Signifiers

Don’t Sweat The Technique — Casey Brewing and Blending in Glenwood Springs, CO

Drive west out of Denver, and it’s not long before you hit the foothills of the Front Range. Keep on the same route, and you’ll pass the iconic Red Rock Ampitheatre before entering the twisting system of roads and rivers that snake their way through the Colorado Rockies.

Following the road alongside the Colorado River will take you on one of the most picturesque drives in the world. Pine tree forests rise up ever-steeper slopes, dominating most of the horizon. As the altitude keeps increasing, you’ll eventually pass through skiing towns like Vail and Edwards. Staying on this route for a couple of hours will eventually lead you to the valley where the Colorado River meets the Roaring Fork. At the heart of this intersection is the town of Glenwood Springs, home to one of the most compelling young beer makers in the U.S.—Casey Brewing and Blending.

A little searching reveals a sloping dirt road to the rear of the building that leads to the front door. A typically plain, concrete building is perched right on the edge of the Roaring Fork Valley, to the point where you can just sit at its edge and watch people float by in small boats on the river at its base.  

It’s a warm, pleasant summer’s day when I arrive. Bright light bounces off the grey exterior walls outside the brewery. During the drive here, I kept wondering to myself why in the world would anyone build a brewery in a town as remote as Glenwood Springs? After all, the thriving towns of the Front Range are just a couple hours away and there are plenty more customers eager to buy good beer there. The warm blue sky over my head and the gentle ebb of the Roaring Fork River to the right of me soon provided an answer, though. Glenwood Springs is positively idyllic.

“Troy’s in the back,” a bartender hollers as I enter the facility. A few folks sit at the bar enjoying some vividly colorful pours from corked and caged 750ml bottles. Past the revelers, deeper into the building are several rows of stacked barrels and boxes upon boxes freshly delivered peaches.

Eventually I reach a collection of steel tanks and four upright wooden fermentation vessels. Behind these I find Troy Casey, owner and founder of the place, busily hand-bottling with a co-worker. One of them fills bottles on a manually operated filler, while the other operates a machine that corks and cages a single bottle at a time. Their movements are so repetitive that they’re almost robotic, and they rapidly pack cases with freshly filled 750ml bottles, the packaging of choice for the overwhelming majority of Casey’s beer.

“This is the most expensive piece of equipment in the brewery,” Casey says, gesturing toward the corking machine.

Casey’s approach to beer differs from the many Colorado breweries that seem to open almost daily on the Front Range. For that matter, Casey differs from most of the breweries in Colorado altogether. They don’t brew a Pilsner, a Stout, or an IPA. In fact, they don’t even currently brew at all. Their wort is brewed at and purchased from Bonfire Brewing, just a few miles along the valley in the town of Eagle. And it’s entirely fermented in oak barrels.

“I think what we do translates very closely to winemaking,” Casey says. “You’ve got people who just specialize in growing grapes and then you’ve got people who just specialize in making wine from those grapes. Everybody has their specialty when it comes to making an amazing liquid like that.”

With the wort Casey brings in, he artfully blends beers, fermenting with his own unique mixed culture, made up of a custom blend of yeasts and bacteria. The brewery’s range includes beers like The Cut, an intensely-fruited-subtly-sour blend, which can feature anything from locally sourced cherries to merlot grapes. At the other end of the scale are stripped back and delicate beers, like The Low End and the Saison with which Casey launched his brand. Many might call these sours, but they’re not the intensely acidic variety one might associate with other American producers. Casey prefers not to use the term at all.

“We’re not trying to make really sour beer,” he says. “We’re trying to make balanced beer. I’m just trying to make the best liquid I possibly can.”

Troy Casey landed his first brewing industry gig at 20, working as a tour guide at Coors’ AC Golden Facility, where his dad also worked at the time. Back then he was a chemistry major in Colorado Springs, and, like a lot of folks getting ready for the real world, wasn’t quite sure what he was doing.

“I didn’t want to do hardcore chemistry or anything like that,” Casey says. “I just knew I liked the science aspect of [my degree].”

After a few months of guiding folks around the brewery, something clicked.

“My dad had been in the brewing industry my whole life and he had never really pushed that on me,” Casey recalls. “Then I had this realization I could use this chemistry degree to do brewing! I remember my dad smiling a little bit when I told him.”

