The Great American Beer Festival brings not only scores of beer fans to Denver each year but also thousands of professional brewers. They come to pour beer at the fest, judge the annual awards, and attend the awards ceremony in the hopes of taking home some hardware. Many also use the fest as an excuse for a working vacation—a chance to drink around town, catch up with old colleagues, and scope out what’s new in the city’s ever-evolving beer scene.
This past year, the place to go, be seen, and catch up was Bierstadt Lagerhaus. At almost any point during operating hours, if you looked around the bar, you saw a veritable Who’s Who of brewing, from longtime industry leader Dick Cantwell to the celebrated Wayne Wambles of Cigar City. It was hard not to think of the prophetic line from Field of Dreams because when you talk to professional brewers, they’ll tell you that in their down time they like drinking lagers, and that’s all that Bierstadt serves.
Ashleigh Carter and Bill Eye built it. Everyone is coming.
Not a Niche but a Demand
At first blush it sounds crazy: a brewery that is producing only to-style lagers, draft only, each poured to order and served in a specifically branded glass. Or, rather, it sounds like a dream many brewers would like to embrace, but a dream that soon gets dashed by outside forces. For Carter and Eye, the brewmasters, their vision has long been clear and was never open to compromise. And while some of their other brewing colleagues might have plans for multistate dominance, they know how much they want to make and where they want it to go.
“We did about 1,200 barrels to close out 2017,” Carter says. They did it on their existing system, a 30-barrel all-copper brewhouse built in 1932 and transported to the Rocky Mountains from a German brewery near Nuremburg, and tanks that can get up to about 2,000 barrels and maybe one day 5,000, but it’s “too early to look at that goal,” she says.
For now, it’s a near-even split between what’s poured in the taproom—known as the Rackhouse—in Denver’s River North Art District (RiNo) neighborhood (the brewery shares warehouse space with C Squared Ciders) and the forty-five static accounts that the brewery works with through their own distribution and single-man sales staff. If those places want the beer, they must commit to half barrels and the branded glassware.
“We don’t do sixtels. It’s not what we’re about. We want to keep our high-quality small staff and want to know all the bars we’re at so we can service our neighborhood and service our area,” Carter says.
It’s perhaps the branded glassware—and the absolute compliance the brewery demands—that has gotten the most attention. While it’s not hard to find branded glassware at a brewery’s taproom and while others such as Boston Beer have created specialty glassware for general use, the majority of draft beer in America comes in a pint glass. The thought of her beer being served in a “filthy Shaker pint with no foam on it” drives Carter up the wall.
“People don’t blame the bar for a shitty experience; they blame the beer, blame the brewery. I have an expectation for each of my beers. I care about our customers and want them to have the best beer experience possible.”
That’s why each outside account that serves Bierstadt’s beers—including Slow Pour Pils, Helles, Dunkel, and various seasonal offerings—must use specific glasses. Helles, for example, comes in a dimpled mug, and Slow Pour Pils in a stemmed stange-like glass. Carter doesn’t buy the argument that bars don’t have room for specialty beer glasses, especially when they seem to make room for different-sized wine glasses, martini glasses, and Moscow mule mugs. It’s just that most bars haven’t given beer glasses more than a passing thought beyond the easily stackable and relatively durable pint glass.
The idea for a branded glass came to them while working on the brewery plan at a local restaurant. Peroni was on tap and was being served in a brand-specific glass. “As soon as we ordered one, ten more went out in about twenty minutes,” Carter explains. “Just as in a restaurant where people look around to see what everyone else is eating, people also drink with their eyes.”
Having glassware conveys a message and reinforces what the brewery is and the experience they want to consumers to have. Carter and Eye see each external account as a partnership, and to that end, they want to make sure that their glassware is used only for their beers. Pouring someone else’s beer into a Bierstadt glass is “a misrepresentation” and generally frowned upon. To date, Bierstadt hasn’t pulled out of any accounts for glassware infractions, but they have conducted some pretty firm conversations with places that haven’t adhered to the rules. Social media and sites such as Untappd help Carter and others keep tabs on places.
The approach is extreme for some, yes, but in an age of 6,000+ breweries in the country with more places serving craft beer than ever before, brewers need to exploit each niche and every little detail that helps grow and maintain their business.
