By Gregory Daurer | Oct 02, 2016
On a recent trade mission to Japan with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Berger (acting as a beer ambassador of sorts) was struck by how curious the Japanese were about Denver and what makes it a great beer city. Berger catalogues his own perceptions of Denver: "Laid-back. High-quality products. Casual, but very exploratory." (Japan is now Denver Beer Co.'s sole market outside the state.)
However, before opening for business, Berger, 33, a former brewer at the Wynkoop Brewing Company, wasn't initially sold on the brewery's eventual name. Berger's longtime friend and co-founder of the brewery, Patrick Crawford (a former rocket scientist and Lockheed Martin employee), 34, convinced him that they should adopt it. Maybe the name's just too generic, Berger thought, as they were trying to decide.
That impression didn't last long.
Berger, radiating a calm demeanor mixed together with palpable enthusiasm, says, "But then you realize all the personality Denver has -- and you quickly realize that capitalizing on all of that is really special." After all, he points out, if New York can have a Brooklyn Brewery, why can't Colorado have a Denver Beer Co.?
Berger says that when he and Crawford opened their brewery on Platte Street in central Denver in 2011, "We were doing everything: making the beer, bartending, mopping the floors, scraping the gum off the bottom of the tables, and doing all the books and the back of the house stuff, too. As the years have gone by, we've been able to backfill almost all of those positions with people who are better at doing all those things than we are."
The company now employs more than 30 people. Berger says, "Every brewery in the state makes beer. But what we really think we have is a brand and a team. And that's what Patrick and I have been working really hard to grow."
One of those team members is Head Brewer Jason Buehler, formerly with Oskar Blues, who was hired in 2015. Berger says, "He flexes his creative muscle and brews beer with off-the-wall ingredients, and does great, standard beers, too." Buehler's work has included developing the brewery's Blood Orange Tandem Pedal Double IPA, in addition to, Berger says, putting his stamp on the brewery's mainstays, as well as seasonals like a raspberry Kölsch. Berger calls the latter "one of the premiere, summertime, crushable fruit beers in the city, for sure."
Berger pops open a can of Summit Sunrise, the brewery's red rye IPA winter seasonal, canned the day before. It won a gold medal at the 2016 World Beer Cup in the Double Red Ale category. Berger notes the beer's "citrusy hops," saying, "I think those play really well with the spice from the rye malt. I mean, this is the kind of beer that I want to drink all the time. I wish it wasn't a seasonal." (While some breweries add food pairing advice on their labels, cans of Summit Sunrise offer this suggestion: "pairs with rambling and fresh air.")
Next, Berger offers a preview of the brewery's new product, which will be released the following week in cans: an amber lager called Pretzel Assassin. Berger says, "It's the first lager we've ever packaged." The beer's "crisp lager, caramel body" leads Berger to declare, "We think [the name's] appropriate, because we think that a lot of pretzels might be harmed in the consuming of this beer."
Graham Cracker Porter is the brewery's flagship beer, which it's been "brewing since Day One." The beer won a medal at the 2011 GABF, just after the brewery opened. Berger says, "It's dark in color, which throws some people off, sometimes; but to be honest it's really light in body. So I like to tell people to drink it with their mouth and not with their eye . . . rich chocolate, biscuit, and toast are the flavors that, I think, are in the backbone. It's got just a hint of creaminess. . . . And although we don't use graham crackers in brewing it anymore, I think that it tastes exactly like that."
Since opening the Platte Street location, the business established a larger production and canning facility (dubbed "Canworks") in northwest Denver in 2014. This year, the brewery expects to produce 9,000 barrels, between the two locations. "And that feels like a ton of beer," says Berger. The brewery also plans on opening a taproom in Olde Town Arvada in February 2017.
Returning to the company's origins, Berger says, "I think Denver Beer Co. was perfect timing, in 2011, to be able to get a little bit of the spotlight without having to share it a hundred ways. I think it was Renegade, us, and Copper Kettle that opened that summer."
