Summit County brewers come together to make a one-of-a-kind draft for a good cause.
It only takes one person to brew a batch of beer, but on a sunny morning in December, no fewer than 15 local brewers congregated in the corner of the Dillon Dam Brewery to shepherd a first-of-its-kind batch to the fermenter. Most of the 15 sat around hightop tables, chewing the fat, talking about beer – and sipping it, too. All but a few had thick, bushy beards.
“I think the only ones of us who don’t have a beard can’t grow one,” joked Suzanne Nance, an assistant brewer at the Breckenridge Brewery. “Maybe we should do a Summit County beard yeast.”
The banter flowed crisp and dry. At a countertop next to the kettle, Cory Forster studied a four-page Excel spreadsheet that contained the day’s recipe. Forster, the 47-year-old unofficial dean of Summit County brewing and owner/brewer at The Bakers’ Brewery—one of four world-class breweries in Silverthorne and Dillon, along with the Dam, Pug Ryan’s and Angry James—calls this his favorite day of the year. In six weeks, Forster and the rest of the brewers will unveil the fruits of their labor—a high-ABV wheat wine made with juniper berries and gin botanicals. They always tap the first keg at the annual Brewers Rock for Rescue fundraiser in Silverthorne in January.
This is the fifth-annual collaboration beer that the Summit County United Brewers Alliance (SCUBA) has created, and you get the feeling they are in it for the process as much as the product. Contrary to the overcrowded brewery scene in cities along the Front Range, where not everyone gets along, Summit’s brewers share a mutual respect and refer business to each other. Twice a year, they put everything aside and get together to revel in their craft. One is a June bike ride/pub crawl that spans much of the county and is kept secret for safety reasons. The other is the SCUBA brew day each fall or early winter.
“The first year, we weren’t even open yet,” says Jason Ford, co-owner at Broken Compass Brewing in Breckenridge. “But these guys still invited us to take part in the collab. That’s the beer community here.”
“We love to drink each other’s beer,” Forster says. “There are other towns where brewers don’t get along and don’t play nice—‘I was here first, how dare you open another brewery the next block over.’ But for us, it’s kind of the high-tide-floats-all-boats thing. The better Summit County beer is in general, the more people are coming in to enjoy it. I think we’re getting to that point where the beer here is a draw on its own, almost on par with the skiing.”
All of the brewers present at the Dam, from 48-year-old J.J. Miles, the oldest SCUBA member, to 32-year-old Brandon Smith, the youngest, treat the collaboration as a learning experience. They pick each other’s brains about yeast, water treatment, cleaning regimens and boiling temperature. At the “design meeting” that establishes the objective and general recipe, everyone spitballs ideas; no ingredient is too outlandish. Forster sits in the middle of a circle and takes notes, but insists there is no hierarchy.
Their finished products span the suds spectrum. The first year, they brewed an imperial black saison and named it I-70 SS. The second, they brewed what they called Safety Meeting Barleywine, using 20 pounds of dates and 10 pounds of figs. Year three brought the SCUBA Dooba Dubbel, which included toasted almonds and tart cherry puree. Last year, they made an imperial session sour called Oxymoracracy on the day that they learned Donald Trump won the presidency. (“It’s an imperial session, so it’s an oxymoron,” Forster explains in brewer-ese.)
At the Dam in mid-December, head brewer Mike Bennett—the day’s de facto host—held up a hydrometer and examined it with Forster. They were checking for color as well as density, to get an idea how the recipe was progressing. It seemed likely they would not meet their goal of 10 percent alcohol by volume, so they and two other brewers discussed potential tweaks to increase the recipe’s potency. “This is the fun part,” Bennett says. “We get to do a lot of this on the fly instead of sitting at a computer.”
Each of the seven breweries gets to keep three kegs of the SCUBA brew, which they promote for weeks leading up to its debut. Some, like Pug Ryan’s, conserve their allotment for special occasions, including the Lake Dillon Brew Fest in June. Others let the taps flow until the kegs are gone. A SCUBA delegation also takes some to Collaboration Fest in Denver in March.
During the boil at the Dam, someone tossed in a clump of juniper berries. Bennett added spices and botanicals donated by the Breckenridge Distillery—now an honorary SCUBA member, according to Ford—a few days after fermentation.
Six weeks later, at the Brewers Rock for Rescue, a fundraiser Forster conceived many years ago at Keystone, everyone gathered for the grand unveiling. Early reviews were glowing. “You get gin right off the bat and then a backbone beer flavor,” Nance says. “It’s super light and drinkable; it’s not going to weigh you down.”
“It turned out way more complex and balanced than you could hope for when you just stab at it like that,” Ford adds.
As for its name, after much haggling everyone agreed Bennett’s suggestion was the best: SCUBA Gin-U-Wine.
It seemed sad for such a tasty brew to have such a short shelf life. But Jimmy Walker, head brewer for the Breckenridge Brewery—who originally proposed using gin botanicals—said he liked it so much he was planning to brew another batch. When? “As soon as possible,” he says, taking a sip.