Shortly after turning 21, Casey landed a four-month internship at Colorado Springs’ Bristol Brewing. “I got paid 8 dollars an hour in beer, so as a 21-year-old college student that was great.” he says, “I would just save up my money and buy a keg every couple of weeks, then throw a party at my house and sell cups of craft beer.”

Following his short stint at Bristol, Casey went back to Coors for a while. But this time he’d graduated from tour guide to working alongside the brewing team, getting involved with large scale, technical brewing as well as a few pilot projects. “That’s where I learned about the bigger picture,” he says.

After acquiring his chemistry degree, he shifted gears to UC Davis, relocating to California to study food science. While there, he worked for Anheuser Busch as brewing group manager, “basically managing union employees. I quickly realized that I did not want to follow the career path of being a manager at a big brewery like that and never having a hand in the brewing process.”

Anheuser Busch offered Casey a permanent position following his graduation from UC Davis, but they weren’t able to guarantee him a spot at their facility in Fort Collins, and Casey was unable to resist the call of Colorado. Once back in the Mountain State, he once again landed a job at Coors, weeks before its merger with Miller. MillerCoors became his employer for five years where he worked as a technical brewer for AC Golden, as well as on some smaller pilot projects. 

At MillerCoors Casey found a mentor is the form of his boss Steve Fletcher. “Troy came to ACG willing to do anything and learn everything about brewing,” Fletcher says. “I may have trained him a bit on our process and our style of Lager brewing, but it was clear from the start that Troy was on fire. He brought passion, creativity, and an attention to detail that was infectious. He became a great teacher along the way. We all learned so much from him.”

But for Casey, after the merger with Miller, Coors gradually ceased to be the business he grew up watching his father work for.

“The culture changed,” he says. “The Coors culture was very much like you might have seen in the commercials, with the mountains, the rivers, and the good old boys drinking beer. That was important in the Coors culture, beer was first and people were second. Miller brought with it a different culture, and that, unfortunately, took over—as will happen with any merger. I realized it wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want to have to deal with all these politics. I wanted more control. I didn’t want to be told to do something I didn’t think was the right thing to do. It was tough.”

It wasn’t just the MillerCoors culture shock that motivated Casey, though.

“Shortly after I left UC Davis I got a couple bottles of Russian River’s sours,” Casey says. “At the time, I didn’t really care for sour beers, I just knew that they were something that was pretty sought after.”

It was through those beers—Beatification, Supplication, and Temptation—that he was buying for friends back in Colorado that Casey stumbled headfirst into a whole new world of flavor.

“Not long after that, there was a local liquor store that had just gotten Cantillon in, and they were like, ‘You have to try this beer,’” he says, astounded. “Can you imagine a time when people were having to hand-sell Cantillon?”

It is, indeed, hard to imagine. But for Casey, this weird moment ended up defining his career. “I kinda went down the rabbit hole from there,” he says. “I started drinking as many sour beers as I could find and then started thinking I should be brewing these.”

Passion quickly turned to obsession for Casey, who started trading all over the country to get ahold of the most rare and interesting sour beers he could find. With his MillerCoors path feeling more stagnant by the day, he decided to take things in a new direction.

“The people who I put the most stock in at Coors, the ones who’d given me the most hope that the small projects I was working on were going to continue,” Casey remembers, “they basically jumped ship.”

At this point, he was based in Golden and his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Emily, had taken a job up in the valley. He’d make the drive into the mountains every weekend before heading back down to the Front Range on Monday mornings. The pair fell in love with the location, but they needed to figure out what Casey would do with himself once he relocated.

“I’d made some beers at AC Golden that I was pretty excited about,” Casey says. “They were unique, and I felt that they were worthy of their own brewery. I never had a vision to do my own thing, I didn’t think that was in the cards for me, but I started making some beers that I was really excited about and we went from there.”

While Casey was quickly figuring out how to make great beer, the concept of starting a business from scratch was a foreign entity. Thankfully, while living in California, he befriended Stephen Russell—who these days works for Sierra Nevada. When Casey was studying food science, Russell was completing his MBA at Berkeley.

“While Troy was working for MillerCoors making some amazing beers in the heart of the Golden brewery, he started talking about opening up a brewery of his own,” Russell remembers. “I helped him outline a business plan.”

