Troy Casey never wanted to open a brewery. The former head of the AC Golden (Coors) secret barrel program loved working in his corner of the brewing giant and thought he would spend his career there, as did his father before him. While his father, a brewing chemist, spent thirty-plus years honing the highly automated process for creating the perfect light lager, Casey’s budding interest in funkier brewing methods—barrel aging and mixed-culture fermentation—ultimately pulled him away from the corporate side.
“My then-girlfriend and now wife moved to Glenwood Springs [about 2.5 hours up in the mountains from Denver] for a great job. I’d make the drive up every weekend, and ended up falling in love with the Roaring Fork valley,” Casey says. “Eventually the switch flipped, and I realized I could start my own brewery. I always thought I’d be a company man at the big brewery—I loved it there—but over time the culture changed and it wasn’t where I wanted to be. So we came to the conclusion to do it; I wrote up a business plan, took some small business classes, raised money from friends and family, and was scared shitless for the next year.”
Launching a new brewery is tough. But launching a niche brewery that brews only barrel-fermented mixed-culture beers (beers fermented not with a single Saccharomyces _brewing yeast strain but with a culture of multiple strains that typically contain _Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus) is considerably tougher. Fermentation time stretches from weeks at a typical brewery to months with mixed-culture fermentation. And after brewing and loading up barrels for fermentation, there’s no guarantee a brewer will get something out of the barrel that tastes good.
“The reason most brewers aren’t doing what we’re doing is that you don’t have anything to fall back on [if a batch doesn’t work out]. I’d only brewed my Saison recipe three times before starting this, and I got really lucky with my early batches,” says Casey.
“When I first tasted the barrels of Oak Theory [a golden sour], they tasted so bad that I didn’t sleep for a week. Luckily, they came around.”
Adding another level of complexity to the strategy is his focus on using only Colorado-grown fruit. While many brewers today use aseptic fruit purée from large fruit packaging companies, Casey takes advantage of his proximity to the fruit growing region on Colorado’s Western Slope, and has brewed using a variety of heirloom fruits that aren’t necessarily grown on a large commercial scale.
“I’m starting to realize that people love our fruit beers a lot, so I’m trying to capitalize on all this fresh fruit that we’ve got going on,” says Casey.
“When I tell farmers how much I’m looking for—sixty pounds up to hundreds of pounds—most just laugh at me. Not too many people are doing that, but I’m finding the ones who are and taking them all. What’s fun about [my focus on Colorado ingredients] is that it’s not as simple as getting a purée from the Northwest. It’s talking to people, telling them my story while they tell me theirs, and connecting with them. Now farmers are talking to each other about me, and being able to affect their businesses like that is pretty cool. Sometimes they don’t have an outlet for some of the varieties they grow, so me coming in and taking 400–500 pounds is significant to a lot of these growers. It’s pretty fun to see that mutual respect.”
Casey’s Fruit Stand beers are produced by adding fruit to fully fermented saison (that’s rested for 3–4 weeks before it gets fruit), then allowing the active culture in the beer to referment the sugar from the fruit until the beer again achieves the desired dryness.
“We don’t do anything special to the fruit. Friends and fans help me pick it, then we just cut it up. It’s really cool and humbling.”
“Fruit Stand refermentation can be as quick as 4 weeks from fruit addition to packaging: 3 weeks on fruit, refermentation complete, then bottled next week,” Casey says. “My idea is to get a lot of fruit in and out pretty quickly.”
Change in the beer is rapid at this stage, with big leaps in flavor and clarity in only a few days.
“A week ago this Cherry Fruit Stand was cloudy and turbid, but once fermentation finished, everything rapidly settled out. We don’t filter but we do use strainers to keep fruit solids out. With 380 pounds of fruit in a 600-liter barrel, it’s going to be tough to get it all out. There’s always a lot of loss through the fruit, but [this method] makes the best beer so we’re okay with that loss. With this much fruit, we’ll probably lose 10–15 gallons of beer [to absorption by the fruit]. It’s not insignificant, but it’s worth it.”
