Boulder / Denver / Longmont, Colorado
Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Founder Kevin J. Daly provides Grateful Dead-inspired community spaces as Director of Brewing Operations John Fiorilli brews the bulk of the beer.
You could say Daly got his start in the beer business in the early '90s while following the Grateful Dead on tour. Outside of shows in parking lots across this land, he would sell bottles of beer to other concertgoers. Not exactly a legal enterprise, but certainly not a psychedelic crime that could lead to a mandatory-minimum criminal penalty, either. "Everybody was drinking microbrews on Dead tour," he says.
At the time, Daly and his future business partner, Ian Blackford, discussed opening a bagel bakery or a brewery. But Daly -- who'd dropped out after a year of law school in Oregon -- and Blackford found a template for a brewpub business in the pioneering, Portland-based McMenamins. The partners heard that the first McMenamins opened for $150,000 -- an amount they knew they could raise for what would become that first Boulder location.
This year, Daly celebrated the Mountain Sun's 25th anniversary with two days of tunes at the annual Colorado Kind Festival. The festival is named after one the chain's flagship beers, which Fiorilli describes as a "hoppy amber" -- although it won a silver medal at the GABF in 2011 in the Extra Special Bitter category. Noting the beer's twirling "pine and citrus character," Fiorilli says, "For us, it's a total classic."
But that's not the only festive celebration during the year: each February it's Stout Month. "We have [brewed] as many as 34 of our own that we've poured," says Fiorilli. "And then we also purchase as much local stout as we can for that. Any [Mountain Sun] location will serve as many as 60 different stouts in month of February."
At the Vine Street Pub & Brewery in Denver, Fiorilli oversees production, supplying the majority of beer at the five Mountain Sun locations (which also include Mountain Sun, Southern Sun, and Under the Sun in Boulder and Longs Peak Pub in Longmont). He calls it a "12ish-barrel brewhouse," which run seven days a week, two shifts per day. "We brew essentially to supply our restaurants with [fresh] beer," he says. In its partial first year as a brewery in 2012, the Vine Street location brewed 1,500 barrels; today it produces around 2,700. That will increase if another one or two Mountain Sun-affiliated restaurants open in the future, which is a possibility that Daly has been mulling over. About 1,000 barrels per year is brewed, as well, at the Southern Sun location in Boulder. (Brewing no longer takes place at the original Pearl Street location in Boulder.)
Fiorilli applauds the Kölsch: "I love this style of beer," he says. "It's very approachable." And he's keen one of the chain's IPAs, as well, which won a silver medal at the GABF: "Illusion Dweller's English-style, so it's not super aggressive and brash. I mean, it has the balance of an IPA, but it's English. I like to think that it's a little more refined than the American ones." He rightly calls the saison "quenching, very drinkable, tons of yeast character."
Fiorilli began working at Mountain Sun in 2000, becoming a general manager. He left in 2003 to pursue a brewing education and then career, working first at a brewpub in his native Delaware, and then at the Flying Fish Brewery in New Jersey. Returning to the Mountain Sun fold in 2009, Fiorilli says he's brought back from the East Coast a production brewery mindset to his work. Fiorilli says, "The quality of the beer was good when I came [back here] -- and no one disagrees that it's better now."
When you ask Daly to describe the vibe of his brewpub chain, he dubs it "kind of hippie, funky, Grateful Dead living room." And Fiorilli sports a Phish t-shirt during his interview with CompanyWeek. With jam band concert prints hanging on walls, the pubs are easy-going places, sans TVs, where people spend time conversing, eating meals, and hoisting ales, while Rolling Stones and Leftover Salmon songs play in the background.
"We always want to focus on the brewpub part of it, but our food is a bigger seller than our beer," says Daly. "And people come and hang out."
Yet, the beer's important -- and Mountain Sun has won 11 GABF medals between 1995 and 2011. "Yeah, we've won awards for the food, too," replies Daly.
Why hasn't the Mountain Sun bottled its beers, selling them at Colorado liquor stores? "We always kept thinking that the market was going to get oversaturated," says Daly. "But I guess we were wrong [in the company's early days]. Now it finally has become."
Daly concludes, "Any restaurant is about the space. When you put a product on the shelf, it's a branding exercise. So, we probably screwed that up: We could probably be really rich like the other early [brewpub/brewery] founders. But we enjoy what we do."
Favorite beers: Fiorilli names an international fave: "Saison Dupont is the archetype for saison in the world -- and one of the best beers in the world."
Fiorilli also gives high marks to two local breweries. He says Cannonball Creek makes "amazing beer": "Those are some of our former brewers, and [it's] some of the best beer around. They continued their medal streak at this year's GABF." And then there's also Odell: "Their whole lineup is amazing. Odell IPA has been a go-to beer for me forever, and their Drumroll APA, I buy pretty much every time I go to the liquor store, at this point."
Challenges: Hiring is the big one. "Finding great staff and training them and keeping them," says Daly. "I think we're really successful, because we have great staff and we treat them really well."
Fiorilli gives props to the ownership for its "family vibe": "I had never had a work experience where I felt like the owners actually cared about everyone there genuinely, and reflected that, not only in the wages they were making, but in all the other perks."
Opportunities: Another one or two brewpubs: "To find new locations and continue to spread our missions," says Daly.
Daly cites the Mountain Sun's mission as "creating a community space that treats both the community and the employees with kindness. Kind of a more progressive philosophy."
Needs: Is there a cook out there? Daly is putting out a call for "qualified staff, right now," he says. "Staffing in the restaurant business -- between the competition from all the new restaurants and the weed industry -- has been challenging. Finding qualified cooks."