Voice of the Modern Manufacturing Economy Since 2013
Matt Cutter / photos Jonathan Castner

Upslope Brewing Company

by Eric Peterson on March 30, 2015, 05:50 pm MDT

www.upslopebrewing.com

Boulder, Colorado

Founded: November 2008

Privately owned

Employees: 42

Co-founder Matt Cutter is steering the upstart regional brewery towards 40 percent growth for 2015. Production has jumped fivefold since 2011.

Working in project management at IBM Printing Systems and homebrewing by night, Cutter dusted off a decade-old business plan in 2007 and decided to launch a craft brewery. He connected with Argentinian brewer Danny Pages at Probrewer.com, who was in love with a Colorado girl and in need of employment to immigrate to the U.S.

It was a match made in beer heaven, says Cutter. Cutter brought manufacturing and business know-how -- and a second mortgage as seed money -- and Pages brought production-scale brewing experience. "It was very complementary." Upslope's head brewer since day one, Pages "was blown away by how evolved Colorado was."

The original facility in north Boulder is now the specialty brewhouse, featuring sour beers, pilot batches, and a barrel-aging program, and and the new-for-2013, $1.5 million brewery in east Boulder is the site of most production and packaging.

Cutter left IBM in 2011 to focus on Upslope, when the operation had six employees. "It demanded all of my time, instead of 40 hours a week, and it had just turned profitable," he says.

Since then, business has boomed and Cutter's been able to move that second mortgage over to the brewery's books. The Upslope packaged catalog includes five year-round cans as well as seasonal releases.

Upslope recently installed a 1970 Crown filler with an Angelus seamer previously used at a Coca-Cola facility in Rapid City, South Dakota. It's capable of filling 600 cans in a minute. That's up from five a minute when Upslope started canning in 2009, second only to Oskar Blues.

The uptick in canning speed mimics the company's growth trajectory. Upslope has averaged more than 100 percent growth a year since Cutter went full-time. Now cruising towards 50 employees, Cutter forecasts hitting 27,000 barrels in 2015, up from 19,600 in 2014.

One key: exploiting the less crowded niches at restaurants and retail. Craft Lager, Upslope's top seller, is a prime example of the strategy. Of the former, Cutter says, "It's a great transitional beer and it's a great everyday beer. It fits in the portfolio of tap handles at many restaurants very nicely. Everybody's got an IPA and everybody's got a pale ale. Our Brown Ale is also like that. A lot of people aren't into hops."

But Upslope's just as known for pushing the envelope as it is for its accessibility. "Good brewers dump beer," says Cutter. "Sometimes, it goes down the drain with, 'Well, it was a good concept.'"

That comes with the territory. "We're working with a single-cell animal to get things done just right," Cutter notes. "Yeast management is critical. They're all different. Some are very vigorous. Some can handle lots and lots of sugar. Some get overwhelmed by that. Some like it hot."

Yeast management has been critical to consistency. "Our beer has never been at a higher quality than since we put our lab in place two years ago.

Upslope's experimentalism has led to a sour Wild Christmas Ale and a Strawberry Mint IPA. Before the new facility came online, "Production would trump innovation," Cutter says. "It was always going to be second to paying the bills. Having two separate facilities has been very advantageous to us to innovate on and create what's on the horizon. What's the next IPA?" (Cutter's picks: session IPAs and saisons.)

When it comes to choosing new flavors for a canned release, "We listen to the people in the taproom," he answers. "That's our built-in R&D."

Case in point: the seasonally canned Uplsope Thai Style White IPA, brewed with Belgian wit yeast and tinged with lemongrass, ginger, and Thai basil developed in collaboration with Denver eatery Euclid Hall. "It's one of the most esoteric beers we do," says Cutter. "It's an IPA, but then it's a white IPA, then it's Thai-style. It's out there a little bit."

There were two factors involved in the decision to can it. "One, the people have spoken," Cutter explains. "Two, we polled everyone at the brewery. It wasn't unanimous, but it was in the 90s."

There's a thread that connects Cutter's background in high-tech manufacturing with Upslope. "I like making stuff," he explains, "and all of the challenges that go with it."

Favorite beers: Cutter names three. "Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron is a go-to treat for me. Stone IPA is a favorite in my fridge. Enjoying an Upslope Thai-Style White IPA right now. So glad it's back for the season."

Challenges: Matching the growth Upslope has experienced in Colorado other markets. With distribution in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, and Montana, Cutter notes, "We want to be really strong in the Rocky Mountain region.’ We don't just fill up trucks and cross our fingers, but [in other states] we're not the local guy."

But coming from the Centennial State helps. "If you're an average brewer in Boulder, you're not going to make it," says Cutter. "It pushes you to higher standards, and I like that."

Opportunities: Growth in Colorado. "The opportunity continues to be going deeper and deeper in the state," says Cutter, noting that it's the fastest-growing state in Upslope's portfolio and 79 percent of its sales.

Otherwise, new opportunities are not worth the requisite investment. "When it comes down to it, when opportunities are presented to us, it's more important to say no than say yes," he adds. The best route involves "putting on the blinders and focus on what we do best."

Needs: With a fresh injection of $500,000 from Flatiron Community Bank, Upslope's longtime banking partner, "not a lot" except utilizing the new canning line, centrifuge, fermentation capacity, and other upgrade the capital supplies, says Cutter. "We'll continue to buy fermenters. Ony in the slowest part of the year do we have empty fermenters."

He would also like to see more local sources of barley. "I think there's a big opportunity for local maltsters. Do I want to buy my malt from a local company? Absolutely. But there's only Colorado Malting Company. The rest of the barley goes to a company in Golden."

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Deb Kleinman

Craft malting - with an emphasis on locally sourced raw ingredients - is taking off everywhere, including Colorado.

For example, in addition to Colorado Malting Company, Grouse in Wellington produces artisan gluten-free malt, and Troubador Maltings in Fort Collins is about to come on line.

Leopolds - the Denver based distillery - has a contract with a farmer who grows grain for their whiskey, which Leopolds malts on site.

Craft malt is exploding - and the Craft Maltsters Guild has the mission of meeting the growing demand for locally sourced malt.