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.