Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Co-founders Chris Bell and Jon Cross are pushing the limits on variety and selection at their consummate neighborhood brewery.
Bell and Cross met as assistant brewhouse and cellar managers at Avery Brewing Company in Boulder and worked together for about three years before deciding to launch their own brewery.
The name stemmed from their attitude. "This is our call to arms," he says. "For us, it's big time about the neighborhood brewery."
It was also a call to arms for Bell and Cross to focus on what they're truly passionate about: the beer. "We had pushy manager jobs," notes Bell. "Brewing is a lot of work for low pay. You've got to love it."
Cross, who studied brewing at University of California, Davis, before joining Avery in 2010, had the idea of finding an up-and-coming neighborhood in Denver. "We were living in Boulder at the time," says Bell, who brewed for Long Trail Brewing in Vermont before coming to Avery in 2011.
They settled on a space in a former garage on Tennyson Street in northwest Denver in 2014. The 1949 structure -- known as John's Garage for its former owner -- was renovated into a multi-tenant retail space.
After a year and a half of hard work, Call to Arms opened its doors in July 2015, and won "Best New Brewery" from the Denver Post. Three years later, the hits keep coming: The brewery won a gold medal for More Like Bore-O-Phyll in the Fresh or Wet Hop Ale category at the 2018 World Beer Cup.
Cross is head brewer -- and the only employee with brewer in his title. "I joke that I'm a really experienced assistant brewer," says Bell, noting that they are "biding their time” when it comes to hiring more brewers.
Production has grown from 530 barrels in 2016 to a target of about 800 for 2018. A full 90 percent of it is sold on-site. About 10 percent goes to a few dozen draft accounts, and packaging is 50 to 500 375-mL bottles of special releases sold through the taproom.
"This year has been record-setting every month," says Bell from a stool in the bustling taproom, which regularly draws large crowds as it hosts live music and other events. "The neighborhood is catching up."
It's all about having as much variety as possible: The beer list changes on a weekly basis, typically with 15 varieties on tap. "Diversity in beer selection is important to us," says Bell. "If you're tied to wholesale distribution, it's possible, but it's difficult to do it."
"If we didn't do that, our lives would be simpler," he adds. "Maybe it's a little purist, but we don't want to brew beers for everybody. We just want to have a great selection and brew what we want. It forces you to flex your brewing muscles a little bit."
The menu usually includes five "core beers," several rotating styles, and a few barrel-aged selections. "Those core beers do change," says Bell. "Everything changes."
There's a limit. "We never had a staple IPA for a year and a half," he adds. "Customers didn't like that." So the brewery introduced CTA IPA as a standby, but typically have two other IPAs on draft at any given time.
"It's a balance of what we drink every day and how the customers respond," says Bell. "We have to pay the rent. If we were only brewing beer for ourselves, it would be problematic."
There's a downside. "That also puts us at a lot of risk. We dump batches." When a bad hit of yeast produces off flavors, "You can't claim ignorance," he says. "90 percent of off flavors are coming from yeast. . . . We find different strains from different providers are perfect."
As it stands, the 15-beer selection makes for less capacity on the 10-barrel system with five 10-barrel fermentation tanks and five 10-barrel brite tanks. "If we dropped down to seven SKUs, we could make beer for days," says Bell. "We'd have a ton of capacity." He continues, "We didn't want to package [for wholesale]. Everything stays on-site. It's the ultimate quality control."
Releases to date include the Shirtless Putin series, including Shirtless Putin Catchin' Rays, Shirtless Putin on a Horse, and Shirtless Putin Nuzzling Dolphins. "Every one of them is based on propaganda pictures [of Vladimir Putin] that have been released," says Bell.
Breweries focused on wholesale distribution of cans or bottles "operate on paper-thin margins," says Bell, citing concerns from cooler space to marketing. "The correction in my mind is coming with the regionals. They're not going to shut down, they're just going to change their business model."
Consolidation is one option. Bell points to Avery selling a 30 percent stake in November 2017 to Spain's Mahou San Miguel. Like technology, the most common exit is via acquisition or selling a piece of the company to a larger operator. "The difference is, in the tech industry, people pat you on the back," says Bell. "In brewing, it's a stigma."
And the rate of change in craft brewing is only accelerating, he adds. In the 1990s, pale ales were the hot beers for several years; now the latest and greatest style can last six months. "The market can be unpredictable," says Bell.
"For a long time, we have had a high tide that floats all boats, but that's changed -- and that's okay," he adds. "The era of 'you build it and they will come’ is over. You gotta make good beer."
Favorite beers: "It's so hard," says Bell. "It's like asking, 'What's your favorite band?' What decade? What genre?" He points to a few local favorites in Denver and Boulder: "I really love TRVE Brewing. Cellar West is one people don't talk about enough. . . . Bierstadt makes the best lagers in Denver. You can't touch them."
Challenges: Pricey real estate. "Denver real estate is absurdly expensive," says Bell. "If you're trying to be a retail brewer in LoHi, Larimer Square, Park Hill, wherever, you're looking at $30 to $35 a square foot, including maintenance and everything else. Before you know it, you're paying so much in rent you can't do it."
The solution? "We'd like to buy because rent here is expensive." But buying in the surrounding Berkeley neighborhood is pretty cost-prohibitive. Bell says looking west to Wheat Ridge or east to Stapleton are possibilities, but then he has to start from scratch winning the locals. "Retail is just a different ballgame," says Bell.
Another: "Minimum wage is increasing. I'm all for higher minimum wage, but our employees get paid off tips." Regardless, Call to Arms is "almost doubling wages" from 2016 to 2019 in accordance with state law. Bell says tips need to be taken into account, but adds, "We should have the same percentage increase."
Opportunities: "If I knew, we'd already be doing it," says Bell. "It's a commitment to making great beer and staying true to it. Customers of craft beer are sensitive to that."
He sees an opportunity to increase wholesale keg distribution from about 10 percent of sales to 17 percent.
The brewery is scaling production to meet demand. "Right now, we're buying new tanks," Bell adds. "We're upgrading one brite to 20 barrels and one fermenter to 20 barrels."
Needs: "Cheap capital," says Bell.