Colorado-made certification faces Catch-22

Real Colorado Beer Project needs more brewers to boost brand recognition, but brewers need more brand recognition to sign on

By Steve Graham

With plenty of local hop farms, malting companies and, of course, Rocky Mountain spring water, it’s possible to make beer with only Colorado ingredients. But how do you know if the tap at your local bar is pouring a truly local beer? That’s where Jason Cody steps in.

 Photo - Colorado Malting Co

Photo - Colorado Malting Co

Cody has run the Colorado Malting Company since 2008, and sells his malts to 37 Colorado breweries and distilleries. He noticed some of those breweries were expending extra effort and incurring higher costs to source every ingredient in Colorado. 
However, they had no independent way to verify or advertise those extra efforts, so Cody worked with other beer industry leaders to establish the Real Colorado Beer Project last year.

 “We said, ‘Hey, let’s find a way to let the consumer know that these guys are really committed to making a local product and even spend more on their ingredients,’” Cody said. “We saw these guys putting extra effort into getting local hops and malts and local yeasts.”

The RCBP offers five levels of certification labels for Colorado-made beer. The most basic bronze certification requires all Colorado water and one other verified Colorado ingredient. At the other extreme, wild platinum certification requires all Colorado water, malt and hops and all wild Colorado yeast.  

Two breweries have worked with the RCBP to earn certification so far, but Cody said no other breweries are in the pipeline.

While many craft breweries are proudly focused on local ingredients, they don’t want to spend money on a certification that doesn’t have much cachet. Thus, the RCBP is in a Catch-22: Without breweries earning and advertising their certification, they can’t build their brand and solidify their reputation. But without a solid brand and reputation, breweries aren’t ready to sign on.

Many brewers have never heard of the RCBP, but others say it is cost-prohibitive.

“I’m in favor of this type of effort, but we’re unable to afford the certification process to date, even though many beers we make would qualify,” said Carol Cochran of Horse and Dragon Brewing in Fort Collins.

She said she is aware of the project and supports the concept.

“I think anything that encourages us to support our local economy and to use locally grown ingredients is awesome,” she said. “To date, most locally-grown and processed ingredients are a good deal more expensive than those we can source elsewhere, so an incentive to use them is a plus.”

However, the application fee is too steep for Cochran.

“The majority of our brews are one-offs, and adding $150 to them is prohibitive for a brewery of our size and stage,” she said. “If they are able to develop a consumer following for this brand, it’ll make it more viable for even small breweries to take on this cost. For those that can or bottle, having this brand on the package would help consumers recognize how to support local.”

Other brewers say Colorado craft breweries are so small and personable, drinkers can trust the source of ingredients without a costly certification.

“I definitely can appreciate and value their mission to encourage folks to buy Colorado, but it's my opinion that beer drinkers have a certain level of trust of the ingredients brewers say are in their beers, and paying for certification is not necessary,” said Whitney Way, co-owner of City Star Brewing in Berthoud. “This isn't the organic food industry where you don't know the faces behind the products.”

Kirk Lombardi, co-owner of Zwei Brewing Company in Fort Collins agreed, and added a dose of his signature sarcasm.

“If we had any presence in the packaged liquor scene, I'd say it would be worth it, but we're more of a draft brewery and I would fear that this accreditation would be lost between the bar manager and the wait staff,” Lombardi said. “We're lucky if they can remember what the style is. We get that warm gooey feeling when we tell our guests the story of the beer and their ingredients in our tasting room, but again, I don't feel the logo or accreditation would be an asset there either.”

Cody said the $150 application fee mainly covers promotion and advertising for the project.

The experts who serve on the RCBP and complete the actual certifications are all donating their time, including a hop horticulture expert from Colorado State University, a barley farmer and a brewing microtechnologist.

Ska Brewing Company in Durango had the first certified beer, the Hop Ivy All-Colorado Ale, in Spring 2016. This was followed by the Spring Beer Fest Kolsch, a collaboration between Old Chicago and Bristol Brewing in Colorado Springs.

 Photo - Colorado Malting Co

Photo - Colorado Malting Co

“We’ve done a couple of specialty beers with all Colorado ingredients,” said owner Mike Bristol. “When we ran across this, we thought why don’t we see what it takes to get certified.”

He said he was willing to pay the certification fee to help get the project rolling.

 “We should jump in here and get these guys going into where we want to go,” Bristol said. “I looked at it as “Let’s pay $150 so these guys can keep doing what they’re doing.’”

He added that the laws of economics suggest that more local sourcing can help drive down prices, making Colorado malts and other ingredients more cost-competitive with other states.

If you want to taste a platinum-certified Colorado beer, Bristol expects to have the Kolsch on tap again in July. The Ska Hop Ivy is available in cans throughout the state.