Breckenridge Brewery maintains identity after beer behemoth buyout
When Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB In-Bev) picked up Seattle’s Elysian Brewing in January 2015, there was a lot of speculation on what craft brewery would be purchased next by the beer giant. At the time, Colorado was a beer-filled oasis of independent but flourishing breweries. In 2015, the state ranked third in the number of independent craft breweries, just behind California and Washington, according to statistics from the Brewers Association.
So, when Breckenridge Brewery announced it would join The High End, AB InBev’s lineup of craft-beer brands in December 2015, it wasn’t all that big of a shock that the corporate giant had scooped up one of Colorado’s largest, oldest and most successful craft breweries.
But how has this sale affected the brewery? More specifically, how has it affected Summit County’s own local brewpub?
“A lot hasn’t changed up here,” said Jimmy Walker, head brewer at the Breckenridge facility. “There’s a tight bond with the community; our friends and patrons are going to keep coming in no matter who owns us. None of that changes.”
More has changed at the production facility located in Littleton, where the company produces a majority of its beer. With a current distribution list of 37 states, the brewery was struggling to keep up with the demand. Officials for AB InBev are using their big-beer expertise to tighten up production and supply before looking into expanding into other states and regions.
But the original brewpub, opened in Breckenridge in 1990, is a small piece to what the brewery produces. With the 12-acre, $40 million Littleton location brewing the recognized staples — Vanilla Porter, Avalanche, Agave Wheat, for example — the smaller brewpub is able to focus on new creations.
“At this location, we don’t do any of the mainline production,” said Walker, who has worked at the brewery since moving to Summit County 21 years ago. “We really focus on one-offs, experimentals, pilot batches, that sort of thing. So I consider myself the luckiest brewer alive because I rarely make the same beer twice.”
The Breckenridge location only produces 1,000 barrels a year, or 31,000 gallons, compared to the company’s overall production of around 70,000 barrels a year. All of the beer produced at the Breckenridge location is consumed onsite.
With Thursday’s announcement that AB InBev will purchase SABMiller for $107 billion, it means the company now produces 31 percent of the world’s beer, according to Beer Business Daily.
“They produce a lot of beer,” Walker said. “I am the tiniest speck of sand on the beaches of the world producing … beer. But it’s been awesome because they have been super helpful trying to lend their support to me. Basically, they want me to continue what I’m doing and help me in any way they can.”
One of the bigger changes that the brewpub has seen is losing its ability to sell liquor and wine. With Colorado liquor laws, Breckenridge Brewery had to switch from a brewpub license to a manufacturing license after the sale, Walker said, leaving it unable to sell other company’s products. It can serve any of the Anheuser Busch products, but, currently, the brewpub has chosen to stick with only Breckenridge products at the location to keep it local.
Now, with the backing of the beer giant, the brewery has additional resources to not only expand their reach, but also for building updates for the brewpub. Walker said the 26-year-old brewery is showing its age, with the need for some new equipment.
“Someone said it’s like finding out you have a rich uncle: You can get those things that you’ve always needed,” he said.
The Breckenridge location has been focusing on a few main areas for its craft beer creations, Walker said, including sessionable summer beers.
“I love the challenge of making beers that aren’t as strong, maybe 5 percent or less, but still have tons of flavor,” he said.
The brewer has been experimenting with saisons, a dry beer that he said carries a spicy and interesting flavor imparted by the yeast. He has used different flavor combinations for the saison, with fruit and spices, like a tea and lemon flavor, or a combination of passion fruit, orange and guava.
He has also been creating more sours, the latest craze in the beer industry. Tart and refreshing, sours come in at around 5 percent.
“We just have so many people walking in the door asking what do you have that’s sour. It’s such a big trend in the industry right now,” said assistant brewer Blake Schwalls.
West Coast IPAs are another focus for the location. Colorado IPAs tend to be maltier, more amber in color, Walker said, whereas West Coast IPAs are light in color and drier, with a basic malt build to let the hops shine through.
All of the brews created at the Breckenridge facility are only available in town, as there is no bottling or distribution at that location. Other Summit County restaurants will sometimes pick up a keg of Breckenridge beer, like Kenosha Steakhouse or The Canteen Tap House and Tavern, but, otherwise, the Breckenridge brewpub is the only outlet for Walker’s creations.
In addition to the Nitro Vanilla Porter and the Nitro IPA, which are year-round beers, the brewery is also currently working on the first nitro seasonal, the Pumpkin Latte Nitro Stout. For this beer, brewers are using cold-pressed coffee from Cabin Coffee Company’s Breckenridge location. For its test batch in Littleton, the brewery utilized 50 pounds of coffee. When it’s rolled out to other states, Walker said they would go through over 200 pounds of coffee.
“We chose a lot of things to make this just right,” he said. “The type of bean we picked, how we roasted it and cold-pressing — all were done specifically to reduce acidity and bitterness.”
The powdered lactose, or milk sugar, adds a lot of body and mouth feel for the “latte” aspect of the beer. There will be actual pumpkin in the mash, and it will feature flavors of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, all-spice and vanilla, all in a nitro version. The beer will debut in September in time for Thanksgiving and Halloween.
Walker works to use local ingredients whenever he can, like using Breckenridge Distillery barrels for aging or fruit from Uncle John’s Fruit Stand. Chris Brower with Uncle John’s travels around the Western Slope of Colorado to collect his produce, and Walker will experiment with some of the items he brings back.
SUMMIT COUNTY RELATIONSHIPS
Although Breckenridge Brewery has joined a powerhouse in the market, Walker said it hasn’t changed his relationship with other Summit County breweries.
“We still share ingredients when we need them, recipes, brewing techniques,” he said.
David Axelrod, co-founder of Broken Compass Brewing in Breckenridge, said everyone at Breckenridge Brewery was very supportive of them opening a little over two years ago and they continue to be.
“The main focus for all of us is making great beer, and sharing it with locals and the people (who) are coming here, and I think them being able to do more things with better ingredients is only going to help all of us,” he said.
Although Axelrod said they would never consider the sale of their brewery to a corporation, Broken Compass entered the game with a different focus as a community brewery. Purchases like ABI’s don’t affect their brewery, he said.
“There’s more than enough room for us to play in the same sandbox seeing that we are very different in business models and focuses,” he said.
Cory Forster, co-owner and head brewer at Bakers’ Brewery in Silverthorne, said he isn’t surprised that AB InBev is branching into the craft industry. With the market going to micro, he understands why the corporation would be looking to make purchases of these larger craft facilities as a strategic business move.
“They want to hang on to their market share, and they’ve got the money to do it,” he said. “From a business standpoint, it seems like they are staying pretty strong by doing this.”
He said he doesn’t really see any immediate changes to the Summit County market, and that Walker is able to be creative, and AB InBev is promoting that.
“They want him to be creative and putting out different stuff, testing out different ideas,” he said. “What I see is that means I get the opportunity to try those things.”
Walker cites the close-knit bond that Summit’s brewers have as friends and collaborators, and the culture of Colorado’s craft brewing industry is, in general, supportive of one another and that he wants to continue with that relationship.
“I want every brewery in the country to make amazing beer, because I want to go drink it all,” he said.
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