Brandon Proff is a young, mild-mannered, creative type. He works as a UX designer by day and a brewery owner by night. He’s hip, but he’ll never admit it. He’s humble. He chooses his words wisely, and they pack a punch.
Jan Chodkowski is a calm, smiling-eyed, self-taught brewer. He was formerly the manager of a house-painting company during the week and a homebrewer on the weekends. He’s talented, but he’ll never say it. He’s forthright and kind.
They are self-made and self-designed. They founded Our Mutual Friend Brewing Company in Denver, Colorado, in 2012 and have put their previous experience to work all while finding new challenges.
Learning on the Fly
Proff and Chodkowski decorated their taproom using leftover paint and wooden boards from the fencing that used to surround a small theater in this once-barren part of Denver, just north of downtown—an area that is now known as the River North Arts District (or RiNo for short).
From the get-go, it had that sort of je ne sais quoi that certain places seem to embody simply by existing. They were fresh, authentic, and pure.
They were an anomaly—a third place in a sea of park-bench-strewn, white-walled, industrial breweries that were so prolific in the Mile High City back then. They were a haven for creatives: a platform, a blank slate from which this blossoming, young, neighborhood crowd in a burgeoning arts district could thrive. At the time, there was only one other creative island in this concrete sea—the coffee house down the street.
Proff, the managing partner, will be the first one to tell you that they struggled in the beginning. “We had a lot of difficulties learning in real time how it isn’t the same as homebrewing, how scaled up, it is so much more complex,” he says.
But being small and nimble (and frankly, being one of the first in Denver, a part of the “third wave”) was key. And that’s where the story really gets interesting.
“We were a part of the huge swath of very, very small breweries that were being opened and run by avid homebrewers,” Proff says while remembering the 2014 Craft Brewers Conference keynote by Paul Gatza of the Brewers Association. He remembers all of the pitfalls that were ticked off in that presentation. “We pretty much fell into every pit possible in that regard. Quality beer was not really talked about at all among our peers, but it was just a big party all the time, and everyone was just hanging out and having a good time. And it wasn’t until four years later when you would be asked, ‘So what are you doing for your sensory program and QC?’ ”
Plus, lab equipment wasn’t affordable enough for breweries with tighter budgets and limited staff. Everything was cumbersome, expensive, and required at least a five-figure budget to implement with any consistency.
Yet over time, with a few small wins, Proff and his team felt confident enough—and engrained enough in the local community—to ask for help from some of the larger breweries such as Great Divide Brewing Co., which Proff names as instrumental in their growth as a quality brewery.
There was no pivotal moment or epiphany, though.
Change as It Happens
“It was like watching grass grow. You don’t see any one single moment of adjusting how you make a beer. It’s looking back at a year and seeing the culmination of things that got us to a point that was better. Plus, the misses were spread out enough that we could just roll with them,” says Chodkowski.
Yet they soon realized—as many small breweries do—that their reputation was more valuable than money.
“We really put our foot down that we weren’t going to rationalize the quality of the beer for the sake of making money. We definitely had a ‘door shut’ moment in realizing that it is never worth it to put out a beer that is not to our standards just because we think we need to make money on it,” Chodkowski says. “Realizing the value of our reputation over money was a huge moment of maturity for us. But when you’re a small brewery and you have to dump a beer, that’s a lot of money!”
Letting go was difficult.
“Our brewer at the time was very pigeon-holed and only wanted to brew what he wanted with the ingredients he wanted. So when I was able to take that over and open it up, that really helped a lot,” Chodkowski says.
Soon Our Mutual Friend was able to try new ways of brewing, which included implementing a wild and sour program.
“We came from a place of having more rigidity in what we were doing than we needed, and allowing ourselves to be open to everything was really a huge defining factor. The quality was just one part of the puzzle,” Proff says.
In addition, Our Mutual Friend applied a full sensory program that every beer must pass before it’s released. “We care about data more than we ever did before. We track everything,” says Chodkowski.
That wasn’t the only thing that has catapulted them from a small, no-name brewery to one of a select handful from Colorado that travels to national festivals regularly: They also stick to the beers that they love in a way that is genuine and true.
Chodkowski is inspired by Belgian saison brewers and explains that “being trendy is not something we set out to do.” Proff agrees and is not shy to point out that the brewery has a keen interest in traditional beer styles.
“Right now we have nine saisons in the cooler, and it’s because we like to make saison. It doesn’t sell well, but we don’t care. It’s not like we have a line around the block, but again, we don’t care. We have a lot of interest in honoring all the stuff about beer that got us into beer in the first place. That is really important to us.”
And rightly so. Over the past seven years that it has been open, Our Mutual Friend has won multiple medals for their sours and saisons, including Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup wins. And surely this is just the beginning of their growth and transformation.
"Evolutionary" is the word Proff uses to describe the process from “then” to “now.” There was no toggle point but rather a series of events and moments and shifts.
When Our Mutual Friend first opened, Proff wasn’t as involved as he is now.
“I wouldn’t say I wanted to own a brewery until the middle of owning a brewery. My original role was more of a creative role that happened to be kind of a silent investor, and so as we got into years two and three of being open and as the opportunities to have an impact on the business increased, I embraced the responsibility,” he says. “I was never trying to aggressively accomplish something. I’ve been learning as I’ve been going, learning when it is a good idea to take a risk on something rather than staying safe.”
When asked about what they’ve learned, each offers honest assessments.
“I’ve had to loosen my grip on things for my own sanity and emotional health, and every time I have brought people into the mix that gel well with what we’re doing, it always improves what’s going on here. If I could’ve done that sooner, it would’ve been great. Let the right people in. It’s scary because we’re young still, but having the right people in the mix is important.”
For Chodkowski it’s comes down to the ability to “have confidence and not be so hard on yourself.”
Continuing on the topic of leadership, Proff says, “It’s important as a leader to feel like everyone is comfortable but also that they can rely on me for the hard stuff or things that they aren’t necessarily supposed to solve. We started out being a little too family-oriented as a business in terms of how everyone interacted with each other, and it was lacking in the needed professionalism to have tough conversations.
“So the pendulum swung the other way, and things got tough because then it was a ‘this place is getting corporate!’ sort of thing. But really, we’ve done a pretty good job of finding the sweet spot and figuring out how to feel like we’re friends without it getting to the point where you don’t feel you can be honest with each other about what’s expected and why we’re here in the first place. It’s figuring out who should be doing what and who wants to do what. Rather than ‘this is my thing,’ it’s ‘this is our thing.’ It’s not that the vision needs to be carried out like marching orders. I don’t like that approach to working with people.”
Seven years into this journey, Our Mutual Friend has no desire to expand to a second or larger facility anytime soon. With a small team of twelve and a handful of medals under their belt, they will continue to focus on making quality beer and continuing to improve their sensory and quality-control programs.
“Two years ago we had the opportunity to consider a move to a larger facility. But ultimately we decided to stay where we are. We chose to take time to think about who we are, what makes sense, and how to be better first,” says Proff.
That means upgrading from its small, hodge-podge 8-barrel brewing system that is wedged into the back of their warehouse into a brand new, what they call “real,” 10-barrel brewhouse.
“We have no secrets, really. We’re a pretty open book,” Chodkowski says. The secret is that we are staying here. We are going to make better beer. We are choosing quality over quantity.”
Photos: Jamie Bogner