Wynkoop Brewing Co., Denver

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 30, Issue 1
March 1, 2009 By Julie Johnson

Wynkoop Brewpub turned 20 years old last year, and you began your job as head brewer around the same time.

A little earlier. We just had our 20th anniversary in October and I started in July of last year. Shortly after that, we had the Democratic National Convention here in Denver, and that was a big deal for us. I was quickly put into the fire.

With very short notice, what did you have to be ready for right away?

I came up with a beer specifically for the DNC called the Obamanator. I think based on the name alone, I was on NBC Nightly News, CNN and interviewed by radio stations—there was a whole media frenzy. That was a lot of fun. It was like a maibock but American dry-hopped. I told people, like the candidate, it’s a hybrid of different national origins.

By my count, you’re the fifth brewer for Wynkoop.

And I’m the first one hired from outside the company. For about a year before I came here, I worked at Oskar Blue’s helping them set up their new production facility and cannery in Longmont [CO]. Before that I was head brewery at Left Hand in Longmont for seven years.

And before that, I gather you were at Elysian.

I did my apprenticeship for the American Brewers Guild at Elysian with Dick Cantwell. He’s kind of my mentor. I really respect his opinion, and I look to him a lot for inspiration.

You’ve stepped into a position made famous by the first brewer, Russ Scherer, in whose name a top award in brewing innovation has been given to Dick Cantwell and others over the past 11 years. How do you plan to make your mark at Wynkoop?

I came in not planning to change too much, but I have made subtle changes. I’m trying to go for brewing awards, to make it clear that we want the beer here to be the best it can be. I’ve been able to use my production brewing background to make things run a lot smoother.

What are you able to bring in from the production side?

In production brewing, you look at what are called tank turns and how quickly you can move beer through the system and maintain quality. And consistency is very important in a packaging brewery. A brewpub is a little different: I get to experiment more, and there are more seasonal beers. We’ll have six to eight full-time beers and four seasonals at a time that I get to come up with. I also get to interact with people more than at a production brewery, where I was in the cellar or my office most of the time.

You get to meet people over a pint from time to time?

Yes, in fact, that is something the owners asked me to do, to interact with people. That’s definitely part of my job description.

Wynkoop is one of the biggest brewpubs in that nation.

It’s one of the top ten, producing 3,000 barrels per year, and about 92 percent of it sold at our own taps. Some brewpubs are bigger, but they sell a lot of their beer out the door. I think you’re allowed to sell up to 25 percent of your beer off premise and still be considered a brewpub, at least according to the Brewers Association.

Are you solo there?

I have two assistants. I couldn’t do it all myself. We have seven fermenters upstairs and about 24 conditioning tanks. We also do some wood barrel aging—that’s all tucked downstairs, in what we call the catacombs.

Did you have a hand in the mountain gorilla fundraiser? Was that smoked porter your creation?

It’s really the child of a guy called Frank Keesling—everybody knows him as the Gorilla Guy—who runs a foundation for mountain gorillas. He approached us just after I started this job, I came up with the beer, and it’s really done well: 25 percent of the proceeds are donated to the foundation. I think we’ve donated about $5,000, and sponsored a trip to Africa. And we’ve decided to keep the smoked porter as a year-round.

What else do you look forward to making?

We’re going to start brewing an American IPA, which they’ve never done before here: the IPA has always been English. We have a lot of beers on cask right now served through an English hand-pump.

I‘m focusing on our seasonal beers and beer dinners—we’re doing a beer dinner every two months. Our executive chef is very talented and we come up with menus. We’re doing a Mardi Gras dinner, and then a Dr. Seuss-themed dinner.

What’s on that menu?

Well, have you ever tried to pair green eggs and ham?

I give up. What goes with it?

I put a Belgian tripel with that one.

What makes the eggs green?

Spinach. It’s really a little like a spinach quiche with ham.

I noticed in photographs you’re holding GABF medals.

I got them this year, two gold medals for Wynkoop, for our schwarzbier, which is a black lager, called B3K for “Batch 3,000,” and our German-style weissbier.

We have six full-time beers that are our mainstays. Our most popular beer is called Railyard Ale, which is an American amber. The schwarzbier is a regular, too, because it’s so popular. I think it’s our best-selling draft beer outside of the brewery, maybe because the style is unusual. It’s dry, the same color as a stout, but with a very clean finish.

Are you from this area?

I grew up in Maine and moved to Colorado about 12 years ago. I worked for two years framing houses and saving money, and went to brewing school in 2000. The past nine years have gone by fast, People sometimes ask me how I fell into brewing. I didn’t fall into it; I chose it as my career, a job I thought I could be inspired by.

I started homebrewing when I was 20. My parents were really cool about it. Then I went to college and studied music—jazz performance. I still do that on the side, but it wasn’t a very stable career.

So do you put together a group to play at the Wynkoop occasionally?

Yeah. We’re doing our own half-time show for the Superbowl.

And how do you relax when you’re away from the brewery?

I’m building custom motorcycle that I’ve been working on for about eight months. I pretty much bought all the parts on EBay; it’s like a chopper. I feel like I’ve been training to build this bike since I was about 18 and started working on my own car.