Colorado was a beer state since before it was a state. Adolph Coors and partner Jacob Schueler opened what was then the Golden Brewery in 1873, three years before Colorado achieved statehood. A century later, Colorado was at the forefront of the craft brewing movement when Boulder Beer launched in 1979 and laid claim to the title of first licensed “microbrewery” in the country.
In an industry that’s seen its growth go flat in recent years, beer makers are on the lookout for, and, in many cases, already working on the next wrinkles to throw into their tanks that have potential to scoop up new drinkers or boost interest from existing ones.
No surprise, Colorado is expected to be at the forefront of next wave of beer and beer alternatives, industry advocates say.
“Colorado has been known as the hotbed of innovation in beer for several decades,” Andres Gil Zaldana, executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild, said. “Consumer preference in the recent decade or so has shifted to more of a health and wellness perspective and that really fits with Colorado in general. We all like to run, hike and bike.”
The growth of gluten-free breweries is indicative of that trend, Zaldana says.
Holidaily Brewing Co. founder Karen Hertz has found her home state to be fertile ground. After two bouts with cancer and being diagnosed with a rare thyroid illness called Hashimoto’s disease, Hertz had her thyroid removed in 2009. Doctors recommended she stop consuming gluten to protect her health. That presented a problem for the former Coors Brewing staffer and beer lover: She couldn’t find gluten-free brews she liked.
She embarked on a multi-year quest to come up with gluten-free recipes that tasted like craft beer to her. That involved test brewing on the Colorado State University campus and hiring a commercial brewer. It culminated in the 2016 opening of her brewery and taproom in at 801 Brickyard Circle in Golden.
Replacing traditional brewing grains like barley with millet and buckwheat supplied by Grouse Malt House in Wellington, Holidaily — named for Hertz’ philosophy of treating every day as a holiday — brewed 1,200 barrels of beer last year, nearly four times more than the 257 barrels it produced its first year in business. On May 4, Holidaily will celebrate the grand opening of a $2.8-million, 10,000-square-foot brewing facility a block from its first brewery and taproom. It will triple the company’s capacity.
Hertz’ connections in the industry certainly helped Holidaily grow. It currently has 300 distribution accounts in the state and is available in high-profile places like Coors Field and Broncos Stadium at Mile High. But she also credits the state’s unique culture.
“The community in terms of Colorado just has this perfect overlap of health and wellness and craft beer,” Hertz said. “With that overlap, Colorado was the perfect place for our beer.”
A few miles north on Colorado 93, Pedro Gonzalez, founder of Boulder-based New Planet Beer, is focused on growing his gluten-free brand exclusively through distribution.
New Planet is a forerunner in the gluten-free brewing world. It launched in 2009, six years after Gonzalez was diagnosed with Celiac disease. After brewing for years with sorghum, New Planet reformulated all of its beers in 2015 and now uses ingredients like blue corn and Grouse Malt House millet. The company doesn’t release its barrel production figures, but Gonzalez said sales grew 3 percent in 2018, 1 percent off the broader craft beer industry’s 4 percent pace. It is now distributing in 10 states outside of Colorado, including Florida, Massachusetts and Michigan. Gonzalez said he expects 2019’s growth to land somewhere between 5 and 10 percent.
There are differences between New Planet and Holidaily beyond business strategy. Holidaily is a “dedicated” gluten-free brewery, meaning nothing containing gluten passes through its doors. New Planet’s beer is made at Sleeping Giant Brewing, a contract brewer in Denver. Its beers are classified as gluten-free and gluten-reduced under Food and Drug Administration guidelines, Gonzalez said.
New Planet’s beer is less expensive. And the company goes lighter on grains than Holidaily, resulting in lower alcohol contents in its beers. Where Holidaily’s Fat Randy’s IPA is 7 percent alcohol by volume, on par with many gluten-containing IPAs, New Planet’s Seclusion IPA is just is 4.9 percent ABV. The decision to go for a lower ABV was intentional, Gonzalez says, and touches on trends in the beer and broader market.
“What I’m seeing is that there has been a move toward lighter beers, lower calories, healthier ingredients,” Gonzalez says. “The consumer is sort of health and wellness driven. And, you know, people want to feel good the next day.”
Decreasing taste for alcohol — particularly among young people — is making its presences felt in the beverage industry. In a presentation shared earlier this month with brewers who are members of the Boulder-based Brewers Association, market research groups Nielsen and Nielsen CGA presented survey results that found 47 percent of self-described regular alcohol consumers were making strong or moderate efforts to drink less. The demographic with the highest percentage of drinkers striving to limit their intake was people ages 21 to 34. Health was the No. 1 reason participants were choosing to cut back.
Colorado is routinely ranked among the healthiest — if not the healthiest — states in the country. That means a market opportunity for Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing Co.
Co-founded by Bill Shufelt and award-winning craft brewer Jon Walker, Athletic makes nonalcoholic craft beer using a proprietary process. Ninety-five percent of the less-than-year-old company’s business comes through distribution, including direct-to-consumer shipping. Ten percent of the company’s sales thus far have been made in Colorado, Shufelt said. That’s despite Athletic only being on the shelves at one liquor store — Total Wine at 3905 E. Evans Ave., in Denver — and Colorado being the nation’s 21st largest state by population.
Shufelt and Walker came to Denver last week for the Craft Brewers Conference with aims to grow their local presence. It was the first year the conference had a seminar session dedicated to low or no ABV beers.
“Everyone is looking at the same population and trying to sell them more beer,” Shufelt said. “And we feel there is an entirely different population out there. We really are just making beer for the modern, healthy, mindful adult.”
Athletic isn’t alone. Molson Coors announced in 2017 that it was testing new varieties of nonalcoholic lagers. A bill signed by Gov. Jared Polis earlier this year cleared the way for brewers in the state to make malt beverages with an alcohol content between 4 percent and 0.5 percent, low ABV territory that previously required a separate license. Zaldana, of the Colorado Brewers Guild, expects a wave of light-on-alcohol “table beers” to hit taprooms across the state.
That doesn’t even touch on beer alternatives like hard ciders, hard seltzer drinks and hard teas, each of which represents small-but-growing segments of the beer sales market, according to Neilsen. Ciders lead the way with a 1.3 percent dollar share. Cannabis beverages like Arvada-based Ceria Brewing Co.’s line of THC-infused nonalcoholic beer also stand to take a bite.
Julia Herz, the Brewers Association’s craft beer program director, is confident association members will be movers and shakers as the beer industry evolves. She pointed to a recent survey of members.
“It was indicated that almost half were interested in brewing something other than beer,” Herz said. “Craft brewers have always been innovative. So that is very telling.”
Colorado, with the third most craft breweries of any state at 348, certainly has the tank space to be at the heart of it.