Beer Country

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We finally made it to election day. It’s been a long haul. So, let’s take a break from politics, kick back a little, and talk beer. Craft beer, the stuff made in small batches, is enjoying a golden age. Both the number of breweries and varieties of beer are multiplying like rabbits. Colorado’s at the center of the action. So today, a trio of stories from CPR’s Zachary Barr about craft beer, which is a 450 million dollar industry in Colorado.

Reporter Zachary Barr: Let’s start in Ft Collins, which has 11 craft breweries and more opening soon. And the way many of these entrepreneurs are thinking about beer - it’s straight out of the world of fine wine. They’re brewing it for earthy undertones, or fruity overtones. And so it follows that a single bottle of beer can now cost as much as a bottle of wine. So let’s go to Ft. Collins, where I’m on a mission to find the most expensive beer in town, and perhaps in the state.

Shannon and Colin Westcott are the owners of Equinox Brewing. They opened a couple of years ago in downtown Ft. Collins. Equinox is a bar, but it feels a lot more like a coffee shop. It closes early. There are board games and homemade sodas for kids, and not a single television or sports pennant on the walls.

Shannon Westcott: Ok, these are all of our taps, we have 11 taps over here -- then we added this section over here with five because we needed more beers.

All the beer’s made out back, and costs five dollars a pint. But each year they bottle a special brew that costs more.

Colin Westcott: We’re just getting ready to bottle this year’s barleywine, the 2012 barleywine on Friday.

Colin says this special kind of beer is actually like wine - in that it gets better with age.

Colin Westcott: So people can put them in the cellar, they can age them if they like to, so it’s just a special thing that we do.

Reporter: How many do you make?

Colin Westcott: The first year we did 20 cases, last year we did 40 and this year we’re going to do 60. It keeps selling out faster and faster so kinda wanted to make sure everyone can buy some if they want some.

Reporter: And how much does it cost?

Colin Westcott: It’s ten dollars for a 500ml bottle, which is about 17 ounces.

I don’t know if ten dollars sounds like a lot to you. But consider, for that price, you can buy a dozen Budweisers. Up the road I meet Brad Lincoln at Funkwerks. Another brewery that sells high-end beer in bottles.

Brad Lincoln: So this is the brew-house here, you can see the auger comes in and drops all the grain into this mash kettle.

Brad’s giving us a tour of his new brewery. Funkwerks makes Belgian style beers.

Brad Lincoln: They are very complex, having a lot of fruity and spicy aromas, and we kinda go a little bit more to towards the spicy side specifically with the Saisson.

The Saisson is this brewery’s top seller. It costs ten bucks, but I could spend as much as 15 on other types.

Levi Gose: It’s delicious, it’s worth it.

Levi Gose is from Laramie Wyoming. He’s spending nearly 50 dollars on four bottles

Levi Gose: I got some friends who don’t get to experience this beer, and I figure they need to.

And if Levi wants to spend even more, he could visit my next and final stop: Odell Brewing.

Reporter on-scene: So I’m on a search for the most expensive beer in Ft Collins.

Brent Cordle: I think you found it.

That’s Brent Cordle, Odell’s manager of pilot beers. We’re walking into a room called “the barrel cellar.” Experimental beers age in oak barrels stacked two stories high.

Brent Cordle: It’s like another level of beer, flavor you can get from the oak.

These brews are so special, Brent isolates them from all the others.

Brent Cordle: We don’t want em next to each other because they’re going to potentially infect each other. So we can keep the clean beers outside of this barrel room; this is our wild beer cellar.

Reporter on-scene: Meaning that the odor from the regular beer could actually permeate the fancy beer?

Brent Cordle: Yes, exactly.

The most expensive among these barrel aged beers is called WoodCut #6. Brent uncorks a bottle for us to try. Brent pours the beer into -- what else -- specially designed glasses. He sniffs and swirls the beer before tasting it.

Brent Cordle: I really like the tropical flavors you get of papaya and guava, and coconut.

And to this novice, I’ll admit, yeah, -- it’s pretty tasty. But how much?

Brent Cordle: $24.99 shelf. One bottle. $24.99

And at that price Odell expects to quickly sell out this year’s batch, all 7,000 bottles, a testament to the the industry’s strength. It's enjoying a huge growth spurt, sales doubled over the past five years. I learned this from visiting the Brewers Association, it’s the national advocacy group for craft brewers in Boulder. I sat down with one of its leaders, Julia Herz, and I asked her to describe Colorado’s place in the national craft beer scene.

And while a few minutes ago we talked about a single bottle of beer that costs twenty-five dollars, the vast majority of craft beer sold costs much less. Usually around 8, 9 bucks for a six pack. And it used to be that brewers packaged these six packs exclusively in bottles. But these days, thanks in large part to a Colorado company, these beers now come in aluminum cans.

You see, when microbrewed beer became popular in the 1980s and 90s it came in a brown bottle. Then 10 years ago, Dale Katechis (kuh-teh-CHIS) had a dream. To be the first small brewer to put beer in a can.

Dale Katechis: The biggest fear was that the customer felt like bad beer comes in cans and tastes like metal.

But first a more immediate dilemma: the minimum order from the can manufacturer was 5 million cans. So Dale found a company that would sell him just one truckload: about 150,000 cans.

Katechis: We thought that we had just bought, if things went well, several years worth of cans.

And while beer behemoths such as Miller and Budweiser used automated machinery, ....smaller machines, for smaller companies, didn’t exist. So Dale bought a simple hand-operated device. He set it on a picnic table inside a barn.

Katechis: And we stood there, you know, two guys, had our hoodies on, and it was freezing, it was late November 2002, and we were like kings of the world.

And like that, craft beer was in cans: Dale’s Pale Ale. But what about that stigma - against the can....the same can that held the cheapest beer you could find, back before you had kids, got fat, and started buying expensive beer -- how’d they convince people like you that the can was back?

Katechis: We went out into the market every single day as hard as we could cracking open cans of beer and say would you try my beer? Whaddya think?

People liked it. Dale’s Pale Ale was a surprise hit, and others took notice.

Jesse Brookstein: We saw that people were really starting to look at canned beer, not only is the quality of the product is just as good as bottles but it’s really cool.

Jesse Brookstein is packaging manager at Avery Brewing, in Boulder. It’s one of 179 craft brewers around the country now selling their product in cans -- up from zero a decade ago. He says his brewery added cans because customers wanted them...but it made business sense, too.

Brookstein: The materials are less expensive, the shipping is less expensive, it keeps all light out - even better than a bottle - and they’re great for hiking.

Today Avery’s canning line is filling cans of Ellie’s Brown Ale. The cans shuffle around the small room on elevated tracks. This kind of high tech but small canning line is a new invention. Also new : can co-ops. They specialize in filling small aluminum can orders. These developments make the rise of craft beer in cans possible. (ambi out) But ultimately, it comes down to this. You’re standing in the beer aisle. Bottles or cans?

Mike McDowell: I prefer the can. Cause most of the good beers now are being canned.

Mike McDowell’s just pulled a 12 pack of Dale’s Pale Ale off the shelf.

McDowell: I like how it feels, I like how it drinks, I’m a can guy.

For emphasis, Mike raises his hand, firmly gripping an imaginary beer can.

I’m Zachary Barr, Colorado Public Radio News.