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In Search of the Yeti: Great Divide's 20 Years of Beers

Launching with only two beers in 1994, Great Divide Brewing Company has since won eighteen Great American Beer Festival medals and five World Beer Cup awards. Just this spring, Great Divide announced its second location expansion in RiNo along Brighton Boulevard. The Denver-based popular brewery celebrates its 20th Anniversary with a party this Saturday. Eater sat with founder Brian Dunn to learn about its longevity, the unique character of an urban brewery, and the potential whereabouts of its Yeti.

Can you talk about your early days and the road to loving beer? I grew up in a house where food was really important. My mom was a big cook and my dad was really into beer and wine and spirits. It sounds bad, but he liked to drink and there was always booze in the house, so I just grew up around it. Then when I went to college, I had already learned a lot about beer and I had grown up around a lot of good beer. Out of school, I ended up getting a job for 5 years traveling around third world countries and developing countries and developing farms in North Africa, I spent 2 years in Europe, and I spent time in Asia. I got more and more into beer and I wanted to learn all about local beers and I learned a lot about Belgian beers when I was living in North Africa, because I would go up to France and buy shit-tons of beer and bring it back on the ferry. After being overseas for 5 years, I decided I missed Colorado and came back and went to DU and got a graduate degree, but then I started homebrewing in grad school. I really got immersed in brewing in grad school. And then I was coming out of grad school and I was not that wild about what I studied, and that's when I started writing a business plan.

What was the genesis for creating a brewery in the first place? I didn't know what I wanted to do and I just wanted to do something that I really liked. I ski a lot, I race bikes, but I also like beer. Those are my top favorite things besides family and whatnot. So, you might as well do something that you are passionate about, that you like and care, and can put your heart into. So I thought, well, I love beer, and if I could make a living out of it, I'd try it.

We're lucky to be drinking and eating in a time when craft beer is booming. When Great Divide started, we didn't have this same landscape. Well, there was already New Belgium, Odell, Breckenridge, and Red Hook and a lot of the older guys had already been there. When we started, I thought we were late. It's true. I first started with a marketing study with bars, restaurants, and liquor stores, and my first question was, "Are we too late? If we started a brewery, would you buy the beer?" Everyone was like, "Oh, yeah, we'll probably find a spot for it." But I thought we were late. And we weren't the first.

And now, 20 years later, what do you think about how craft beer has progressed? It's amazing. It's so different. But what's really different is the whole landscape. People know so much more about beer. I bet everyone in this room has had craft beer. When we opened, people were asking if it's like homebrew or if it's beer made in our basement. Nobody got it. The market has changed a lot and it's mostly that so many people know so much about beer in generally-- and locally made beer. People support local businesses a lot more than they used to. In the beginning it was hard. We had to sell pretty hard to get bars to carry our beer. We had to convince them that they should buy local beer and that it was good and it would sell and that it was what people were looking for. We sold pretty hard in the beginning to get people to carry it.

What were some of the first beers that you sold? The first two beers that I started the brewery with are no longer around. One was an amber called Arapahoe Amber that eventually became Ridgeline Amber, but we 86'd that a long time ago. The other was a wheat beer called White Water Wheat. Those are two beers that came from my kitchen to the brewery. But they went away about six - eight years. Then we started brewing more pales, bigger beers, and Hercules, and Yeti, and fun beers. The first two beers we opened with are no longer around. It's ok, things change.

How have you seen your brewing style change? We definitely are brewing a lot more variety of styles than in the beginning, but we also opened with those two beers. Eventually, it was St. Bridget's Porter, then Denver Pale Ale came out and we had 4. They all were brewed with one yeast. And then as more beers came out, we brewed with more yeast. Then w played with German stuff and Belgian stuff. Then bigger beers, and then we started wood-aging the bigger beers.

What do you think is next? We like making lagers and barrel-aged beers, and sours. We have a lot of sours coming out. Different funky styles.

How would you describe your beer?I don't know. Each one is different, they're all over the board. We make a wide variety of beers.

What has been your role as a businessman and neighbor in Ballpark? It's important for us to be active in the neighborhood. When we opened, it was hard for us. I found that location, I thought it would be a great plus. But I cared about it. We've spent a lot of time to make the building nice, to be part of the neighborhood, to be part of the neighborhood association, help with safety and security, and deal with crime and lighting. So it's important to me. I'm on the board of the neighborhood association. It takes businesses and residences, but more businesses to get in and help the surrounding area feel comfortable, occupied, and safe. It was great with Snooze, Marco's Coal Fire Pizza, and Ignite moved in. It's great when the restaurants came in.

