Hand-crafted hooch, Aspen-style
September 26, 2008
ASPEN ” Once upon a time, the idea of eating, drinking and generally consuming goods made locally – meaning no further than half a day’s travel from one’s home – was as much a part of the American landscape as, well, homemade apple pie.
Local markets sold local farm produce, local brewers satisfied the need for a beer at the end of a day, and many other basic goods were produced within a few miles of any individual’s home.
But over the course of the first half of the 20th century, as corporations began the long march toward today’s merger madness and supermarkets – and as mass production became the byword of American commerce – things changed.
The dominance of the family farm gave way first to a massive trend toward urbanization, then suburbanization. And as the middle class grew exponentially, factory workers took the place of the farmer, and farming became mainly the province of corporations with fleets of trucks and networks of grocery outlets.
In keeping with this trend was the demise of the idea that if we wanted a drink of something stronger than a soda, we could brew it up ourselves or get it from a neighbor, without resorting to the mass markets.
Just as food production became a centralized and mechanized effort, so did the production of beer, wine and whiskey. Before long, perhaps by the middle of the century, there were very few small producers in business and the number of labels, varieties and types of booze had shrunk to a well-defined list of nationwide brands.
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But pendulums don’t swing one way, and today there are trends back toward eating locally produced foods – and drinking locally produced booze, relatively speaking. Of course this trend is limited by such matters as price (boutique wines, whiskeys and beer typically cost more than the mass produced variety), tastes (the vast majority of Americans continue to buy their booze from corporate producers), and marketing power (again, corporate producers have big advertising budgets and can dominate the nation’s media).
Still, it appears the locavore movement – simply put, a locavore is a person who chooses to consumes locally grown products – is mushrooming, as noted in a soon to be published story in the Rocky Mountain News.
“The spirited growth here and nationwide comes as consumers seek out local, hand-crafted products and foodies take a new interest in fruit brandies known as eaux-de-vie, liqueurs, and other spirits. Craft beer makers also are jumping into the act,” writes reporter Roger Fillion.
“The American Distilling Institute counts 156 small-batch, craft distilleries operating in the United States,” the article continues, noting that only 60 or so could be found as recently as six years ago.
This seems to be the case in the Aspen area, too, where the makers of three basic kinds of booze – whiskey, wine and beer – got their start, at least conceptually.
Distilled spirits, including whiskey (or “whisky” to some), ranks lowest in per capita consumption in America, according to the Answer.com.
But for a dedicated whiskey drinker, statistics are less important than personal preferences, and a Woody Creek distiller seems to have hit on a recipe that is increasingly well received in Colorado, the U.S. and the world.
Indeed, Jess Graber, who heads up Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, is now shipping his whiskey around the country and to at least two foreign wholesalers, one in Tokyo and another in Amsterdam.
But his beginnings, admits the 57-year-old Graber, harkens back to the early days of whisky distilling in the U.S. – he was, essentially, a moonshiner.
Originally from the farm country of Kansas and Missouri, Graber has been making whiskey since he inherited a copper still from a fellow Missourian while living in the then-rustic town of Nederland, near Boulder, in 1972.
After moving to Woody Creek a couple of years later, he kept up his hobby, cranking out spirits of various types on a small-batch basis while working as a builder by day.
He would give bottles of his flavor of the moment as gifts to friends and co-workers, he recalls, and it wasn’t long before his beneficiaries started to expect their gift bottles as a matter of course. He found himself thinking of whiskey production as less of a fun hobby and more as a chore, and by the late 1990s, he was looking for a way to turn his hobby into some kind of a living.
With the backing of friends, principally Woody Creek benefactor George Stranahan (hence the name on the label), Graber started the company in partnership with another Stranahan brand, Flying Dog Ales, from which he originally obtained the “wash” that went into his whiskey recipe. Since then, Graber has been expanding according to demand for his product, which, due to his unique process, tastes like a cross between a good Scotch and a fine Bourbon.
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey now produces some 5,000 bottles per month, 2,000 of which are sold Colorado. The rest is shipped to dealers in 32 states, including maybe 10 cases each month to Tennessee and Kentucky – the home states of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, respectively.
Plus he sent 500 bottles each to the wholesalers in Japan and Holland.
Graber still relies mainly on word-of-mouth advertising, and he will be at whiskey festivals in San Francisco in October, and New York in November, to help the process along.
At the company’s current six barrels per week in production, “I think we’re still considered a craft distillery,” Graber says.
Maker’s Mark bourbon, he notes, puts out 60 barrels per week and is considered a small, independent distiller. “So I think we’d have to increase 10 times to get to where we’d be known as a small, independent distillery.”
