Running a brewery can be difficult, but it’s not rocket science. Even if it was, the co-owner of Denver Beer Company could handle it. Patrick Crawford is one of the few people in the beer world who can nonchalantly say he has worked on orbiting satellites. That got me thinking, are there any similarities between the beer world and rocket science? I sat down with him for a beer on a gorgeously sunny, warm day in early spring at one of his Denver, Colorado-based taprooms to talk science, Mexican-style beer and satellites.
Crawford grew up all over the US, but landed at the small liberal arts school Colgate University to study physics. “Physics had a small department with a lot of group work,” he said. “I liked the community there, and I’ve always enjoyed a mental challenge.”
But he faced another type of challenge while he was at school: The unexpected loss of his father, who was a commercial real estate developer in New York City. It changed the course of his life, including his career path. “I think when you’re a college student and you don’t have parents telling you what to do, it opens up [your options for] what you’re allowed to do after college,” Crawford noted. “Liberating isn’t the right word, but I think it opened [me up] to do something fun.”
That meant moving to Vail to kayak and renovate a friend’s dad’s apartment. But he hit a low point when he was fired from his job at a legendary Vail bar. It was back to the corporate world after that, followed by gig at an architectural firm, then he moved to Colorado Springs to work for Lockheed Martin.
This is where beer and rocket science truly converged for him. At the time, he worked in satellite operations, with a group he described as similar to a “mission control team.” He explained, “It’s the guys you see at NASA during lift-off. They’re all sitting in front of a computer monitoring the telemetry from the satellites as they get launched. Our job was to launch satellites and operate them. Make sure they’re up and running, and then hand them over to the government.”
Once he settled into this desk job, he began getting his hands dirty homebrewing. “I drank Laughing Lab from Bristol Brewery and I thought, ‘This beer’s so good!’” he recalled. “A friend taught me how to homebrew; I went to the homebrew store the next day. Bought a kit and brewed a Laughing Lab [clone] in the bathtub of my apartment. Then I got really into it. I read everything I could about beer and homebrewed a lot.” After winning a homebrew contest, he said that 2009 felt like “a good time to be on the business side of brewing.”
He partnered up with fellow Colgate alum Charlie Berger, then a brewer at longtime Denver brewpub Wynkoop, who also had aspirations to open a brewery. After taking a class on writing a business plan from the local chamber of commerce, they decided to give the beer business a go. But what to name it? “Charlie and I agreed on almost everything except the name,” Crawford said. After coming up with a laundry list of names, they went with the simplest one that paid homage to the city they’d be brewing in. Denver Beer Company was born...again. This would be Mile High’s third iteration, born in a building that previously housed a tire change shop.
I covered the opening of Denver Beer Co. in 2011 for another publication, and the surrounding area on Platte Street has been under near-constant construction since then. Co-working spaces and fancy donut shops line the block, and Denver Beer Co.’s picnic table-filled patio feels like the heart of it all. Crawford explained that the patio—when we met to chat, it was 40 people-deep at 1:30 p.m. on a Friday in March—was inspired by the great time he and Berger had at Oktoberfest, where “it [was] impossible not to make friends with the person sitting next to you.” And it certainly was buzzing with conversation, merriment, happy dogs and not a TV in sight. Even more surprising: Only one person was on their phone.
Having delicious beer to drink on said patio certainly helps things. There’s a batch of new beers on tap each week. When I visited, there was a cucumber table beer, black rye and tangerine sour with Brett. A few have been so consistently popular they began canning a couple years after their first taproom opened (they now have a canning facility in Denver and a second brewpub in nearby Arvada). Among them: The Incredible Pedal IPA, Great American Beer Festival award-winning Graham Cracker Porter and raspberry kolsch Princess Yum Yum. The team also recently opened a new brewery, Cerveceria Colorado, next to the Platte Street taproom.
“There’s not a lot of locally-made Mexican-style beers,” he said. “Which is a little bit of an oxymoron. Tecate, Corona and those [Vienna-style lagers] do really well—we wanted to see if we could make Mexican-style beers brewed right here.” But what makes Cervercia Colorado special is not just the style of beer, it’s who’s brewing them. “Every year we do a collaboration celebration around GABF where we brew beers with different breweries all over the country. Last year, we brewed a coconut-lime sour with the Mexican brewery Colima and we loved it.”
After their head brewer formed a relationship with other Mexican brewers during his time judging a Mexican craft beer competition, it seemed logical to make every beer on tap a collaboration beer. “We’ve lined up [about] four or five brewers from Mexico,” Crawford said. “We’re going to fly them out to spend a weekend with us collaborating and learning about their beer and culture.”
On the surface, physics doesn’t seem to have much to do with co-owning a growing brewery. But that’s only if you don’t know about entropy—it’s okay, I had to look it up, too. “Entropy always wins,” Crawford explained. “I think it’s something that governs how we operate our business. If we don’t create order and work hard to cultivate it and grow, it’s all going to collapse and become decimated within a couple of years. We’re just fighting entropy every day—that’s our goal as business owners.” And if you’re fighting entropy, it always helps to have a patio with great beer.