Most beer lovers know Denver, CO is one of the country’s top spots for craft beer. The city is ranked third for most breweries in the United States, according to an analysis done by Datafiniti last year. The River North or RiNo, an up-and-coming arts district, is one of the hottest places within the city for craft beverages. So how does a brewery stand out in a sea of great beer?
“There are 15 breweries one mile from our door, and good brewers — all of them friends,” said Bill Eye, co-owner of Bierstadt Lagerhaus. “I don’t fear the competition because it turns out we’re not doing anything like what anybody else is doing. If we can just get the people in here that like lager beer, they’ll have one here, stop, and then they’ll go next door and they’ll have an IPA, and go to another place and have a Belgian beer.”
Bierstadt only makes German-style lagers, which Eye said has been a good way to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace but wasn’t the original intent. “We didn’t go ‘There’s a niche for lager beer, I think we’ll step into that niche.’ Instead we said ‘We love this more than anything and we’re going to hope to find other people that love it as well.’”
Eye, who has been working in the industry since 1996, first started drinking imported German beer while living in Chicago in the 1980s, then, following a passion for travel, went to the source and was hooked. “I fell in love with the beers there,” he said. “They were still yellow like the beers I’d been drinking back home, but they didn’t taste anything like what I’d been drinking back home.”
Although he enjoys drinking a variety of beers, he only enjoys brewing German. “I just gravitated to this kind of beer,” he said. “It’s kind of a quirk of my personality — very narrowly defined, precise, lots of technique-driven things as opposed to recipe-driven, I just preferred that.”
Eye shares his passion for traditional German beer with co-owner and head brewer Ashleigh Carter, who first met Eye when they both worked at Aurora’s Dry Dock Brewing Co, where she began her brewing career as a volunteer. When Eye started Prost Brewing Company in Fort Collins with partners, he asked Carter to brew for him there. They later parted ways with Prost but knew they didn’t want to do anything else.
“I just like the idea of making beer with a limited number of ingredients, whether it be ale or lager,” said Carter, a Colorado native who has a bachelor’s degree in pure mathematics. “I like the simplicity and not over complicating it.”
They left Prost broke and without much of a plan but knew if they wanted to start a brewery of their own they’d have to go all in. With two tickets to Germany on Carter’s credit card and a small loan from her father, they found a 1932 30-barrel copper brew kettle in Allendorf after looking at five different brewhouses of varying sizes. Carter returned a few month’s later with a friend fluent in German to take photos and notes on how it was set up for the engineers to install in their space in Denver.
“It’s amazing to literally brew on a piece of history,” said Eye. “I think about the people that made beer on it, drank beer on it. There’s some good reasons to brew on a copper system, but I think both of us just really liked the aesthetic.”
They currently make three regular beers and a rotating seasonal on the system using only ingredients sourced from Germany — pilsner, helles and dunkel. Their seasonal beers stay in line with the German brewing calendar — an Oktoberfest for fall, a doppelbock, a tradition Christmas season beer, released in November, and a maibock in the spring.
They’re on track this year to produce 1,600 barrels, which they sell on site at their Rackhouse Pub, alongside C Squared Ciders, who occupy the same building. They also self-distribute to 45 bars and restaurants mostly around Denver, with a few in Colorado Springs and Boulder.
Just as they adhere to Germany’s strict rules for brewing beer, Bierstadt has strict rules for the businesses they distribute to. Each beer must be served in Bierstadt’s own glassware and each style of beer gets a different glass. Bartenders are invited to the brewery for a training day where they get a tour and a meal. They also visit the restaurants and bars regularly to get to know the bartenders.
“You can’t go anywhere else in the world that I can think of except for the United States and not get a perfectly poured beer in a glass that’s branded from the brewery,” said Eye. “I don’t understand why in the United States we’ve just gotten away from that. We’ve poured a lot of effort into this beer. We really care about it and I want it to get to the consumer in the way we intend it to be served and with our glassware.” Eye added that from a marketing standpoint, customers always know whose beer is on the table when its in their glass.
Their pilsner, dubbed the slow-pour pilsner, gets extra special treatment. It is served in a traditional pilsner glass with a pilsdeckchen — a paper skirt placed around the glass to catch the moisture that falls off the sides, found on any glass of pilsner you order in Germany.
“Pils in Germany is such a special beer,” said Eye. “Up in Northern Germany it’s all they make and drink any more. It’s just evolved to the point where it’s usually the brewery’s most expensive beer to produce. They use their finest hops in it and so they fancy it up a little bit.”
They train their bartenders to pour it for seven minutes in order to achieve the proper head. “The seven-minute pour is about stacking the foam on top of each other, softening the carbonation ever so slightly,” said Eye. “It’s just an elegant way to serve an elegant beer.” He noted that it is also served in a smaller glass in order for it to keep a constant temperature and that the slow pour does affect the taste.
“Honestly, it’s hard to have the beer … that you took all the time and care [to create] and you get to a bar and it’s served in a filthy shaker pint with no foam on it. It just gets tiring,” added Carter, who noted any Stella Artois ordered in the United States is always poured into its own branded glass. “When people have a bad experience, they don’t blame the bar, they blame the beer and literally this is our reputation served one glass at a time and I want to have a little bit of control over our reputation.”