One pint at a time
March 20, 2016
Steamboat Springs — The craft brewing industry in Routt County is booming, but it has not always been that way.
In the early days of Steamboat Springs, alcohol was almost universally frowned upon, according to Steamboat Pilot & Today archives. Alcohol could not be sold in the town, but the first kegs of whiskey came bouncing over Rabbit Ears Pass in a buggy when the town was about 10 years old.
Outside town limits in the Brooklyn neighborhood of about 40 people, the hooch found its home, and there were five saloons by 1890.
"There were also 'rooming houses' and 'hotels' with women with very rosy cheeks," the Steamboat Pilot & Today reported.
On Jan. 15, 1915, the entire state of Colorado went dry, and the rest of the country followed in 1920. That quieted down the rowdy Brooklyn neighborhood.
In 1873, there were 4,131 breweries in the United States, more than the 3,464 counted in the country in 2014, according to the Brewers Association trade group.
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No records of legitimate breweries could be found in Steamboat Springs during its early days, but small crops of hops helped supply the local homebrewers in Routt County, according to local historian Laurel Watson.
In the past 10 years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of craft breweries nationally.
Colorado currently ranks as the third biggest producer of craft beer, with nearly 1.7 million barrels per year. That is 13.6 gallons of beer each year who is of the legal age to drink in Colorado. There were 235 craft breweries operating in Colorado in 2014.
Today, Routt County is home to four breweries and a fifth is set to open this summer. Each has their own niche.
The Mahogany Ridge Brewery and Grill space at Fifth Street and Lincoln Avenue in downtown Steamboat has been home to a brewery since 1992.
They used to distribute their beer, but in recent years, their focus has shifted to serving restaurant customers.
Owner Charlie Noble said Mahogany produced about 1,100 gallons of beer last year with their 10-barrel system, and they rotate between 35 to 40 different varieties.
"They change on a regular basis," Noble said. "Most popular is an interesting question. Alpenglow is the staple."
It might be the staple, but some of their seasonal beers are sought after, such as the cherry ale, which is brewed using 600 pounds of cherries.
Over the years, Noble has seen many beer enthusiasts come through his doors.
"They would have these little notebooks of the places they've went and the beer they have tried," Noble said.
Butcherknife goes big
Mahogany Ridge remained Steamboat's sole brewer until 2014, when Steamboat homebrewers Mark Fitzgerald and Nate Johansing made a considerable investment and implemented their 2010 business plan by constructing a new building to house Butcherknife Brewing Co. on Elk River Road.
After attending school in Germany, Johansing earned the title of master brewer, and he has kept a close eye on the industry and its evolution.
Johansing said that before prohibition breweries were just another staple like butcher shops or bakeries.
After President Jimmy Carter legalized homebrewing in 1978, Johansing said brewing schools became more popular allowing amateurs to grow into professional brewers.
Fitzgerald and Johansing installed a 30-barrel system, which is enough to make about 930 gallons of beer per batch.
The Butcherknife partners did not get in the business to get rich, but they built the biggest system in the valley. They brewed 2,000 barrels of beer in the first year.
The brewing business has been an adventure for Fitzgerald and Johansing with a few surprises along the way.
Johansing said there are two types of breweries. There are those that purposely introduce infections to create a sour beer. Then there are those that fear infections and do what they can to keep them out of the beer.
Within a week of fermenting their Belgian blonde, they knew there was a problem.
"I was wanting to just dump it down the drain and get rid of it," Johansing said.
Instead, they left the beer to ferment for the next four months and sent a sample to a lab to get analyzed. The bacteria found in the beer was from the same family as the bacteria that is used to turn milk into yogurt.
Once they knew what the bacteria was, they put the Wild Belgian Blonde on tap.
"It's been selling great in here," Johansing said. "It's tough with sour beer because you never know what you're going to get.
The inside of the Butcherknife facility along Elk River Road illustrates the company's business plan. In October, they took shipment of 152,000 cans printed with their Amputator IPA artwork. Until they find a better place, the pallets are stacked ceiling high next to the fermentors.
"We were always planning for canning from day one, but the minimum order went up," Johansing said.
Their machinery can package 25 cans per minute, and they have shipped out about 20,000 cans so far.
The Butcherknife business plan entailed landing shelf space at liquor stores and tap space in restaurants in Colorado and beyond. Johansing said they have had sales inquiries globally, including from China and Sweden.
Butcherknife has an in-house tasting room with half-priced growler fills on Monday, and about half of their beer is shipped outside of Steamboat. The brewery staff still drives the beer to Denver restaurants and bars, but Butcherknife recently contracted with B&K Distributing for their Northwest Colorado sales.
"We always wanted to work with a distributor," Johansing said. "Working with B&K has been great."
