Salt Lake City, Utah, with a second brewing operation in Denver
Employees: about 100
Dave Cole and Epic Brewing are stirring up fast growth with powerful beer and savvy moves including a second brewery in Denver and a gastropub in SLC.
Epic founders David Cole and Peter Erickson met in the aquaculture industry. They both liked beer, and considered starting a microbrewery in the early 1990s. Instead, they started Salt Creek, and sold the eggs of the Great Salt Lake's brine shrimp as feed to an international market of fish and shrimp farmers.
But in 2002 Cole and Erickson sold the company and after six years of consulting and pursuing other interests, they finally went into the beer business together.
"We debated whether or not to open the brewery or the brine-shrimp thing in the early 1990s," he says. "We're back to beer."
Epic's startup was predicated by a change in Utah state law that went into effect in 2009, allowing brewers to sell beer direct from the brewery. A state-run system has traditionally sold all strong beer and liquor has traditionally in Utah, and it's notoriously difficult to break into.
"The law allowed breweries to set up a store to run for the state's benefit and sell strong beer," says Cole. But the normalization of Utah's liquor laws didn't mean established brewers jumped at the opportunity. "We thought, 'That's weird.' Nobody was doing it."
So the duo decided to go into the brewing business with the plan of primarily selling Epic beers directly to customers from their location just south of downtown Salt Lake City. "The plan was, we'd make our brewery a destination and sell a lot of beer to go," says Cole.
It took two years for the plan to become a reality. "We had to build the entire brewery first before Utah would issue a brewer's license," says Cole. "The Feds don't require that and Colorado doesn't require that."
They started selling their first batch of 22-ounce bombers in March 2010. Today Epic beers are available in 14 states, including Colorado, California, and New Jersey, as well as Utah. "A lot of our beer gets sold through the state system," says Cole. "Utah is still our largest market, but we hope to do well in Colorado as well."
Epic has three series of beers: Classic, Elevated, and Exponential. The first two are year-round, while Exponential comes in seasonal small batches. "We play a lot with the ingredients and the hops," says Cole of the latter, which are usually about 10 percent alcohol by volume. "You've gotta be careful with it."
(Read about other other Utah manufacturers here.)
The Denver brewery in RiNo (a.k.a. River North) started distributing beer in July 2013 and opened its taproom to the public in September. The expansion had been in the works since 2011, due in part to the city's beer culture, but also due to a perceived unmet demand for breweries near downtown.
Cole says it's an "interesting challenge," noting, "Let's go to a state that knows good beer and see how it goes." Early signs are good, he adds. "It's been great. The taproom is beating expectations."
In September 2014, Epic also opened The Annex, a gastropub in SLC's hip Sugar House neighborhood. "It's going back to what we want to do, and it's an opportunity not to be missed," says Cole of the pub. "We originally wanted to put the brewery in Sugar House" -- only to be stymied by a zoning mismatch.
Epic still bottles everything in 22-ounce bombers, even though its reach far extends the initial direct-from-brewery model, with Texas being the latest state on its distribution map. "The bomber is the fastest growing glass category," says Cole.
But now the brewery isn't just botting. It started canning Escape to Colorado IPA and seasonal varieties from its Denver brewery in summer 2014.
All of the activity has led to an Epic boom. The forecast 60 percent growth for the year.
Challenges: Raising the brand's profile outside of Utah. "We have to make sure people . . . are aware of us," says Cole.
Opportunities: "We're already considering another brewery location," says Cole. "California's pretty likely. We'd also consider Washington state or Oregon or someplace back East.
Needs: "In Utah, our biggest need is more political support from the the state," says Cole. "We need to stop throwing away tourism opportunities. We need to recognize the separation of church and state in terms of liquor laws."