It’s the inaugural beer-making day at Broken Compass Brewing, and the mash tun is emitting an aroma that smells like something between a barnyard and heaven — the perfect perfume of malted grain.
Friends and staff members have been coming and going all day, taking turns turning mash or just throwing their support behind a venture that is the long-time dream of co-founders David Axelrod and Jason Ford. The duo, affectionately referred to as little beard and big beard or Ax and Ford, could occasionally be caught caressing the shiny, stainless-steel exterior of the tank, like mothers cherishing a new child in the womb.
And who can blame them. Summit County’s newest brewery didn’t come together without a lot of dedication, a lot of love and a lot of perseverance.
Broken Compass wouldn’t exist without Jo, Ford’s wife, who is responsible for bringing business sense to brewing savvy.
“I came into the county in ’97 and taught skiing until 2008 and raft guided,” Ax said. “At that point, I was doing a business degree, an MBA in sustainable business, and met Ford’s wife, and we’ve been friends every since.”
Originally from Wyoming, Ford hopped from Oregon to Denver, taking a job in research and development with a biofuel company. His first commercial fermentation was 7,500 gallons of biofuel, Ax said, a massive batch compared with the brewing set-up at Broken Compass.
“Ford’s always dreamed of doing this,” Ax said. “He’s been a home brewer and helped his friend Jason Wiedmaier start Lone Tree down in Denver — helped him set up the system, did some assistant brewing, moonlighting with his full-time job. He decided a couple of years ago, I want to do this and wanted my help. I told him I’d love to help him but only if it’s in Breckenridge.”
Ax told Ford he loved the town of Breckenridge and the community of Summit County, and being a mountain boy from Wyoming who was itching to get back into the hills, Ford agreed.
“We started putting together a business plan a year ago January and pretty quickly decided that we were going to do it,” Ax said. “We jumped off completely blind, just saying we’re going to put everything we have into it. Ford cashed in his retirement; I put everything in the world I have into it. We found some partners who have come along, and kind of nickel and dimed our way to where we had enough to do it.”
They had a plan and they had some savings, but every project faces its own challenges. For Broken Compass, the first major hurdle was getting a federal permit. Unfortunate timing meant they were trying to get federal approval right when the government shut down last fall.
“The lead time went from 60 days to 113 (for a federal permit), and ours was outside that range,” Ax said. “We finally got it March 31; initially, we intended to open sometime around Ullr Fest. So that was a big one. That was super challenging.”
Equipment lead times were also a massive hurdle, Ax said. The original plan was to source as much used brewing equipment as they could, but because of the huge growth in craft brewing in recent years, tanks and other gear were hard to find or priced not much differently from brand-new.
“We couldn’t find any used equipment in the sizes that we wanted, and the used equipment wasn’t even less expensive than the new,” Ax said, adding that Broken Compass got a break when it came to local approvals. “Everybody talks about how difficult it is with building permits and all that, but we really haven’t had many challenges there; the county has been fabulous. They have been super helpful — everybody in the planning and building department has been up front and super helpful for us.”
Additional expenses — an extra grand or two here to ship equipment, a couple more to vent the boil kettle — also added a bit of stress. The new gear ended up coming from Canada, and because of the cold, snowy winter, five different trucks broke down trying to get equipment to Breckenridge.
“You know when Canadian trucks are breaking down, it’s cold. Unexpected costs give me lots of heartburn these days, but fortunately, I have plenty of beer to ease that,” Ax said with a laugh.
Pulling it all together
Despite the ups and downs, Ax said building a business and the response from the local community has been rewarding.
“We’ve had people coming out to the tasting parties,” he said. “The support from the community, all of that has been fabulous, and making beer — come on, making beer is just fun.”
Broken Compass is situated on Continental Court, just southeast of the intersection of Coyne Valley Road and Airport Road. Ax said the location is perfect because most of the brewery staff lives on Peak 7.
“We can ride our bikes to work and get in a little exercise to work off the beer,” he said. “That’s great, and it’s just really neat being out here. I like this location more than I thought I would. We had a lot of people stopping by asking when we’re opening and coming in and trying some of our small-batch stuff, and a lot of locals looking forward to having a local hangout.”
The first batch of beer brewed on Friday was an India brown, which Ax said would be followed by their staff-favorite chili pepper pale ale, an India pale ale and a Belgian wit, all of which they hope to have on tap for a soft opening on Memorial Day weekend, plus the Summit County collaborative black saison, which Ford has been aging in bourbon barrels since February.
“Currently, we are working night and day to finish out the construction, get ready for prime time,” Ax said.
It’s all about the beer
Ax said he and Ford have no ambitions to take over the world with their beer; their focus is on creativity and being a part of the community. The current brewing set-up at Broken Compass could produce up to 2,000 barrels a year, but the co-founders are aiming for something around 500 barrels the first year to feel successful.
Initial distribution will be limited to retail from the taproom and a few restaurant accounts around town, and they are already stocking pints and tulip glasses around the unfinished bar. A self-described hophead, Ford said he’s looking forward to developing his craft, honing in on his favorite hop strains and having the original 15-gallon system to fall back on for experimenting.
“One of my personal things is I want to get much better at knowing all the different types of hops,” he said. “I’d like to make a single-hop IPA just to be fun, and lagers, I’m looking forward to expanding and getting into good lagers. To get good at lagers is something else I’m really looking forward to — they’re completely different beers in the aroma and the finish.”
“We don’t have plans to be massive distribution,” Ax said. “Just to be a community hangout where people can come and cook their own food and relax and taste some different beers, take them out of here in growlers and half-growlers and they can even do kegs to take home for their home kegerators.”