Poncha Springs, Colorado
Friends and co-founders Carlin Walsh and Christian Koch brew medal-winning beers while adding jobs to their small town's economy.
Elevation is a fitting name for the Colorado brewery, situated at 7,464 feet above sea level and a mere 15 miles from the ski slopes at Monarch Mountain. Popular with Chaffee County locals as well as the multitude of outdoor adventurers who flood the area every summer to hike neighboring peaks and raft surrounding rivers, it has become known for seasonal, barrel-aged brews that transport taste buds to new heights of flavor.
Walsh and Koch began talking about opening their own brewery in 2010. Though they were living in Denver at the time, they were drawn to Poncha Springs for a number of reasons. "Even though Christian and I don't get to enjoy it to its full extent, the lifestyle here is awesome," says Walsh. "We each have two kids, and it's also a great spot to raise a family. And for me, as a rural Colorado native, it was important to have the opportunity to provide jobs in an area where it can be hard to find stable employment."
The pair opened with five styles including the Little Mo' robust porter, a recipe Koch developed during his homebrewing days before going to work for Idaho Springs' Tommyknocker Brewery. Since then, they've expanded their offerings to four different series, ranging from their highly drinkable core lineup -- which includes First Cast, an India pale ale -- to their double-black specialties such as Oil Man, a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout
"We wanted to hit the market in a big way and to brew big beers like Belgians, specialty, and barrel-aged beers," Koch explains. "But as we've grown, we've had opportunities to expand our styles. For example, we made a rodeo-themed kolsch that we named 8 Second for the Chaffee County Fair one year. Now it's one of our best-selling beers."
Koch -- who runs the production side while Walsh focuses on the business side of the brewery -- loves to put a twist on traditional styles, and ingredients frequently serve as a source of inspiration. "We use honey grown in Salida in our Apis IV, a Belgian quadrupel," he says. "And our Senorita, a horchata imperial porter, has two pounds of vanilla beans in each batch. I love experimenting with those flavors."
Others must love them as well. Apis IV recently won a gold medal in the 2015 U.S. Open Beer Championship as production rose from 4,000 barrels in 2014 to 5,000 in 2015.
Favorite beers: "New Belgium Brewing's Cocoa Mole is still one of my all-time favorites," says Walsh. "But our Oil Man this year is the best we've ever produced." For Koch, Avery Brewing's Demons of Ale series has always been a hit. "The Beast and Samael's stand out to me as two amazing tasting beers as well as amazing brewing accomplishments by those guys," he says. "I'm also excited about some of the changes we're making to our First Cast. I think my IPA consumption is going to go up in the near future."
Challenges: Growth is a big challenge for the Elevation Beer Company team, on more than one front. "Christian and I aren't doing this just to stay small for the rest of our lives," Walsh explains. "We want to grow the business, but how to do that in a way that is smart for our lives, smart for our employees and smart for the company as a whole so it becomes a lasting organization is really challenging."
"We also want to maintain our small, tight-knit atmosphere as we grow," Koch adds. "We have office people, tap room people, and production people, and we're trying to keep everyone cohesive."
Opportunities: While the brewery currently distributes their specialty beers to locations in Arizona, Texas, and Washington in addition to Colorado, their core lineup has always been for their home state alone. "We want to make sure that Colorado is fully stocked," Koch says. "And we're excited about digging deep and refocusing our attention on our Colorado sales, getting into areas we haven't been in before. It's a really big opportunity to get into the nuts and bolts of what it means to sell beer."
Needs: "Cash," says Walsh with a laugh. "This is a very capital-intensive business to be in. If you're doing the small brew pub thing, cash can be easier to manage. But the minute you start getting into other factors such as filtering, packaging and kegging, it becomes very challenging cash-wise because expensive equipment is involved." Adds Koch, "The beers we brew aren't conducive to cash flow, either. We're spending money on barrel-aged beers a year or more in advance of their release."