Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Head brewer Mark Martinez makes beer with barley grown by co-founder Derek Heersink, the brewery's resident farmer, as well as business and marketing manager.
"We do farm to tap," says Martinez. "As a brewer, I really appreciate being able to go out into the field with Derek, in the spring and summer, and see the stages of what will be the next year's beer." Martinez whimsically describes Derek's barley growing out in the field -- which is used for the brewery's base malt -- as their "baby beer."
Heersink also contributes alfalfa that's used in one of Square Peg's beers. Martinez says, "We literally walked down the field and picked it out of the windrow." The first cut of that alfalfa isn't just going into hay bales -- it's an ingredient within the brewery's farmhouse ale, First Cut. As opposed to later cuttings of alfalfa (which get progressively weaker, flavor-wise), Martinez says, "It's kind of that intense flavor that I was going for. It's kind of grassy, herbal on the front end, and then it finishes very, very sweet, very aromatic."
Martinez and Heersink run a three-barrel brewery in Alamosa -- about 15 miles away from the land Heersink farms. Martinez explains the challenges, as well geographical significance, of where they're situated: "Alamosa is a really small town, but people have really come out and supported us. It's Coors country; it's Southern Colorado, so all of Coors' barley is grown [here] for the Banquet beer. You're working with a lot of Coors drinkers, lager beer drinkers, so it's trying to change that mindset, get people in to taste the beers. You kind of walk them through the door with the American lager or the helles beer. And then you transition them up to the Vienna lager. And then a schwarzbier, and they're all of a sudden into saisons and a Belgian goldens. So, it's just sort of a progression -- and it's fun to see people used to drinking 'Big Beer' [like Coors] coming out and supporting the craft beer industry."
Martinez and Heersink, both 29, met in grammar school. "We've been buddies since the third grade," says Martinez. In college at Adams State University, Martinez studied earth science, later becoming a high school social studies teacher. And Heersink -- who says, "My family's been here in the San Luis Valley, farming since 1897" -- graduated with a degree in soil crop science from Colorado State University.
When Heersink returned to Alamosa after managing a farm in New Mexico in 2012, the duo reunited, spending time homebrewing and sharing their bounty with friends. Then, Heersink, who Martinez describes at the risk taker of the two, made a proclamation: "One day, I said, 'Mark, we should sell this!'" recalls Heersink. After Martinez was convinced, they had to come up with a name for the brewery. Heersink recalls the process as frustrating, saying, "'This is like trying to get a square peg in a round hole. Hey, that's actually a pretty good name!' We just kind of stuck with it from there." He laughs as he adds, "I think that's pretty much our life in general: a square peg in a round hole."
They opened in June 2017. In August, Martinez and Heersink entered beers in that year's Great American Beer Festival competition. In October, Square Peg Brewerks won a gold medal in the "Historical Beer" category for its Waverly Tulip -- their version of a Dutch kuit beer. Martinez says, "It's an oat-based beer -- malted oats, wheat, and barley -- and then it's bittered with something called sweetgale, which gives it this really nice herbal roundness."
The brewery gets oats, as well as some wheat, from Colorado Malting Company. And it relies on Proximity Malt for germinating Heersink's barley for Square Peg's base malt. Being able to witness Proximity's work on his grain, Heersink says that it's "cool to see the whole process." Proximity also provides some additional roasted malts, as needed by the brewery. And the folks at Proximity occasionally fill seats at Square Peg's pub, which has a wood stove, and a variety of games for customers to play while socializing; "They come in a lot and support us," says Heersink.
Square Peg brews a variety of approachable beers, but Martinez and Heersink both agree on their two favorites: Duke, an imperial Vienna lager which weighs in at 8.1 percent ABV -- although deceptively so, displaying a refined character. And The Common, which is their American lager and the brewery's best-selling beer -- and they enjoy it as much as their traditional, Coors-drinking customers. "Beer-wise, I can really appreciate a well-crafted lager," says Martinez. "I just think it really shows the skill of a brewer."
Heersink takes "a certain amount of pride" in watching customers quaff beer made from his barley. He says, "As a farmer, myself, I like to see the finished product, and see people enjoy it, instead of taking all the grain to the co-op -- and who knows what happens to it."
Favorites beers: Martinez says, "Colorado-wise, I'm big on the IPAs coming out of WeldWerks. I've drank quite a bit of beer up at Woods Boss in Denver; I'm big on their IPA. I, also, really appreciate lager beers, so Bierstadt is pretty high on my list; Ashley and Bill do a good job there. I'm big on [Slow Pour Pils]."
Martinez says, "We're pretty appreciative of the industry as a whole." He credits breweries like Florence Brewing Company, Launch Pad Brewery, Lost Highway Brewing Company, Three Barrel Brewing, Crestone Brewing Co., and Riff Raff Brewing Company for lending advice.
Challenges: Heersink not only wants to raise more barley for their brewery, he want to raise capital, as well: "There's a demand for us to grow and get bigger and start distributing and canning, but trying to come up with the capital to make that play is one of the hardest things we're coming across right now."
Martinez adds that the challenge is "where to focus [our] energy and how to grow."
In its first partial year as a brewery in 2017, Square Peg brewed 150 barrels. By the end of this year, they'll do 250 to 300 barrels. They don't distribute bottles or cans (aside from Crowlers at the brewery), but have a regular tap account at Walter's Beer in Pueblo.
Opportunities: Martinez says it's getting into "the boutique beer market": "We're just now getting into some barrel aging."
Heersink sees opportunity in "building the brand of Square Peg, as a whole . . . expanding and diversifying the brand," possibly by distilling and making cider, in the future.
Needs: "Capital is the biggest hurdle, barrier of entry, to expanding, getting better," says Heersink. "The building we're in right now does have some constraints, it does limit us [as far as] capacity. But capital could fix that."
Martinez says although they're hesitant to share what they've worked hard to build with potential investors, they would consider a silent partner coming aboard.