The surge of craft distilling in the U.S. followed in the wake of craft brewing’s meteoric ascent. Of course, distillation and brewing go hand in hand, as the former wouldn’t exist without the latter, and every distillery making grain-based spirits first mashes and ferments a “beer” before transmogrifying the liquid through its stills into spirit.
Soon enough, talent and ideas were flowing between those two worlds, too, with hard-earned experience and knowledge from the realm of craft beer influencing the distillation scene. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that a contingent of producers have asked, why not do both?
From Beer to Whiskey; to Beer and Whiskey
Rogue Ales was founded in 1988, and the acclaimed brewer began experimenting with distillation 15 years later, in 2003. “This was before the idea of craft distilling was popularized, and for us it was like most things we do, a pursuit of curiosity, answering the question ‘what if?’ and just continuing to push boundaries,” says Steven Garrett, Rogue’s vice president of business development. “We thought if we can make great-tasting craft beer with high-quality ingredients and a sense of origin, why not go one step further and distill as well.”
Indeed, the earliest ranks of craft distillers were filled with those coming in from other worlds. The first wave in the 1980s consisted of fruit-forward European brandy disciples such as St. George Spirits, Charbay Distillery, and Clear Creek Distillery. The next wave, though, came after brewing’s ascendance and saw an influx of people from that sphere, such as Triple Eight Distillery, Stranahan’s, and Rogue, not to mention Anchor Brewing, which in 1993 became the first brewery with an in-house distillery, an enterprise now known as Hotaling & Co. Distillery.
Indeed, there are now well-laid roots across the country. Dogfish Head is one of the country’s most prominent craft brewing names, and it added a micro-distillery to its Milton, Del., location. In Michigan, New Holland Brewery built on a decade of success following its founding in 1996 with the launch of its distillery operation. In North Carolina, Top of the Hill Distillery produces TOPO Organic Spirits, alongside Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery. Even New York City has its own brewstillery, with Brooklyn’s Interboro Spirits & Ales.
For Dennis Rylander, who co-founded Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling in 2010, the idea was always to bring both concepts to life from the start. “Passion for both beer and whiskey drove the decision to do both, with the vision of establishing San Antonio’s first modern production brewery and making a Texas bourbon to be proud of,” he says.
That perspective represents a sea change; as opposed to transitioning from one world to another, producers wanted to wade into both waters at once. Enter the brewstillery in its peak form: with both feats of fermentation firepower launching at the same time.
Compared to the several thousand craft distilleries in the country, the brewstillery is but a small player, with perhaps a few dozen full-time dual players in the country. However, the mashups are getting more attention than ever due to the increased quality of their products, including now well-aged whiskeys, and a track record of producing exciting, tasty products from both wings of their operations. These are no longer sideshows, but rather relevant and respected double craft hubs where creativity and innovation are on tap.
After Bartley Blume missed his chance at being among the earliest Minnesota breweries, he adapted his plan. “If I can’t be one of the first, I don’t wanna do it,” he says. His homebrewing then shifted into home distillation. “I built a still on my back porch — and I never used it as far as you know, but I started developing whiskey recipes. I rewrote my business plan and the Bent Brewstillery was born [in 2012].”
This spring in Colorado, the Ska Street Brewstillery made its debut in Boulder, bringing two sister companies together: Ska Brewing, founded in 1995 in Durango, and Peach Street Distillers, founded in 2005 in Palisade. “It allows us to offer more options under one roof,” says Kristen Muraro, Ska Brewing’s director of sales and marketing.
There are several layers of efficiencies to capitalize on that signal the likelihood of brewstilleries becoming increasingly more prominent, too. First, there’s the skill overlap. “We think the brewstillery will continue to be a growing trend,” Garrett says. “Breweries and distilleries require a lot of similar skills so the brewstillery model is a natural progression.”
Then there’s the equipment and process logistics. “Doing both has a lot of advantages,” Blume says. “The same brewing, fermenting, and cleaning equipment can be used for both. Sometimes packaging equipment, too.”
By capitalizing on both, and launching both halves of the operation as one fully formed, cohesive whole, it’s more achievable than ever. “It takes some foresight and some thought to put all the pieces together but it is a great concept and I am sure there will be more to come,” Muraro says of the brewstillery.
