Straight from the source: A look at Summit’s brewmasters |

Straight from the source: A look at Summit’s brewmasters

Lindsey Krusen
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado

The liquid arts take many forms in the High Country. Snowfall provides a medium for paintbrush-stroke ski turns, transforming the rider into an objet d’art. The snow melts, creating rushing waters for kayaking and rafting. The recreational cycle continues to flow.

Then there’s the group that keeps mountain folk lubricated. They’re tapped into tradition and the serving tanks from which they dispense their product. These men are the brewmasters of Summit County, the artisans of beer.

The open layout and light-filled dining area of the Dillon Dam Brewery is just a precursor for the man behind the taps. Matt Luhr loves what he does, and he takes the time ” with customers and assistants ” to show the underbelly of his passion for beer.

The Dam, as locals call it, is set up for learning. People can see most of the brewing process from the second-floor lookout, and signs guide curious tasters on a journey from raw materials to the final product.

Luhr takes an immersion approach to recipe development. Most of his ideas for new brews come from tasting other beers. Different styles have various backgrounds, and Luhr said he has learned a lot of history and geography from brewing beer.

“I find the history of brewing almost as fascinating as drinking it,” he said.

World history materializes in different beer styles. Luhr said his ingredients come from all over the world because “it adds to the authenticity of the style.”

It also strengthens the connection of the man to his craft. Luhr has been setting production records for three years in a row, though it hasn’t been without the help of an assistant. Unsurprisingly, Luhr, who describes passion as “why we do what we do, continue to produce recipes and strive to do better,” hires his assistants based on character. He smiles as he describes his protege, Cory Forster, now brewmaster at the Wolf Rock Brewing Company (formerly known as Great Northern Tavern) in Keystone.

“Cory was a waitperson here, then he moved to the Midwest,” Luhr said. When Foster came back to town after a heartland hiatus, Luhr stopped him in the parking lot before he could even come inside; he offered Foster a job on the spot. Forster’s employment took on the true spirit of apprenticeship.

“There are a few schools out there, but the experience is invaluable,” Luhr said.

“No book learning can provide you with the taste and sensory experience.”

Foster drank in the years of expertise and tradition that go along with brewing in the five years he served as assistant brewmaster under Luhr at the Dam. After talking to Forster about recipe development, it’s apparent Luhr taught him.

“I like to research the history of beers,” he says hesitantly, unsure whether the listener will be interested. But those who care ” those who want a full-bodied historical appreciation of beer ” will prod further, and Forster will open up.

He begins with mystery: “Way back in the day, they didn’t know that the yeast ate the sugar and produced carbon dioxide and water. What they originally called that in a lot of circles is ‘God is good.’ They thought it was a miracle that this juice would turn into something alcoholic.”

Forster continues with the roots of IPAs, or India Pale Ales:

“The British were shipping IPA around the Cape of Good Hope to India, and the sweet, dark British beer was spoiled by the time it got there. In order for the Brits to get the beer to India, they put less sugar in, less sweet malts and hopped the hell out of it (hops are a natural preservative).”

It’s all interesting stuff, and Forster’s knowledge shows in his brews. He has a binder full of recipes and an Excel spreadsheet he tweaks to get the right balance of ingredients for different styles. This is new for Forster, because as assistant brewmaster, he didn’t get the opportunity to develop many of his own recipes.

But he does possess a sensory device that trumps his relative inexperience.

“Matt (Luhr) always said that was one of my greatest gifts: I had a tongue,” he said.

Bill Kiester, Frisco’s Backcountry Brewery brewmaster, didn’t realize his brewing gifts until later in life. Before immersing himself in malts and hops, he proved he could operate in the real world, a world that doesn’t revolve around fermentation. And with a mechanical engineering degree from Colorado State, he had the corporate street credentials to keep him in the game. But after a 16-year stint in the engineering field, Kiester took his degree and shoved it into the nooks and crannies of the brewing industry.

