 3,800 beers poured in 2015. He's seen the number of breweries in Colorado expand significantly, increasing from 11 in 1990 to 234 by the end of 2014. And along the way, he has witnessed an impressive surge in craft beer interest among American consumers, restaurateurs, retailers and distributors.
He even remembers a time when big breweries -- including Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, though they weren't yet giant conglomerates -- were more than willing to lend their smaller craft beer neighbors a hand. "Coors gave us our first bottling line," Brown recalls. "It came from their old pilot facility in Golden. In fact, Coors was very instrumental in helping us get up and running. They would come in and do some consulting with us. Our first distributor in 1984 was actually a Coors distributor."
While it appears that sort of nurturing relationships is a thing of the past, the comradery prevalent between craft brewers has more than made up for its loss. According to Brown, "If you're running short on grain or hops or you need a piece of equipment because something has failed and there's not one readily available for the next week or two to purchase, brewers are more than willing to help each other out. They regularly loan equipment and inventory. It's really great to see."
So is the improvement in overall craft beer quality. "There was a time in the early to mid-'90s when the quality of the beer being produced by our competitors was questionable," he says. "The recipes might have been good, but the beer did not stand up over time. Those breweries don't exist anymore. Today's beers, on the other hand, hold up very well. While there are some styles that aren't a go-to for me, most are very well made. It's a really positive change."
But some things remain the same. Though they opened with the nation's 43rd brewing license back in 1979, Boulder Beer Company has always focused on producing products that are a "little bit out of the box" as far as style. "We started producing ales that we enjoyed -- not your typical style-driven beers," says Brown. "That has been our brewing philosophy since the get-go and we really haven't changed from that."
It's worked out well for Colorado's first craft brewery. Brown and his team -- including head brewer David Zuckerman -- produced 29,000 barrels in their 50-barrel brewhouse in 2014. They're on track to brew 31,000 barrels this year. Year-round offerings include Shake, a chocolate porter that won gold at the World Beer Cup and the brewery's top seller, as well as Hazed, a hoppy session ale originally developed in 1996, and Mojo, a popular IPA. The brewery currently distributes to 34 states and is considering establishing distributor relationships in additional markets.
Favorite beers: "That fresh American craft beer, it just doesn't get any better than that," Brown says. Among Boulder Beer Company's products, he looks forward to whatever seasonal is next to come on tap. "Right now, it's Slope Style, our winter IPA," he explains. "Outside of our beers, Ska Brewing's Modus Hoperandi is a favorite. When I'm traveling and I can have beers from Cigar City Brewing, I love them all. Their Maduro is a brown ale, and their Jai Alai is a nice pale ale."
Challenges: "A big challenge is shelf space and draft handles," says Brown. "They aren't increasing at the same rate as the number of new breweries entering into the market. We are constantly evaluating the availability of space and how that affects our ability to get new products out there. The consumer is always looking for new product and we're always continuing to innovate with new products. Our pilot brew program yields a lot of beers that we really want to get to consumers outside of just our pub. But it's challenging to find ways to place them."
Opportunities: Boulder Beer Company may be the state's oldest craft brewery, but Brown wants consumers to know that doesn't mean they aren't innovative as well. "Our biggest opportunity is continuing to tell our story and get the word out about our brewery to new and upcoming craft beer drinkers," he says. "We've been around for 36 years, but the brewers love developing new recipes. And it's fantastic to see the huge interest from everybody about what great new beer we'll come out with next."
Needs: There are large expenditures in Brown's future. "We are looking at the equipment we have and starting to project when we need to retire, update or upgrade it," he explains. "That's always going to be a capital-intensive project for every brewer and an ongoing discussion that we have internally."
Fortunately, financing big improvements is easier than it was even 10 years ago. "In the '90s, there was this belief that craft brewing was just a fad. It wasn't a matter of if it was going to end but when. It's good that all those naysayers were wrong," he chuckles.