Breakout Brewer: Outer Range Brewing Co. | Craft Beer & Brewing

Breakout Brewer: Outer Range Brewing Co.

From their small outpost at 9,000 feet elevation in the Colorado mountains, Outer Range Brewing Co. is intently focused on a narrow spectrum of beers made with expressive yeast.

Jamie Bogner 12 days ago

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Lee Cleghorn’s “aha moment” was a bit more severe than most. He was on an 8-month overseas deployment with the Special Forces while his wife and 7-month-old daughter were back home enduring the normal firsts (and failures) that all first-time parents experience.

“I was in Afghanistan looking out at the mountains and had this epiphany—what the hell am I doing, still doing this?” says Lee. “I’ve got to get on with my life.” Wife and business partner Emily Cleghorn agrees. “He missed everything. First word, first steps, first birthday. I was raising her alone as a first-time parent and constantly worried about Lee because he was taking some of the riskiest missions out there. So after he came back, the stress of being apart and missing out led us to say, ‘Why wait? If we’re going to do this, let’s do it now.’ ”

Brewing had been a part of their relationship since day one (literally—they first met when a mutual friend invited Emily to accompany him to brew with Lee), and it was Lee’s stress reliever.

“Every weekend I was home, we were homebrewing in the backyard, so it was a natural continuation. We had been through so much shit, we asked ourselves, ‘What would we actually want to do? Let’s put the pin on the map and open a brewery where we’d love to be.’ ”

While some would have just jumped right in, Emily and Lee tackled their new business with the precision you’d expect from trained soldiers. Emily earned a degree in marketing, Lee a degree in business while also attending the American Brewers Guild. Both did unpaid internships to learn the ropes; Lee’s involved washing kegs once a week in the early days at Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing Co. They knew they’d have to work their asses off to build a successful brewing business in a crowded beer market. Their focus from the start has been two styles they’re passionate about—Belgian-style beers and hazy IPAs. “The best breweries in the world sometimes brew only a couple of beers,” says Emily.

Rather than make everything for everyone, they instead focused intently on developing their base beers. In their first year, Lee brewed more than 100 pilot batches on their one-barrel pilot system, dialing in their recipes as he went. “The first year,” says Lee, “was pure hell. But it forced us to be creative, by setting those limitations.”

Perfecting the Hazy IPA

Lee was not a hophead early on and came late to the IPA party. In fact, it was only the rise of hazy, yeast-forward, expressive IPAs that changed his mind, and it’s that yeast character that remains the common link between the IPAs and Belgian-style beers they brew.

“IPAs are so similar to the Belgians. People don’t pay much attention to the esters, but it’s the ester profiles of these yeasts that are making these beers. You can’t make these [hazy IPAs] with Chico yeast. You can try, but it’s not going to be the same.” For Outer Range, one of the appealing factors of this style is not, as detractors might claim, the speed to market, but instead the 360-degree approach to brewing that the beer style requires.

“It takes everything to make this beer well,” says Lee. “The right water chemistry, the right malt bill, the right yeast, and the right hops. That’s why so many brewers are so interested in it: To make a good New England–style or hazy IPA, you have to hit every component of how to make a beer perfectly.”

Developing Recipes

“The way I come up with a recipe is not by sitting down to come up with a recipe,” says Lee. “I come up with recipes by thinking about flavors or having food somewhere with a flavor idea I can translate into beer. My recipe development is more around two things: hops and malt—the yeast is a constant. We use some different yeasts, but for most of our IPAs we use London Ale III.

“From the hops perspective, every recipe is not the same. We’ll brew In The Steep, and we’ll taste it in the fermentor. We have a set amount of dry hops to put in, but if it needs more, we’ll put more in it. That’s one of the nice things about being as small as we are—the craft of it. We adjust based on how it’s turning out.”

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While producers in Colorado each carve out their general niche in the hazy IPA category—WeldWerks with sweeter citrus-forward beers and Cerebral with slightly drier and less-turbid beers—Outer Range leans toward a bit of bite and a touch of dankness in their hazy beers.

