Andy Brumenschenkel began his Friday morning as usual, brewing beer. As the head brewer and founder of Hideaway Park Brewery, he brews between once and twice a week and spends about 11 hours doing it. He’s one of several professional brewers in the county and one of hundreds across the state. National craft beer sales grew by 5 percent last year, making it one of the steadiest growing industries across the nation. But brewers in Grand County have some additional challenges in this increasingly competitive market.
“Water doesn’t boil at 212 [degrees Fahrenheit] up here,” Brumenschenkel said in an interview at his brewery. “It’s 196 [degrees Fahrenheit], so your evaporation and caramelization of the sugars of the wort are different.”
For the unfamiliar, the basic process of making beer involves extracting sugars out of grains to get wort and then yeast, which can then be turned into alcohol and carbon dioxide, forming what people know as beer. The multi-step process is done through varying levels of heating, cooling and boiling. In high altitude areas like Grand County, the lower boiling temperature means that the process must take longer. Colder temperatures also carbonate beer faster, meaning brewers must make additional calculations.
Tom Caldwell, head brewer at The Peak Bistro & Brewery, has also figured out the sometimes challenging chemistry.
“We oxygenate our wort quite a bit, more than normal,” Caldwell said in an interview, while in the middle of his own brewing day. “One of the biggest differences is that when you’re at high altitude your taste changes. You taste more bitter things.”
According to Caldwell, airlines are just starting to learn these things and will soon start offering their passengers beers specially made for altitude. In fact, some foreign airlines have already started doing this.
Still, being a small-business local brewer in the Rocky Mountains with steady flows of both tourists and locals has its benefits. “I never wanted to be a big distribution brewer,” Brumenschenkel said. “We have the ability to brew whatever we want… We’re always doing something new.”
Caldwell also pointed out that brewing up in Grand County is different because of the available water.
“Coors talks about having Rocky Mountain water, but it’s running down 70 [to Golden] and picking up everything,” he said. “We really have that clean, pure water…There’s no heavy filtration needed.”
Hideaway Park Brewery in Winter Park opened about four years ago, while The Peak opened in 2015. As many locals remember, The Peak was formerly under different ownership as The Library, also popular for its beers. Over in Granby is Never Summer Brewery, which opened on the premise of the home brewing and wine-making store, Everybody’s Brewing It in 2016. Newest to the scene is Grand Adventure Brewing in Kremmling, which opened just last year. Also started in Grand Lake in 2002 is Grand Lake Brewing, which has since moved its operations to the Front Range but has not changed in name.
Out of all the county breweries, Hideaway Park and The Peak sit the highest in elevation, at about 9,100 feet above sea level. Grand Adventure Brewing is the lowest point, at about 7,313 feet. Comparitively, Denver is at about 5,500 feet.
Brumenschenkel and Caldwell have both been working professionally for several years but began in home brewing to teach themselves the craft. Neither have any formal training, and almost all of their brewing experience has been at high altitude.
“Mostly it’s just been trial and error, learning what I can,” said Caldwell. “I’m more of an artistic brewer than a scientific one.”
Brumenschenkel shared similar thoughts. “I spent 8 months just reading everything I could,” he said. “It was trial by fire.”
Both brewers also said that a big difference about beer in general at high altitude is that people who drink it tend to feel its intoxication effects faster. Nevertheless, brews from high altitude still tend to have the same alcohol percentages as their lower level counterparts, simply due to popularity.
In addition to supplying locals and tourists alike with craft brews, the county’s breweries help serve another purpose. The spent grain from the brewing process actually makes good livestock feed once the sugars have been removed.
“It’s great feed,” said local farmer Carl Wood while picking up the grains at Hideaway Park. “It’s about 30 percent protein and no carbs.”
Wood gets weekly loads of used grain (usually still steaming) after Brumenschenkel is done with it and takes it all straight to his cattle. According to Caldwell, The Peak has similar arrangements with two other local farmers.
Grand County has become a growing beer destination over the past several decades, like the state surrounding it. Colorado now has the third most breweries per capita in the nation. Denver also hosts the yearly Great American Beer Festival, which draws attendees from all over North America. Grand County itself hosts the annual Winter Park Beer Festival, this year on August fourth.