A Tale of Two Breweries

by Amanda Push

It is the hoppiest of times, it is the sudsiest of times. And by that, we mean it is time for two of Durango’s most beloved breweries, Ska Brewing Co. and Steamworks Brewing Co., to face off against each other, and breweries across the U.S., at the country’s largest beer party: the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. More than 800 big boy (and girl) beer-makers across the country will be heading to the Mile High City to show off their best batches and fight for the throne – or 102 thrones, rather – in a contest that pits lager against lager, and brewer against brewer.

They’re about as far apart on the brewery personality spectrum as you can get, but Ska and Steamworks are both previous GABF winners, and both have managed to carve out a massive following of loyal patrons. One is steeped in comic book drawings and incorporates superstitions and a lot of rowdy music into the brewing process, and the other revels in a hearty, industrial style with an exhibitionist brewhouse. Both are known for their award-winning brews and their distinct but varied styles, and both have a pretty good shot at landing a spot on the winner’s list this year. So, prepare yourselves folks, cause Ska and Steamworks will be going head-to-head in a brewing battle of epic proportions, and things could get kinda sticky (and delicious).

We spoke to both breweries about their unique styles, their killer beer, and their game plan for outdoing the competition – and each other – at this year’s GABF. Here’s what they had to say.


Booze born of SkaIn one corner of the ring, you have skulls, ska, and comic book heroes fighting against beer with a serious case of the blahs. That is what Ska Brewing is punching with.

It’s not often you hear of a company mapping out their business plan into a comic book, but Ska isn’t exactly what you would call textbook. Founded by Bill Graham, Dave Thibodeau, and Matt Vincent in 1995, the brewery has been marching to the tune of its own musical beat, ska music specifically, since it opened those punk rock kid doors.

“Two of the owners grew up together outside Denver. When they were in high school, they were into the ska kind of punk scene, so they would listen to ska music a lot, and when they started homebrewing, they would always listen to ska music,” said Kristen Muraro, sales and marketing director at Ska. “It kind of became this criteria where they had to be listening to ska music while they brewed, and they had to drink one of the beers from their previous batch. Kind of superstitious, I guess.”

When the time came for the owners to name the brewery, they decided the pay homage to the soundtrack of their adolescence: ska music. It stuck, and the brewery stuck in Durango, earning a spot as one of the most adored rowdy kid breweries in the Four Corners.

[image:5]Ska game planThis year, Ska brewers will be entering its Oktoberfest German-Style Lager, Mexican Logger, Berliner Weisse, and True Blonde Ale into the GABF contest, four styles that vary on the beer spectrum, but are strong contenders for a spot on the top of the list. After all, some of them have already landed there in previous years.

Ska brought home a bronze medal from the 2016 GABF for their Mexican Logger, which was judged in the American-Style or International-Style Pilsner category. The beer also won a silver medal in 2015 in the same section. In 2016, Ska earned a bronze medal for its True Blonde in the English-style Summer Ale category at World Beer Cup, which, while not GABF, is a good indicator of the one-two punch of the Blonde.

[image:4]Party poursBut Ska is doing an even bigger solid for the folks flocking to beer fest as patrons, because their beer won’t be limited to the four styles they’re entering in the competition. They’re going to pour Pink Vapor Stew, Rue B. Soho, Oktoberfest German-Style Lager, Mexican Logger for the public, along with a new beer that you can’t snag off the shelf quite yet called Moral Panic.

“It’s a brut IPA that hasn’t even been released yet, but we’ll be bringing the only keg we have right now to the beer festival,” said Muraro. “It’s like a drier-type IPA with not as bitter (of a taste) – kind of champagne – like we say. So, more dry like champagne. But you get that tropical, hop aroma and, like, some of that hop flavor without the bitterness that a lot of hoppy beers have. So it’s just more of a crisp, clean, dry IPA. It’s a newer style. There’s not many of them out there yet, but we think it’s what people are going to be wanting.”

[image:5]Roots radicalIf you are steeped in knowledge of old(ish) punk music, you can probably guess where the beer monikers like Rue B. Soho, Moral Panic, and Pink Vapor Stew originated, but we thought it important to check where the Ska staff is digging up these names anyway.

“Very strategic, well thought out,” Muraro said, before cracking into a smirk, unable to keep a straight face, because, well, the very idea of Ska having a very straight-laced meeting to name a drink after a Rancid song – you know the one: “Destination unknown, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby Soho” – is amusing.

Some of the names come from the Ska comic book – The Tales of the Legion of Ska – a David and Goliath-like tale involving a wickedly smirking skeleton villain dressed as a mobster, along with three dudes who just want to make good beer, and a beautiful blonde who’s out to save them.

“So originally, the owners wrote a comic book as kind of their business plan, but it was basically this battle with Rotgutzen (International Beverage Corporation). That was the name in the comic books, but it’s actually kind of like Budweiser that we’re battling, and big beer,” said Muraro. “And in the comic book, there’s all these characters, and so a lot of those characters are what you see on our cans and the names. So, like True Blonde is Lana Lovibond, and she’s in our comic book. She’s one of the heroes, and so that’s who that character is on that can.”