Kevin Doyle is quite clear about his provenance as a winemaker, telling anyone who wants to know that until a few years ago he knew absolutely nothing about making wine. He devoted his time to recreational pursuits of different kinds, and he worked in the bar and restaurant scene in Aspen, where he learned plenty about tasting and judging wines.
“One hundred days skiing, 200 days golfing and 365 days on vacation” is the way he describes his life until recently.
Now, he makes wine. The reason? “When I reached 40, I couldn’t work in the restaurants anymore,” he says. His bosses were half his age, and the zest had gone out of the business.
Having sold some property he had in Parachute, about 60 miles north and west from Aspen, he picked up and moved to Cedaredge, a small town on the southern skirt of the Grand Mesa in Mesa County, at the western edge of Colorado.
Finding no work, Doyle, now 50, signed on in 1998 as an apprentice with a Hotchkiss winemaker Steve Rhodes, whom Doyle says “makes the best wine in the region.”
He became entranced with the process, the atmosphere and what he calls the hard work and suffering that goes into wine produced by small-batch wineries.
“I’m Irish,” he says. “We’ve been bred for pain and suffering for 2,000 years, so it fits.”
After two years of learning, Doyle was ready to start out on his own. He began accumulating equipment, finding a warehouse to do the work – an unheated, abandoned apple-packing shed where he sleeps in a tent – and buying grapes from local vineyards, sometimes catching bargains at the end of the season when a grower has a certain grape left over and is willing to deal.
And doing all the work by hand – with help from his “assistant,” Kathy Chamberlin – is his way of maintaining a dedication to the art and craft of the business at hand, he explains.
“I do it for us,” he says, referring to his fellow ski bums and other working folk of the Western Slope and the state in general. “I’m trying to make great wine that the Coloradoan can drink at a reasonable price,” which he considers between $14.99 and $20 a bottle.
By 2002, Doyle was hard at it, crushing grapes at a rate that has reached 20-40 tons a year, which turns into about 24,000 bottles that he says sell out every year.
“I sell wine wherever there are hot springs,” Doyle says, explaining that he travels the region traversed by the Arkansas, Green and Colorado river valleys in search of buyers.
“Because my work is so physical, I need the hot springs,” he continues. “I make a modest living. I pay my bills. It’s all about the food, the wine, the art and the music.”
It’s a philosophy that seems to be working. A couple of Doyle’s wines last year won informal rankings of 86 and 88 from editor-at-large Harvey Steiman’s Wine Spectator blog. Other Colorado wines have brought home scores of 84 from the Spectator, according to Steiman.
At the top of the heap of alcoholic beverages, numerically speaking, is the beer industry. And within that industry, craft brewers represent about 4 percent of the national market, producing more than 7.5 million barrels of brew in 2007, according to beertown.org.
So perhaps fittingly, beer is the only type of booze featured in this story that actually is being made in Aspen.
Building on the foundation created by the Flying Dog Brew Pub back in the 1990s is the Aspen Brewing Co. (Flying Dog first decamped for Denver and recently for the East Coast in search of expansion and greater profits.)
Located at the foot of Mill Street near the bridge over the Roaring Fork River, it is a small space where craft brewing truly lives up to its name.
The company’s founders – 24-year-old Brad Veltman, and Duncan Clauss and Rory Douthit, both 23 – were not necessarily thinking in philosophical terms about their place in the trend toward eating and drinking locally produced goods, says Veltman.
“It was a business opportunity more than anything else,” explains Veltman, who grew up in an entrepreneurial family and majored in marketing at the University of Colorado, which he and Clauss both attended.
But, Clauss adds, “I think the eating locally, buying locally, people trying to be more responsible in that sort of level, also plays into why the small breweries are going so well and scaring the big guys.”
And, he says, “I think somebody walking with their Growler on their bicycle … definitely plays into the environmental consciousness sort of thing … a six-pack worth of beer without a six-pack’s worth of glass.” The Growler is the company’s unique way of selling beer – a jug that can be brought back and refilled at the tap.
“Yeah, and [bypassing] all the packaging, gas to go shopping and all of that,” chimes in Veltman.
The crew, along with brewer Terry Butler, 41, opened their doors six months ago after arriving in Aspen in 2006 and realizing that Aspen was virtually alone among Colorado ski towns in not having its own brewery.
Clauss, who majored in English, says he has been an entrepreneur since childhood, starting out doing odd jobs around the neighborhood in his native Connecticut and then graduating to making surfboards for the East Coast surfing set. So embarking on a career as a craft beer startup was not a stretch, he says.
As for the future of the Aspen Brewing Co., Veltman says: “We get asked that 10 times a day.”
And their answer?
“We’re just flying by the seat of our pants,” he says, although they expect to one day decide whether to stick with the niche they’re in, expand into a restaurant/brew pub kind of arrangement, or follow the lead of Flying Dog and try to break into a larger market.