How did you find that original location and why this one? Newspaper. That's how things were listed. I like cities, I like urban environments. I like the wilderness, too, and I've spent a lot of time up in the mountains. But if I'm going to be in a city, I prefer an urban environment and I thought it was a good place for the brewery. It was an old dairy, too, so it made a lot of sense. It had big gas line, a lot of power, floor drains, and all the things we would need. It took a lot of work, but to me it just felt right. The brewery became a sort of urban brewery and it fits my personality. There's a lot of personality in everyone' business. What Chad [Yakobson of Crooked Stave] or Steve [Scott of Babette's Artisan Breads] are doing -- everyone's personality shines through a bit in their business. What's interesting is that I wanted to be close to downtown, but we didn't embrace the retail part. We had no money, and the windows were either covered up or glass block. I mean, the front door was a steel door with no windows until six years ago. We didn't invite people to come in. If people happened to find us, we would show you around and pour you a growler, but we didn't embrace that because we had no money to build the bar. But now, we have a great place for it. It took us awhile to embrace it. The landscape has certainly changed and if we had opened a taproom 20 years ago, I doubt it would've done well. I wish we had done it earlier, but we didn't.

What's your background in machinery, arguably the only reason you've been able to make that tiny, ex-creamery space work for you for 20 years? We're pretty crafty and we'll figure someway around it. There's almost no problems we can't figure out around it. That space has been fun and we keep building around it and the existing walls, jamming something in. We keep going up. Like, we'll build a roof structure and that's how we're dealing with it.

Why did you decide to stay in Denver versus expanding outside the city that would allow for more growth at a lesser cost? It just didn't feel right to go out side the city. And we looked at a lot of different properties. Every time I went outside the city to look at properties, it just didn't feel right. I couldn't imagine the brewery being there for 20 years. I mean, I'm sure it would've been fine, but it wasn't where I wanted it to go work everyday. It just didn't feel right. My girlfriend who is real estate helped with the search and we eventually found this across the street and it was great. I knew that I didn't want to be out there, and it felt better to be closer to Denver. We spent so much more money in real estate, it was nuts, it's really expensive, but it was worth it. The brewery will be there for a long time; the total cost is hard to swallow now, but it's ok, it'll be there for a long time and it's where I want to be. It felt right for Denver.

The City of Denver has supported us a lot - the Office of Economic Development (OED) has been great. We got a loan from the City of Denver to help open in 1994 and we've got other loans from them to help expand. OED has been great for us and have really helped us grow over the years. I thought it would have been shitty to say, "thanks for helping us get started, now we're going to build something outside of Denver." It just didn't feel right. It was important to me, I'm loyal. But if the City helped us a bunch and helped us get the business going, I think the brewery should have stayed in Denver. And it's in a really fun neighborhood.

What are you most excited about the second location? It just has great energy. People doing different things, still some industrial things in the neighborhood, there are fun retailers out here, and it's just fun. Plus, it's beautiful – it overlooks the park, you can see the mountains, and the river. It's beautiful. I'm really excited about it. It's in the middle of the city, but it's got a great view.

So how is the new location going to work and balancing the production? We'll keep the old one. The new site will be for the higher volume beers, so we'll put really big tanks out there, really big brewhouse, and all the packaging lines (canning and glass lines) and equipment purchased will only be for 12-ounce beers. For us, that includes all the high volume beers. And what we'll do at the old place is keep brewing there, we'll keep the bottling line there, and the little kegging line, but it will be for any of the beers put in 22 oz or 750 mL, so for us the lower volume beers will be brewed and packaged at the old place.

What's your view on the never ending opening of small breweries in Denver? It shows the incredible excitement about the industry. It's not just brewers and businesspeople doing it, it's the beer drinkers embracing it. It's really being driven by the interest of beer drinkers. Which is pretty amazing. There's so much interest in locally brewed, but good beer. I think there's room—yes, it's busy and there's a lot of new guys coming on and up. But, they're all being absorbed. I think it's great.

Where do you see the craft beer industry going in the next 10 years after looking where you've been in the last 20 years? We're going to see a ton of growth. We haven't seen anything yet. I'm really optimistic of where this business is right now and where it can be. There's still so much growth. I'm really bullish on how much local beer can be brewed around here; it's awesome and fun.

As a veteran to the brewing industry, what advice would you give to those just getting started? Make great beer. [Laughs] It's all about the beer. You have to make great beer. That's the most, most, most, most important thing.

Are you still able to tinker around with your recipes and brew from time to time? Unfortunately, that's the one thing I don't like about my job is I get so busy that I have not been able to do that as much as I used to. I just can't fit everything in. But we've got a great crew of people who are coming up with great beers, they're creative, and they're very good at it. I've been out of it for about three years now.

