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Denver Breweries Get Craftier Together

Sleeping Giant, Grandma's House and Factotum help other brewers make beer.

Collaboration Fest invites brewers to come together and make innovative brews.

The fledgling event is sold out for the second year in a row, despite graduating to the larger platform of Sports Authority Field at Mile High for 2015.

Grandma's House is taking collaboration to a whole new level.

A collaborative brew day at Caution Brewing.

Denver's tale of success is increasingly told through collaborations among businesses, a kind of "help me out and I'll help you" philosophy that mashes together diverse interests. That holds especially true of the city's breweries, as evidenced through the sold-out Collaboration Fest.
Collaboration Fest, now in its second year, invites brewers from across Colorado and the U.S. to come together and make innovative, small-batch brews. It's just one of the ways Denver's brewers are working together to create new brews and help each other grow.

At least three Denver companies, Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, Grandma's House Brewing and Factotum Brewhouse, are working with other brewers to help them get their beers in front of customers searching for the next great craft beer.

While other states like Arizona have a craft beer week where they can invite brewing talent from all over the world, the level of brewing in Colorado is much higher. "With the experience level of Colorado brewers, it's a ridiculous space for many of those outside breweries to compete in," says says PJ Hoberman, owner of fest organizer Imbibe Events. The solution? Out-of-state breweries "can come in, but they have to collaborate with in-state breweries."

The fledgling event is sold out for the second year in a row, despite graduating to the larger platform of Sports Authority Field at Mile High for 2015. "This year, Visit Denver saw the potential," Hoberman says. "Now the event is twice the size of last year, twice the tickets and has more than twice the breweries are involved."

Of last year, Hoberman says, "The beer was ridiculous. Some of it was really, really good. Some of it was super weird, but it was really fun."

There will be upwards of 130 breweries are participating in 2015, fermenting about 75 different projects. While the majority of breweries are concentrated in Denver, Hoberman estimates about 50 Colorado breweries are participating, others including Durango's Ska Brewing and a host of Fort Collins and Boulder breweries.

The event also is attracting some high-profile out-of-state names. California's The Bruery collaborated with Denver's Trve Brewing and Ska on some as yet unnamed brews and Stone Brewing also partnered with Ska to make Mighty Mighty Bastogne (a Triple Tripel or Hoppy Belgian Tripel). Ska also partnered with Reel Big Fish and Wynkoop Brewing in LoDo to make Reel Big Stout (an oak-aged imperial stout). Florida's Cigar City Brewing partnered with Stapleton's Station 26 to make White IPA from wheat, oats and orange peel, with six types of hops.

The collaborative brew days can be something like a community barn-raising. During one such session at Caution Brewing, owner Danny Wang says the team came together via Facebook and Twitter on Super Bowl Sunday.

"We've got seven breweries involved right now, and everyone brought some beers," Wang says. "It's not every day that you see competitors in one industry getting together just for fun." This session included Dry Dock Brewing, Elk Mountain Brewing and Night Hawk Brewery, as well as others, all of whom came together to make an American-style blond ale.

It's not your classic American ale, however. "We're going to put 40 pounds of pureed pumpkin in the mash for color, to get some sugar out of it and to get some of the squash flavor out of it," explains Caution Head Brewer Scott Petrovits. "It's mostly a traditional blond with a little bit of darker malts to give it more body and we want it to taste a little like peach cobbler."

Collective brewing takes root in DenverGrandma's House is taking collaboration to a whole new level.

But there's a lot more collaboration going on among brewers in Denver and Colorado than just Collaboration Fest. Two new breweries, Factotum Brewhouse and Grandma's House, are taking collaboration to a whole new level. Factotum is working with homebrewers to help them move into the next level. It will help them brew a beer with them -- even if they're not experienced -- and offers a brewing session (currently for just under $400, including discounts on ingredients and more) to help them bring their beer to fruition.

Meanwhile Grandma's House is working with more experienced brewers and putting their beers on its taps. "We have a Belgian dark strong which we did in collaboration with Broken Spine Brewing," says Grandma's House Brewmaster Matthew Fuerst, who launched the collaborative brewery with his brother, Ben. "That was a collaboration in the truest sense. We worked on that together." The taproom also regularly pours beers from Two Creeks Brewing and Tiny Ass Brewery.

"I'm working pretty much with people who are very experienced homebrewers," Fuerst says. "They know the ins and outs of brewing science and they're pretty capable of working with software to scale up the recipes. I'm there to help and make sure everything goes well." After all, the plan is to put their beer on Grandma's taps.

"I felt that there was a market for an intermediary step between brewing on an amateur level and going all in in a very capital-intensive business," Fuerst explains. "We're providing that opportunity to get some experience in brewing on larger scales and figuring all that out."

Currently the breweries that have worked with Grandma's -- a.k.a. Grandkids -- don't have their own taprooms or brewhouses. "Every beer we have on tap is made in our facility," Fuerst says. "They are in the planning stages of trying to take the next step. Some of them are further along than others in looking for locations."

Getting their beers flowing from Grandma's taps give the brewers an important opportunity -- getting their brews in front of an impartial audience. "I know when I started homebrewing, all the friends tell you your beer is great and you wonder whether it really is or whether they're just blowing smoke up your behind," Fuerst says. "It's a good way to get some feedback from the general public who doesn't have any reason to tell you your beer is good when it isn't."

Don't let the coziness of Grandma's taproom fool you either. Behind the crocheted signs and bric-a-brac littered shelves is space enough for plenty of brewing, which Fuerst hopes to put to more use. The brewery is only about five months old, he says, but already restaurants and bars want his suds.

"We're not quite there where we're pinched yet," he asserts. "But I didn't lease this building to have the amount of equipment I have now. I would be surprised if we don't have additional tanks by the end of the year." Before he can meet outside demand, however, he's got to make sure he meets demand there. "You definitely don't want to run out of beer in your own taproom. Now that we've got a handle on supply and demand selling to outside customers will happen soon."

More brewing space will also mean more collaborations. Fuerst already has new breweries coming onto his taps. "We've got some new small batch stuff from Tiny Ass Brewery, a brown ale and an espresso brown ale, that will probably be going in in a day or two and we've got another pilsner from Two Creeks we'll be brewing here in a couple of weeks," he explains. The company also is working with local sake brewer Gaijin 24886, to craft a beer with their influences. "My goal is to have a beer from each brewery on regularly. We'll have a handful of our beers and then one each of the guest breweries' stuff on all the time."

Contract brewing helps breweries growSleeping Giant, Grandma's House and Factotum help other brewers make beer.

As breweries get bigger, their needs for capacity get bigger, too. That's part of the philosophy behind Sleeping Giant, the first contract brewery west of the Mississippi, which began brewing for its customers in late January 2015.

Sleeping Giant President Matthew Osterman formerly worked with New Planet Brewing, a Boulder-based contract brewery that specializes in gluten-free beers. That company was looking for a dedicated contract brewery -- the type that used to make Sam Adams, for instance. "But unfortunately there just weren't any good options," he says. "All the existing contract brewing companies were either too far away or too big with respect to he brew size. They required 500-barrel or 1,000-barrel batches. There were just a myriad of issues, poor quality, poor customer service -- the list goes on," he explains.

Osterman aims to correct these issues with the Sleeping Giant model. "We're bringing a craft piece back to contract brewing where as before it was kind of a more of a factory setting," he says. "We want to be proud of what we're making and we want people to be proud of what they are brewing with us."

He's also right-sized the production. "We have a 50-barrel brewhouse, but we have a mash filter press that allows us to brew at the level of a 125-barrel system."

Sleeping Giant started brewing in early 201 and already the company has contracts to brew 25,000 to 30,000 barrels of beer in 2015. "We know our 2016 production," Osterman says. "We'll do about 60,000 barrels in 2016 because of the tanks we'll order. From there it will be dictated by demand. Hopefully we'll top out this facility at 175,000 to 200,000 barrels annually."

Sleeping Giant is already brewing for companies as far away as Virginia and California. Though Osterman can't disclose all of Sleeping Giant's customers, he mentions that the company brews for Los Angeles-based House Beer. "Locally we're brewing for Dad & Dude's Breweria in Aurora and Backcountry Brewery out of Frisco." In all, the company is brewing for about 15 companies already.

Contract brewing offers something different. For companies that might not want to brew for themselves, it can brew all their beers. "We do not have our own brands," Osterman explains. "We do not plan on having our own brands. The closest thing that would come to that is basically having some catalog beers that a restaurant or bar can co-opt for private label. But you're not going to see a Sleeping Giant brand on the shelves."

That's important to Sleeping Giant customers because "we're not competing with them in the brewery," Osterman says. "So when we're brewing a Denver beer, that's our sole focus at the time." If a brewery is contracting to make beers for other breweries, those customers can get pushed aside if there's a bottleneck..

"It begins and ends with quality," Osterman says. Sleeping Giant uses extensive testing to make sure its beers meet its clients' requirements, he says. "We warranty the beer will be to spec on every quantifiable beer specification, color, the measure in SRM [standard reference method], hoppiness measured in IBU, alcohol percentage -- all these different pieces you can actually measure."

Sleeping Giant can also provide a stopgap for craft breweries that want to expand. "If they're out of capacity or trying to get in different packaging, they're looking at a large outlay to either grow or buy a canning or bottling line," Osterman says. "With us, they can continue to manage their capital costs, continue to spend their money on sales, marketing, distribution, and not have that big capital outlay while at the same time increasing their volume and their SKUs into bottles if they're only in cans."

Osterman envisions helping a local brewery go from producing about 1,000 barrels of beer annually to up 5,000 barrels with Sleeping Giant. "It's kind of a partnership from a collaboration standpoint. We're looking for people that want to grow with us and people we can grow with."

Still, don't expect to see any of the beers that come out of Collaboration Fest on retail shelves anytime soon. It's more of an experimental event and a chance to share tips.

"The industry has always been pretty pro-collaboration," Caution's Petrovits says. "We all make each other better. Seeing what other people do in the brewhouse, what other people are doing procedurally really helps everyone improve their craft and improve their technique."

"I think it's just fostering the existing sense of camaraderie and that really helps," he adds, smiling "Plus, we get to work with a lot of brewers that we don't usually get to."

Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
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