Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Co-founders Troy Johnston and Kevin Sheesley are making -- and raising a hearty toast to -- German-style beers.
When Prost began, other breweries' higher-alcohol, highly hopped American-style IPAs were continuing to increase in popularity. "We wanted to do something a little different," says Johnston, the brewery's director of sales and a co-owner. "Maybe turn the clock back a little bit."
Johnston calls German brews "the original craft beer," and Prost specializes in its Pils, Weissbier, Dunkel, Altbier, and Helles. In other words, the types of beers that Germans have long raised glasses to each other in a toast (equivalent to "Cheers!") of "Prost!"
Many of the beers that Prost brews originated throughout Germany as regional styles. Very few -- if any -- German brewers would attempt (or even want to attempt) to brew the different varieties that Prost makes under the same Denver roof.
For instance, Altbier is a style traditional to Düsseldorf, while the nearby and more cosmopolitan Cologne prides itself on its Kölsch beer. Johnston says of Prost's offerings, "The Altbier is a perfect blend of malt and hops. We pattern that and the Kölsch as close to Düsseldorf and Cologne as we can get it."
Prost won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in 2016 within the "South German-Style Hefeweizen" category for its Weissbier; the year before, it won gold. It's a quenching Bavarian-derived concoction, complete with traditional aroma and flavor notes of clove and banana (resulting from the type of yeast used). Johnston says he's converted non-beer drinkers with the suggestion, "Try a weiss."
Johnston says Prost's flagship Pils is a craft rarity. "There's a reason a lot of people don't [brew pilsners]: It's tough," he explains. "It's such an exact style and flaws cannot be hidden." Prost's quenching Keller Pils, an unfiltered, naturally-carbonated pilsner, won a gold medal at the 2013 GABF in the "Keller/Zwickel-Style Keller-Pils" category.
Then there's the Dunkel, its dark lager, which undergoes a double decoction pre-boil to extract as much flavor from the grains as possible. Sheesley says that visitors from other breweries sometimes ask of the time-consuming yet traditional process, "Do you really do that?!"
The recipe for its Dunkel originated with the German brewery that Prost bought some of its brewing equipment from: Hümmer Brauerei, which operated as a brewery in Bavaria from 1642 to 2011. Prost uses Hümmer's same set-up during its own brewing -- from the copper kettles and piping ("orientated the same way as in Germany," says Johnston) to its control panel with markings written in German to, even, a wooden stirring stick.
It's a 72-barrel brewhouse, complete with fermenters, horizontally-leaning lager tanks, and keg and bottling lines, packed into approximately 4,000 square feet in the back of the building. The brewery stacks some of its equipment vertically. "We were told by many people that with this size of system, we'd need 15,000 square feet," says Johnston, before adding, "It pays to have an engineer [Barry Van Everen] as a partner."
Prost has had three head brewers over the years. Presently, Colin Ford runs the operation. Fittingly, Ford brewed on a similar system at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "He's very good at what he does," says Johnston. (Original brewers Bill Eye and Ashleigh Carter have gone on to found Bierstadt Lagerhaus, which also specializes in German beers. And Brad Landman left Prost this year to join The Post in Lafayette.)
The brewery sells its beer at its tasting rooms in Denver and Fort Collins. And it bottles a good half dozen of its beers, as well as a rotating seasonal, which are distributed throughout Colorado, as well as within Wyoming, Utah, and Wisconsin. Prost brewed 9,000 barrels in 2016, and production will total about 11,000 in 2017. "If you take [sales for] the first full fiscal year, '13, by the end of this year, we almost have quadrupled that number," says Johnston.
Johnston, 53, and Sheesley, 59, both began in the restaurant business; Johnston worked for Sheesley at the CB Potts brewpub chain. Between them, the two have decades of experience with beer and food. Johnston suggests pairing Prost's Weissbier with seafood, before adding, "Dunkel makes a killer beer cheese, but also makes a good heavy sauce to go over meat." And the Pils can be used for a beer batter or a vinaigrette, or a splash can be added to sauerkraut.
Or the Pils can be simply enjoyed for its "sessionability," says Johnston. Johnston and Sheesley have noted how other breweries have recently begun making German-style beers for those very qualities: flavorful, lower ABV, the ability to enjoy more than one without feeling overwhelmed.
But how authentically patterned are those other breweries' lagers, wonders Sheesley: "It it truly lagered for six, eight, 10 weeks in a lager tank?" At Prost, that is the norm, he adds.
With a glass of Prost's 5 percent ABV Helles (which, according to the brewery's website, is "lightly hopped") sitting in front of him, Johnston adds about fellow brewers, "They're starting to recognize that you can't blast people's palates with big hops and high alcohol forever."
Favorite beers: Johnston doesn't have any Old World brews to cite: "You know what? Now that we brew German beer with German ingredients on German equipment and techniques, I don't drink much other German beers, because it's as fresh as you get right here."
However, he enjoys a style of beer which Prost doesn't brew: "I like the hazy IPAs that are coming out. I couldn't give you one exact, but I try them around town when I see them. I wouldn't be surprised if more of those come out: New England-style hazy IPAs. I really kind of enjoy those lately."
Challenges: Johnston cites the cost of ingredients and the pricing of Prost's beer: "We try to stay competitive with pricing, regardless of the fact that we bring all of our ingredients from overseas. Our cost of goods is a minimum two times what American beers are, from an ingredient standpoint, grain bill."
He adds, "We're a premium beer. And when it comes right down to it, we're probably not a great fit for everybody. It's just the truth."
Opportunities: Johnston says opportunities include expanding the public's ability to sample Prost's beers -- and making more of it available: "It's probably sales strategies and market strategies.We probably will open more of these tasting rooms. . . . Part of our mission in the next couple years is to identify another production facility [here in Colorado]."
Needs: Updating the ambience of the original location: "We could probably freshen up the look and feel [of the tasting room]," says Johnston, citing traditional German beer halls as his template.