Back when Renegade Brewing Co. was but his happy daydream, owner/brewmaster Brian O’Connell lived in Phoenix, working as a statistician while his wife attended graduate school at Arizona State University. While unloading his car after a vacation to San Diego and up the coast—with obligatory stops at Bear Republic, Russian River and others, of course—O’Connell was met by a neighbor, who asked if he could snag the growlers O’Connell had collected during his trip. Turns out the guy next door was a 20-year veteran homebrewer, and after a quick conversation he invited O’Connell over to his place to check out his brewing setup. (O’Connell, an aspiring homebrewer himself, kept the growlers.) From there, O’Connell says, the rest is history: “I just caught the bug, and immediately went out and set up my own all-grain system and invited him over to coach me.”
Now nearing its fifth anniversary (the brewery was founded June 2011) and having opened a production facility near the original Denver Arts District taproom last year, the brewery has come full circle and now ships its beers to the Grand Canyon State. On the week of Renegade’s entrance into Arizona (right in time for Arizona Beer week), we sat down with O’Connell to catch up, discuss the pressing topics of the beer industry and, you know, drink beer. Here he is …
On the day he decided to open a brewery:
So I had to go to D.C. for work, I had a lot of government clients when I was doing consulting. I was there for this conference, and I decided the last day to just blow the whole thing off. I cancelled the meetings I was supposed to go to, rented a car and drove three hours out to the Delaware coast and spent the day at the Dogfish Head Brewery. That was kind of one of those moments of realization, where you’re like ‘I’m not doing my job; I’m blowing off work now to do craft beer stuff.’ It had already taken up all my time outside of work. So I came back and talked to my wife, and I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, I don’t know if I can get it started, I don’t know if I know what I’m doing, but I have to at least try.’ That’s when I started writing the business plan, and two years from when I started the business plan we turned the key on the door and opened for business.
On the name:
‘Renegade’ was kind of what I felt at the time, to leave a university job and go out on my own, do my own thing. I felt like a Renegade. It’s also a description of our beers. Our take on beers is to take a classic style and twist it just a little bit. Not crazy adjuncts, but adjuncts that we feel really enhance the flavor profile of that style.
Take our pale ale, Consilium, for example. I didn’t want to do an English-style pale ale; I didn’t want to do an American-style pale ale. I wanted to do a new thing. So it has English hops and American hops in it. I wanted it to drink like a bigger beer, but it’s 5 percent alcohol, so we put oats in it, and lactose. We put orange peel in it to complement the citrusy American hops that we finish it with. So it’s taking lessons from other styles and applying it to that style, and as far as I know, we’re the only pale ale on the market with oats and lactose.
On the changing definition of “craft beer”:
It’s getting hard to define what a craft brewery is. The original intention behind that word was to designate independent breweries—small, independently owned breweries—that were making beers from scratch, there’s a lot of manual labor involved—there’s a lot of craft to it, you know? Now, with buyouts happening every other week, and we just had a federal court rule that you can’t designate a sector of beer craft, anything can be called a craft product, that word is losing some of its meaning and intention. You now see the big guys using it against us. They’re using it in their marketing to make fun of us. My point was: the sector of beer that’s quality beer—and I prefer terms like that: quality beer, independent beer—we’re no longer this little tiny sector over here. We’re a significant part of the overall beer industry now. Why slap a label on us? Why not just call us beer? We are the beer industry. We’re making beer the way it’s supposed to be made, we’re providing a quality product, we’re providing good jobs in the process—why not just call us the beer industry?
On maintaining a local focus:
Something that craft beer has provided in addition to the liquid in the bottle is a local culture and a local industry that had in some part gone away. It’s a manufacturing industry; we provide manufacturing jobs that are really good jobs, and we’re supporting our local economy. Craft breweries are well-known for supporting nonprofits in their local communities, and I think there’s just a difference in buying that liquid from AB-InBev, which is an international company, versus buying that from Renegade Brewing Company, where all of that money stays in Denver, the owner lives three miles from the brewery and everybody that works at the brewery lives around the brewery. We support local causes, we support our neighborhood.
On the challenges of running a brewery:
I was a statistician before I did this. I sat in a cubicle and stared at a computer screen all day. Now, I run an inter-state manufacturing company. That’s just a totally different world. It takes some of the romance out of craft beer, thinking about margins and distribution and the supply chain, and I’m sure you guys have heard what’s going on with cans. You go through hop shortages, hop contracts. Balancing whether you have enough beer for each distributor, enough kegs. I mean, it’s constant, the sales side and manufacturing side, trying to make sure everything there is balanced.
On beer festivals:
Our reason for going [to a beer festival] is we want people to experience our beer. We want people to remember us. We want people to enjoy it. That’s really hard to do when you have 700 breweries on the floor, each with five beers. We do our own little event once per year—we have 10 breweries there. And the way we structure it is, you can come in for two hours and taste everything, and at the end of those two hours we do a little comedy show, inviting the brewers to each send a representative up and do two minutes of stand-up comedy, and then we headline it with a national comedian. During that time, we give people tickets for a full pour of beer. It’s important to us that you went and sampled—that’s great, you had a couple ounces of each. But how do you know that you really liked it? I mean, a beer is meant to be enjoyed. I like the comedy thing, too, because the beers are being enjoyed in a real atmosphere. You know: sit back, put your mind on something else, relax, sip that beer, enjoy it. I really like the structure of that, and I think everybody leaves there remembering all 10 breweries, remembering at least one beer they really loved, and I think it’s just a great experience for the brewers and the people who come there.
I don’t really like the ‘big box store’ of beer festivals. … A lot of times you’re out in a hot, dusty field. There’s not enough water; there aren’t enough restrooms. There are safety issues going on, over-consumption going on. I just don’t think that’s what our beer’s about. I would like to see it enjoyed in a better way.
On what’s next for Renegade:
We have some stuff planned for 2016. We’re putting out a grapefruit version of our Endpoint [an 11% triple IPA]; we’re putting out a new summer seasonal which is still in development. Our barrel program is really picking up, and we plan to really expand that some more. Our spring seasonal is an imperial pilsner, and we did that last year on peach in Chardonnay barrels—that was a small experiment that went really well, so we want to expand that. We have our 15-barrel system now freed up for experimental things, so we plan to churn out a lot more experimental beers out of there.
As far as long-term, we want to get to a certain barrelage where we’re a little bit more comfortable in our new, big brewery. [ED NOTE: the new facility has the capacity to do about 25,000 barrels a year, once it’s filled with fermenters.] But we’re not out to conquer the world. We’re not out to jump from state to state. The footprint you see now, my plan is to just really dig into that and really increase our barrelage through those channels.