The next step was finding the perfect location. In the mountain towns of Colorado, that’s not as easy as it may seem to an outsider.

“We were just looking anywhere we could find basically, and we found this location which used to be a CrossFit gym,” Casey remembers. “It was right on the river, and it was affordable because it’s not in downtown Glenwood. It was big and cool in there, which is important for these kinds of beers.”

Casey Brewing and Blending officially launched in November 2013, with the first release, a Saison, launching the following February. While a lot has changed in three years, back then, attracting consumer interest was tough.

“Our business plan was to sell maybe 10-16% of our beer through our tasting room and then wholesale the rest,” Casey says. “The first month we had our base beer, Saison, and we sold maybe half of it. The next month, with the second blend of that, we sold maybe a quarter of it. I quickly realized that, if we wanted to get more people up here, we had to give them more options.”

So Casey started experimenting with fruit sourced nearby on the western slope, the section of the Colorado Rockies that sits to the west of the Continental Divide, some of it foraged by his own hand. Word quickly got out about these new and exciting fruited sours being produced by this brand new brewery in Glenwood Springs. In a matter of months, Casey went from building a solid local audience for its beers to people traveling from all over the country in droves.

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The brewery was only open for bottles sales the first Saturday of the month at this point. By the end of 2014, barely a year after its opening, people started camping outside the brewery on Friday nights. Casey tried issuing tickets, donating proceeds to a local charity, but people showed up with or without tickets.

“Parking and customer service just became a huge issue,” Casey says. “I wouldn’t sleep for days before and days after. Our neighbors were complaining. It was just a matter of time until the city became involved. We had to figure out a way to still be open and still sell beer up here through our tasting room, but do it in a way that was sustainable, and that would give the customer the best experience possible.”

And just as things couldn’t get any crazier, in January 2016, RateBeer named Casey its Top New Brewer of 2015.

“That was unbelievable,” Casey says. “There’s so many great new breweries out there, it was nuts, we could not believe it. We were hoping to win in Colorado, of course, since that’s our home state, but to win national was unbelievable. I was walking my dog when I found out!”

Casey’s former MillerCoors coworkers weren’t as surprised as he was. “Troy always said, ‘The magic happens in the cellar.’ I knew he would be beyond successful,” Fletcher says. “Troy has that same magic.”

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Lisa Zimmer, MillerCoors’ Beer Culture and Community Specialist, is equally enthusiastic.

“You hate to lose a brewer like Troy, but I was so excited for him to build his own thing,” she says. “His success comes as no surprise to anyone who has worked with him.”

Of course, with more accolades came more visitors. Dealing with increasing crowds month to month, Casey was forced to try something new. “We’d show up at 9 a.m. on the Saturday we were gonna be open, and there’d be people in sleeping bags outside,” he remembers. “At first, it was fun. It was cute! And then it quickly became a problem.”

Instead of mirroring the designs of the many taprooms strewn across the Mountain State, Casey sought inspiration from the wineries of the Sonoma Valley. The taproom model he employed would revolve around relaxed, intimate tastings, with beer poured exclusively from 750ml bottles. There’s no beer on tap, and certainly no pints being thrown back. Casey places the customer experience above all else, and his brewery provides a unique one.

To make it happen, he hired the best barman he could find in Glenwood Springs, John Theodore.

“The Casey taproom is a unique experience for our customers, and we walk them through our entire process,” Theodore says as he serves me a glass of Oak Theory, Casey’s dry-hopped—Motueka and Amarillo—riff on a Belgian Gueuze. “After the tour, it usually turns into a Casey bottle share at the bar. It’s a great opportunity to taste a lot of different flavors.”

Casey opts for a glass of IPA from his friends at Cellarmaker in San Francisco. “I don’t drink my own beer after work, it just feels like I’m still working,” he says.

In this moment, the taproom is tranquil. On my right are some locals picking up a case for the weekend. To my left are a couple of guys who’ve driven all the way up from Texas to load up their car with as much of Casey beer as they can carry home. Theodore continues to open more 750s on request, reciting every detail of each individual beer’s production while doing so.

“I just want to make better beer than the year I made before,” Casey says as the taproom crowd starts to slowly wind down. “I have no idea about a five-year plan. Honestly, it scares me. It’s hard running a business, especially one like this. We don’t have an IPA or a canned Lager to fall back on if something goes wrong.”

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis