Signifiers

Fighting the Tide — Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, Colorado

In 2013, after a sustained period of heavy rainfall, the St. Vrain Creek, which flows through the town of Longmont, Colorado, burst its banks. Colorado typically sees more than 300 days of sunshine a year, and 2013’s rainfall was wholly unprecedented. The resulting “500-year flood” tore through homes, schools, and businesses as workers and residents were forced to evacuate the area.

Left Hand Brewing began building its home in Longmont on St. Vrain’s banks in 1993. During the flood, the brewery was submerged in more than four feet of water, inflicting serious damage on much of the facility. One resulting casualty was the beer-to-be inside one of the 480-BBL fermentation vessels that sits outside of the main brewery building, which lost power during the disaster. Without electricity, the brewery had no control of the tank’s coolant system and subsequently couldn’t control the fermentation process adequately. The entire contents of that tank—more than 15,000 gallons of its award-winning Fade to Black Imperial Stout—had to be dumped. But things could’ve been much, much worse.

“We got lucky,” says Left Hand’s Chief Operating Officer Chris Lennert, gesturing toward a sign outside the taproom that shows the high water mark and serves as a permanent reminder of the flood’s significance. “Others were not so fortunate.”

Left Hand had to evacuate the brewery for four days while the waters receded. The flood damage would cost the brewery $140,000, the repair work itself continuing for months. The lasting implications to the brewery and the town of Longmont are still very much apparent four years later.

“The echoes of the flood continue, with more rigorous building codes slowing down on-going projects,” says Left Hand President and co-founder, Eric Wallace. “Bridges upstream and downstream remain under repair or are closed. It will be years before the impacts are no longer visible and affecting us.”

While it had a significant impact on the business, the flood, as with the many challenges Left Hand has faced over the years, didn’t stop the company. Instead, the brewery used its local influence to drive and fund relief efforts and played a key role in getting the Front Range town back on it’s feet.

 

“Righteously Independent” is the slogan that adorns the hats and t-shirts worn by Left Hand’s staff. In this modern era of multi-million dollar buyouts and rapid growth in the beer sector, that phrase carries a certain weight. In 2015, Left Hand brewing announced its employee stock ownership plan—a statement of intent that would ensure the brewery could remain loyal to its independent values going forward. But the day-to-day grind was a great deal more quaint when the business was established 24 years ago.

Remaining independent is one of our core values—to strive and thrive to be free from outside control. We are committed to protecting the future of our independent craft brewery.
— Chris Lennert
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Business partners Dick Doore and Eric Wallace founded Left Hand in September 1993, originally taking the name Indian Peaks Brewery. Shortly after establishing their business, the pair discovered that this name already belonged to another brewery, so they opted for a new name intended as a mark of respect for a Southern Arapahoe Chief known as “Niwot,” which is the Arapahoe word for left hand. Chief Niwot and his tribe are said to have occasionally resided in the area where Longmont now exists. As such, it’s a name shared by many other roads and businesses in Longmont. 

But the red hand print logo wasn’t to become an integral part of Left Hand’s brand until 1998. It was a defining year for Left Hand Brewing, the one in which it would merge with Denver’s now-defunct Tabernash Brewing and form its own wholesale organization, Indian Peaks Distribution Company. The merger instantly doubled Left Hand’s capacity. A decade later, the Tabernash brand was dropped and Left Hand sold off its distribution arm, pooling resources back into the brewery. 

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Lennert says that, during the 1998 rebrand, the brewery had gotten into a serious argument with its designer. As the story goes, the brewery had rejected several of the designer’s proposals. The designer’s response? He dipped his left hand in red paint, slammed it down on the table, and walked out the door in disgust, creating Left Hand’s iconic brand in the process. 

Nitro means America’s Stout, innovation, pushing ourselves, what do we want to drink, and what do we want to bring to beer drinkers. A lot of craft beer drinkers, when they think of nitro, they think of Left Hand.
— Chris Lennert

But speaking to Wallace, it soon becomes apparent that Lennert, an engaging and energetic character who, as COO, often acts as the ebullient face of the Colorado brewery, likes telling a tall tale now and then.

“Our modern logo developed as a result of going into six packs for the first time, which included selling enough bombers to consider using our first ever custom bottle cap,” Wallace says. “Our original logo was a Native American design that was totally unreadable when shrunk down to the crown size. Eventually we told the designer just trace your hand and put ‘Left Hand Brewing Company, Longmont, Colorado’ around it. The rest is history.” 

