Experimentation and an eye for opportunity are the foundation of Mark Fitzgerald and Nathan Johansing’s mountain brewery.
Before Fitzgerald moved to Colorado, he had never entertained the idea of becoming a brewer. “I didn’t even know homebrewing was a thing,” he recalls with a chuckle. But once his wife gifted him a homebrew kit for his birthday shortly after they arrived in Steamboat, the notion of launching a brewery began to germinate.
“Colorado is the state of craft beer, but there was only a brewpub in town at the time,” Fitzgerald says. “I started looking at what other people were successfully doing down in Durango. Our demographics [in Steamboat] are pretty similar to Durango’s: we’re off the beaten path, have a similar population size, and are kind of a ranching and tourism town at heart. I figured if they could make it work down there, there was no reason it couldn’t work here.”
His dentist introduced him to Johansing, a former ski racer who was studying brewing at the Doemens Academy in Munich, Germany at the time. The rest, as they say, is history. The two, along with lead brewer Rob Schwarz, now create a fleet of five year-round beers as well as a multitude of seasonal rotators, small batches, and pilot brews for taproom consumption, packaging, and distribution throughout Colorado.
Schwarz’s background in food science often inspires the team to create new recipes or infusions. “He really has flavor profiles nailed down,” Fitzgerald says. “And he gets really creative with the fleet to both stretch our offerings but also experiment with what else we might be able to do without making too many changes to the core line up.”
They’re also quick to act when opportunity strikes — such as when the folks at Honey Stinger, located across the street from the brewery, needed to get rid of extra honey before it expired. “We made a traditional coriander and orange peel wit with some of the organic honey,” Fitzgerald recounts. “It turned out so well, that we scaled it up to a 30-barrel batch and are packaging it next week.”
Butcherknife Brewing fans also have another batch of the Decapitator — a 10 to 11 percent ABV double IPA — to look forward to as well as this year’s version of Morningside Coffee Porter. “Hopefully we can sneak out a stout later in the winter also,” Fitzgerald adds.
Favorite beers: “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘When you work at Disney World, where do you go for fun?'” Fitzgerald says, “because at the end of the night, more often than not, I’m not reaching for a beer but for a glass of scotch with an ice cube.” However, he’s quick to volunteer that he believes Storm Peak Brewing Company is making great beer. “I love going there to see what’s new,” he adds. He also enjoys Broken Compass’ Double IPA and 5:00 from Renegade.
Challenges: “I wouldn’t say our challenges are that different from anyone else in the industry,” Fitzgerald muses. “The competitive marketplace in Colorado is number one. It really makes you refine your message so that when you get out there you can put your product in front of somebody and say, pretty succinctly, this is who we are, this is what we do, here’s our beer. A lot of accounts get hit up by 20 or 30 reps a day. If you don’t stand out, your beer will get lost.”
Fortunately for Fitzgerald and Johansing, the demand for their beer has only increased. While they produced 2,250 barrels last year, they are on target to hit 2,750 by the end of 2017. “We’re super happy with that,” Fitzgerald says. “Any growth these days is good in my mind.”
Opportunities: “We still have room to grow in our current facility,” Fitzgerald says. “We can more than double our current max capacity based on floor space alone. If we tear down a cold room and put up another building on this land that we own, we can triple, quadruple, or even quintuple in size with some investment.”
He notes that growing sales in Steamboat itself will necessitate the introduction of new packaged product. Butcherknife Brewing currently works with two distributors: B & K Distributing “for everything north of 70 and west of 40,” and Tivoli Distributing Company for sales in the rest of state.
“We signed with B & K at the end of 2014 and haven’t looked back,” he says. “They gave us a lot of opportunities that we wouldn’t have otherwise. We signed for distribution with Tivoli about six months later. Their staff has been doing an awesome job helping us, and my full-time sales staff are really taking advantage of that relationship to go out and meet new retailers.”
Though it’s not imminent, Fitzgerald says that exporting beer to other states is likely in Butcherknife’s future.
Needs: As with many small- to mid-sized breweries, money and growth management are two of Butcherknife’s biggest needs. “We’re always reinvesting in the business,” Fitzgerald says. “Even though we’re showing a profit, every penny goes right back into what we are doing so that we can continue to grow without bringing on a ton of debt.”
“We need to develop a strong financial plan so that we can continue to grow at a comfortable rate,” he concludes. “We’re going to need equipment. We’re going to need more cooperage. And we have some freight challenges to solve because we’re up here in the mountains.”