The Brewstillery Delivers the Best of Both Worlds
When businesses are able to operate normally, brewstilleries offer a wide sweeping sensory experience and educational opportunity in one setting. “Peach Street is known for its elaborate handcrafted cocktails, and to offer that with the freshest Ska beers brewed on site is amazing, and allows us to appeal to a wider audience,” Muraro says, also noting that the new effort coincides with Ska’s 25th anniversary and Peach Street’s 15th. Ska Street is now open, with reservations encouraged, and is offering curbside pickup and to-go beer, spirits, cocktails, and food. Ska’s beers are distributed in 13 states, and Peach Street’s spirits are distributed in Colorado.
“Customers get to learn about the full process, from grain to milling, to mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation, and bottling,” Rylander says. Ranger Creek’s outdoor beer garden is open, and its indoor taproom opened in mid-June at half capacity. Its whiskeys are available for direct shipping to 37 states, and locally, products are available for curbside pickup with optional preordering.
“We have something for everyone, the beer lover can be happy and the cocktail lover can be happy,” Blume says, joking that it’s an important quality for couples who come from a divided home on such issues. Bent’s patio is open, with the taproom open at half capacity, offering combined seating for about 100 patrons, with delivery in Illinois via Spirit Hub, and products available for pickup locally.
“Being a reputable beer brand has helped introduce people to our spirits portfolio but there is still more opportunity for growth,” Garrett says. Getting those products into people’s hands offers an opportunity to build a brand that other settings wouldn’t provide, while allowing people access to more diversity in the products they get to try. “The pubs give us a great testing ground and allows us to see what resonates with our customers,” Garrett says.
Rogue Spirits has distribution across 35 states, is available from several major online retailers, and now offers free delivery in and around Portland and pickup from its pubs. Four of its locations have reopened, with the three in Portland awaiting county go-ahead.
The best payoff from a brewstillery may be the experimental opportunities it provides. “Bringing spirits barrels for aging beer back to the brewery is by no means new, however we can make unique spirits and those barrels lend themselves to one-of-a-kind beers,” says Bill Graham, co-founder and CEO of Peach Street Distillers. “Picture French oak peach brandy barrels freshly dumped.”
Muraro notes that the two halves have already collaborated in numerous ways, including its Boomerang Barrel program and Modus Whiskey, but that “we were always looking for the right situation where we could join forces even further. It allows us to integrate more on the production side. We will be offering more collaborative projects such as specialty spirits and barrel-aged beers.”
At Rogue, the company dictates its own terms at every step of production, enabling it to pursue whichever whims or crossovers come to mind. While all whiskey starts as “beer,” it’s not made with any intention of being consumed in that form. However, whiskey can be distilled from actual production beer in an effort to see if a signature beer’s standout qualities are passed through. “Because we are a farmer, brewer, cooper, and distiller, we’re able to make products like our Dead Guy Whiskey, which starts off with our Dead Guy Ale, and Rolling Thunder Stouted Whiskey, from barrels that previously aged Rolling Thunder Imperial Stout beer,” Garrett says.
At Ranger Creek, Rylander notes that experimentation between the two halves of its operation is fundamental to its ethos. “Opportunities are endless,” he says. They use their own bourbon barrels for finishing a series of beers, and even failures can be rescued on occasion. “Our Rimfire originated from distilling a failed brew of our Mesquite Smoked Porter,” Rylander says. When life hands you lemons, make whiskey.
Brewstilleries will undoubtedly become more common — who doesn’t love a good crossover episode? — but from a business standpoint, it may not be for everyone. Challenges and drawbacks are abundant, with, for instance, Rylander noting added complexities to production, distribution, and sales, along with different target markets; Muraro adding that it requires extra foresight and planning; and Blume saying that even with in-house synergy, “we have to do all the work that a brewery does and we have to do all the work that a distillery does.”
That may leave brewstilleries more as a niche than a huge segment of the industry, but for you at home enjoying the fruits of those labors, or, once you’re able to, sidling up at the bar with a beer and a shot both made in the same place by the same people, those extra challenges aren’t really your concern. All you have to worry about is whether you’ll try the beer first or the whiskey.
Published: July 12, 2020