Simple, Complex, Delicious
There’s a reason brewers (and the majority of the beer-drinking public) drink lagers. They are refreshing, easy drinking, and, when well made, almost indescribably delicious. For Carter and Eye, it’s the complexity yet simplicity of lager that is so appealing. First, there are the lagering techniques and the relative small number of ingredients needed to make a flavorful beer.
“With three malts, two hops, and one yeast strain, I can make just about everything in our portfolio,” Carter says. “We can make a variety of beer without soaring ingredient costs.”
While styles such as pastry stouts and New England–style IPAs are all the rage today and get the majority of the social-media love from beer consumers, Carter beats the drum that lagers are full of complexity, nuance, and character and deserve a closer look by today’s craft consumers. There’s a misconception—based on the size of the largest breweries in the country and the beer they produce, along with the way some craft breweries treat lagers—that these are simply gateway beers to getting into the “real craft.”
“I take offense that you need to drink [lagers] first to graduate to something that is more complex,” Carter says. “I find quite annoying and aggravating brewers who are making lager because they think they need to have one.”
And in the making of lagers, she finds that American brewers are moving increasingly away from the traditions of the style, leaving newer drinkers confused as to what these beers should taste like.
“Take the Pilsner, for example. Don’t go dry hopping it. I think that can hurt it. It’s just not supposed to be overly hoppy. You want just enough hops to intrigue and to encourage another sip. But it shouldn’t be in your face,” Carter says. “With a Pilsner, you want subtleties, the dryness of the carbonation, soft bitterness, and a nice malt that carries it from start to finish. All those things contribute to the drinking experience of a German Pilsner, and I do think taking creative liberties when it comes to a German Pils or a Czech Pils is bad for drinkers.”
As an example, she mentions the annual awards handed out at the Great American Beer Festival. She says her brewery won’t enter because the beers that win in certain categories aren’t exactly representative of the style in the historical (or guidelines) sense.
“I love Pivo, and I love Matt Brynildson, but that beer is no German Pilsner,” Carter says of the award-winning Firestone Walker beer and its brewmaster. “It’s misleading to the public.”
It’s why at the Rackhouse and through the accounts where Bierstadt beer is served, education is key. In some ways, it’s reintroducing drinkers to lagers and Pilsners through easy interactions with staff and bartenders. It’s also through to-the-point notes on menus and other posted items. Flavor descriptions go a long way toward getting important points across. Education is key, and staying true to historical tenants is something Carter and Eye won’t compromise on.
“As craft beer has become more popular, we keep seeing money people who have no love for the industry come and get involved, and sadly, there are some brewers who will make anything for shock value. We need to educate consumers. It lies on all of our shoulders to care about the past and the long-term future. We love beer and what it does for people and relationships. We make traditional lagers, so we see what we do as less fleeting in the industry.”
Taking on a Giant
The beer that Carter and Eye looked at for inspiration is actually quite far from the lagers they so lovingly create. They see the popularity of Left Hand Brewing Co.’s Milk Stout Nitro as a local example of a smaller brewery taking on a larger one in the market and largely winning. The larger brewery is, of course, Guinness—makers of the iconic Irish stout. However, in Denver and throughout Colorado, Left Hand’s Milk Stout Nitro reigns supreme.
So it would make sense that the folks so committed to lagers would go after a ubiquitous brand, but it might not be the one you think.
“What is Stella doing in Colorado craft-beer bars?” asks Carter. “We’re all caught up in hazy IPAs and super-hoppy everything and pastry stouts and other fake styles, but people still drink a lot of lager. Lager is king, but why should a big-brewer lager exist in a state where there are hundreds of craft brewers?”
People drink the beers that are available because they are available, but give them a choice and hopefully they’ll make the one that focuses on locality and flavor. That’s the hope Carter and Eye have when talking about getting their beer, instead of Stella, on tap in places. And it’s important to mention that a brewery that could one day max out at 5,000 barrels knows that they will never fully compete with a global brand, owned by the world’s largest brewer with a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign behind it.
But, if Bierstadt is the lager brand found around Denver and surrounding areas, then at least they feel they’ve made progress. So far, the idea seems to be taking hold.
“It’s about bar perspective. If we can have our beer on tap at high-end bars that already have Stella or Carlsberg or Peroni, we can educate them on fresh, local beer made with high, exacting standards—beer they can serve with pride along with their food. It’s not about Stella and taking every handle; it’s about making a beer that means something to people, and if we can make a dent then we know we’ve made it.”