Hayden brewery expands
While Butcherknife has aspirations of potentially selling their beer globally, Routt County's other breweries are focused on local demand.
Jared Aylor and Neil Siggson — another duo of homebrewers who are neighbors — held the grand opening for Yampa Valley Brewing Company in Hayden in October.
Outfitting the space off Jefferson Avenue cost about $150,000, and the men were committed to doing business in their town.
"We were definitely surprised at the first couple of months," Aylor said. "We didn't really know what to expect in a small community, but we had a lot of local support."
Their initial setup was a seven-barrel system, and they added two seven-barrel fermenters soon after opening. In the fermenters the beer sits for three to four weeks depending on the beer.
"Our goal was to add two new fermenters in the first year and brew as much as possible," Aylor said. "It basically allows us to double our capacity."
With the ability to now brew once a week, Yampa Valley Brewing Company has been able to sell kegs to Yampa Valley Regional Airport and The Barley in Steamboat.
"Now that we have our beers on tap at the airport, it does start a conversation," Siggson said.
About 25 percent of their business comes from Craig, where there is not a brewery. The Hiway Bar next door offers food through an opening in the brewery's fence.
Quenching the thirst
Storm Peak Brewing Company opened in June 2014 across from a marijuana store and Mexican restaurant along U.S. Highway 40 on the west side of Steamboat
Like the other local brewers, brothers Wyatt and Tyler Patterson had a background in home brewing and built out a seven-barrel system.
"It's been good," Wyatt Patterson said. "It will be two years in June. The response in the town has been great."
One year ago, the brewery started canning their Flare and 4-Wire beers.
This year, they are on track to brew between 350 and 400 barrels of beer.
Patterson said that in recent weeks, they have started talking about ways to increase production.
"We want to be able to make more beer because people are thirsty for it," he said.
The brewery also has a strong local following, with locals' mugs on the wall and unique events like yoga on Sundays with a beer afterward.
Beer and pizza
The revitalization of Yampa Street in downtown Steamboat would not be complete without a brewery.
Rich and Wendy Tucciarone had been looking for a brewery space since they moved back to town in 2011.
The conversion of the old Yampa Valley Electric Association building at 910 Yampa St. into commercial and retail space presented the perfect opportunity.
The Tucciarones visit their new Mountain Tap Brewery space nearly daily. They are anxious for construction to be complete and are hopeful the licensing process goes smoothly with the federal government.
“It’s a highly regulated industry, and there are a lot of hoops to get through,” Rich Tucciarone said.
They want to be open at the beginning of June.
Rich Tucciarone has worked in the beer business for more than two decades. He said as a kid, he was always tinkering around in the kitchen and went on to get a degree in food science from Cornell University. He was inspired by a brewery that opened up during college.
“It opened my eyes to beer that had flavor,” Tucciarone said.
After Cornell, Tucciarone lived in Steamboat and had the opportunity to work at Breckenridge Brewery of Denver. He became the head brewer and then spent 12 years as the vice president of brewery operations for Kona Brewing Company in Hawaii.
“My job description was anything that had to do with beer,” Tucciarone said.
While there, Kona’s production went from 1,800 barrels to more than 140,000 barrels.
To illustrate his dedication to quality control, Tucciarone bought a microscope the day after the Mountain Tap lease was signed. It is the tool he needs to monitor yeast.
“Yeast is a living thing,” Tucciarone said. “With brewing, you’re basically making a feast for the yeast.”
The seven-barrel brewing system is scheduled to arrive in April, and Tucciarone plans to be brewing in May. Initially, Mountain Tap will have three 15-barrel fermenters, and there is room for two more. Tucciarone plans to brew about 500 barrels of beer during the first year.
Mountain Tap will fill the true brew pub niche.
With their license, they will be able to serve food, sell wine and have outside beers on tap.
They are currently in the process of hiring a person to oversee the kitchen and the wood-fired oven, which will be used to make pizza.
“For a downtown location, we think it’s really important to do food with beer,” Tucciarone said.
Despite a fifth brewery in Routt County set to open this summer, local brewers think there is enough consumer demand that they can all be successful.
“Consumers demand more flavor, more diversity and more variety in the beer and food,” Tucciarone said. “People like to drink beer when they know the person who is making it.”
Mahogany Ridge's Charlie Noble said the breweries create a network of new attractions for both residents and visitors.
Storm Peak's Wyatt Patterson said it is a win-win for everybody.
"We don't see it as competition at all," Patterson said. "There are going to be four in Steamboat, but they are all different."
Nate Johansing at Butcherknife said the growth of the industry is on every brewers mind.
"For us in Steamboat, we really don't know how it will unfold because so much of our economy is based off of tourism," Johansing said.