Voice of the Modern Manufacturing Economy Since 2013

Tommyknocker Brewery and Pub

by Eric Peterson on July 6, 2015, 11:50 am MDT

www.tommyknocker.com

Idaho Springs, Colorado

Founded: 1994

Privately owned

Employees: about 100 (70 restaurant and 30 brewery)

President Larry Nemich and Director of Brewery Operations Steve Indrehus take a decidedly non-corporate approach. A Tommyknocker taproom opened in Finland in 2015. 

Named for the mischievous and mythical imps who bedevil Cornish miners, Tommyknocker is a Colorado original.

But there's big news from a different corner of the planet: A Finnish team opened a taproom for the brewery in downtown Helsinki in March. It's the first craft beer bar in Europe with an American brand.

The Finnish team, Capitol Invest, visited during the 2013 Great American Beer Festival and "fell in love with the place," says Indrehus. "They did a really good job of designing the place and bringing in our motif."

Tommyknocker is currently shipping beer brewed in Colorado for its taps, as its Scandinavian partners explore bringing the brand to Norway, Russia, and even cruise ships built in Finland. "The mystique is American craft beer," says Indrehus.

Back in Colorado, the mountain-town mainstay is entering its third decade in growth mode. A $2 million expansion was completed in 2012 that roughly doubled production capacity and restaurant seating. The brewery is now running three shifts a day.

Annual volume has grown from about 9,000 barrels before the expansion to 14,400 in 2014. The 2015 forecast is 16,000. Indrehus says the current capacity is about 18,000 barrels.

Tommyknocker has distribution in 16 states, down from a high of 21. "Everybody's trying to consolidate their sales," says Indrehus. "It used to be just get into every state you can."

As far as the beer itself goes, Indrehus says his goal is always balance, and he says he doesn't jump on trends like some breweries at lower elevations in Colorado.

His creativity, however, is showcased in the lineup: The Legend Olde Oake Brown Ale is not aged in oak barrels, fermented with pulverized Hungarian oak that produces tannins and distinctive flavors. ("There's a lot going on," says Indrehus.) The Colorado IPA Nouveau is brewed with fresh hops from Misty Mountain Hop Farm, and fermented at higher temperatures to conjure fruitier flavors. And the Pine Bough Pale Ale, a "Clear Creek County Collaboration" with Loveland Ski Area, features spruce needles handpicked from Loveland's slopes.

The last of the three was never intended to be an annual offering, says Indrehus, but its popularity at both Loveland's bars and the brewery kept it in the rotation. "It was a one-off that hit," he says. "We have similar business models -- we're both local schmocal."

The critics have taken notice. Tommyknocker has 17 Great American Beer Festival medals hanging on its walls, not to mention four World Beer Cup awards.

Tommyknocker has been bottling craft beer and soda almost since the very beginning. After a false start a decade ago, the brewery just moved into cans with new technology from Golden-based Codi Manufacturing in 2014. Codi just delivered its company-first canning line to Tommyknocker after bringing it back and forth for canning sessions to troubleshoot and tweak. "We're the R&D house for them," says Indrehus.

Codi isn't Tommyknocker's only local manufacturing partner. It supplies spent grain to Raquelita's Tortillas in Denver to make their Nachos Borrachos chips, and sells Butthead Bock to Continental Sausage to boil bratwurst. "It's Whole Food's top-selling sausage in Colorado," says Indrehus.

Adds Nemnich: "When we partner with somebody, we put our heart and soul into working with our partners."

The same could be said for Tommyknocker's community involvement in Idaho Springs, supporting the local schools, events, and organizations. "We have a real local presence from our involvement with rotary club to city hall," says Nemnich.

As he's been at Tommyknocker since owners Tim Lenahan and Charlie Sturdavant opened the brewpub in 1994, he says longevity with Indrehus -- who's been at the brewery since the second year -- and Executive Chef Brian Omerod has been key to success. "We've worked side-by-side all of these years. It's a joint effort. We're not just a restaurant or a brewery -- we're both."

In an era where Tommyknocker fields call from private equity on a near-daily basis, the strategy is not to grow the business into something it's not, but to stay the course.

"To our credit and our fault, we're not the most business-oriented brewery," says Indrehus. "We're not corporate. We're a mountain-town brewery and we maintain that from top to bottom."

Favorite beers: Indrehus raves about Deschutes Black Butte Porter. From Tommyknocker's taps, he's been gravitating to the Mountain City Amber Ale. "I can't get enough," he says. "It's a nice malty beer that has enough hops to balance it." Nemnich's favorite is the Green Chile Lager.

Challenges: "Warehousing," says Indrehus, noting that Tommyknocker recently took over a facility in Idaho Springs. "We're right up against capacity."

Opportunities: Now that Tommyknocker is in Scandinavia, the next move will likely be closer to home. "Probably the next opportunity the group will look at is opening a taproom in Denver," says Nemnich.

Adds Indrehus: "We're waiting to see if there's a lot of cheap, used brewing equipment on the market in a couple years."

Needs: "It's hard to find quality brewers," says Indrehus. "Everybody is looking for them” He says that new brewing programs at Colorado State, Regis, and Metro State should help ease the pressure.

Another need: good snow. "Our water comes right off the Continental Divide, right off the shoulders of Mount Bierstadt," says Indrehus. "It runs right downhill to the brewery."

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