Hot Springs and Cold Beer

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Riff Raff Brewing taps geothermal heat

By Steve Graham
Photos Courtesy of Riff Raff Brewing

Late fall is a great time to visit Pagosa Springs and swim in it’s namesake  “healing waters,” then drink some beer brewed with the same spring-fed geothermal power.

Riff Raff Brewing co-founder Randy Schnose helps run one of only two “earth-powered” breweries in the nation. Riff Raff uses advanced technology to tap into an ancient energy source, and does it all in a 120-year-old building.

“We’ve got such an old building with so much character housing so much technology,” Schnose said.

It’s also providing an example for other businesses. “We have this fantastic resource literally in our backyard,” said Madeline Bergon, who runs marketing and events for Riff Raff. “We as a business and community are showing people alternative resource possibilities.”

Riff Raff opened in 2013 in a remodeled 1896 Victorian home. It’s one of the oldest buildings in town, and it has housed a doctor’s office, dance studio and a mortuary in its long history.

The brewery happens to be one of 31 sites that can tap into a downtown geothermal heating district, which uses 144°F water to heat sidewalks, schools and buildings from October to April. The district was originally funded by a federal grant, and is operated by the city of Pagosa Springs. 

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The geothermal pipes tap into the deepest hot spring in the world. It’s even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. The geothermal system heats the brewery, kitchen and restaurant, as well as a couple of upstairs vacation rentals. And it melts the snow on the brewery’s back lot.

The system preheats the brewery water, but Schnose points out that the brewery only uses pure river water that is heated through geothermal pipes. No worries that your beer will have the aroma or the heavy minerals of hot springs water. 

Schnose and his wife moved to Pagosa Springs 15 years ago and soon started homebrewing. He acquired some professional experience as a volunteer on-call brewer at Pagosa Brewing. With the older brewery’s blessing, and an agreement to operate on the other end of town, he started looking for a downtown site and exploring the geothermal district.

“We looked at over 19 different properties for over a year looking for a place that had geothermal,” he said. “The community of Pagosa Springs was sitting on a goldmine and it was not being utilized at all. We wanted to show what could be done with it.” 

Schnose said it took a while to work out the logistics with city officials, who were concerned about a brewery tapping too much of the geothermal resource. To assuage their concerns and to maintain the precise temperatures and specifications needed for brewing, Riff Raff built a system with state-of-the-art assessment of every variable.

“Our geothermal system is one of the most complicated in the nation and full of monitoring,” he said. “We are monitoring what is coming in and what is going out, including BTU usage.”

The system is connected by a complex daisy chain of heat exchange loops that draw on the city’s system without depleting the heat source.

“They quickly realized our system is so efficient it has very little effect on everybody downstream,” he said. 

Bergon said she enjoys leading customers through the “kind of creepy trapdoor behind the bar” to see the wall of copper piping that is the heart of the geothermal heating system. 

“Customers are always awed at the craftsmanship that went in to the design of our system,” she said. “They are always surprised at how warm it is down there.”

Steve Graham is a Fort Collins writer who enjoys the outdoors and great beers.