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Brewing up business in Aspen

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” From one beer brewer to another, trying to make a local brewery work in Aspen is a tall order, but it’s worth trying.

“I think it’s frankly a challenge for them, and all you can do is wish them luck,” said Woody Creek whiskey maker and former brew pub owner George Stranahan, about the crew at the Aspen Brewing Co. on North Mill Street.

The brewery is set to open within a week or so, according to co-owner Duncan Clauss, as soon as it works out its permit details with City Hall.



This will be the second time a local brewery has set up operations here in the past two decades. The first was Stranahan’s own Flying Dog Brew Pub at the corner of Galena Street and Cooper Avenue in the early 1990s; it later moved its operations to Denver and has now relocated to Frederick, Md.

But where the Flying Dog was a full-service brew pub and restaurant first, and a producer of kegs, six-packs and cases second, the Aspen Brewing Co. is aiming at a different kind of business ” selling half-gallon, reusable “growlers” to their local loyalists and marketing a half-dozen or so varieties of bottled beer to outlets around the region.




Stranahan and Clauss have been talking about Clauss’ plans, with Stranahan acting as a sort of beer-making mentor and Clauss eagerly absorbing everything he can about such topics as finding a good brewmeister, locating affordable and dependable equipment and other matters.

Stranahan said he is not an investor in the Aspen Brewing Co., but that he continues as the majority owner of the Flying Dog Ales. He is also involved in Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, of which Jess Graber is the founder and majority owner. The whiskey had been using Flying Dog mash as the basis for its recipe.

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey is remaining in Colorado, although the distillery is seeking another source of mash now that the Flying Dog has left town.

The Flying Dog Ales brewing company now operates wholly out of the Frederick Brewing Co.’s facilities and has moved all of the Flying Dog operations out of Denver except for administration, marketing and management offices.

The Aspen Brewing Co., meanwhile, is expecting to open its doors soon but first must overcome a bureaucratic hurdle placed in its way by the City of Aspen. The issue ” whether or not the brewery should be allowed to serve more than a pint of beer to each customer touring the facilities ” will be the subject of a public hearing March 24 at City Hall.

Flying Dog CEO Eric Warner said in a recent interview that the brewery’s move was necessitated by a number of issues, but the primary one was a need to grow.

By 2004, he said the brewery’s management knew the operation was getting too big for its Denver headquarters. With its lease about to expire in Denver, the company started shopping around for bigger quarters.

In May 2006, they company bought out the larger, more modern Frederick Brewing Co., which was founded in 1996 and had produced such brands as Blue Ridge, Wild Goose and, for a time, the Little Kings label.

The Frederick facility began cranking out Flying Dog beers in January of this year and will continue to bottle the Wild Goose label. All beer-making and related operations have moved out of Denver, Warner said.

Warner conceded that some Flying Dog fans have expressed unhappiness over the move, disappointed that the brewery has abandoned its Colorado roots.

But Warner said that’s not true, noting that the business offices still are in Denver and that “Colorado’s our biggest market.” Although he expects the company will enjoy a growth spurt in its sales along the East Cost, he added that Colorado and the West will continue to be critical to their business interests.

As for the new brewery, Warner said taste tests had been conducted prior to the first bottling of Flying Dog beers in Maryland and that the tastes are identical to what was being produced in Denver.

“I don’t think anybody will notice the difference,” he said.

But for the company, the biggest difference is increased efficiency as a result of the larger capacity of the Frederick facility, Warner said. Distribution costs and challenges remain about the same as they were in Denver, with Warner citing an ongoing trend toward consolidation as the Flying Dog’s main challenge.

“Craft brewing” continues to outpace the traditional, large-scale brewers such as Budweiser and Miller in terms of growth, Warner said. But the big companies exert considerable control in the distribution industry, meaning there are fewer independent haulers around to meet the needs of the craft brewers.

Another challenge, he said, is the rise in prices of such basic beer-making ingredients as hops and malted barley, which he said have “skyrocketed” by about 25 percent recently.

Back in Aspen, Clauss said he, too, is worried about the rising costs of hops and grains, although he said the Aspen Brewing Co. has planned for a year’s supply of hops against the likelihood of future price hikes and has an ongoing account with a wholesaler to ensure future deliveries.

“Every brewery, especially the smaller ones, is definitely facing the same problem,” he said. “It’s a factor for everyone, no matter where you are.”

One difficulty that arises from having to change ingredients, such as the hops used to make beer, is that the change is noticeable in the flavor of the final product. For more established beers, this can cause distress among customers.

“The one advantage we have is, we don’t have established recipes that have been running for 10 years,” Clauss said.

Although he could not give the exact date the taps will begin flowing for public consumption, Clauss said, “We’re pretty close … probably in the next week or so.”

In the beginning, Clauss said, company employees will handle the distribution duties to outlets around the valley. But concerning the future, he said, “We definitely have some goals for growth” once their beers are firmly established around the home territory.

An important part of their early business, he said, will be selling the reusable “growlers,” glass half-gallon containers that customers can have refilled whenever they feel like visiting the brewery.

According to Stranahan, the term “growler” dates back at least to Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, and refers to a glass container with a screw-on top.

“This was before beer bottles or cans,” he said. “To ‘rush a growler’ meant, ‘go get me a beer,’ and you’d go down to the pub, get it filled up and drink it before it went flat.”

Stranahan said he had scant advice for The Aspen Brewing Co. concerning their prospects for success.

When he opened Flying Dog, he said, he expected that local restaurants would be eager to sell a local beer, either on tap or in bottles. But while some bars and restaurants met his expectations and carried the product, many did not.

“It’s very hard to go into any restaurant in Aspen and order a Flying Dog beer,” he said. “I can buy a Heineken much more easily than I can get a Dog.”

He said the problem might have involved a kind of snobbery ” the idea that “local isn’t good enough for our tourists” or “it’s not a big enough brand name.”

Another problem, he said, is high rents.

When his landlord, Bert Bidwell, died, Stranahan said a nephew took over and nearly doubled the rent immediately.

“I was paying Bert five times more than I was netting,” he said. “His nephew wanted to make that 10 times. So I said the hell with it.”

Because the Aspen Brewing Co. is located in the city’s Service/Commercial/Industrial zone, designed to house locally serving businesses that might otherwise be priced out of Aspen, he said they have a better chance of survival.

“They’ll have to be creative,” Stranahan mused. “I think they’ll have to do more than just sell a couple o’ pints. I admire the young guys, coming in here and taking on Aspen. It kind of gives you hope, that [the town] doesn’t just belong to the old boys club.”

jcolson@aspentimes.com

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