By Gregory Daurer | Apr 02, 2023
"We wanted to do this together," says Wayne Burns about the nanobrewery he operates with his wife, Laura Worley. "We generally enjoy our days more if we work together during the day."
Adds Worley, "We're super-passionate people. We're perfectionists."
While a heavily-industrial section of Denver's Valverde neighborhood might seem an unlikely spot to find a comfortable oasis of stellar beers, that's precisely what's on tap -- and being bottled -- at Burns Family Artisan Ales.
Burns and Worley met in Michigan, before eventually marrying in Colorado. He's an award-winning brewer, who brought home medals from the Great American Beer Festival to Kuhnhenn Brewing in Warren for his old ale, pilsner, and Belgian-American style ale, as well as one to Bell's Brewery in Galesburg for his aged stout. Additionally, his American-Style IPA won gold at the World Beer Cup in 2012 while he was still working at Kuhnhenn.
Worley, a discerning chef, developed into a brewer herself after partnering with Burns, in addition to receiving Cicerone certification. As a team, they work together on flavor development, exploring recipe ideas, and critiquing what's out there on the market as well as their own work.
Worley moved to Colorado in 2011 and Burns in 2012, citing Michigan's depressed economy as a factor. Burns first landed a brewing job at the Mountain Sun chain's Vine Street Pub & Brewery before co-founding Jagged Mountain Craft Brewery in Denver. Although Burns remains a co-owner at Jagged Mountain, he's divorced from its operations.
Burns and Worley took over the old Wit's End Brewing Company on W. 2nd Avenue in 2017, spending months getting licensed by the state and feds before opening the site as their own. Although it came with its own equipment, Burns describes the brewhouse itself as challenging and a less-than-ideal set-up for someone coming from his own professional brewing background. Additionally, they had to build their own walk-in cooler to keep the kegs, which run to the tap lines, cool. But the space allowed them to begin brewing "without taking on an absurd amount of debt," says Worley. Today, their seven-barrel brewhouse produces about 300 barrels per year.
Persevering amid challenging circumstances, they had begun building an audience within their taproom when the pandemic hit. Worley says, "We anticipated that we were going to be very taproom-centric, with bottles available for people to take the higher alcohol beer home," as well as uncap there at the brewery itself. Prior to the shutdown, sales had been dramatically increasing "by 30 to 50 percent a month," says Burns.
As a result of COVID-19, they began securing outside accounts. Today, their bottles can be found in 26 Denver-area retail outlets, as well as kegs of theirs at five tap accounts. Furthermore, Worley says they were recently "courted" by a taproom in Portland, Oregon, resulting in their beers being placed in about ten Portland metro area locations, including highly-regarded bottle shop Belmont Station, on a temporary come-what-may basis. "We actually have never lost in terms of sales," says Burns. "Our sales grew even during 2020."
Self-described on the brewery's website as "High-Octane Wayne," Burns built a reputation in the '90s for pioneering beers ranging on average from 10 to 20 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). "We love drinking very rich, sipping-strong beers," he says, as well as "traditional takes" on IPAs and pilsners. A recent beer on tap had them imagining how a lost recipe for a "Pictish" heather ale might have been made at one time in Scotland, through "balancing herbs and spices and flowers that they had," says Burns. And their 500 milliliter bottlings, ranging in price from $20 to $21, have recently included a maple coconut rum barrel-aged imperial stout (12.95 percent ABV) and an old ale (16 percent ABV), as well as a wild/sour beer (6.5 percent ABV) incorporating acorns and goldenrod, which were "handpicked" from "pesticide-free locations in the Front Range," says Worley.
But they're not brewing beer exclusively for their own enjoyment, by any means. "We are a business," affirms Worley, adding how they listen to their customers about their tastes, as well as to friends in the industry about what's working for them. And they don't plan on remaining a bottle-only packager: Burns says they're in discussions about having some of their beers -- like their lower-alcohol pilsner and relatively-lower ABV IPA -- canned at another brewery, as canning is unaffordable and impractical at their own location.
Their stated goal is to provide beer drinkers with an "experience" whenever trying one of their assortment of beers, whether consumed at the brewery or out in the world. One scheduled taproom event: serving German-style Kölsch beer in not only its traditional glassware, but also in the traditional wandering-server manner -- someone who will set down the requested refills to patrons directly from a traditional carrying tray.
"Our beers are a celebration of brewing history, style, invention. and skill in a glass -- and that is what we hold true to," says Worley.
Favorite beers: Burns cites River North Brewery. "They do an awful lot of beers and brewing styles that are parallel to beers that we do," says Burns. "We've done multiple collaboration brews. And we cross-promote, and we do a lot of parallel brewing with them, and they are very great friends and peers."
Verboten Brewing & Barrel Project is another favorite. "They do amazing beer," says Burns.
Challenges: Even though the brewery doesn't buy grain directly from Ukraine, it still feels the effects of the war. "The fact that one of the largest grain-growing areas on Earth is in challenging circumstances impacts the world grain market, which impacts us," says Burns.
Opportunities: "Our goals are obviously to continue to grow, and to grow the number of people who appreciate our beer, and to be a nationally recognized brewery," says Worley of their long-term vision. "We are a brewery that is designed to have a national audience."
Needs: Worley says, "I need to be paying attention, so that other people can pay attention, so that I get their attention, but then I deserve their attention. And being deserving of the people who choose to pay attention to us is a task that we hold with honor."