Case Study: Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project | Brewing Industry Guide

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Case Study: Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project

Crooked Stave was founded in the spirit of methodical and relentless exploration—which has led to some serendipitous discoveries and developments (including a remarkable amount of vertical integration for a brand their size) as the brewery has grown.


When Chad Yakobson launched Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project (Denver, Colorado) in 2010, he was among the very first American brewers—after Ron Jeffries and his Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales—to build a brewery dedicated to barrel-aged wild and sour beers. He had several dozen barrels, wort that he’d contract brew off-site, and a whole lot of academic knowledge about the nature of the Brettanomyces yeast species and its behavior in pure-culture fermentation. And yet he had no set idea of what to expect from the project or whether his beers would be well received.

“I wanted to see, ‘okay, here’s the research on Brett, but is it applicable and do people want to buy Brett beers year-round?’ ” Yakobson says. “It was market research as much as it was R&D brewing research—take the principles of wild and sour beer, push the envelope, and see what the consumer wanted and whether we could make the yeast do what we wanted it to do.”

Yakobson was in his mid-twenties and had just completed a long and rigorous academic deep-dive into microbiology, fermentation science, and the nature of wild yeast, including post-graduate work studying winemaking in New Zealand and a master’s degree in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was brimming with ideas and experiments to try and envisioned Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project as a living laboratory to test the practical application and marketability of his research. His ambition was singular and lofty—whenever talk turned to wild and sour ales, Crooked Stave should be the first name on people’s lips.

“The vision and mission of Crooked Stave is to be a quality leader in fermentation science and to continue to educate drinkers and bring them into wild and sour beers,” Yakobson says. “That’s been the driving mission from the beginning, and the avenues through which we’ve done that are ever evolving.”

A Wild Ride

Crooked Stave’s initial Wild Wild Brett series was, for many consumers, their first taste of 100 percent Brettanomyces-fermented beers. Each named after a color in the rainbow, the beers in the series showcased a range of challenging-yet-approachable offerings that, taken together, explored a spectrum of ways Brett might express itself in a beer. Yakobson’s timing and prescience were spot on. As more consumers started to become interested in sours and more brewers began experimenting with the style, Crooked Stave was often held up as an example of the direction and potential for American-made wild and sour ales. As the business grew, Yakobson expanded Crooked Stave’s barrel and foeder collection, hired additional staff and, in 2013, opened a tasting room in Denver and added a coolship to Crooked Stave’s toolbox.

That’s also the year that Yakobson launched Crooked Stave Artisans Distributing, a distinct division of Crooked Stave that represents and distributes a variety of artisanally made products throughout Colorado and includes a diverse portfolio of domestic and international craft-beer brands, as well as boutique wines, ciders, spirits, and non-alcoholic beverages. At the time, it was a curious move for what was essentially a start-up niche brewery but, to hear Yakobson tell it, Crooked Stave Artisans Distributing fits squarely within his overarching vision for the business, which is all about quality as the absolute benchmark.

“We say, ‘Quality at its highest level; never compromising,’ ” Yakobson says. “That is our mantra.”

Yakobson self-distributed Crooked Stave’s beers in the beginning, which afforded direct oversight as to how the beers were being handled and represented in the marketplace. By creating its own distribution arm, Crooked Stave could continue to enjoy direct control over its brands as the company grew while also extending the same level of consideration to a curated portfolio of products, many of which would likely not otherwise choose to enter Colorado.

“It’s been amazing to bring many of our friends’ breweries into the state and be able to give them the best representation that we know how and the representation that you would expect a brewer would give to another brewer’s beer,” Yakobson says.

Crooked Stave Artisans Distributing has also grown into a significant revenue stream and currently operates on about a one-to-one ratio as the brewery in terms of employees, operations, sales, and management. The intangible effects of operating an in-house distribution company have also been significant, especially as the overall company continues to grow (Crooked Stave currently employs about eighty-five people in all).

“I see it as an incredibly valuable asset for the distribution company, as well as for the brewery,” Yakobson says. “I tell the brewers, ‘This is your distribution company,’ and on the distribution side we say, ‘This is your brewery. If you ever have questions about beer and brewing, no matter whose brand it is, come and ask us.’ ”

Some also questioned the rationale when Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project introduced a Pilsner, a Kölsch, a coffee Baltic porter, and an IPA to its lineup in 2016. Had Crooked Stave abandoned its singular focus on sours in favor of a more diverse base? Not quite, Yakobson says. Rather, these types of beer represent another aspect of fermentation that’s ripe for exploration and improvement and were always part of the plan. He just needed to wait until he could execute them the Crooked Stave way.

“I remember an interview I did in The Coloradoan [newspaper in Fort Collins, Colorado] in 2011, and it talked about the coffee Baltic porter, and there was an unfiltered IPA that I wanted to make, so for me it’s finally being able to make good on the promises on these beers that I’ve wanted to brew for a long time,” Yakobson says.

When Crooked Stave finally brought its own dedicated brewhouse online in 2016, Yakobson knew the time was right to debut his version of these beers.

“When you’re brewing at someone else’s place, you can only do so much. And when it’s not your employees, you can also only ask them to do so much,” he says. “Once we got our brewhouse up and going, we were able to take it to another level. We have really strict standards set in place for where the beers need to be.”

