Denver has often been called the “best sports town in the United States.” It has also been called the “worst sports town in the United States.” It has also been called “Puerto Rico’s lumpier cousin.”* Regardless of opinion, one thing is for sure: Denver loves our Broncos – even when they are donkeys – and anyone who is willing to help us achieve our dreams of championship glory. Even if they were once a much-maligned enemy of our team.
In that vein, this last week, I was invited to swing by Factotum Brewhouse, and hang out with owner and brewmaster Chris Bruns, owner and educational mistress extraordinaire Laura Bruns, and assistant brewer Ray Packingham as they brewed the Colorado-side version of collaboration beer Oatmaha Pale Ale with head brewer Tony Fleming and assistant brewer Will Moorman from Tow Yard Brewing in Indianapolis. Oatmaha is a tribute to former Colts and current Broncos quarterback, Peyton Manning, thus the long-distance collab between an Indianapolis and a Denver brewery.
(Side note here: in order not to get into legal issues, they cannot officially say this beer is about Peyton Manning. But I have so such restrictions, so I’m calling an audible.)
I am a huge fan of collaborations. I think that, more than almost anything else, it gives a glimpse behind the scenes into what working in this industry is truly like (most of the time). Craft beer industry people are, for the most part, friends, and love to share tips, tricks, and stories with each other. What better way to foster that culture than over a hot mash tun?
Over Factotum’s really nice Pub Ale (3.3% alcohol makes it the perfect interview beer), I asked Laura how this collaboration came about.
“We wanted to make a beer that had an ingredient from each of the four places this athlete has played: New Orleans, Knoxville, Indianapolis, and Denver. So, when we got the email from the Colorado Brewers Guild in August about Collaboration Fest, we decided to reach out to breweries in each of those places to see if they wanted to make a beer with us to honor this quarterback.”
While they didn’t get responses back from breweries in New Orleans and Knoxville, Laura says her keyboard was barely cold before they heard back from Tow Yard with an emphatic YES!
It was game time.
Tony and Will flew out to Denver to make the Colorado-version of Oatmaha after Laura and Chris’ visit to Indianapolis late last year. Taking in all of Denver that they could, they visited Strange Craft, Grandma’s house, Baere Brewing all within the first day and were looking forward to a post-brew-day dinner at Euclid Hall. Surprisingly not hung over, I cornered them during a lull in the brew to harass some answers out of them.
As the first collaboration for 3-year-old Tow Yard, the guys agreed that the process – especially the naming part – was easy and fun. Will calls himself and Tony “connoisseurs of bad puns. We are always spitting puns at each other and trying to figure out how to make a beer name from them.” It was this skill that lead them to come up with the name Oatmaha. “We had been going back and forth on names and nothing seemed to fit. Then, we were playing around with different ideas for ingredients, and Oatmaha just came naturally since [Manning] was a Colt and is now a Bronco, and horses eat oats… right?”
While many Colorado craft beer folks were dismayed to see Number 18 drinking a certain mass-market beer, instead of a home-grown Colorado brew, Laura points out that those same people thought he should be drinking an IPA or other strong beer. “We wanted to brew a beer that he might actually enjoy. We know he likes milder-tasting beers without a lot of hops, so we chose ingredients that not only represented our two states, but also that would produce a beer tailored for this particular athlete.”
For the ingredients, Tow Yard chose oats from Indiana (duh – Oatmaha) and Factotum contributed Colorado sage. “Finding a Colorado ingredient was actually a bit of a challenge, since we didn’t want to use chili peppers or pine, because those flavors would be too strong.” I asked Laura if they considered Colorado snow; she laughed, “actually, yes! But we thought sage might ship a little easier.”
The resulting beer, which I was lucky enough to snag an Indiana-brewed can of to enjoy at home, while categorized as an oat pale ale, can best be described as a cream ale with personality. It has a nice malt backbone, without being too sweet. Not overly effervescent, it has a medium-low mouthfeel that makes it refreshing and a slight hop bitterness keeps you going back for another sip. There is no overwhelming herbaciousness about it from the sage, for which I was grateful. The color might be on the darker side for our QB, but, as all of my three readers know, dark color =/= heavy flavor.
For me, I think of an athlete’s beer as something refreshing, something you can drink to replenish what you lost while doing physical activity, but something that doesn’t taste like water. Oatmaha hits it on all points. It is, simply, a good beer that stays true to its mission.
Ever since the concept of Oatmaha was announced on Facebook, there has been backlash from individuals claiming that the participant breweries are simply “jumping on the [Manning] bandwagon” and “taking advantage” of his prowess and our team’s (hopefully continuing) success. Fuck yeah, they are! It seems that every time a brewery is cognoscente of the world around it and decides to capitalize on current events and trends, they are “accused” of the horrible crime of “bandwagoning.” My assertion is that all good marketing is (at least tangentially) bandwagon marketing: finding out what people are interested in, talking about, doing, and directing your brand in that direction. So why is it that craft breweries get so much guff for following this strong advertising model? Likely it has something to do with craft breweries’ appeal as being “outside of the system.” There seems to be some bizarre belief that having poorly-tended social marketing and showing up at only the “hippest” beer fests is enough to keep a brewery afloat. Tough love: it isn’t. Craft breweries, like all businesses, need to sell their wares in order to continue to exist, so marketing, whether it be traditional or a more innovative form, must occur. One of the best ways to get buzz around your product (well… besides just drinking it, of course) is to take something people are already interested in and create something around it.
While pondering what instrument, exactly, Mr. Manning would play on his bandwagon (saxaphone? Bass? Tambourine?), I asked Laura about the comments they had received.
“Our interest goes beyond just living and owning a business in Colorado: my brother and I are from Indiana, so even before we opened Factotum, we talked about wanting to make a beer to honor this certain famous quarterback and how cool it would be to brew with ingredients from all of the places he’s played.”
I also asked Tony and Will about the bandwagon comments and whether they felt weird brewing a beer to honor their former quarterback. Will: “I don’t really follow sports, but I’m just happy he’s still playing and alive.” Tony: “Alive?” Will: “Well, yeah. I mean, he gets tackled by grown men for a living…”
But about the people criticizing the project, their response was simple: “it’s just beer.”
In order to really find out the heart and soul of these breweries, I had one final question: what is their favorite football play?
Factotum: “The successful fake onside kick.”
Tow Yard: “The annexation of Puerto Rico.”
*Footnote: Denver has never been called Puerto Rico’s lumpier cousin. But it should be, dammit.