Music is also influential in the decision to name a beer. Take Moral Panic, for instance, which was named in reference to the ska scene.

“There were the mods and the rockers, and there was this kind of battle between them. And so it was like Moral Panic tied into that a little bit. So, there’s usually a tie into something in our past, whether it’s the comic book, or music, or a person, or a friend,” Muraro said.

[image:7]Community reigns supremeAfter 23 years of business, today Ska distributes to 12 different markets – Colorado being their biggest – and to as far away as Sweden and the United Kingdom. But while their beers might be shipped off to the other side of the world, Ska puts its roots first.

“I would say that we’ve always been community minded. One of our core values is ‘community reigns supreme,’” said Muraro. “I think when they first opened the brewery, the first place to put us on tap in town was Carvers (Brewing Company). I think that just speaks volumes to just, you know, not only the brewing community but the Durango community. We all work together and help each other out. We know we wouldn’t be where we are today without Durango and the community.”

[image:15]Steamworks won’t be derailedIf you’re paying attention, the first thing you’ll see when you walk into downtown Durango’s Steamworks are two benches made of truck bed doors. It only goes uphill, or perhaps off-road, from there.

“I think in terms of a brewpub, you have to have three things, and it’s the ambiance or atmosphere, good beer, (and) good food, and I think we’re hitting on all those factors pretty well,” said Ken Martin, head brewer at Steamworks. “Not to toot my own horn, but (the) beer’s alright.”

Industrial and historically styled – with towering rafters, large pipes running along the ceiling, copper kettles, and bikes lining the walls – Steamworks captures a casual and warm vibe where all are welcome. It feels a bit like the antithesis of Ska, with a sports-meets-family-dinner vibe and a full kitchen. And, if you’re sitting at the right angle, you can catch a full view of the brewing workspace.

“People can get an understanding of what goes into brewing because they’re actively brewing when we’re sitting here eating. A lot of times breweries are just kind of pushed back to the back somewhere,” said Susan Hupp, sales and event coordinator for Steamworks.

“An exhibition-style kitchen is pretty common, but I think for a brewhouse to be this visible to the patrons is a little more rare,” said Martin.

Founded in 1996 by Brian McEachron and Kris Oyler, the brewery has remained in its original location, a 100-year-old building that at one point and time served as a 1920s car dealership. Today, the brewery distributes only in Colorado.

On the weekends, the football game rules over the noise of idle conversation – especially if the Broncos are playing – but to categorize it as a sports bar is to severely underestimate the brewpub.

“We’ve got a lot of locals that come in, regulars, all the time. We have a lot of investors…34 percent of our staff here are invested in the company, and the rest are folks within the community. So, that makes this place their first choice to come to support that,” said Hupp.

[image:16]Beer battle plansThis year for the GABF competition, Steamworks is submitting their Steam Engine Lager – the second-most decorated beer in Colorado, which has a whopping won seven medals – along with Night Train Lager, Backside Stout, and Colorado Kolsch, beers brewed to style to fit into the competition categories.

“It’s helpful that we have quite a few beers that have medaled in the past now, so we can feel pretty confident with those recipes,” said Martin, who won’t be attending GABF this year. “So, as long as we hit our marks in the brewhouse and fermentation side, it at least has a chance.”

Earlier this year, the brewery took home a gold award in the dark lager category at the 2018 World Beer Cup, knocking out breweries from all over the world to do so.

And, in 2016, the brewery won two silver medals at GABF, taking one for its Slam Dunkel in the German-style wheat ale category, and another for its Backside Stout in the oatmeal stout category.

[image:20]Tough crowd – and tough competitorsBut these days, the competition draws such a large number of brewers, medaling – even for one of Durango’s top breweries – can prove difficult.

“Some of the (GABF) categories are really big,” Martin said. “The Kolsch category last year, I think, was 115 entries. There’s no small categories anymore… If a beer every now and then doesn’t move on, well, it’s not like going back to the drawing board and re-inventing the wheel, but you might need to fine-tune some things.”

[image:21]Brewery bonafidesAside from the interest it might pique at the brewhouse, placing in the top at competitions like GABF can help them stand out in the market, not only as far as the bottom line goes, but also against what Hupp refers to as a “passionate industry.”

“So being able to stand out is not only something that makes us proud,” Hupp said. “But it also gives the consumer a little more confidence to whittle down where they’re going to focus their energy and money.”

“For the brewers, it’s like the only recognition and honor that we have,” said Martin. “I think for a company as a whole, I think more and more people are taking more notice of the beers that do win competitions. There’s like 6,500 breweries out there right now, and some of them are making bad beer – I hate to say it.”

The festival is also a good way for the Steamworks to partner with other businesses – they’ll be partnering with French 75 of Denver to do a beer and food pairing at GABF – and learn more about beer, while making connections with other breweries, said Hupp.

“Everyone’s got their mind on beer for this week.”


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