CBB // Let’s start by talking about how the pandemic and what has happened in the beer world over the past two years has affected how you view the business, your stomach for risk, and how that’s changed some of the ways that you are moving forward.
BM // We were draft-only from 1989 to 1996. We built our business on draft, and that paced-growth approach is part of our evergreen vision. We want to make sure we’re doing it right. It’s important to us to stay independent and employee-owned. We can do that with paced growth. That’s profitable, obviously, and takes people into account first. But we were all-draft, growing slowly, and then the craft industry exploded. We held off going to the East Coast and being a national brand. I mean, the focus back then for the founders, Doug and Wynne [Odell] and Corkie [Doug’s sister], was to be a strong Rocky Mountain regional brewery. There were no aspirations to be a national brand.
To answer your question directly, COVID reinforced that that is the way for us. That is our future. Colorado is something we can control. Our existing markets are something that we have more impact, more leverage over than going into new markets and spreading wide and thin.
CBB // Like you, more brewers are finding ways to go deeper into their own markets. How do you look at how many more consumers you can become relevant to, within the local and regional market?
ES // It’s really targeting that broader base. That happened because of the law changes in Colorado in 2019, when full-strength beer became available in grocery stores. It became a matter of reaching those customers who weren’t seeking out our beer but who saw it while shopping for groceries and thought, “I might try that.” We talked about that broader base, about how we could introduce people to Odell who still don’t know who we are. So many people are moving into Colorado, and we want to reach those customers. We want to make sure we have a portfolio, not only with IPAs and things like that, but also with brands like our Lagerado that’s coming out, that appeal to that broader base.
BM // And we’re seeing that shift in our taprooms, too. With our two locations in Denver, when we look at the numbers, our pilsners, lagers, and Kölsches are selling as well as, if not better than, the IPAs. There’s a consumer shift even in the craft-beer world to that lighter, more refreshing, more accessible style. That’s been a lot of fun to play around with, with some new hop varieties and new techniques.
CBB // Is that a change in the existing craft-beer consumer? Or does it reflect—especially with lighter beers that people can drink more of—consumers thinking, “I might order one IPA, but I can drink two pilsners?”
BM // Beers like Lagerado are more flavorful, so I think it is a shift in the craft-beer consumer. Everyone who was drinking—maybe exclusively—IPAs, now folds in a pilsner or lager here and there just for refreshment and to break it up a little. And there’s a newfound appreciation for what you can do with lagers, much like what we did with IPAs way back when. IPA was a British, earthy, dark, very crystal-forward beer that everyone kind of made the same. It took American craft beer to start tweaking that model and making it ours. We’re doing the same thing with lagers right now.
ES // I think the craft-beer consumers have changed because the industry is changing. Brewers are changing. We’ve been here 28 years, and for a long time we just brewed 90 Shilling, Easy Street, things like that, and then it changed to pale ales and IPAs. But then there was that long period where everyone was bringing out every kind of style—oud bruins, gueuzes. They were introducing all these styles from Germany and Belgium and all that. All the breweries got in that game, then they put them on the shelves … and they didn’t sell. People were interested, but then it was, “Yeah. I’ve tried that.” Now lagers, pilsners not only sell, but people like them and come back to them.
CBB // It is interesting that innovation now is more focused on beer styles that people will potentially drink a lot of. No one was ever going to drink a ton of heavily Brett-ed, pineapple, wood-aged whatever. But a hoppy lager is something that people can drink 12-packs of and keep going back to.
ES // Definitely. We see it in packages like our variety pack. People get to try some things, and if they find something they like, they might buy it in a six-pack or try it on draft.
CBB // A lot of folks decide to start their own breweries because they don’t see an ability to achieve their own personal and financial goals working within someone else’s brewery. But you have both been here 28 years, and you’ve got employees who have been with you for multiple decades. Odell has figured out how to keep good people, help them progress in their careers, help them realize those personal goals without leaving the brewery.
ES // We say we act like owners because we are, and I think we had that philosophy as an employee-owned company before we even became an ESOP company. When people embrace that, they want to be here longer. We live in a great community in Fort Collins, so that helps. More and more people like living here, but it’s getting more and more expensive. We understand that. We’ve always tried to bring our wage floor up. When minimum wage was $7 to $8 an hour, we were at $13, then $14, then $15. We had a goal of $20 by 2020, and we did raise our wage floor to $20 an hour. We did that not as a reaction to what happened with COVID. We were proactive. I think our coworkers/co-owners recognize that. That ownership mentality that they have has been a huge part of keeping people.
BM // I would add that it’s the empowerment, the way we operate. Yes, Smitty’s the CEO, but it’s not like he’s directing everything. People are empowered to influence their work sphere and have the leeway to run and get creative and try some things. Mistakes are okay. We’re all going to make them, so let’s learn from them. “Always better” is our philosophy. We give people accountability for a project or piece of work, and then we just let them run with it and figure it out. We empower them to make their calls.
