Published: June 5, 2013
When his brewery first opened, visitors would tell Duane Lujan it was like drinking in somebody's garage.
"Now it's like drinking in somebody's three-car garage," the jovial founder of Rocky Mountain Brewery said.
The little brewery that could is turning 5 on Saturday, and what a start it has been. Lujan has made enough money to buy the building, tripling the brewery's size. Next year, his beers will be available in cans at liquor stores and on tap at restaurants and bars. The brewery has earned a reputation as one of the better makers of fruit beers in the world.
Most surprising, it has thrived by selling almost exclusively at the brewery, despite its location in an industrial park on the eastern fringe of Colorado Springs.
"We're a little big for our age," said Lujan, who ran a home brew supply shop for 12 years before buying the equipment of Blick's Brewery, formerly open in the same location.
Many breweries are expanding as Colorado experiences a craft-brewing boom, but Lujan and his five "co-owners," rather than employees, have carved a niche for themselves by making wildly experimental beers, along with traditional styles.
"Beers are kind of like mashed potatoes and craft beer is like mashed potatoes with gravy. Once you have different gravies and stuff on your mashed potatoes, it's hard to go back to just plain mashed potatoes, but in a pinch they work," he said.
Last week, among the beers on tap were S'mores, which smells and tastes like the classic campfire treat, and Szechuan Porter, which smells and tastes like Chinese food. "We were probably hungry, trying to figure out what we wanted to order for lunch and probably came up with the idea," Lujan said of the latter beer.
It's a fearless, inquisitive approach to brewing. Coconut curry, peaches, key lime cheesecake, mint, blueberry, peanut butter and jelly - all are among the 130 types of beer that have come from Rocky Mountain Brewery. Head brewer Nick Hilborn has a culinary degree and is often the catalyst for the "do you think we could make a beer out of that?" discussions.
Except for four of five staples, which "pay for all the experimentations and crazy, whacky beers we come up with," the beer selection changes daily and sometimes hourly. Said Lujan, "The other day I left to run some errands for a few hours, and I came back and there were three new beers on tap."
He likes to bring the more exotic brews to beer festivals. If you've had 10 IPAs in a day and then try a beer that tastes like PB & J, which do you think you'd remember later?
"When they have a S'mores, PB&J, how much they taste like the food, it's phenomenal," said one customer, who declined to give his name because he was supposed to be at work. "It's amazing to see the quality. What was that, Chinese food?"
When canning begins later this year, Lujan will just sell out of the brewery for six months so they can perfect the process. He's aiming to have up to a dozen beers in cans.
He hopes the business evolves into a distribution brewery, though he believes he will continue to draw more visitors as development in Colorado Springs spreads eastward.
"Within five years, we've been able to buy our own building and land where most breweries might be in a strip mall and a lot of their money is paid out to a landlord. Whatever we're doing seems to be working for us," he said.
"It's these five years of fun and going to beer festivals. Success is not a destination; it's kind of a journey."