The Avery Brewing Company tap room is not a large place by any means. Parking is extremely limited. A few outdoor tables sit on a small patio. The primary taproom consists of two small rooms, a few tables and a bar. Certainly, it doesn’t look like the nerve center of a sizeable regional craft brewery that has been in business for more than 20 years. Seeing it, one can’t help but realize how DIY and independent this sort of operation remains, even after all that time. After all, what is a craft brewer but a homebrewer working on fancier equipment?
Some 21 years ago, Adam Avery was that homebrewer, striking out on a completely uncertain business venture alongside his father after first traveling to Colorado with an entirely different aim in mind: Rock climbing. Today he still sports the muscled arms of someone who has spent a good amount of time on the rock wall, although his once jet-black hair has picked up a sprinkling of salt along with its pepper. He sat down with Paste recently to reminisce on two decades of brewing and the brewery’s upcoming expansion.
Paste: If I remember from the last time we talked, you originally came to Colorado not for beer but for rock-climbing, right?
Adam Avery: I was working at Eastern Mountain Sports. My boss at the time homebrewed, and I had a taste of it and was like “oh my god, what is this?” I’d had a roommate who homebrewed in college, but it wasn’t like this. This was like 1990. I think it was literally the next day that I bought my first homebrew equipment and started down the path that led me here.
Paste: And how long was it before you wanted to go commercial?
AA: It was 1993 when we opened. The first generation craft brewers had done a lot of the legwork. Guys like Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada) who is basically my idol, Fritz Maytag (Anchor), Jim Koch (Boston Beer Co.)…they were ahead of this whole curve. Then there are the second generation guys, and I would include myself in those. Now we’re on the fourth or fifth generation.
Paste: What was demand for craft beer like then?
AA: Well we never boomed, not back then. We didn’t start making money for the first 9 or 10 years.
Paste: So how did you get by, then?
AA: We lived on credit cards and didn’t pay ourselves for two to three years. We stayed with it because we were making these very aggressive beers, and we figured the consumers would probably catch up, and they definitely did. We just had to keep educating. I remember when we started making our IPA in 1996 I would self-deliver kegs to friends and they would call and say “you’ve got to come get this beer, it’s too bitter, nobody is going to drink this.” And today, IPA is the number one style of craft beer! Eventually I knew people would come around to the hoppy side of things.
Paste: What made you sure?
AA: Because I saw it in other industries like wine, coffee or artisanal cheese. I saw a trend toward more flavor. The consumers want the challenge and they challenge themselves. That’s what I figured they would eventually want to pay money for.
Paste: How does that initial vision compare to the outlook today? What’s Avery’s brewing philosophy in 2014?
AA: It’s still the same; we’re brewing what we want to drink and continually experimenting with our barrel-aged series. But there’s also a movement toward experiments in subtlety. As I get older, I can’t drink as much, so we’re trying to figure out how to make super flavorful beers that aren’t really high-alcohol.
Paste: It’s been very interesting to see things swing that way with the popularity of session IPAs and session beer in general.
AA: I don’t think it’s a fad, any more than IPA was back in the day. I think there’s a lot of older brewery owners like myself who say “I really like my double IPA and I wish I could drink it all day long, but there’s ramifications.” I’m 47, and a lot of the guys who started 20 years ago are right with me. Guys like me find we probably drink more than we should, so if we can minimize the impact while maximizing flavor, that’s ideal. We’ve been working on our own session IPA-type recipe for two years now, but haven’t packaged it yet.
Paste: Your barrel-aged beers get a lot of accolades, but they don’t seem to get distributed that far from Colorado. Is that just from limited quantity?
AA: Yeah, the biggest release has been about 800 cases, but this year that all changes. We’ll do a 3,000-case release of Rumpkin, our imperial pumpkin ale in rum barrels and another pumpkin porter in bourbon barrels, plus our imperial coffee stout Tweak and Uncle Jacob’s Stout as well. We’ve really invested in barrels, getting more than 1,000 in-house, and by the end of the year it will be 1,500. And that doesn’t even include production at our new facility.
Paste: Alright, give me the full run-down on the new facility. Where will it be and how much beer will it be producing?
AA: It’s here in north Boulder, finally broke ground in February. We’ll have a German-made brewhouse that can brew anywhere between 26 and 95 barrels, which is very fluid with what we do because we do a lot of small-batch stuff. It’s awesome, state of the art. It will bump our capacity up to about 100,000 barrels from day one, with room for further expansion.
Paste: Is there anything you’re not able to do here at the current facility?
AA: Actually, this facility is completely lacking in so many different things. Our brewhouse makes good beer, but it’s not state of the art. Our wort clarity and a lot of other things will get better with the new equipment. Some people don’t think it will be as good, but I guarantee it will be even better.
Paste: Who doesn’t think it will be as good?
AA: Well, you know there will be those beer geeks out there who see a brewery when it starts to “get big” and say “the beer quality went down” after expansion, when almost always the quality has gone up. That’s just perception. Here, we’re so limited by capacity that it’s really limited our brand extensions for the last few years. We’ve been at capacity for two years, which hurts your ability to do what you want to do. I’d say we only get a chance to do 50 percent of the stuff we want to do right now, and we’ll make all of those dreams a reality at our new facility.
Paste: Back when I turned 21 a little more than six years ago, Avery beer was actually available in a lot more states. Did steadily increasing demand drive the need to pull out of those markets?
AA: We left 18 total markets, which included seven whole states and eight partial states. The reason wasn’t just because we couldn’t feed them, but those smaller orders were getting in the way of the bigger orders of our bigger distributors. We decided it would be better to take a cut in sales to better service our bigger distributors. Instead of constantly saying “no” to everybody, I would rather say “no” for a time to these 18 markets so I could say yes to everyone else. Now we’re starting to forge back into those markets, hopefully we’ll be back in all of them by the end of 2015.
At this point, Avery and I get sidetracked on a long discussion about the epidemic of expired and past-fresh beer on the shelves in liquor stores in 2014. As Avery says, “It’s a huge issue for everybody.”
Paste: What do you find yourself doing on a daily basis these days? What are your duties like?
AA: Really, it’s just a series of meetings. I meet with every staff in the brewery at least once a week to discuss the good and bad. A lot of time is spent on new product formulation, labels or the $27 million building project we’re working on with the new facility.
Paste: Ever miss the old days of scrubbing fermenters?
AA: I wouldn’t say I miss it. I enjoyed that time, but I don’t like to look backward. I think successful people in the brewing industry are always looking forward. The funny thing is, if I tried to do that stuff today I would probably break something. The guys making the beer today are so much more educated in brewing science.
Paste: Still climbing rocks?
AA: Yes, never going to stop. I climb at least three days a week. Most of my vacations are based around climbing rocks and selling beer. It’s pretty sweet.