Like so many of his Colorado contemporaries who began brewing professionally in the same era (Doug Odell and Adam Avery, for example), Wallace was a passionate homebrewer who wanted to turn his hobby into his career. These days, it’s a familiar story. As with so many of his peers, Wallace took inspiration from Europe, especially the traditional cask ales of the UK. In fact, his story makes it easy to see why younger craft beer drinkers might err towards newer brands instead of America’s pioneering craft brewers from the 1980s and ‘90s. Those pioneers have a story newer consumers have heard a thousand times before. As a result, we now live in an era where “new” is often synonymous with “good.”

Left Hand’s journey wasn’t quite the same as so many of its contemporaries, though. While guys like Avery, Odell and countless more across the U.S. were winning hearts and minds with classically American IPAs, Wallace and Doore built their company’s legacy on the back of a simple Stout.

 

The very first Left Hand beer was an ESB-style Amber Ale called Sawtooth. Released in January 1994, it began picking up awards later that very same year. After that, they launched Black Jack Porter which, like Sawtooth, still exists in the brewery’s core lineup to this day. But it was another beer that would eventually drive the kind of growth that so many people new to the beer industry are desperate for in the modern era. A beer that defines Left Hand to the degree that they call it “America’s Stout.” And one that now makes up 50% of Left Hand’s total production.

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Doore was inspired after a visit to Tanzania, Africa, where he enjoyed the slightly sweet and easy-drinking Milk Stouts that were popular in the African country at the time. It debuted in the taproom in 1999 before eventually getting an official release in 2001. While it became a favorite in many a bar and restaurant throughout Left Hand’s 39-state/8-country distribution footprint, back in Longmont, the brewers were having fun experimenting with nitrogen. They found they could create the thick and creamy mouthfeel that was already known for being a hallmark property in mass-produced draft stouts such as Guinness or Murphy’s.  

Over time, nitro began to mean something more to Left Hand and its customers than just the type of gas its beer was dispensed under. It grew to become a hallmark of Left Hand’s own making, even leading them to put on a festival dedicated to nitro-poured beers—Nitro Fest. The all-encompassing nitro love culminated at the Great American Beer Festival in 2011 when Left Hand launched Milk Stout Nitro in bottles. This was the first time a brewery had figured out how to package a nitrogenized beer without the use of a plastic widget—think: the rattle when you shake an empty Guiness tallboy—to gas the beer once opened. It’s a technology that the brewery is fiercely protective of, and the only equipment in the brewery I wasn’t permitted to take photographs of during my visit.

These days, trade secrets are more important to those that own them than ever before. This was on display recently when Minnesota’s Summit Brewing filed a lawsuit against two former employee’s for allegedly trying to sell information to a rival brewery. Lennert is coy when I press him about what lengths Left Hand goes to in order to protect its secrets.

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“The first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club,” he says. “Milk Stout Nitro is proof we have something really special here. [For Left Hand], Nitro means America’s Stout, innovation, pushing ourselves, what do we want to drink, and what do we want to bring to beer drinkers. A lot of craft beer drinkers, when they think of nitro, they think of Left Hand.”

As the market share of craft beer in the U.S. increased, and the competition for tap handles along with it, Guinness was one of the old guard that stood alone for so long. Milk Stout Nitro was one of the first brands to successfully challenge it, offering consumers a craft alternative as “nitro” became synonymous with Left Hand in the process.

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“Nothing is ever easy or taken for granted—one pint at a time is how we will succeed,” Lennert says of the increased competition. “In terms of more Nitro beers available today, I say rock on. Back in the early days there was one or two handles for nitrogenized beers. Now there’s significantly more in accounts across the world.”
 
It’s no coincidence that Left Hand launched Nitro Fest the same year Milk Stout Nitro arrived in bottles. The steampunk-themed festival has since gone on to become one of the highlights of the Colorado beer calendar. In 2016 it featured 35 brewers from across the U.S. all pouring beers under nitrogen that aren’t usually served that way. It also raised more than $15,000 for charity. 

“Nitro Fest is about challenging the concept of the beer festival,” says Josh Goldberg, Left Hand’s community and events manager. “With our charge in the nitro beer arena, we want to celebrate nitro beers from across the land.”

 

Nitro Fest is one of the many ways Left Hand maintains its relevance in the present day. When the brewery opened nearly 25 years ago, it was competing with considerably less than 5,000 other breweries. These days, one of the pioneers that helped create this robust and rapidly growing marketplace has to fight harder than ever to find the right place in it. 

