When Carter and co-owner Bill Eye began planning their brewing venture, their vision was clear. "We knew we only wanted to make lager," says Carter. "And we knew we wanted to get an antique brewhouse. Those things were known from the inception of our idea back in 2014."
Inspired by the beers they'd enjoyed while touring Germany, Carter and Eye were driven to provide consumers with fresh examples on draft in a space designed for connection and celebration. They settled on their current location in Denver's RiNo Art District after raising money to secure an SBA loan.
Partnering with Chris Rippe's The Rackhouse enabled the pair to open as a brewpub with more flexible licensing that allowed them to serve food, beer, and cider in the 20,000-square foot-space. "We have the capacity to brew about 2,200 barrels or so of beer a year," Carter says, "and the idea was to sell the majority of it onsite."
Bierstadt Lagerhaus was well on its way to that number in 2019, when Carter brewed 1,870 barrels. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The brewpub was forced to reduce staff from 39 to three and shift its focus to canning.
"Prior to the pandemic, most of our sales were in our tasting room," Carter explains. "We had crowlers to go and would fill people's growlers. We also had about 30 draft partners. But we had to start canning because of COVID. We're set up with a large brewhouse and large fermenters that are meant to make a lot of beer at a time. If we wanted to continue to sell fresh beer, canning was necessary."
Though the ongoing shortage of aluminum cans made sourcing supplies stressful at times, packaging Slow Pour Pilsner, Helles, and Dunkel enabled the brewpub to maintain some of their previous volume. "We did about 1,550 barrels last year," she says, "so we were only down by about 300. That's not too bad considering we had to completely close down at the beginning of the pandemic and usually serve most of our beer onsite."
Carter is hopeful that 2021 will be a better year. "We may be able to rearrange our SBA loan so that we can borrow more money to expand," she says. "The only way to make money canning is to do more of it, so we're going to have to expand production and buy our own canning line to give us more flexibility instead of using a mobile canning service. I think that will help us to be able to grow again."
In the meantime, she's focused on continuing to brew the top-notch lagers Bierstadt Lagerhaus is known for. "We're more process-oriented than recipe-oriented," Carter says. "I generally only use three different kinds of malt, two hops, and one yeast. But sometimes we allow ourselves to do a bit more. Like last May, when many breweries were doing Maibock, I made a corn lager using 40 percent heirloom Oaxacan corn instead."
She also has a few collaboration brews in the works. "We're releasing one near the end of February that is a Czech dark lager brewed with our friends at Bagby Beer from California," Carter says. "It's actually the first collab that we've made twice because it sold so well the first time. We're putting it in cans, and it's going to be awesome."
Carter recently brewed a collaboration with Phil Joyce of Amalgam Brewing as well. "Phil usually focuses on sours and barrel-aged beers," she notes, "but he wanted to make something clean. We had some cool German and New Zealand hops and some Czech yeast, and we think it will be an interesting exploration of lager."
Challenges: "Just making it through COVID is our biggest challenge," Carter says. "We put together a place that is heavily oriented on people coming in here, and we have capacity for 500 inside. During the slowest season for everyone else, we're usually pretty busy because we host so many parties. We can't do that right now, so it's definitely a challenge."
Opportunities: "We're going to be brewing double batches of beers we used to make in single batches so we can sell more cans to liquor stores," Carter says. "The pandemic is also helping to change the hospitality industry in ways that have been needed for a long time. We've altered our tipping structure so the front and back of the house share tips and can both earn a living wage."
Needs: "Consumers need to support the places they believe are worth supporting, whether by drinking there or buying beer to go," Carter says. "That's going to be really important. Customers don't always understand how dire things have been."