Let's chat more about the names. Who are the characters you create to represent each beer? Names are hard. We brainstorm pretty hard about names and then eventually they just click. Sometimes it's just, "That one's great." The difficult part now is there's so many breweries, wineries, and distilleries now competing for names that aren't taken. I guess I probably lead the charge on names, and if I get stuck, I throw it out to other people, and sometimes people suggest them. But names are hard. You have to think about them for a long time, and I keep a journal with me to keep writing them down. Then you have to research them to see if they're already in use. It's hard.

The art is a little different. We use Cultivator Advertising and Design here in town and they do a great job, and they have done our art for 5-6 years. In the beginning, I would give them direction. Now, I tell them the name, what the beer is going to be like, and those guys just come up with stuff that's amazing. And 95% of the time we say that's great and run with that direction. They're amazing. They're so creative. I love working with people that are so good and you trust inherently.

What do you think the secret recipe is to your success? Great people. I work with great people. The sales and marketing group are great. They try hard spreading the work and work hard getting account. Our artists are great. Our bank is great. We just have good people we can go to for help. There are so many people involved. We're pretty small in comparison to a lot of breweries, with 47 people, but it takes all those people and everyone has a hand in making us successful. It makes it fun. Working with great people and having the ability to pick those people has been great, too. We're careful about it, and we pick people who fit, are creative, work hard, and care.

Highlight one of your beers for us. I can't pick favorites. The Yeti beers have been a lot of fun. It's a style that can lend itself to a lot of variation. The first Yeti was amazing, but it's a beer that you can do a millions things with—cayenne, oatmeal, barrel-age it. It's awesome; that's a fun beer. I didn't imagine it having a big present, especially at 9.5% ABV. It's not super high volume, but it has its fans. I love Colette – it's a lot of fun and is our 2nd best-selling beer. That's pretty cool to see a saison as our number 2 beer. It's a great food beer and really works well with dishes. I'm pretty proud to see what it's done.

What's your favorite pairing with it? I love it with cheese, like a good, soft cow's milk, wash-rind cheese. I think a lot of our beers go really well with cheese. Hercules and the pale ales are just awesome with cheese. Yeti with salty blue cheese is delicious. Beer and cheese is one of my all-time favorites.

You're celebrating your 20th anniversary this week with a big party. Can you tell us about the festivities? Party is at the new location on Saturday. It'll be fun. It's a dirt lot so I'm trying to tell everybody don't wear flip flops. It used to be a junkyard and it's full of gravel and dirt. Should be interesting, because for the past how many years we've been hosting this party, it's always been in front of the old brewery. This one will be different. It's going to be a dirt lot. Amazing view of the mountains, but if it rains, it's going to be muddy; if it's windy, it's going to be dusty. But it'll be great. We thought it would be a really good chance to show people where we're going, have the ability to be there before construction ever starts, and it'll be only one year we'll be able to do it, so we decided to do it. It'll be great. It's taken a lot of hard work on behalf of many people to get us to this point so it's fun to celebrate that way.

We have a bunch of sours, pilot beers, aged beers -- probably have 10-15 new beers we're pouring Saturday. The bands will be great; the food trucks are great. It'll be a good outside party.

We're really excited to be here at the new location. There are a lot of people who do it, and we couldn't have done it without our bank to get here. There's so much debt involved. You need good people to help create and getting here. It's a fun business and all the cool people help make it fun. No regrets, I'm the luckiest person in the world. I'm doing what I love and we get to pick the people we work with.

Any big milestones reflecting on the past 20 years?The brewery is quite successful and we're proud of where we are. Many people, though, don't know the beginning. We almost didn't make it. We needed money to expand, and we had none. No banks would loan us money. It was hard in the beginning. People don't know it started as small as it did with me as the only employee. It was really different, but it just gradually grew and grew and got people to help it going. It's almost so long ago that I almost don't remember it. It's cool to have seen it grow.

Our first hire was really into beer and really wanted to work here. And when he came to work here he showed up in a suit. He was a recent CU graduate and I didn't think he had any idea of what it was like to be here. He wasn't hired, because I didn't think he got it - even though he cared about beer. Eventually he said that he'll volunteer, and volunteered for a week, and then I had to hire him. He worked at the brewery for the first 7 years. He came to us by way of Breckenridge when they knew I needed an extra hand to help during construction awhile back. It's an indicative story about the industry and when I needed help, they were there to help. And they weren't the only ones helping, the guys at New Belgium and Odell offering help if I ever needed.

Where is that damn yeti?[Laughs]

Here's a look at the current Great Divide production space and tap room.

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Great Divide Brewery

2201 Arapahoe Street, Denver, CO 80205 303 296 9460