In the fine dining world, tweezers hover over plates to make sure every sprig of herb is in the right place. Meanwhile, the beer world hardly fusses over a single hop flower as it cascades into the wort. Our Mutual Friend Brewing Company in Denver, managing partner Brandon Proff isn’t counting hops per se, but he’s very much sweating the small stuff.
Our Mutual Friend opened in Denver’s River North, or RiNo, neighborhood in 2012. At the time, there were only three breweries along the mostly industrial strip. Today there are more than a dozen. OMF’s multicolored facade is just one of many murals along Larimer Street where, due to recent development, artists are being replaced by chefs and brewers as the neighborhood has become one of the city’s most popular destinations.
It’s a story that’s played out elsewhere, but Proff and his team are committed to keeping the brewery rooted in the neighborhood's artistic past. One of the ways they do this is through the brewery’s Keep the Glass program. What started as a way to get customers to venture out to the once-rough-around-the edges area—as well as sample the brewery’s not-so-trendy beers, which leans heavily towards saisons—has developed a cult following and a museum's worth of one-of-a-kind collectables.
Each Tuesday since October 2013, guests can come into the small taproom—which is not much more than a steel bar and a few IKEA tabletops welded to metal bases—and get three 10-ounce pours plus a limited-edition glass for $15. The glasses are designed by artists and illustrators around the country and take many shapes, from pints to stemware to mugs adorned with everything from skateboarding cats (designed by illustrator Skyler Elzy) to vintage hotrods (designed by Our Mutual Friend co-owner and designer Justin Pervorse) and a stop motion-style swimmer (designed by Dylan Fowler) who appears to be doing laps around the glass as you rotate it. A new glass debuts every four weeks.
“It was a little ambitious and ridiculous, but I was hellbent on it being every week,” Proff said. “And so that’s what we did.” To date 65 glasses have been introduced via the program. The glasses have featured work from other breweries’ design teams—such as Mumford Brewing’s design team at Polyphony—and non-artists such as Bon Appétit’s Alex Delaney. There are no rules when it comes to the design, other than that it needs to fit on the surface of a glass. “We just say that if it can have an ‘OMF’ somewhere,” Proff said. “It’s just kinda like a signature.”
Delaney’s design, which, according to Proff, he doodled on a napkin shortly after he was asked to contribute to the series, featured five takes on Our Mutual Friend’s initials. “I didn’t think he was going to turn something around in two hours,” Proff said. “Bottling that excitement is part of what gets people interested in coming, getting the glass, and drinking the beers.”
Many of the Keep the Glass designs hit closer to home from Proff and his team. Paul Michel, a Denver-based fine artist and greeting card maker, was a roommate of Proff’s in the early days of the brewery. His contribution to the program is a mug adorned in the brewery’s name in bubbly pink letters. It was released in September to commemorate Oktoberfest. You can also find his work hanging in the taproom—in the form of a large ice floe illustration. ”His life trajectory of creativity has been an awesome parallel to ours and having a Keep The Glass drawn by him is a fitting way to mark seven years being open,” Proff said.
In the six years since Keep the Glass debuted, one customer gifted his collection of glassware to friends on their wedding, while others send photos of the glasses they find in Goodwill to Proff as a joke.
Jokes aside, Proff sees the program as a way for the brewery to stay connected with the rapidly changing neighborhood. “It’s really connected to the artistic community in this neighborhood that’s unfortunately being run out by development,” Proff said.
Our Mutual Friend’s dedication to good design extends beyond the glass. Most of the brewery’s beers feature different riffs on stained glass, while limited-release beers include one-off designs, such as a lager sporting a piece of sushi. Even the exterior walls are covered with blobs of pink, blue, red, and yellow paint. “For us, the important thing is we make a claim that we’re community-based and a place for people to come together. And I think so many breweries believe that to be true of themselves,” Proff said. “For us it’s the sign—it’s an indicator of that being the case even if we’re not explicitly saying that.”
The glassware program and its commitment to design aren’t the only ways in which Our Mutual Friend is doing things differently. With a cooler full of buckwheat Brett saisons and grape must-infused wild ales rather than IPAs, the brewery has managed to solidify its reputation as “cool” rather than “hip.” “[Saisons] maybe not the trendiest style in the world, but [for] a lot of people who appreciate beer at large, that’s an itch they still want scratched by somebody,” Proff said. “We’re making a huge drive on the hospitality side to just be a place that’s enjoyable to be at—which is really difficult because we’re so small.”
Small is right. The taproom feels more like a studio apartment than a brewery. Shelves behind the bar are filled with a rainbow of travel books, a red brontosaurus, a neon peace sign, and assorted ships. While there have been opportunities to expand along the way, Proff and has team decided against moving to a larger facility and instead focused on upgrades to the existing space like a new brewhouse and, yes, replacing those IKEA table tops, even if some of the staff worried it could affect the “soul” of the brewery.
“Just because it’s my brewery doesn’t mean they don’t tell me how they really feel about things,” Proff said. “In that sense the familial aspect of us staying small has been really important for the identity part of it.” For now, the tables are still there, and the only thing changing is the glassware.