Distillers’ Roots - Beer Before Whiskey

By Emily Hutto

Brewing beer is a typical first step toward distilling whiskey. Perhaps that’s why so many distillers come from brewing backgrounds, especially in Colorado.

The list of Centennial State brewers-turned-distillers is long, and includes noteworthy names such as Todd Leopold of Leopold Bros., Ted Palmer of Vapor Distillery and Stephen Gould of Golden Moon Distillery. Also on this list are Hans Stafsholt and Gina Lechuga of the Breckenridge Distillery, who gave us a glimpse into the spirits world from the brewer’s perspective. 

“In order to make any spirit, in essence you have to first brew a beer and then distill it,” says Lechuga, who cut her teeth at Joyride Brewing Company in Edgewater. 

“(Like in brewing), you are mashing in grains and adjuncts to convert the starches to simple fermentable sugars,” said Stafsholt, who brewed at Broken Compass Brewery in Breckenridge before joining the distillery staff. “But in distilling, that is where we end. No hops are added, and there is typically no separation of the grain from the wort in the distilling process, as we ferment on-grain. There is no boiling of the wort in the distilling process either.”

 Distiller Hans Statsholt works on all of Breckenridge Distilleries award-winning spirits.  Photo: Courtesy of Breckenridge Distillery

Distiller Hans Statsholt works on all of Breckenridge Distilleries award-winning spirits.
Photo: Courtesy of Breckenridge Distillery

Beyond some overlap in the technical brewing and distilling processes, Lechuga and Stafsholt say there is great synergy between Colorado’s brewing and distilling communities. 

“We are all friends and have a certain sort of inherent camaraderie with one another, even if we’ve never met before, just because we have the same passion and understanding of making drinkable, upstanding products,” said Lechuga.

Stafsholt agrees. 

“Both communities have the very same feel, we’re all a big family in the way we reach out to each other and love to have a few brews (and whiskeys) with one another,” he said. 

Ask a distiller about his or her roots, and you’re almost guaranteed to have a conversation about homebrewing. 

“My favorite beer I’ve ever brewed would have to be a raspberry chocolate stout,” Stafsholt says of his homebrewing days. “It was a brew my dad had brewed before he passed and was the reason I ever started brewing when I was younger. Finding that recipe was probably the biggest reason I got into brewing.”

Lechuga’s most memorable brewing experience was designing Joyride’s Bee’s Knees Belgian Tripel recipe using Colorado wildflower honey. 

“I researched several different tripel recipes in order to design the exact mash bill I wanted for the flavor profile I was shooting for,” she said. “There was also a bit of my Colorado pride thrown in with the honey addition.” 

Lechuga and Stafsholt apply a brewers’ passion for ingredients and curiosity about process to their work at Breckenridge Distillery. 

“While I still love brewing, distilling has become my new passion. I love the history and science more than I ever thought I would,” Lechuga said. 

Emily Hutto is a Colorado-based journalist and marketing professional who has spent many of her days picking the brains of the country’s best brewers. She founded RadCraft in 2012 to support the communications needs of craft breweries.