Even after starting his brewing career in 1997, at $5.13 an hour at a brewery in Boulder, Kiester said he never looked back. He moved in with his brother and started learning about the process. When he was at the bottom of the figurative beer barrel, Kiester said he focused on becoming a brewmaster.

Kiester’s planned fall from the corporate ladder didn’t jar him too much. He said he likes brewing better than engineering, because it has an art to it.

“People are not exactly sure about the process,” he said about the mystery involved with brewing. “There’s always subtle differences that you just can’t put your finger on.”

Kiester’s former life comes in handy at times. Like most other local brewmasters, he’s a one-man show, in charge of the brewing, bottling and distributing beer. Sometimes the machinery breaks down, and Kiester puts his mechanical skills to use to fix what’s broken.

But most of the time, Kiester focuses on his art. He enjoys the autonomy of the job and works to crank out Backcountry’s signature beers on a regular basis, along with two to four seasonals of his choice.

Pug Ryan’s brewery puts its microbrews to the test ” whether it be outdoor adventures or on the beer competition circuit. Carry Hose, brewer at the Dillon pub, had the eye of the tiger at a young age.

“I’ve been drinking beer forever,” Hose said, and he means it. “My parents have pictures of me as a baby with a beer can in hand. I was destined, basically.”

Now, Dillon-based Pug’s is creating its own destiny with canned wheat beer, called Morning Wood Wheat. When Pug’s started putting its beer in cans, it was only the fifth microbrewery in the nation to do so. It proved to be a good fit for High Country activities.

“What it came down to was, we like to hike and ski and camp and raft,” Hose said. “Bottles aren’t cohesive with that. Our beer has traveled around the world because of that.”

Or maybe it’s because of Pug’s competitive streak. Along with outdoor compatibility, Hose peppers his conversation, mentioning medals and accolades. He changes recipes, such as the Scottish Ale, to capture the win. That particular brew has done well at the state fair but has never won at the national level, Hose said. He’s tweaking it to show up on a larger radar screen.

Pug’s has brought home the hardware at the big daddy of brewfests, the Great American Beer Festival. The brewery has won at the national competition each of the last four years.

Guests at Pug’s can taste the GABF gold-medal Paliviccini Pilsner, bronze Scottish Ale (formerly called the Kilt Lifter), silver Morning Wood Wheat, Over the Rail Pale Ale and Ryan’s Irish Stout straight from the serving tanks at Pug’s. And what about the mischievous names?

“I’m sure it had something to do with late-night conversation,” Hose said, “But I wasn’t there for any of them.”

Unlike Pug’s mysterious nighttime brainstorming sessions, when Drake Schmid, Breckenridge Brewery brewmaster, got his job, there was no mistake about the genesis.

“It was a situation of great timing and good personality,” Schmid said. Schmid was working retail at the brewery and met Dan Finkelman, the brewmaster at the time. Schmid said when Finkelman moved on to bigger and better things, he earned the job.

Along with the position came a one-and-a-half month apprenticeship under Finkelman. Schmid’s culinary knowledge buttressed the short training process. He has a culinary certificate from Colorado Mountain College and said his skills in that area help him with brewing.

“Basically, all we’re doing is liquid bread,” Schmid said.

For now, Schmid is sticking to the Breck Brewery’s tried and true basic recipes, which rotate with supply and demand. But the future is a blank canvas for Schmid’s original creations.

“The only real way to have freedom is to brew the seasonals,” Schmid said.

That is, as long as Schmid can stay in the game. All the brewers said the beer-making process is very physical, hard labor. Schmid likes the esteem that goes with the job, but said tendonitis might take him out of the brewery some day.

“There’s lots of clamps and wrist-turning actions,” he said. “That’s all I do. I’m turning valves all day.”

For now, Schmid is working on striking the right balance at the Breck Brewery. He said he always tries to focus on quality over quantity. The wunderkind brewmaster is on his way, and he knows it.

“Time is your best friend with beer,” Schmid said, nailing the wisdom of his peers.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.