It has been said -- often tongue in cheek, of course -- that nothing good has ever come from a business meeting. But in the case of Helden and Liquid Mechanics Brewing Co.'s other co-founders, Eric Briggs (COO) and Seth Townsend (brewer and president), that would be anything but true. It was a typical corporate meeting that planted the seed for Lafayette's fourth craft brewery.
"We were all working in the training department at Sandoz, a generic pharmaceutical company in Broomfield," Helden recounts. "We went to lunch one day after a corporate meeting -- the kind where nobody knows why they're there and the only thing to come out of it is an action item to hold another meeting -- and Eric asked what it would take to start a brewery."
Helden, who had earned an MBA from the University of Colorado a few years earlier, said he'd look into it -- and the rest is history. "It took about a year and a half for us to do market research, finish the business plan, and find funding," he continues. "We quit our corporate jobs at the end of April 2014 and opened the brewery in August of that year."
Since that fateful day, the Liquid Mechanics team has brewed an estimated 200 different beers. The majority of their production -- including five year-round classics like best-sellers Peanut Butter Porter and Hop Nectar -- is sold in their 14-tap tasting room, though they do self-distribute to about 60 liquor stores and 60 bars and restaurants in Colorado. "It's a relatively tiny distribution footprint, but our main focus has and always will be the tasting room," Helden says.
Liquid Mechanics expanded its tasting room (and its brewing area) in 2016 to accommodate additional customers and a canning line from Integrated Packaging Solutions. "On Friday and Saturday nights, people would walk in the front door and not be able to find a place to even stand," Helden says. "So, they'd leave. We added another 900 square feet of tasting room space."
They increased their barrel-aging program by 400 percent as well, and Helden said the beers in many of those new barrels are now nearing maturation. "One is a tequila-barrel aged Imperial Hop Nectar," he adds. "Those are nearing completion and we'll probably end up doing some dry hopping and adding some fruit. Our objective is to make a beer mocktail modeled after a Tequila Sunrise cocktail. We're excited to see how that turns out."
Favorite beers: "If you see me after six at the brewery, there's probably a Kolsch or a Hop Nectar in my hand," Helden said. "They both come in at around 5.3 percent ABV and you can drink more than one. While Hop Nectar is a hazy, juicy IPA, it has a hair more perceived bitterness than some of the other examples of the New England style. The Kolsch has won about a third of the 39 medals on our wall. It's a crisp, clean and refreshing beer that tastes like beer."
Helden's personal refrigerator is often stocked with Odell Brewing Company IPA and Bootstrap Brewing Company Stick's Pale Ale as well as Grimm Brothers Brewhouse Little Red Cap. "I don't get out much because I'm at our brewery almost all the time," he adds, "but when I do, I've always enjoyed my experience at 4 Noses Brewing in Broomfield and Wiley Roots up in Greeley. From the service to the feel of the tasting room and the beers they have on tap, I think both of those breweries are really doing a great job."
Challenges: Helden says that remaining relevant in an oversaturated market is one of Liquid Mechanics' biggest challenges. "I think that's the most difficult thing for any brewery that is open in Colorado right now," he continues. "When I wrote our business plan, there were only two breweries and 27,000 people in town. By the time we opened, we were brewery number four. Now there are six, and the town has only grown by 1,000 people."
To maintain their place in the market, Helden says that the brewery has to "work harder to be the first choice, both on liquor store shelves and in our tasting room." He also notes that Liquid Mechanics can't be afraid to dump beers. "You cannot put a beer on tap that isn't stellar," he adds. "Trying to brew such a large variety of styles means that sometimes beers don't turn out the way we need them to and they get dumped down the drain."
Opportunities: Hiring additional team members to facilitate a future increase in production is the brewery's biggest opportunity according to Helden. Liquid Mechanics brewed 1,694 barrels on their 10-barrel brewhouse built by Canada's Diversified Metal Engineering in 2017, but the company is only on track to produce 1,900 this year despite doubling their fermentation capacity.
"On paper, we should be able to brew between 2,400 and 2,500 barrels," Helden explains. "But the reason we're not there yet isn't because of a lack of effort. It's due to labor hours. We're super slow to hire because we want to make sure we get the best people on the team. That can be difficult because of where we are at in our growth phase. Every person that we hire on now is going to play a large part in how we succeed in the future. It takes a lot more time and effort to find the people who can help us do that."
Helden anticipates brewing around 2,400 barrels in 2019. He also sees the possibility of an additional Colorado-area tasting room in the brewery's future.
Needs: "Sloped brewery floors," Helden says with a chuckle. "We don't have them due to cost back in 2014, but my arms and squeegee have since become best friends and it's absolutely horrible. We spend an hour squeegeeing at the end of the day when we could be doing something else."
He's also looking at the purchase of additional lab equipment to enable Liquid Mechanics to do its own PCR testing onsite. "Our buddies at Odd13 Brewing have been doing it for us, but it's a pain in the butt for them to run our samples and a pain in the butt for us to bring those samples over," Helden says. "PCR machines aren't cheap, but I hope one will be in our cards in the near future."