with Glenn Knippenberg and Jeff Cornell
AC Golden Brewing Co.
Tell me about AC Golden.
GK: We’re owned by MillerCoors. Pete Coors took a look at how new products like Blue Moon were being developed for the pipeline, and noticed that we weren’t doing many. Largely, what the big brewers have done is spend anywhere from $19 to 30 million developing a brand, developing the advertising, shooting commercials, buying airtime, all the R & D, all the packaging―and, frankly, 90 percent of them fail.
So Pete said, “Why don’t we try to do it a different way? Why don’t we do it the way small brewers do it? We’ll test some brands in a small geography, and if it looks like we’re onto something, we’ll radiate out from that small area. And if the brand isn’t doing well, we won’t have $20 million tied up in it.” So Pete called me and we started the company in 2007.
We wanted to be an incubator company, if you will. We had a packaging and bottling line: it’s a small one but big enough to get this incubator idea going. We have a 30-barrel brewhouse, all copper made by hand by a company called Huppmann in Germany. It was imported in 1973. So we had a brewhouse and we had a filler; we didn’t have the fermentation cellar we needed, just real small 10-barrel fermentation tanks. MillerCoors gave us the money to put in a brand new fermentation and aging cellar, with three brite beer tanks and the capability to fill kegs, which we didn’t have before. As of November, 2009, we are a full-fledged, small-batch craft brewery.
About the size of smaller regionals.
GK: We’re one of the smaller commercial breweries in Colorado. Most are a lot bigger.
You said most big companies experience a failure rate of 90 when they’re developing new beers. I assume that’s still the case, but it costs a lot less?
GK: That’s the idea. Let’s battle test something in a small piece of geography, and for considerably less money. If it works, you can always spread it out. If it doesn’t, you’re not out all that much, and you haven’t polluted a market with a failure.
Jeff, how long have you been with AC Golden?
JC: Since it started. At the time, I was managing what was then the MolsonCoors pilot brewery. So when Pete announced that AC Golden was going to be formed, I instantly became not only the manager of the pilot brewery, but also the manager of the brewing part of AC Golden. Once the joint venture was formed, I spent a little over a year as a staff brewer for the corporate brewing entity for MillerCoors, but when they posted the manager’s job for AC Golden, I realized I really liked doing that. I applied and I got it.
How is what goes on at AC Golden different from what goes on at the pilot brewery?
JC: Good question. Larger brewers tend to use pilot breweries for qualifying new crop years of barley and malt, or trying out new hops maybe for existing brands. There are a lot of things you don’t want to do on a large scale that you can qualify on a pilot brewery. So new product development was just a small component of what the pilot brewery was doing.
At AC, Golden, on the other hand, new product development’s a big part of what we do, as well as making sure that Knip and his team have all the [Colorado] Native and Herman [Joseph’s Private Reserve] they need to take to market. So we’re a small production brewery as well. I’ve got a team that loves to try brewing different beer styles, and I encourage that as much as possible. And Knip gives us a long leash.
Just how long does that leash have to be for anyone in charge of a brewing facility to let you bring in Brettanomyces?
JC: He calls it a leash. I call it a rope!
What caught my attention was a wild acidic beer from AC Golden at the Wood and Barrel-aged festival in Chicago. I thought that was a bold step to take.
JC: Being avid brewers, we developed an interest in wood-aged beers, and also in sour beers. We obviously tasted a lot of Belgian beers, and also a lot of American wild beers. Considering sour beers: one of the things we enjoy as part of a bigger company is having a great deal of expertise at our disposal. Some of the best microbiologists in the business, I’d say, are probably located here. So my team paired up with key people in that area and told them we’d like to play in this sour arena, but we need to do it in most conservative way to minimize any sort of risk.
When it comes to non-traditional yeast like Brett, one thing that gives us the ability to handle it very safely is that we have two cellars: we have the original pilot cellars and we have the one that Knip referred to that has larger fermenters where we can make Native and HJ. So that gives us the ability to isolate where we do the wood-aged beers or where we use non-traditional yeast and other things. That’s something most people don’t have.
Where in the process do you introduce the beer to the Brettanomyces and other unusual organisms? Is that in the barrel?
JC: Typically, it is at the barrel level, not earlier, for a barrel-aged product. We made a saison recently and we used three different yeast strains, so obviously those were introduced during fermentation, that’s not a barrel aged product.
What was the base beer for your sour ale?
JC: [It] was based on a lambic wort, using about 25 percent wheat and a little Special B malt for color.
