by Catie Joyce-Bulay
Chad Yakobson didn’t start out wanting to open a brewery — he wanted to make wine. Before that he thought he might become a doctor. “I always call myself a failed doctor,” he said. “I studied so hard, really diligently, all of the medical sciences. But for me plant classes came a lot more natural, so I kept on falling back into botany and horticulture science.”
As he transitioned out of pre-med, becoming a winemaker was an appealing way to apply his interest in horticulture. He already had an appreciation for wine — he was cellaring bottles at 19. “So here I am as a horticultural scientist. What do I want to do? Nothing seems more romantic than being a winemaker,” he said. He completed a post-bachelor degree in oenology and viticulture in New Zealand. While there, he caught the travel bug and spent the next two years traveling through Southeast Asia, England and South America, an experience that continues to inform his beermaking.
It was in London that he discovered he wanted to make beer, finding more creativity in the brewing process than winemaking. Growing up in Colorado, good beer was always a part of his culture, Yakobson said. As an undergrad, he became especially interested in wild and sour ales.
Yakobson knew he wanted to continue research related to horticultural sciences within the field of brewing. And he knew he wanted to study yeast, more specifically Brettanomyces. When he told his professors at Edinburgh’s Heriet-Watt University what he wanted to do they thought he was crazy. “All my professors were like ‘why would anyone want to study this yeast that no one else likes?’” he said. “Winemakers think the same thing. But I knew there were a couple breweries back here in the United States that were making these brews that were really, really interesting — wild and sour beers.”
He wanted to understand how wild beers, which require Brettanomyces, were made but found little research on this yeast species. His master’s thesis, “Pure Culture Fermentation Characteristics of Brettanomyces Yeast Species and Their Use in the Brewing Industry,” or “The Brettanomyces Project” for short, aimed to do just that.
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, opened in Denver in 2011, is the application of his research and an extension of his thesis, which answered questions such as how Brettanomyces is grown, propagated and used in fermentation. He notes that Brettanomyces is completely different from Saccharomyces, the yeast species typically used in winemaking, brewing and baking.
“The first beers we made were a series called Wild Wild Bret. This is Colorado — it’s the Wild, Wild West so we really kind of played on that.” His first project was to see if he could replicate the same flavors. “That’s fine that a brewery can make a one-off with Brettanomyces and it’s popular, but can you do it again?” he said. “And from a market standpoint, does a consumer want to consume these?”
With Crooked Stave achieving a near cult following and their original Wild Wild Bret series a coveted and well-traded brew, the answer appears to be yes. Yakobson notes that when he first started the brewery he was among about 10 breweries in the United States brewing wild beers, with another 10 or so in Europe. He now estimates about 5,000 breweries have wild beers on offer.
So why the growing trend toward sour beers? “I think because of the flavors,” he says. “Not all sours are for everyone, but I think sour beer is more approachable than beer is itself. A lot of people who don’t like…beer — who say ‘I’m not a beer drinker’ — when they try a sour beer…they’re like, ‘This is beer? Really? I could drink this.’”
Barreling is an important component in sour beers, so much so that the brewery’s first piece of equipment was a 25 hectoliter foeder, which they lovingly call Baby Foeder. Crooked Stave brewed their wort on other brewer’s equipment for the first five years. Then in 2016 they expanded the barrel aging facility to add brewing equipment. Their facility currently houses 27 foeders and 600 barrels for aging, with a brewing capacity of 12,000 barrels annually. In 2017 they brewed around 7,500 barrels.
The brewery spends a significant amount of time cleaning and refinishing the barrels for the right characteristics to shine through the beer. Yakobson considers the barrels as ingredients themselves. “They’re a living, breathing organism. They breathe life into the beer,” he said. “We know what every one of the barrels looks like on the inside because we take them apart and put them back together.” Continuing to experiment, they’ve recently started bringing in more specialty barrels, like those used to age cognac, vermouth, port, white wines and even a cinnamon vanilla whiskey.
Crooked Stave produces 12 base beers, then adds fruit and aging time to make many more varieties. They have five tiers of aging — their Brett Fundamentals, which aren’t aged; Barrel-age Provisions, aged two to three months; three-month foeder-aged; and Barrel Blenders, which will age from eight to 14-months, creating a long-aged sour. The final tier gets additional fruit and is part of their Cellar Reserves. They recently added some more mainstream styles brews to their lineup, such as an IPA and pilsner.
Yakobson started Crooked Stave Artisans in 2013, where he distributes his own product as well as other beers, wine, spirits, kombucha and other products. Because wild beers were not a product distributors were familiar with at the time, Yakobson decided the best way to handle his brand was to continue to self-distribute as he grew. “And while we’re at it, while we have the space, let’s bring our other friends,” he said. “The idea is its artisans distributing artisans. We really have kind of a strict set of standards about who we bring on.”
Yakobson employees a total of 78 people, split evenly among the brewery and distribution company. He sets a high standard in what he looks for in employees, as well as what they can expect to get back. The brewery, located in a warehouse in an industrial part of the city, includes an employee and friends bar, where employees can have a shift beer. A customer tap room shares space with other vendors in an artisan food market in the trendy RiNo neighborhood. “The way we make beers, we really call it the Stave standard, because we really do things quite different here,” he said.
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