Bridges upstream and downstream remain under repair or are closed. It will be years before the impacts are no longer visible and affecting us
— Eric Wallace

There are quick-minded, innovative young businesses opening at a rate of two per day that can react to changing market conditions must faster than a brewery of Left Hand’s size can. But there are also bigger companies like AB-InBev and MillerCoors buying their way into a market that, only several years ago, they weren’t all that interested in. Wallace is more concerned about the latter.

“We’ve gone from a fad that the big guys ridiculed and ignored to a juggernaut phenomenon reflecting other trends in the marketplace favoring companies whose brands are fun and interesting,” he says. “Since we started 24 years ago, craft beer has become a real business, and the big multinational brewers and big money are now racing to get in.”

One way it’s changing is by launching a pair of IPA’s— Introvert (a session beer) and Extrovert (a proper IPA). Even a brewery such as Left Hand, a brewery wherein 50% of its production schedule is dedicated to making Stout, is not immune to IPA’s sales dominance. When pressed, though, Lennert is quick to point out that the brewery efforts run much deeper.

“Making sure we continue to innovate is key,” he says. “Our lineup for 2017 is solid, from a seasonal Red IPA with a different experimental hop every year to a line of Saisons using different Colorado ingredients each of the four seasons. This is how we’re being innovative and staying relevant.”

Exports are another key part of Left Hand’s strategy as the business matures. As local drinkers often seek something small, new, and exciting, larger breweries like Left Hand can leverage their expanded capacity to ensure that money is made in the export market. Many older U.S. beer brands like Brooklyn, Goose Island, and lately, Left Hand itself, are becoming ever more prevalent in overseas markets such as Sweden, Ireland, and the UK. In those markets, an older brand can still feel special and new to consumers.

They’ve also recently installed canning machines, the result of which are just starting to hit retailers’ shelves. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that Oskar Blues, the brewery that pioneered craft cans back in 2002, is located just a mile away from Left Hand, a brewery that’s taken 15 years to get down with aluminum. But in 2017, canning is more than just a packaging method—it’s an identity.

“I think cans are a must for breweries making standard-issue Ales and Lagers,” says Matt Thrall, Left Hand’s Director of Brewing. “I can see where those breweries specializing in sours and/or barrel-aged beers would stay in bottle format only, but it's a missed opportunity for the rest.”

The move to cans is an interesting one for a brewery that once ran a “Glass Is Life” campaign championing bottled beer. But the times, they are a-changin’. “After a trip to see some friends at their brewery in Ireland, it was brought to my attention that there were BPA-free cans available in Europe,” Lennert says. “That led to us doing some hardcore research, including talking with an expert that has spent her entire career in assessing human health risks from chemicals in consumer products, such as BPA liners in cans. Based on her research and her ability to satisfy our numerous questions, then it was a decision based on where we were going to put a canning line and how we were going to pay for it. We’re still advocates for glass, and believe that there are times and places for both.”

As we’re pondering relevance and what the future might bring for an old-guard brewery like Left Hand, I ask Lennert about the slogan on his cap: “Righteously Independent.” What does that mean to him? How might it be challenged in the years to come? How has it changed in the decades Left Hand’s been around? He smiles and pulls up his sleeve to reveal a freshly inked Left Hand tattoo on his left bicep. 

“We are doing everything we can to live up to that slogan,” Lennert says. “Remaining independent is one of our core values—to strive and thrive to be free from outside control. We are committed to protecting the future of our independent craft brewery.”

 

The Mayor of Old Town is located just a few miles away from Left Hand. While it sports a daunting 100 taps, competition has become fierce at the Legendary Fort Collins beer bar, with an increasing amount of local and not-so-local breweries hoping to secure a space on the wall. Kevin Bolin opened the place with his wife Barb in 2011.

“Milk Stout Nitro is consistently one of our top 10 selling beers every week,” Bolin says. “We tend to try and carry some of their other dark beers as well since they seem to win GABF medals every year.”

It’s clear that, locally, there’s still a lot of love for Left Hand. It’s handles are commonplace in bars all over the Front Range towns, and its six packs are stacked high in every liquor store cooler. That community respect is perhaps a reflection of how Left Hand responded to the flood in 2013. 

“Ten days after the floods ran through, we hosted one of our town’s larger events, Longmont Oktoberfest, in the still soggy park,” Goldberg says. “Some thought it may have been too soon to celebrate, but that’s exactly what we did.”

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis