Lone Tree, Colorado
Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Founder John Winter and Head Brewer Josh West guide the expanding suburban brewery with a passionate commitment to approachable beers.
Winter says his brewery, with its view of the Park Meadows mall in the distance, has been a good fit for its surroundings. Despite the town of Lone Tree lacking population density, Winter sits in a taproom that has undergone a needed expansion. The brewery's patio has doubled as well. Three hundred people can now find places to sit with their kids, or gather to play bocce ball, on a crowded weekend night.
The town fathers -- and mothers! -- have been appreciative of his contributions over the past five and a half years. "It doesn't hurt when you call yourself Lone Tree and you're in Lone Tree," says Winter. "They kind of like us a great deal. I think we've done really well: We've lived up to what we told them we would do, which was, 'We'll put on the beers that you want to drink.' It's what our consumers want."
Do people want a light lager? Lone Tree has the perfect offering: Its Mexican Lager won a silver medal at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival, in a style category ("American-Style Lager or Light Lager") previously dominated by Miller Lite and Coors Light, finishing second only to Coors Banquet. "We were very surprised," says Winter, noting that no microbrewery had ever medaled in that category before.
Perhaps he shouldn't be surprised, at all: With a touch of sweetness from the use of flaked corn, there's also a pleasing, lingering, authentic German flavor -- via Mexico, that is (mingling German malt together with a Mexican lager yeast) – to the beer, a taste experience devoid within many mass-market lagers.
The Mexican Lager was originally a homebrew recipe conceived by Lone Tree's head brewer, Josh West. He's concocted some other novel takes on sessionable styles: There's a kolsch made with birch bark, and a Belgian-esque lager that features lemon peel and rose hips. One of West's outstanding beers is a brown coconut ale, in which the coconut comes righteously through in the nose and flavor without being cloyingly sweet. In cans right now for summer consumption, is the brewery's limited-series Cucumber Wheat. The higher-alcohol bomber series includes an India Pale Lager brewed with Colorado sunflower seeds.
Despite several of the beers having novel or unique ingredients, Winter says, "The beer comes first, the adjunct second. We don't try to overpower anybody with some form of an adjunct. We want the beer to come through first."
West, who can also shine at producing a single-hop Simcoe IPA, adds, "I'm a fan of just clean, crisp, easy-drinking beer."
The brews are apparently catching on. Lone Tree cans four of its flagship beers: an Irish-style Red Ale, a Peach Pale ale, a Double IPA, and its Mexican Lager, as well as seasonal offerings. There's distribution in Colorado, as well as markets in Kansas and Nebraska. Winter says, "My original projection was that we would do maybe 250 barrels a year. Our first year we did 535. And then we continued to grow. Last year we did 2,505, and we'll break that this year."
The brewery recently set a new record for canning in a single day: around 470 cases. What started as a seven-barrel brew house has expanded into a 20-barrel set-up, with a large grain silo out back.
For Winter, 60, it's been quite a journey. He spent 35 years in the aviation industry, first as a pilot before transitioning into management. As a hobby, Winter began brewing beer. "I'd become a rather avid homebrewer, and I really enjoyed the community, I enjoyed the people, I enjoyed the atmosphere," he says. At Lone Tree, he provides management and oversight, and says he "stay out of the way" of his brewers and other employees.
Winter emphasizes team building. For example, West rose through the ranks to become head brewer, after first tending bar. "I volunteered every second I could back there with the old head brewer -- and here I am," West says. An avid, award-winning homebrewer, West, 34, hadn't worked in a brewery previously: His background had been in GIS mapping and land surveying.
When Winter needed to find a new head brewer, he recalls, "Josh came in, closed my door, and said, 'I want this job.'" As someone who had risen through the ranks himself in the airline industry, Winter recognized West's passion and determination, and sold him on the promotion.
In discussing his crew, Winter's eyes become misty. Tears of appreciation practically fall into his beer. "For me, the joy is to watch all these guys become so successful -- and to do so well at what they're doing," he says. "And to provide that opportunity means a great deal to me, as you can probably tell."
"They're such a great group of people," Winter passionately adds. "I love our customers, I love our community, I love our industry." Then comes his heartfelt addendum: "But, I love my employees."
Favorite beers: West weighs in with an unexpected entry: "You're going to laugh at this one. My favorite outside of our beers to drink is probably the Coors Banquet. For what it is -- you know, an American lager -- it's fantastic, in my mind. . . . When I'm in the mood for a light beer that's not [our Mexican Lager], I usually go to Coors Banquet."
Odell and Oskar Blues are also high on his list. "If you're looking for some more kind of craft stuff that I drink, probably Dale's Pale Ale is one of my go-tos, as far as that goes," he adds. "Anything [Odell] does is always fantastic. I used to live in Fort Collins when they were just a little guy, and I've liked all their stuff ever since. Odell's IPA in cans is great, their St. Lupulin is great.”
Challenges: Winter cites economics, in addition to standing out in a crowded playing field: "The capital intensive nature of this business. It just costs a lot of money to buy stuff. And then secondly, I would say marketing and social media. It's so competitive right now that if you don't have your A game going on, you can make really good beer, [but] it will go unnoticed in the marketplace."
Opportunities: Winter points to continued growth -- not only in expanding markets in and out of state, but for the employees themselves. "We, fortunately, unlike a lot of breweries right now, continue to grow," he says. "Anytime you're growing, that's a real positive thing. I think that provides opportunities."
Adds Winter: "If you're not growing and providing opportunities for your employees, that's really hard. And I want to be able to do that. . . . If somebody has the talent from within, then let's give them a shot and see how they do. It's worked out for us so far."
Needs: West says, "A 40-barrel brite tank."
Winter points to another: additional employees. "I think in the future the need might be more help. It's getting hard in the state of Colorado to find people who want to come to work in a brewery."