Glenwood Springs, Colorado
While studying chemistry at University of Colorado Colorado Springs, Casey landed a job at Bristol Brewing Company "paying $8 an hour in beer," he remembers.
He soon was making real money at a bigger brewery. "When I was 20, I was a tour guide at Coors," says Casey. He got to know the brewers and found he could apply chemistry to brewing, and decided to make it his career after his 2006 graduation.
He continued his education for two years at University of California, Davis, and immediately went to work for the MillerCoors pilot brewery that became AC Golden Brewing Company upon graduating in 2008.
His job description consisted of "testing new malt varieties and hop varieties for core brands like Coors Light" and open-ended experimentation. "It was great," says Casey. "They basically let us do whatever we wanted. That work quickly transitioned into sour beers. That's where my passion lies."
After four years at AC Golden, Casey was ready for a change. "Around 2012 or so, I started seeing the writing on the wall that there wasn't much growth potential for what I wanted to do there," he says. "As with most big companies, it was very political. I wasn't political. I just wanted to make good beer."
His wife had a career opportunity opening the Whole Foods in Basalt and Casey, a Littleton native, decided to open a unique brewery in the Roaring Fork Valley. "We fell in love with this valley and decided to make a go of it here," says Casey.
At Casey Brewing & Blending, he brews at a partner brewery and subsequently transfers and ferments the wort in vintage oak barrels at his facility on the south side of Glenwood Springs. He uses cultures of saccharomyces, brettanomyces, and lactobacillus to create unique flavors, augmented by blending multiple barrels and conditioning the final product in bottles
"We are one of the few breweries that do 100 percent oak-barrel fermentation and aging," says Casey. "That's a big point of differentiation. Most people do this on the side."
A strain of tradition runs through everything Casey Brewing & Blending does. "We're very old world," says Casey. "We don't have a forklift. We don't have a loading dock. We don't have glycol."
Casey uses a lot of seasonal fruit grown in Palisade and the North Fork Valley, and buys cherries, peaches, plums, grapes, and cherries straight from the source. "We work directly with small farmers," he says. "More than half of our production has all Colorado ingredients, including whole Colorado fruit."
A farmhouse ale that's emerged as a staple for the small-batch brewery, Cherry Fruit Stand uses sweet and sour cherries grown in Paonia and Hotchkiss. "We think about cherries the same way wineries look at grapes," says Casey.
After aging, most beers are bottle-conditioned for a month or more. "We don't rush anything," says Casey. "Every batch is different," he adds. "It's like wine."
It's also like a winery in that the place is full of oak barrels. Casey has 200 now, up from 60 when he started.
A 22-ounce bottle typically retails for $18 to $40 or more, but the brewery's growth curve shows that there's an appetite for such ultra-premium beers. "Every month is better and better," says Casey.
The reaction has exceeded Casey's expectations. One especially proud moment when Glenwood Springs barbecue restaurant Smoke replaced its Guinness tap handle with one of Casey's sour beers.
He initially offered monthly tours, but the crowds overwhelmed capacity and staff: which was just Casey. "It just got to the point where it was unsustainable," he says. "Parking became an issue and our neighbors started to complain."
So he switched to a more regular schedule of ticketed tours that include three tastings and started selling out several every week. "We offer a lot of vintage beers here you can't get anywhere else," he says.
The company self-distributes in the Roaring Fork Valley as well as select accounts in Summit and Eagle counties and on the Front Range. Regardless of demand, the long-term plan doesn't involve growing beyond the Colorado market. "We're happy where we are," says Casey. "We have the time to work with small, local producers. We're able to spend more time with each beer."
Favorite beers: In-house, Casey likes Funky Blender, a saison with the brewery's farmhouse culture plus a mix of other yeast and bacteria. "We're getting some flavors from it I'm really excited about," he says.
Beyond his own barrels, he adds, "Comrade Brewing is my go-to whenever I'm in Denver. Their IPAs are top-notch."
Challenges: "Being so far from the Front Range," says Casey. Many of the tours are full of metro Denver residents, so bad weather can result in cancellations and diminished direct sales.
Opportunities: "We're happy with what we are doing right now, but we're always trying to improve on it," says Casey. "We're always trying to make our beers better."
Needs: Locally grown fruit. "Raspberries are hard to find in Colorado," says Casey, noting the brewery recently found a grower. "They planted 1,000 raspberries for us," he says. "We paid them up front. That shows our commitment to local farmers. We told the farmer, 'We're in this with you. There are rewards for both of us.'"