Employees: 60 (30 brewery; 30 distribution company)
Owner and Brewmaster Chad Yakobson brings respect for history and attention to detail to his barrel-aged sour beer production.
Yakobson says, "You have to be able to make perfectly stable, clean beer, before you're going to make sour beer."
To achieve that end goal, Yakobson, for starters, keeps his brewery spic-and-span. He's working on getting hoses, used for general brewhouse cleaning, off of the floor, and will soon be running them overhead on a pulley system. The mill that grinds the malted barley is Shop-Vac'd regularly. When not in use, buckets are hung onto stainless steel racks. From gaskets to cleaning equipment to tank lines, items are color-coded to ensure safety and control: e.g., green (clean), red (sour), and black (brett). In the midst of touring the facility, Yakobson takes a few seconds to clean a red spot off of a wall -- which had appeared there without any color-coded purpose.
Yakobson points out various equipment. There's a large, chugging, upright-standing filter that the brewery uses to remove chloramine from Denver water. Yakobson says that by removing chloramine from its water, "It ensures you don't get phenolic off-flavors." In other words, there'll be no Band-Aid-medicinal or plastic-like flavors in Yakobson's sour beer.
He's got several pieces of lab equipment to analyze his brews. "It has always been my goal to have the smallest brewery with the most impressive lab," Yakobson says.
There's a computer program that tracks numerous stages of his beers' production. Even when he's traveling, Yakobson can pull up the information on his phone to oversee the processes and dialogue with his brewers.
He may create totally different types of beer, but Yakobson admires Coors and Miller as "world-class manufacturing" facilities. Yakobson says, "We really run our brewery like it's a 100,000-barrel or a 500,00-barrel brewery, yet we're making four or five thousand barrels of beer, at best."
He adds, "We take the art and really blend the science in."
At his brewery's Friends & Family Bar (not a tasting room open to the public, unlike Crooked Stave's space at The Source), Yakobson pours his brewery's mostly blended and sour creations.
There's the Petite Sour Blueberry, a pinkish-red beer with moderate tartness and an intoxicating fruit smell in the nose. Yakobson considers his "Petite Sour" series the brewery's "entryway into the sour beers" for a general public often still unfamiliar with the concept. There's a Petite Sour Cassis and Petite Sour Raspberry, as well -- all fermented in one of the brewery's 17 oak foeders (with more on the way). The peaches, cherries, apricots, and plums that the brewery uses come from Colorado. (The brewery's Persica beer, made with peaches, has "gained the most attention of the beers we've done.") The blueberries and raspberries come from Washington State. Yakobson calls the "Petite Sour" offerings "approachable, balanced," and "not crazy on sour or fruit." In other words, "sessionable sour beer."
Occasionally, the brewery develops blends at the request of clients who provide the barrels. Yakobson pours a version of his Nightmare on Brett, aged in Laws Whiskey House barrels, made for the Atlas Valley Purveyors liquor store. Another is a blend made for the Star Bar in Denver; its swirl of flavors is reminiscent of toffee mixed together with peppercorns, chocolate, and earthy, deep, leathery, and cigar-paper notes.
But even though sour beers are the brewery's flagship style, Crooked Stave also makes an India Pale Ale, which it appropriately and amusingly calls Sourless IPA. And, more recently, there's been an exquisite Czech-style pilsner, displaying a "voluptuousness in the mouth," in addition to notes of pepper, and a rosewater-like flavor. "That's what a great, healthy fermentation will do," says Yakobson. Dubbed Von Pilsner, in homage to Von Miller of the Denver Broncos, the brewery donates proceeds from the beer to Miller's charity, Von's Vision.
Yakobson originally cultured the Brettanomyces yeasts used in producing his tart beers, himself, while working on his master's thesis: "Pure Culture Fermentation Characteristics of Brettanomyces Yeast Species and Their Use in the Brewing Industry." (Appropriately enough, one of his production team is even named Brett: the brewery facilities manager, Brett Zahrte.)
The brewery uses three different base beers for its various blends: a golden, a "burgundy" (Flemish-style sour), and a dark. Crooked Stave buys the malt it uses in its base beers from Leopold Bros.: floor-malted, Colorado two-row barley. Yakobson says that Crooked Stave is the exclusive brewery using the product, which he describes as possessing "phenomenal quality, attention to detail."
In its temperature-controlled, walk-in hop room there are, in addition to Yakima Valley hops from the Northwest, hops grown at High Wire Hops in Paonia. After returning from a recent trip to Washington State to evaluate the hops for sale, Yakobson says he was smitten with the Colorado-grown product: "These are as good as anything that [was grown] in Washington. I was shocked, to say the least."
The brewery bottles around 50 different beers in a year: cellared specialties, its core beers, "Petite Sours," one-offs, and collaborations.
Yakobson's 25-hectoliter brewhouse resides in a nondescript industrial park in northwest Denver, where he's been brewing since July 2012. Slowly but surely, he's been taking over additional space in the complex, expanding, just this year, from 14,000 square feet to close to 30,000 (15,000 of which will be devoted to barrel aging). He's transformed the interior into aesthetically pleasing work and tasting environments. Soon, Yakobson will be opening a 3,600-square-foot tasting room at the front of the complex -- which will quite likely make the refurbished space a destination.
"We're inconsistently in 15 states," he wryly says of his own beers' distribution.
Crooked Stave has collaborated on a beer called Cerveza Sin Frontera with one of the brands it distributes, Jester King Brewery of Texas -- which Yakobson admires for being among the first brewery making its flagship reputation on barrel-aged, sour beers. Jester King has introduced the concept of (and a beer called) Méthode Gueuze -- acknowledging that, much like how sparkling wine manufacturers outside of France can call their product Méthode Champenoise, true gueuze and lambic beers are of specific, Belgian origin. Yakobson notes that the concept has the blessing of a noted Belgian sour brewery.
Yakobson says, "I can't just brew a beer: I justify everything I do through history, tradition. We brew a beer for a reason. . . . It's so important -- authenticity and what you do. And I don't want to see it lost."
Favorite beers: He fondly recalls his first sour beer, sampled over a decade ago: La Folie from New Belgium. Yakobson calls it, "A wonderful beer. When people ask, 'What was your sour beer moment?', for me -- I'm a Colorado native – it was La Folie. I went to school up in Fort Collins. I can't say enough good things about New Belgium's La Folie, and the work that that they do."
But then he catches himself. "Ooh, but you know what? Taras Boulba from De La Senne. . . . Yvan De Baets is the master; he is the leading historian of saisons. He is someone I call a really good friend, as well as a mentor. . . . Taras Boulba is just this clean, Belgian beer that is just absolutely drinkable."
Challenges: "Our challenges are continuing to educate the market about the beers that we make...There's still education that's missing. The beers aren't easy -- that's the best way of putting it. . . . I've done a lot of work recently on brewery information packets: 'What is Brettanomyces?' All these things that don't dumb it down, but they make it really applicable; they kind of tell the stories about everything."