CBB // And now you’ve launched a winery? Why get into that incredibly competitive market of winemaking and put it right here next to the brewery?
ES // I’ll go back to what Brendan said about empowerment and allowing people to take an idea and run with it: It’s a project where we empowered a lot of people who were very passionate about it when one of our maintenance guys brought it up. And we had a lot of people who were interested. So we sent some people to conferences, said go figure out some things and get some insight.
BM // And we hired a really experienced winemaker.
ES // Well, yeah. But that team knew what we wanted to do. As things expand and develop, we’re really relying a lot on that team and their expertise. And then Travis [Green, winemaker] is a tremendous asset. He’s so passionate about it. Just having him part of our community and teaching us has been great.
BM // The innovation that’s coming out of here in the next year is exciting. The stuff he’s doing really kind of blends the beer and wine worlds together. We’re going to have some cool, very small-volume, one-off things. It’s really a side project. It’s part of our campus.
ES // That innovation is so key. We want to be more on the high end with wine, more creative. It’s also what you said at the beginning—back to our roots in Colorado. Initially, we couldn’t source as much from Colorado. Now we’re building more and more relationships on the Western Slope, but every winery in Colorado gets grapes from somewhere else, just like every brewery in the world gets hops from the Pacific Northwest. We like that the relationships we have with our hop growers mean we can get grapes directly from our hop growers. That is an interesting story and collaboration.
BM // You look at Goschie Farms—we’ve been buying hops from Gayle [Goschie] for a long time. She’s growing excellent wine grapes, and so we were able to source grapes from them. Roy Farms has also been a hop partner of ours for a long time. They’re getting into wine grapes, and we were able to use those. Leveraging those relationships and playing around made it a lot easier.
ES // Diversification of our business was a goal from us a couple years ago. But coming back to beer, that’s our focus. We always talk about New Glarus in Wisconsin. They sell all that beer in Wisconsin. If we could sell 135,000 barrels of beer in Colorado, that would be ideal.
CBB // Is there more growth in that beyond-beer category?
BM // We’re learning a lot from Travis, from the wine world. And he’s learned a lot from the beer world. We’re starting to play around with some crossover things that are refreshing and fun. It would be “beer” because it would be 51 percent malt based. But it would also have some wine grape as a fruit. We’re excited about some of these crossover things that are turning out to be really refreshing on a small scale. We’ll offer them up to consumers in our taprooms and see how it goes. It might go the way of Sippin’ Pretty, which started out at our Five Points spot in Denver as a “let’s have some fun with a gose,” and it connected, and we started packaging. Or it could go the way of never making it anywhere. We’ll find out.
But there’s so much you can do. Look how much we’ve done in craft brewing over the past four years or so. Just talking about lagers and cold IPAs—those are lagers, and they use the hops differently. We’re starting to play around in that space with the new experimental hops that are coming out. There’s one, I’ll give it up, we’re using it in Lagerado. It’s HBC 1134—an exciting, cool hop. It’s not an IPA hop; it’s a pilsner/lager hop. It’s a domestic, grown in Washington.
Then there are things that we’re just getting to now. Indie Hops has a bunch of lager hops in development, like Lórien. There are others that are exciting in a different way. They’re not exactly traditional Noble, German, Czech, French hops. But they have unique elements that we haven’t seen yet. They’re fun to play around with. In the lager space, alone, there’s so much we can do. Then obviously, IPAs are going to continue to evolve into who-knows-what next.
CBB // How do you keep an eye on such trends so that you can respond and take advantage of them? How do you use feedback from stuff that’s doing well in taprooms and decide whether you can scale it?
BM // You come at it from two different angles. First, we have the organic taproom hero, the one that just connects, and you can feel it, and it sells twice as fast as everything else on tap, like the Guava Gose that became Sippin’ Pretty. But then we also have—more on the sales and marketing side—getting the retailers in the conversation.
ES // And the analytics. We look at all the national data and local data in Colorado with IRI and Nielsen, watching trends and being aware of where other breweries seem to be succeeding. We look at a lot of factors. And sometimes we’ll just kind of sit on an idea to see how it plays out. We make that decision on our own brands, too. We’re always analyzing and looking at not only what we’re shipping out, but also distributor trends. And what Brendan alluded to—talking to our retailers and understanding what they want. The big national accounts like King Soopers, Safeway, Target, Whole Foods have become such a big part of our business. We need to have those conversations early with them to make sure we’re producing something that they want on the timeline that works for them but that also appeals to local package stores. We’re talking with them to learn what they see, what they think, what they want from us next, listening to that feedback. Then we see whether that aligns with what we were seeing in our taprooms and what we’re seeing our competitors do as well.
BM // Our opportunities are unique. It’s more and more unique as an independent business focusing on Colorado at our size. Not a lot of breweries are in our position anymore. There were a lot, but now they’re part of mega corporations with very deep pockets. We need to continue to push innovation, connect with our consumer, and be an integral part of the community. That’s our future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.