Apples-to-Apples

Quality checks and standards for all of Crooked Stave’s beers extend from the selection of raw materials straight through to the packaged product, with about 100 data points in all recorded for each batch. For instance, to ensure proper conversion of mash enzymes, brewers take gravity and pH readings six times before the brew kettle is even full and boiling, and they use such tools as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and cell counts in the wort and throughout fermentation to maintain consistency and overall quality, Yakobson says.

“We have graphs and charts on every brew, so we know what our beers’ fermentation profiles look like and where yeast growth should be,” Yakobson says. “We’re running our brewhouse at just about 90 percent efficiency, which is extremely high for a craft brewer.”

Understanding the mechanics and the rationale behind everything at Crooked Stave is paramount to its process and also a reason why it can take a long time to introduce new brands and styles or to scale up production.

“I can’t just brew any beer,” Yakobson says. “I really have to justify what we do and why we do it; there’s so much thought put into everything that, by the time we’re brewing it, it’s thoroughly embedded and that justifies the why and how.”

This methodical, research-based approach has also led to quantifiable discoveries, standards, and new methods that help improve all of Crooked Stave’s brands. “[It] is exciting because it means that we are still pushing the forefront of science and even changing the face of it within the beers we make and the knowledge and understanding of these beers,” Yakobson says. “That’s always where I wanted Crooked Stave to go.”

He mentions the brewery’s standards for measuring titratable acidity as an example. Titratable acidity is measured by considering the total acidity in a sample, which involves making assumptions about what acids are present and at what levels. Crooked Stave employs an Automatic Titrator from Hanna Instruments to measure titratable acidity in its beers. Since the machines are used more frequently for wine, Crooked Stave worked with Hanna to define its own standard for measuring titratable acidity in its beers, including specifying not only that samples should off-gas before measurement, but exactly for how long and under what conditions. Exacting, repeatable, and well-defined procedures such as these are what help Crooked Stave achieve consistency in its products, as well as bring a factor of reliability to its ongoing research.

The brewery has also developed specific methods and uses for each of its foeders, which can vary depending on the specific vessel, type of beer, and whether that foeder is used for primary fermentation; for secondary fermentation; or for a secondary fermentation on fresh, whole fruit, as the majority of them are.

As the brewery has grown, Yakobson is adamant about keeping the batch sizes the same, right at about 50 hectoliters (5,000 liters). Crooked Stave has a 25 hl brewhouse and typically brews twice a day to fill a vessel. This allows for tighter controls on the beer and, as Yakobson says, for the beers, recipes, and methods to more consistently and methodically evolve rather than simply scale.

“I’ve been watching it a lot lately, especially in Colorado, where brewers who started with maybe a 3 or a 10 bbl system are now moving to a 30 bbl production system, and they’re having a lot of trouble with yeast management and being able to scale up the recipes.

“Scaling is very tricky,” he says. “We can’t just add a bunch of foeders and decide to bring them online. We’ve added two foeders a year for the past five years, and now we have ten,” he says. “It has a lot to do with the volume, the size, and how the recipes are brewed. Right now, I blend about twenty oak barrels together, say, for Origins or Nightmare [on Brett]. I can’t all a sudden start blending sixty because that will change it, and to have sixty of the same barrels would take two or three years. We as a brewery have inherently stayed quite small, simply because it takes so long to scale these things properly so that what we’re doing is one-to-one—apples-to-apples.”

Your People Make the Business

Bringing on new personnel has also been a slow and deliberate process and one that Yakobson says has been his biggest learning curve.

“Hiring for passion can go a long way, but sometimes you can’t argue with experience, or even inexperience and being able to train someone up all the way. I think we’ve seen every type of situation both work and fail,” he says. “It’s really specific to the job function and the dynamics. Brewing is inherently tough, especially in production, and we’re constantly talking [about] how to keep morale up.

“But, as we’ve grown and evolved, what’s been amazing is that it’s always the people who start to make your company and allow you to be able to build it. Without all of our wonderful employees, I wouldn’t be able to continue to make these beers and be hands-on where I need to and also hands-off where I need to be.”

And, with so many moving parts and aspects of the business to manage, having talented employees who are invested in the driving mission of Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project and Crooked Stave Artisans Distributing is the key to keeping all aspects of the business aligned and progressing according to plan.

Crooked Stave’s latest evolution represents both a return to its roots and a step forward. The brewery recently began packaging three of its Brett beers—St. Bretta, HopSavant, and Colorado Wild Sage—in 4-packs of 12-ounce cans. Two of the beers, St. Bretta and HopSavant, are rebranded versions of beers that debuted in Crooked Stave’s original Wild Wild Brett series.

“They’re part of our introductory Brett Fundamentals series,” Yakobson says. “In St. Bretta, we blend in a certain amount of 12-month-old barrel-aged golden sour beer, so there’s a light kiss of acidity in there. HopSavant tastes like a clean IPA with a just little bit of tropical fruit and some of that [Brett] character.”

Where those beers were originally packaged in 375-ml bottles and sold for $5 each, Crooked Stave has kept its recipe and methods the same but changed the packaging to what it considers the new standard and cut the price by half to offer the canned 4-packs at $9.99 each.

“We are really pushing the envelope to make these beers affordable and approachable,” Yakobson says. “These brands are our jumping-off point to wild and sour beers, and if we can’t do that, how can we get people to convert?”

And that, considering Crooked Stave’s mission and the exploratory path it’s taken ever since, is right in character.

Tom Wilmes November 14, 2017

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