“We use a lot of Mosaic with our Citra,” says Lee. “Having a strong malt bill behind the hops creates a different flavor, so we invest a lot in the malt and focus on that interplay. Citra is easy—it’s going to make everything great. Mosaic is the hardest ‘hot’ hops with which to make a beer. Sometimes it’s blueberry, sometimes it’s dark fruit, and sometimes it’s dank and herbal—even from the same farm. And it can really change the perception of the beer, how it hits in the dry hop.

“An all-Mosaic IPA is the hardest beer to make. You can do an all-Citra beer all day, or an all-Simcoe. The growers have figured out Simcoe so the catty thing has dropped off a lot, and now it’s just beautiful fruity, piney notes. But Mosaic is just elusive. If you can make a beautiful all-Mosaic beer, I don’t think there’s anything better. We have one, Pillow Stacks, and that’s the same recipe every time, but sometimes it comes out very herbal, and sometimes it comes out tasting like dark fruit, even though we’re buying from the same farm. From a brewer’s perspective, I think about that beer all the time. I’m reluctant to brew it because I want it to be perfect, so I only brew it every once in a while.”

While for larger breweries, that variability might be a bug in the system, Outer Range sees it as a feature.

“It’s a real terroir for beer. Hops flavor changes throughout the year in beer. When you get a package of hops and how you use it—those results are so amplified when you’re using six–eight pounds per barrel in the whirpool and dry hop.”

There is a natural limit to how much hops can add to the character of their beer before they see diminishing returns or worse—negative results from too much hops.

“Our constraint right now is how to get more hops in the beer without adding more bitterness, even though it’s all whirpool and dry hop, because you’re still adding acids through the dry hop, and it’s contributing to bitterness,” says Lee. “So for us, we’ve reached the maximum amount of hops we can add to beer. Now, it’s picking those hops and selecting them for the individual beer. That’s a luxury we have by being small because we can taste every batch and adjust. But we can’t just do twelve pounds per barrel—the beer is worse.”

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Process Challenges

Their process is an admittedly costly one for a commercial brewery, and they don’t apologize for the expense or work that it requires. While they’ve tried various cost-saving measures, such as dry hopping later in fermentation, they still find that some of the more inefficient measures produce beer that tastes better, so they’re insistent on processes that ultimately improve the beer, even if those are costly.

“We dry hop really early. Sometimes we pitch and dry hop. Our dry hops are all done by day ten, for sure, or before, if we can do it. With these beers, we try to have all our dry hopping done before halfway to terminal. Biotransformation is a real thing, and the hops flavors stay in a beer if you dry hop early. The haze and hops go hand in hand. It’s impossible to make a good hazy IPA without massive dry hopping. That’s why you can take London Ale III and not dry hop it, and it’s clear.”

Their decadent approach to yeast management is one that’s hard for budget-minded breweries to replicate.

“We use a fresh pitch for every hazy IPA. It’s expensive, but we have to,” says Lee. “We experimented with it—we tried to harvest. I’m not alone in this and haven’t been able to steal anyone’s secrets in how to do this differently. Harvesting yeast with old hops mixed in and pitching into a new beer—it’s awful. It doesn’t work. But that’s one of the challenges when you dry hop at high krausen.”

Despite their ambition to be one of the best breweries in their home state of Colorado, they insist on maintaining a smaller production number that ultimately serves their vision of delivering quality and remaining in touch with their product and consumers. “Our team moved up here for a certain kind of lifestyle, and we want to be a vehicle for that lifestyle, so they can enjoy that lifestyle. There are brewers out there who will chase 20,000 barrels, but we’re not them,” says Lee.

“We don’t want to grow out of relevance,” says Emily. “We’re not doing a volume play here. There’s a spot we want to hit where we’re profitable and comfortable but not so big where the quality control could become an issue. We know what we don’t want to do—we don’t want to get to 10,000 barrels.”

While some contemporaries brew for financial success and others brew for the accolades and fame, Emily and Lee Cleghorn have experienced the challenge of adversity in their first careers and have focused their second careers—this brewery—on what they view as a bigger idea.

“Outer Range comes from a Kipling poem called ‘The Explorer,’ and there is a line in the poem that reads ‘Something lost behind the Ranges. Over yonder! Go you there!’” says Emily. “This brewery is us finding it, and we want this beer to speak to the people who are striving for the same thing.”

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Jamie Bogner is the Cofounder and Editorial Director of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email him at [email protected].

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