Berger acknowledges his brewery's predecessors in Colorado: "Certainly we're all still standing on the shoulders of the Great Divide, Avery, Odell, and Breckenridges. . . . Those guys did it first. That was a really great, first wave. They paved the way."
And the brewery's happy to extend assistance to newcomers, Berger says, "We now get asked a lot of questions by a lot of new breweries. We've grown enough, we're established enough, to be able to help a lot of them, too. If they ever want, we're an open door. Come on in! See how we run our canning machine. Come on by."
It's that spirit of collaboration that's led the brewery to start an annual event, which takes place this year on Fri. Oct. 7, while the Great American Beer Festival is underway in Denver. "Probably our favorite event that we do every year is our Collaboration Celebration," says Berger. "We brew collaboration beers -- both at our place and at other breweries. . . . We'll have a lot of the brewers and the folks representing those breweries at our place, pouring those beers."
Berger says the event is representative of Denver's "good weather, good beer, good people." And it's a chance for the brewery to spotlight its Platte Street pub and brewery to out-of-state visitors. "We're not Lower Downtown. We're also not Lower Highlands. . . . We're kind of our own thing," Berger says of the locale. "I think it's the best location for a brewery in Denver."
That day, a just-tapped beer at the brewery was its Neighborhood Hop Swap, a beer brewed annually using hops grown in Denver.
Before the brewery had even opened, Crawford and Berger set up a folding table and began distributing hop plants to neighborhood locals and future customers, encouraging them to bring in the resulting harvested hop cones. Crawford and Berger then brewed an ale using those hops. "We've probably given away 1,500 hop plants," Berger says.
Berger enthusiastically adds, "We brew a batch of beer that has the terroir of Denver -- and it's awesome!"
Favorite beers: Berger highlights a recent IPA he drank at High Alpine Brewing Company in Gunnison, Colorado. "It hit the spot. Maybe it was who I was there with or their patio or their ambiance. But everything that they were doing made me feel good. And, for me, beer is as much about kind of where you are and when you're there as anything. I love the nuances of great beer -- but drinking them with great friends, to me, it adds to them an element that no brewer can put into their beer."
Another: "I can't remember what they named it, but it was a barrel-aged sour from Call to Arms Brewing Company made with Brett and a little bit of [Pediococcus] in a Cabernet barrel. And it was oaky with a little bit of that tart-sour without being punch-you-in-the-face acidic."
They served what with his beer?: "Epic did a Mexican lager I enjoyed. . . . The place that I enjoyed it at actually served it with a small wedge of lime, which is not my style, normally -- but, to be honest, I appreciated."
Challenges: "There are a lot of changes coming down the pike to the Colorado liquor law, with the House bill passing a couple months ago," says Berger. "I think that's going to affect, big time, the access to market for small breweries like us. With that said, I hope we've achieved a scale that will allow us to weather that storm. I think it will be difficult for a lot of other breweries to do, but I think we'll hopefully be positioned to do it."
Opportunities: Berger highlights several: "Right now, we're really focused on the Arvada taproom; expanding our distribution of our packaged beers in this state; and improving the quality of our equipment and our team and our product, every day, out of this production facility. That means more QC, QA stuff; better equipment that's capable of putting beer in a package at lower total package oxygen. Just a better product . . . different, fun innovative beer stuff, beer styles. Cool more efficient processes that keep the business afloat. I think those are the more concrete ones."
Needs: "Patrick and I are young and ambitious," says Berger. "So, we have about ten things that we'd love to do – and do quickly. Maybe what we need is patience. To do it all is possibly a little too ambitious. But the resources to do it, we can put together. The team to do it, I think we have. This is such a fun industry, and it's growing gangbusters, and we want to grow gangbusters, too. But to be honest, somehow, some way, we have to weigh every opportunity and choose the highest and best. And not just spread ourselves too thin."