The wild beer project struck me as pretty out there for a major brewery―except that Coors, of course, has an amazing record taking an obscure Belgian style and creating Blue Moon. You had to educate your drinkers’ palates before that could succeed. Do you find flavors in wild beer that you think would translate to more of a mass audience?
JC: That remains to be seen. If someone had come to you long before Blue Moon appeared and said “We’re going to make a cloudy beer with orange and coriander in it. Are you interested in trying that?” I don’t know if your answer would have been yes.
Aimee Valdez: Leo Kiley, who was head of Coors at the time is fond of calling Blue Moon “our 13-year overnight success.”
JC: When I first had a Belgian sour, my face puckered and I thought “Wow, why would I spend any time drinking this?” About a year later, I was spending good money trying to locate more of them. It’s an acquired taste, and it’s not going to be for everyone, just as stouts aren’t for everybody, either.
It remains to be seen where that goes. Participating in that Chicago event was like, let’s put that out there. We sent Troy Casey [from the brewing staff], who I’ve got to give a lot of credit to: he’s definitely the one who learned the most and spearheaded our efforts in this area.
How big is the brewing team?
JC: It’s pretty small: me and three other guys. I do have a couple more temporaries we rely on as we move into peak season.
What’s the relationship with Sandlot?
JC: We’re friends. [laughter] Sandlot is not part of AC Golden, but it is part of MillerCoors. They get their direction from a different part of the company. They’re great brewers and, seriously, are great friends. We work with them a lot and certainly aspire to their success at the GABF. They quite often remind us that we have some catching up to do.
How many different beers do you have going at once?
JC: As you start aging your beer in wood, you can build up quite a few. We probably have in excess of half a dozen aging right now, in a few dozen barrels. Then, of course, we have our regular job keeping up with Native and Herman Joseph, and then seasonally, Winterfest, which comes out the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday.
Three? Then the rest are all experiments?
JC: Some of it is just for us to work with and taste and tweak, and it never leaves the premises. Then there’s what we call craft-centric on-premises accounts in Denver. These are the guys who pride themselves on having about every craft offering there is. We might sell them a few kegs. Then there are a few off-premises liquor stores. If we do 20 cases of a saison or a Russian imperial stout or something limited, there’s one account here that will take it all. Some of these we make just once; with others, if we find they’re well received, we’ll take a second swing at it.
Give me an idea of the range of styles you’ve brewed, at least experimentally.
JC: Everything from traditional German pilsner through Russian imperial stout. We recently brewed a traditional German alt beer. We like the German styles, and we stay fairly traditional with them. Our dunkel has gotten two medals at the GABF, and we medalled for our schwarzbier. We’ve got bocks. We’ve covered a pretty big spectrum if you look back.
How about a Berliner weisse? I think that’s a style that could have broader public appeal. I’m not sure how far the public will go with horse blanket flavors, but the clean tang of a Berliner weisse could lure some drinkers.
JC: Yeah, actually Troy was talking to me the other day about Berliner weisse, so we’ve been kicking that one around a little bit.
How did you get your start?
JC: I started homebrewing in the late eighties, reading Charlie Papazian’s book like thousands of others. I joined Coors in 2000 as a chemist―that’s my bachelor’s degree―and started studying beer chemistry pretty ravenously. Then I got the opportunity to go down the brewing path. I’m wrapping up my thesis now for a master’s from Heriot Watt University, and along the way I got to participate in a year-long rotation where I worked in every department in the Golden brewery. This company has done wonderful things for me from a brewing education point of view.
Are you a stand-alone financial entity?
GK: We are. We’re a limited liability corporation. MillerCoors owns us, and any money we make goes to them.
But you have to make payroll with what you create there?
GK: Yes, everything’s separate. Our bank is about two blocks from here. If we need to send you a check, Carol will enter it in QuickBooks, I’ll sign it, and we’ll drop it in the mail right here. But if you need a check from MillerCoors, it’ll probably end up coming from India!
We’re completely stand alone. We probably have one of the smallest breweries in Colorado, operating from inside the world’s largest single-site brewery.
You’re physically located inside the site at Golden.
GK: We’re right in the middle of the Coors brewery. You have to get through a fairly industrial area to get to our location, so we can’t take the public through there for liability reasons, but we’re right in the middle of that big monster out there.
Anything coming up that your team is excited about?
GK: Some things we can’t talk about yet, but others we can. For instance, this summer we’re going to put Colorado Native in a can: that seems to be something a number of our brothers are doing. As far as different styles of beer, we’re noodling around what we’re going to do for GABF. We’ll be there in a big way, hopefully with more success this fall. With our beers, more of them don’t go commercial than do.