By Eric Peterson | Mar 03, 2018
A native of Austin, Texas, Engel never wavered from his chosen career. "I've been a brewer my entire professional career," he says.
He fell in love with Colorado on a rafting trip when he was 14. While attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, he started working at Ska Brewing in 2006.
He continued at Ska after graduating later that year, ascending to lead brewer, then worked for Oskar Blues for about a year before Aspen Brewing Company recruited him to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2011. "I got an offer to be the head brewer at Aspen Brewing," says Engel. He says he couldn't refuse. "I really missed the mountains."
But it wasn't long before he decided to start his own craft brewery, and he saw the Roaring Fork Valley as lacking in breweries at the time. "I saw an opportunity. It's always been my goal to open a brewery in Colorado."
"When we started, my big focus was on this valley," says Engel. "I wanted to see our beer on tap at every bar and I wanted to sell our beer through every liquor store. The reality is that we're a valley with 40,000 people."
After self-distributing for 18 months, Roaring Fork signed with Ska and Tivoli in 2017 in order to access the broader market. "Now we're available statewide," says Engel.
That's not the only pivot. "When we first started, I wanted to brew one big flagship and have the rest of the beers be seasonal," says Engel. "The reality is the beer culture around here was not as evolved as the Front Range."
So the brewery went from the envisioned flagship of Freestone Extra Pale Ale to six year-round cans. Engel later cut that number to four -- Freestone along with Flip IPA, Slaughterhouse Lager, and Hoppa Road Imperial IPA -- along with the local-only AMF Amber (named for an expert run at Snowmass). "As you can tell, we're focused on hoppy beers," he says.
Flip and Freestone are the top sellers and together account for about half of total sales. "There are always going to be one or two beers that drive everything and allow you to go experiment," says Engel. "Our big focus this year is to figure out that formula with our lineup. When we opened, it was like throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks. We're trying to take a more methodical approach."
With production on Carbondale's industrial fringe, the brewery opened a new, 1,800-square-foot taproom in a former antique store on Main Street in 2017 and went from four taps to 23. That allows for more experimentation. In February, the brewery released seven new beers, says Engel, and seasonals include an imperial IPA aged in a tequila barrel and a barleywine.
It also allows for more foot traffic and later hours. "Overall, it's been a great move for us," says Engel, noting that his wife, Aly Sanguily, runs the taproom. "It was crazy because we were launching statewide distribution at the same time."
Production grew about 50 percent and hit 2,000 barrels in the brewery's third year in operation in 2016-17. Engel is forecasting 2,500 for year four in 2017-18 and 3,000 in 2018-19. "That's really our goal to be at 3,000 barrels," says Engel, citing a capacity of 3,500 barrels at the current facility. "I don't think there's much room for big regional brewers anymore."
Favorite beers: "My go-to is always going to be Hoppa Road, our imperial IPA," says Engel. "I drink a lot of that beer. I'm definitely a hop head." He describes it as a New England-inspired IPA that's "really juicy, [with] soft bitterness," adding, "For me, it's easy to drink. At 8 percent [ABV], it's a little dangerous."
Beyond Roaring Fork's taps, his favorite Colorado brewery is Odell. "Everything they do, they do it very well," says Engel. "We don't ever want to be as big as they are, but their quality is something we strive for."
Another local favorite: "I drink a lot of Telluride Brewing's beer. I like what they are doing."
Challenges: "The biggest challenge is the amount of breweries that are opening and how crowded the marketplace is getting," says Engel. "How do you stand out? How do you compete? How do you drive interest towards your beer? How to you get someone to choose you and continue to choose you?"
Despite the ever-growing number of breweries in Colorado, however, "I don't see a bubble necessarily, because 85 percent of people are still drinking macro-beers," he adds.
Opportunities: In-state growth. "We want to keep it inside the state," says Engel. "We just hired a salesperson for the Front Range."
Now that the taproom is open and the distribution strategy is set, Roaring Fork can focus on sales and marketing. "Our biggest opportunity is to grow into the distribution we recently started," he says.
Slaughterhouse Lager is another potential sales driver. "I see [lagers] as an area of growth for the whole craft beer industry," says Engel.
Needs: "We need money," says Engel. "We've bootstrapped it."