GABF fever is finally coming down in Denver. The brewers, for the most part, have gone home, touting fresh hardware from their award-winning beer and sporting the kind of hangover that only shows up when you've really earned it.
The best part about American craft beer is that the story is never quite finished, and it's this complete lack of anything resembling a dull moment that has kept me coming back over the years. Even though Colorado isn't hosting thousands of brewers this week, we can still claim to have at least one or two breweries that keep the torch of great beer going for the other 362 days of the year.
Grist Brewing Company is nestled 20-ish miles south of downtown Denver, in the comfortable suburb of Highlands Ranch. Rob Kevwitch, PhD (that's right..he's a doctor) is the mad scientist of a 6500 square foot brewing laboratory. An athlete, perpetual student, and self-described nerd, Dr. Rob has built a truly gorgeous brewery that's been churning out practically flawless brews to an enthusiastic audience since it opened in 2013.
Rob always thought he would be a high school chemistry teacher. I support that dream, but I'm pretty happy he didn't end up doing that. He was nearly there when he scrapped his teaching program and decided to go on to earn a PhD in organic chemistry. The degree led him to a unique gig setting up laboratories for the oil and gas industry, which inevitably landed him in Texas for a stint. While life was good in the Lonestar State, craft beer wasn't quite where he wanted it to be. That’s when he decided that he could use his degree to quench his thirst, a noble path by anyone's standard. He lured some friends into joining the experiment with the promise of relief from the relentless Texas sun by way of regular gatherings that included a swimming pool and barbecue. The nerd inside of him ensured that protocols were tight and the resulting beers were clean and refreshing. As you might imagine, there were only winners in this scenario.
As Rob’s beer game escalated, his passion for laboratory management waned. Job transfers had landed him in Colorado where the brewer’s dream took hold. He wanted to start a brewery, and when he mentioned it to his colleagues, they jumped at the chance to partner with the guy who always put the science first, nailed the numbers, and had been sharing increasingly delicious beer with them over the years. They brought the skills necessary to keep the business side in check while he pieced together his dream lab. Brewing commenced in October, 2013 and the doors officially opened November 2nd of the same year.
It’s clear from the screaming Broncos fans I saw at the brewery that Grist is equal parts craft brew sanctuary and local watering hole. Highlands Ranch is just far enough from Denver that the locals lack regular access to the copious craft breweries that can barely be contained within Denver’s city limits. Kevwitch describes a sense of great responsibility in introducing craft beer to the folks who just want “a beer” while they watch the game. After all, if they don’t take to his brews, he may also forever turn them off to craft beer in general. This, combined with his dream of a world where science and numbers always reign supreme, led him to ensure that only the best beers are released to the public. If you have any question about the painstaking lengths they will go to in order to preserve integrity at Grist, check out the video on their website where they dump 20 barrels down the drain due to a bad batch. It's heartbreaking.
Suffice it to say, Grist has not disappointed its clientele. They have experienced 50% growth year over year and project similar growth in the future. They are also in talks about a second location. Not one to ignore the package game, a canning line has been purchased that will be up and running in time for their second birthday in just a few short weeks. With only 10 employees, I asked if he would need to bring on more staff to keep the line running. With a shrug, Kevwitch indicated that regulars and staff alike have already volunteered to work the line in their spare time. Whether or not Grist grants the people’s request to labor for free, there’s no question that this brewery has spawned some passionate enthusiasts in the neighborhood.
Although Rob admits that he gave up his dream of teaching chemistry in order to go in another direction, I think he has incorporated his passion for chemistry into every facet of his business at Grist. He purchases sensory kits that are regularly utilized to educate staff, local brewers, and other interested parties about common off-flavors that can occur in beer. He teaches his staff how to pitch the yeast, mash the malt, and add the hops, all in the right proportions, to produce flavor profiles that could be otherwise achieved by adding flavor extracts or unnecessary additives. He consistently preaches the gospel of firm quality control and a measured approach to brewing. "Stick to the protocol; hit the numbers every time.”
The need for precision has also aroused a playful dissent from the staff, resulting in a more balanced atmosphere where strictly regulated flagships are complimented by creative seasonal beers formulated by inspiration rather than exactitude. This balance of science and creativity has brought Grist into the limelight as an out-of-the-way brewery that is well worth a trip.
Most importantly, Grist Brewing Company represents a stunning endorsement for the economic and social force behind great local beer. For anyone curious about the culture and energy that's so pervasive in this industry, you only need to look as far as a small business like this for your answer. It's true that we're seeing a record number of breweries open, and this is certainly increasing competition, but it's building momentum as well. Former domestic beer drinkers who never drank craft beer regularly are now turning to their local breweries for great beer with real community impact...and I've never heard of a "former craft beer drinker". Whether Denver is a barometer for this country's craft scene or not, we're seeing incredible success, and support, in a brewery-rich urban area willing to support the business.
In the words of Dr. Kevwitch himself, “the south suburban brewery scene has arrived, is in full force, and we’re here to stay.”
Published October 2015