Wynkoop Brewing Company

By Gregory Daurer | May 09, 2016

Company Details


Denver, Colorado



Ownership Type






Lead Brewer and "Barrel Troll" Bess Dougherty produces fresh, experimental beers, while maintaining a well-established brand portfolio.

In addition to tackling Wynkoop staples like Rail Yard amber ale and Patty's Chile Beer, Dougherty is expanding her company's offerings. She says, "I really want to focus on barrel-aged beers, because that's what the 'beer nerds' are going for these days: sour beers; barrel-aged beers; the hoppier, the better. So I want to produce really good quality [examples] of all of those 'nerd styles,' if you will, and just prove, Wynkoop, we're not an old dog: We can still make cool, exciting beers."

As far as the modern microbrewery movement in Colorado is concerned, it doesn't go back much further than the Wynkoop Brewing Company, co-established by current Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper at the tail end of the '80s as Colorado's first brewpub. (Hickenlooper divested his share of the company before seeking the governorship.)

Dougherty, 30, was hired as the Wynkoop's first female brewer in 2012. She's been the lead brewer for the past year and a half. Dougherty recognizes she's part of a lineage, which dates back to the late Wynkoop co-founder and first brewer Russell Schehrer. "I think of it as a badge of honor," Dougherty says. "The people that have gone on from this place have gone on to do amazing things."

She credits former lead brewer Andy Brown (now at C Squared Ciders) with giving her practical, syllabus-matching experience when she interned at Wynkoop while studying zymurgy online, working for Total Beverage in her hometown of Westminster, and writing columns for Denver Off the Wagon.

And Dougherty lets out a chuckle when describing the gubernatorial officeholder she knows as "Hick": "He's a pretty alright dude."

Governor Hickenlooper introduced her to an even higher-ranking official: President Barack Obama, who dropped by the Wynkoop to play pool with Hickenlooper and quaff a brew in 2014. Dougherty recalls practically pinching herself: "Okay, this is surreal: The governor of our state, the founder of the brewery I work in, wants to introduce me to the president. Cool! Awesome!"

Dougherty briefly discussed with Obama her brewing history as well as the White House homebrew system, while the president drank a pint of one of her batches of Rail Yard Ale.

"I would say my style is a little bit eclectic," Dougherty says of her approach to brewing. "I'm known for doing weird things with beer."

She started homebrewing at age 21. Before going pro, she made a hibiscus saison and a pumpkin chocolate stout. Sometimes Dougherty does "silly" stuff like adding non-water soluble edible glitter in order to serve friends "sparkle beer." She explains, "If we're not having fun, what's the point?"

But Dougherty takes her barrel-aged beers seriously. "Recipe development's one of my favorite things about brewing," she says. Dougherty pours an imperial rye stout (Rye-Teo, Old Chap), clocking in at 8.5 percent ABV, that was made with three different kinds of rye, and then blended together after aging in Laws Whiskey House Secale rye whiskey barrels. She points out the scents vanilla and oakiness, the chocolatey flavor, and the "dry finish for as high in alcohol as the beer is."

Another impressive beer on tap: a rich barleywine (Sleggehammeren) made with a California ale yeast, instead of a traditional British strain, and citrusy Eldorado hops. This one was aged on oak spirals, rather than in the barrel. Dougherty describes it as a hybrid of old and new styles "and not as hoppped as American barleywines typically are."

Call Dougherty a "yeast whisperer." She been known to hug the brewing equipment during fermentation. The restaurant manager once heard Dougherty cooing over a box of yeast, and excitedly asked, "Do you have a kitten in there?!" For different styles of beer that she's brewing, Dougherty puts on Pandora stations that sound the "most appropriate for that yeast strain and that particular beer."

Explains Dougherty: "You have to sing to your yeast and give them a pep talk, because they are living creatures and you are counting on them to do all the hard work in making beer."

Favorite beers: Dougherty cites one of her local neighborhood breweries: "Cerebral Brewing," she says. "They came right out of the gate making awesome beers, no off flavors."

The nation that fueled her desire to create beer: "Belgium, in general -- all of their breweries. It was actually a brewery tour of Belgium that lit the fire under me to do this for a living. I'd thought about it kind of, here and there, but after that trip it was all about passion and doing what you love. The day I got back from that trip I enrolled in the Siebel Institute. It's like, 'I'm doing it! That's all there is to it!' Belgium, as a country of brewing, will always have a special place in my heart."

Challenges: As a member of the Pink Boots Society, Dougherty cites gender issues: "For me personally, being a female in the industry can be a challenge: getting talked down to [by men] questioning your knowledge constantly, [getting] groped at festivals, it sucks," she says. "I want to make it better for the next generation of females coming in."

And, as always, there's consistency and scheduling in the brewhouse (now capable of producing 8,000 barrels per year, with canning on premises) to consider: "Putting out good, consistent, quality beer: The world kind of fights you on that. But I think that's the same case for many breweries: The littlest thing could go wrong and totally mess up a batch. That's just a constant challenge." She adds, "Juggling twelve different year-round brands, as far as scheduling and fermentation space: That's a fun challenge! I call it Brewery Tetris."

Opportunities: Expanding the brewery's barrel-aged beers: "I had started tinkering with the barrels a little bit, and then I officially got the okay to take the program over -- essentially got a blank check from corporate to do it. I just started running with it. And the fact that each beer we put out from the barrels is getting more recognition, and people who have worked here for, like, a decade are saying it's the best Wynkoop beer they've ever had, and each one gets a little better and better, fingers crossed this barrel program takes off."

Needs: Something to ease the hands-on, gritty nature of the job: "A masseuse. That would be nice. A chiropractor on staff. This is a very physically-demanding job and we get beat up a lot, actually. I had to have surgery on my shoulder, the last year or so: an old injury that was made way worse by this job, for sure. But I'm back at it, back slinging bags of grain, every day."

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