One big point of experimentation with Casey has been the quantity of fruit he adds to the beer. The Fruit Stand series typically sees about pound and a half of fruit per gallon of beer, while the The Cut series, which is styled after more traditional Belgian-style sour fruit beers, sees about three pounds of fruit per gallon to balance the sour character. A newer series, the Casey Family Preserves, takes the same saison base as Fruit Stand and amps up the fruit to two or three pounds per gallon.
“Whereas Fruit Stand is supposed to be a saison first and a fruit beer second, this Preserves series is fruit-first and the base beer is almost an afterthought—it’s truly like a [jarred] fruit preserve,” Casey says.
With the fruit focus comes a new set of challenges. When growing seasons in Colorado don’t cooperate, fruit becomes more scarce. But successful crops mean new levels of excitement.
“We haven’t had a successful apricot crop in Colorado since 2012, so people are really excited about my apricot beers,” Casey says. “We’ve done a lot of cherries this year because cherries are pretty easy to get in Colorado, but people always want that new thing. Peach is something people really like, and I’ve got a great barrel of Oak Theory set aside for peaches. I’m looking forward to getting going again on plums—it’s been eight months since we’ve done a plum beer. I’m really hoping to get raspberries this year, or blackberries, but berries are tough to find in Colorado. I’m always calling farmers to introduce myself, telling them that if they grow any berries just freeze all they can, and I’ll buy every pound that they grow.”
By October 2015, when the last of that year’s beers were put into tanks, Casey had used 7.5 tons of Colorado-grown fruit in his beer for the year. That’s a big number for a brewery that’s open only one day per month and requires a two and a half hour drive from Denver for most patrons. And while Casey has more fruit frozen away to ensure some variety over the winter months, he’s also tuning in to the seasonal cycle and letting that influence his brewing and process. In the summer, the cellar stays a consistent 74°F (23°C). In the winter, he heats it to 60°F (16°C). For bottle conditioning, he uses a room at 68°F (20°C).
“Right now, we’re brewing with tweaks from learning a year ago. The seasonality is very different. Brewing Saison in April is faster than winter. When we started, we had twenty barrels for our farmhouse beers. We have sixty now. Growth is intentionally slow, but making more helps mitigate the risk of not having something to sell. So we can truly be putting out the best beer possible.”
The brewing and experimentation process has not been all smooth sailing. Early batches of Oak Theory had to be held until the diacetyl faded. Thankfully, with mixed-culture beers, Brettanomyces will clean that up if you give it time. Blackberry Cut also had to wait a bit for release, for the same reason.
“I’m now at that point where I ask myself ‘What would Vinnie do?’ If Vinnie [Cilurzo, of Russian River Brewing] wouldn’t release it, we hold onto it longer.”
When he launched the business, Casey’s original plan was to sell as much beer at the brewery as possible, then sell the rest as close to home as possible. These days, more than 50 percent of the beer Casey makes is sold directly to customers on the one day per month he opens. Thanks to large crowds, he has resorted to an advanced ticketing method to ensure that those who make the trek from Denver, Salt Lake City, Santa Fe, and the like, don’t go home empty handed.
The limited nature of Casey’s beer has catapulted it into the beer-trading market, which is a mixed blessing.
“When I was at AC Golden, I used to trade a lot—not trading my beers, but trading other people’s beers. It’s fun—how else are you going to get to try Tree House or Trillium or Hill Farmstead or Russian River—there’s so much great beer around the country. I encourage people to do that. But it gets frustrating when it goes farther and people resell or raffle beer.”
“The only reason we’re talking about [reselling] is how personal beer is. If it were anything else, that’s just how business works. If it’s cars or shoes, the secondary market just is what it is. What’s tough with beer is that brewers put so much time and energy into it that we want consumers to buy it and enjoy it. When someone else is selling it at a mark up, it just cheapens what we’re trying to do.”
But the economy around the beer will always be second for Casey, as his main love is focusing on the creative expression in his beer.
“My goal is to be the Indiana Jones of fruit and find that perfect variety.”
In CBB’s online course, Quick Souring Methods, _Funkwerks Cofounder Gordon Schuck explains how to use _Lactobacillus bacteria, experiment with sour mashing, test acidity levels, and more. Sign up today!