It’s almost spring in the Midwest. The weather is warming up, which means it’ll soon be time to sit outside with your beverage of choice, hang out, and enjoy the fact that you’re not chilled.
While some may opt for cocktails and others for wine, there’s really nothing that says “drinking on the porch” like a beer. To that end, we reached out to John Winter, brewery owner at Colorado Lone Tree Brewing Company, to talk about the company’s ten-year run and his plans for the year ahead.
Fun fact: the only place you can get Lone Tree outside of Colorado is in the state of Kansas.
Field: You have just celebrated your 10th birthdaye anniversary. Considering you’ve grown tremendously over the past decade, how was that feeling of reaching a decade in business?
John Winter: Sometimes, as is often the case, we don’t always smell the roses on the journey. You’re so busy day to day, trying to increase sales, making better beers, thinking about the future and managing employees that you can’t sit down and stop to think about what happened. passed over the past 10 years.
When we started we were the 115e brewery in operation at the time in 2011 and we were the very first brewery in the southern suburbs of Denver. We’re not downtown, so it was more of an urban or rural sprawl, so to speak. We didn’t have a lot of residential neighborhoods around us, so I think we probably grew a little slower than if we had been in downtown Denver, but that’s okay.
We grew from within ourselves organically. We didn’t have to go out and try to really push him. We just grew as customer demand grew and today we are probably around 35e Colorado’s largest brewery – and it’s probably with 420 breweries in the state now. We are very, very grateful.
There are plenty of breweries in Colorado and the Denver area in particular. It looks like Lone Tree is staying really unique by keeping its portfolio very limited. You’re definitely focused on wanting everything you post to be the best it can be, rather than having a scattershot approach to covering all styles and trends.
Yes, we did it intentionally. We want to make the best beers and styles that we can make and we want you to feel comfortable when you walk into a grocery store, liquor store, whatever, and consider buying a few -ones. packs to go to a party. You know, without a doubt, that when you pick up our beer, it won’t stay in the ice bin at the end of the party. People are going to be able to pick it up, drink it, enjoy it, consume it and remember it. It was by definition. We wanted to do that.
We make some weird unique beers in our tasting room, but our thing has always been to focus on quality and to that extent we’ve won a couple of golds or two, and a silver and a gold for our Mexican lager. We were the very first craft brewery to beat the big boys at GABF [Great American Beer Festival] to get a gold medal in 17, which was monumental for the industry. You see almost every craft brewery now producing lagers.
I’d like to think that we could have shown some people at the awards show that you can do it – you can do something very good. Our other medal we just won last year was for our peach pale ale. I think that’s unusual for a brewery, especially of our size, that has won three or four GABF medals for four production beers we make every day. I’m really proud of it. Usually this is a single beer – a little more hoppy than you would ever put on the market – but we won with our production beers. For me, that’s something I’m really, really proud of. Our brewers and my partner, Jerry Siote, are really focused on making the best quality beer possible.
To that end, you are adding two new beers to your seasonal rotation this year. You have a hefeweizen that comes in the spring, and then towards the end of the summer, a pilsner. They’re both German-style beers, which is something new at Lone Tree, isn’t it? Has there been a lot of development and making sure you can do it right, given that people have specific expectations for their hefeweizens and pilsners?
Oh, yes, and just so we’re clear, we’ve always done a lot of lagers and a lot of German-style beers. We actually opened in 2011 with a hefeweizen, but I’m not sure the audience we had in the south Denver metro area was quite ready for a hefeweizen. They certainly are now.
We did this last year and our head brewer who has been with us for two and a half years now has actually won medals with this recipe. He looked at the recipe we had when we first opened, then changed it, tweaked it, and brought it in by taking the best of both recipes and combined it and made something different out of it. I have to be honest – when we did it last year in a test batch to see how it would go, it was like, ‘Do we need to take this back full-time?’ We are always evaluating what our base line is and can we find something that we think could outperform any of our products and our base line.
As for the pils, we didn’t start with the pilsner, but we started the day we opened with a helles, which is obviously a German lager, but the pilsner – again, Dennis O’ Hara our head brewer has won awards for his pilsner recipe and in fact last year the pilsner qualified for the final round of GABF medals so we are very confident in the recipe and in what he produced with. And we think it’s going to be extremely good.
Going back to something you said earlier about how you want your beers to be the ones that don’t stay at the bottom of the cooler at the end of the party – which always felt unique in the offerings from Lone Tree is that there are so many breweries out there right now where even their regular offerings are in the 6-7% ABV range when a lot of your beer, for the most part, is lies in the 5-6% range. Obviously, the double IPA or the Hop Zombie climbs a little higher, but it seems like you’re aiming for beers that people can trust. Someone can go through your Brewer’s Bundle 12 Mixes and try a few without attaching one.
We’ve always believed that craft brew consumers value quality over quantity. They’re not here to get drunk. I think now within the Denver community there’s a growing trend to produce low-alcohol beers with the same amount of flavor, if that makes sense. We have always focused on that.
The only place you distribute outside of Colorado is Kansas. How was this decision made?
In 2014, a gentleman [Trey Rolofson] used to come to our brewery all the time and rave about our beers. One day we had a conversation and he said, “I don’t know if you know this, but my family has a dealership in Kansas, and I just opened a dealership here in the state of Colorado. I love what you do. I love your beers, but I’m making wine and spirits right now. I would love to have some beer, but it would be a disservice to take you, but I would really like to introduce you to my brother and Worldwide Beverage, up in the state of Kansas.
So Bridget Geiger, who was our head of sales [at the time]-she and I went to Kansas and we sat down and talked to Chad [Rolofson]. We said, “We’ve never been involved in anything like this before, but Trey said that – here we brought you samples. Would you like to wear our brand? [laughs]
It was a very good relationship with them. For our size of brewery, they do very well. The last two years have been a struggle ’cause I haven’t been there [to Kansas] because of covid. I’m going to be there, probably in early March, and road tripping and doing events and sales and stuff like that.
COVID has ruined everyone, but at the same time, without anyone trying to push our beers, we’ve actually done very well in their wallet. We hope to change that and start seeing additional growth here in the coming year.
We have started 2022. You have these new beers added to the seasonal rotation, sales are going well – what are your other plans? Hop Zombie’s release party started to pick up elements from 3 Floyds Dark Lord party, but not quite to that level.
Yeah, we had people camping overnight. We usually give people a t-shirt and a mug or a drink that is always unique and different every year for the Hop Zombie event and yeah, it got crazy. It’s our biggest day of the year and it continues to grow year after year. We continue to set records with the amount of beer we produce for this and are pretty much always sold out at the end of the day. It’s a one day event and it’s quite remarkable.
The performance is so bad. I hope you understand that with the amount of hops we put in this thing, the yield we get is eight barrels and that’s it. This year we had half a barrel left and we didn’t know what to do with it. What we decided to do is hold that and probably in a year or two do a graduation where you can check out the ’21 Hop Zombie, the ’22 Hop Zombie and the ’23 Hop Zombie and buy a flight as we move forward. It may become a trend to see how beer ages, it changes, and what happens to it, because it will definitely stand up to the amount of hops we put in it.
Lone Tree Brewing beers can be found in stores in Colorado and Kansas, and you can find a store near you at their website.