Business Meets Pleasure as Imbibe Rides Denver's Craft Beer Wave

Party planners do their best to create memorable moments, but few have had the success of Denver's Imbibe Events. The company has quickly emerged as the go-to event organizer for the city's craft breweries.
In 2012, Casey Berry was in a rut. It wasn't your usual work-related doldrums, but a certain boredom settled in around his bar-hopping routine.

"I was getting sick of my friends always wanting to go to the same LoDo bars," he says. He also noticed his network was primarily composed of non-natives. "I wanted to motivate people to do more. I had this feeling that people could do Denver better."

Thus, Imbibe Events (now going by the moniker of Two Parts) -- the city's largest beer event organizer and drink-deal architect -- was born in an attempt to handcraft the social experience of Denver and simultaneously benefit local businesses.

Group-oriented events and packages are intended to encourage new experiences where "there are good things to drink and good people to meet," says Berry.

The lens through which he and his co-founder, PJ Hoberman, look is beverages, as unique brewing techniques, surprising ingredients, innovative products and entrepreneurial celebrities have emerged in the local beer and spirits scenes.

As of earlier this year, according to Fortune magazine, craft beer volume jumped 18 percent year-over-year, and the industry claimed double-digit market share for the first time. Closer to home, Colorado's craft brewers had an estimated $1.15 billion impact on the state's economy last year, based on a report from CU’s Leeds School of Business.

Berry originally masterminded "this Imbibe idea," while contemplating a legal career. "I figured, if I'm going into debt already . . . I'd rather have some business experience and don't have much to lose."

He hosted a beta test, beer-focused bash at Williams & Graham -- which had yet to garner its now nationally acclaimed reputation -- in late 2012, went home for the holidays and returned to Colorado ready to commit to the concept.

Hoberman came into the picture in mid-2013. He made Denver his home after attending Colorado College, studying psychology and helping manage the campus Carnivore Club, drawing a crowd to both member events and external food and fun happenings.

"I graduated in 2006, worked for the school for a year, did the ski bum thing in Vail, and learned to write code as a side project," Hoberman says. Thanks to a chemistry major roommate and therefore a lab full of equipment for the taking, he had begun homebrewing while at CC and continued thereafter, going so far as to craft the idea for a brewery.

Had he gone through with the concept, "That would have been the seventh craft brewery [in Denver]," Hoberman says. There are now more than 50 in Denver and about 300 statewide.

With a few carousing colleagues, Hoberman launched Denver Off the Wagon, a digital magazine dedicated to booze news, after researching to open his own brewery. As the site grew in popularity, he and Berry were "set up on a blind date" by mutual friends in 2012.

"We were just two guys with no experience, but we got along and were going down similar paths," Hoberman says. "We realized we could either be a big challenge to each other or work together and help each other out."

So they decided to hitch Denver Off the Wagon and Imbibe.

A match made in craft beer heavenImbibe has become the go-to organizer for local craft breweries.

Since its start, Imbibe has morphed into an experience-oriented event planning business and ticketing service, with the goal to organize and incentivize the exploration of Denver. Berry says the purpose is to give consumers a new perspective on their place, and add to their list of regular out-on-the-town spots.

Their first event, the inaugural Denver Beer Festivus at The McNichols Building, sold out. They launched ticket sales at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival and had roughly 20 breweries on board almost immediately.

According to Hoberman, beer festival season runs roughly from May through GABF in September, and so there was a perfect hole in the schedule of brewers and drinkers alike.

"This was a first-year event, our first major event, and breweries were like, 'Would you come do our events?'" Berry recalls, describing it as "the perfect, wild storm."

Hoberman notes the combination of the craft beer industry and Colorado's friendly population eliminated concern over potential conflicts of interest. Craft brewers have forged a united front, maintaining that the their market share will grow faster with more cooperation and craft success stories.

And Imbibe has been riding that wave. "Breweries recommend us to other breweries," Berry says. "In our world, we get to sit back and support everybody."

Imbibe -- which has grown to a team of seven and counting -- works with local restaurants, bars, music venues and breweries to come up with original, one-off events. Then, in a la carte fashion, the event team offers its services and coordinates breweries' events. On the marketing front, Imbibe fades into the background to support local beverage businesses' branded events.

In the summer of 2013, the duo launched The Denver Passport. The $10 summer-long discount booklet featured two-for-one drink deals at 56 bars, and was such a hit -- 20,000 punches to validate deals in its first year -- Imbibe has expanded the offering to additional cities in state and out, including Boulder and Fort Collins as well as Brooklyn and DC. A winter version was launched in Denver last year.

A big collaboration

"If I go into the wayback machine, I believe it was through their involvement with the DSTILL event that we started to hear more and more about them," says Jesse Davis, director of PR and communications for Visit Denver.

The city's tourism office was interested in working with an existing event that had a successful track record to bring people in from out of town to create overnights and quickly gravitated to Imbibe. By 2015, Visit Denver opted to partner with the beer bash coordinators and the Colorado Brewers Guild on Collaboration Fest, first held in 2014, and helped facilitate a relationship for the event to move into Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The event proved to be a hit and is coming again in March 2016.

"I think they've tapped into a new kind of event for a very hip, urban audience that didn't exist before," Davis says, noting that the Denver brand plays to a "city focused on the outdoors but really full of urban adventure. I feel the Imbibe events are in line with that."

Today, Imbibe has roughly 20 signature events, including Sesh Fest, The Grand Coffee Bazaar and Denver Beer Festivus, to be held for the fourth time on Dec. 12. In additional they support and partner with another 50 organizations to produce events with partners like Great Divide BrewingBreckenridge Brewery and EatDenver.

"A week after moving to Denver, I went to Festivus," said New Belgium Brewing's former field marketing manager, Justin Patti, of his first Imbibe experience. "I noticed that these guys have one hell of a crowd here. Stuff was buttoned up, they had a screen printing shop set up, the booths were clearly marked and there was a nice aesthetic." He hearkened back to the Tour de Fat, launched in the late 1990s, in reference to brewery's desire to connect with local communities.

Thereafter, in March 2014, Patti put on an event for New Belgium in Denver and used Imbibe's ticketing service, NightOut. From then on, his good experiences grew to using the event gurus for email blasts and other marketing efforts and logistics.

"It was apparent that any call-to-action they put out, their followers were willing to jump on board. Thanks to their quality, consistency and network, these guys are a huge player in town," Patti says.

Though beer festivals are "borderline ubiquitous," according to Nick Nunns, owner of TRVE Brewing in Baker and downstairs neighbors from the Imbibe team, "they provide events that are much more focused, with an angle. They're cohesive concepts. They're the only events coordinators that we really do any events with."

Flea circusThe rise of Imbibe follows the boom of craft brewing in Denver.

As if they weren't busy enough, last May, Imbibe helped launch the Denver Flea, a local maker marketplace.

"PJ and Casey had a permit for an event in City Park last Memorial Day and didn't have a really clear vision of what they wanted to do," says Blake Adams, founder and partner of the Denver Flea. "I asked, 'Why don't we take the flea market concept mixed with beer and music?' With the marketing and everything they do, it sort of brought it all together."

Though Adams hadn't initially envisioned the inclusion of adult beverages playing a primary role in the event, he explains that it fosters a friendly environment. "It's almost inherently more relaxed. There's just something about holding a beer in your hand," he says.

The 2015 Holiday Flea will take place the first and second weekends of December.

"I would never claim that I could have gotten the Denver Flea to where it is without Imbibe," Adams says. "They can be 100 percent trusted to elevate an event."

Generally, Berry works the front end of events, including the marketing, branding, Web and overall event design, while Hoberman uses his beer business background and operations, HR and accounting chops.

What the two have in common: "We're both pretty bad at saying no," Berry says.

He adds the biggest challenge is identifying which opportunities their team has the bandwidth for. "We have to be deliberate with what we grow and what we cut."

Hoberman attributes the organization's success to timing. "Had it been two years later, someone else would have beaten us to it." These days, there are more than 900 beer festivals in the U.S. every year, according to Eventbrite market research from 2013.

The rise of Imbibe follows the boom of craft brewing in Denver, and today, according to Berry, "With the way Denver is expanding, there is still a lot of room to grow."

Hoberman says individuals regularly ask the duo how to start their own companies, or how to get involved in the beer industry.

"My general answer is, 'Just start doing it,'" he says.

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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