At the Crossroads of Beer & Heavy Metal: An Interview with Nick Nunns of TRVE Brewing
Interviewed June 30, 2016 BY TYLER JONES
At TRVE Brewing - Denver, CO
Colorado has become a nexus for craft beer, with new breweries popping up faster than Starbuckses. However, the rapid growth of the local beer scene has left it resembling a Top 40’s chart: filled with plenty of decent music, though most of it is largely indistinguishable from the rest. Fun for a brief time, the beers brewed in these establishments will eventually fall by the wayside as newer, trendier bars take their place.
In that scene stands one brewery carving its own path away from the mainstream so unapologetically, and doing it so well, that you can’t help but take notice. Not concerned with the status quo or the trends, TRVE Brewing Company (pronounced "TRUE") is focused on making the beers its owner Nick Nunns and his staff want to make–and making them impeccably well. As self-described “style blasphemers” that look for new ideas by channeling Loki, the Norse trickster god, TRVE stands out in a sea of look-alike breweries, with one hand held high, middle finger extended to all those who might tell them which way to go, and the other held down firmly on a tap–in what can only be described as a dark altar to beer.
Known for their sours and and wild beers, many of which are brewed in an off-site production space TRVE has dubbed the Acid Temple, the brewery is only concerned with meeting one standard: their own.
TRVE’s mission is creating beers that are beyond the pale by “channeling Loki, and embracing chaos.” Can you tell me about how you do that?
That was sort of an ethos we had starting off. I guess now that applies to what we’re doing with the mix-culture fermentation stuff. A dominant amount of the beer we’re doing now is mixed culture just because that’s where we have the capacity with the Acid Temple.
A lot of those beers are just more chaotic in their nature. We might have certain intentions, but the yeast might tell us otherwise. In that way, we can do only so much, and the rest is trying to be as nice to the yeast as we possibly can. Nowadays, that sort of Lokian approach, if you want to call it that, would definitely come from our mixed culture beers.
Here, at Broadway in the pub, we’ve got our saccharomyces fermentations down really well. My head brewer Zach (Coleman) can come up with an idea and execute it, and we know it’s going to be pretty much perfect right off the bat. Or at least what we intended it to be.
And what was the driving decision with brewing sours in the Acid Temple? I see a lot of sour beers around town these days. Is Denver just becoming a sour town?
I think everywhere is a sour town now. I go a lot of festivals around the country and people always get really excited that we’re there. We get to talking and telling them that we do a lot more sours and mixed-culture beers, and people get really stoked about that. More often than not, even across the bar, people have come in and asked us what do we have in terms of sours.
I don’t know if everybody is going to have to go that direction, but there’s certainly a large subset of the consumer base that wants acidic beers of one form or another.
When I think of a 'metal' brewery, I think of some high-ABV beers, but you guys serve really sessionable stuff. What drove that decision?
That’s right, session beer is almost all that we do. We just like it more.
Literally the only reason for that is because me and my head brewer have always liked lower ABV beers. We like to drink a lot of beer without getting fucked up. I would much rather have a bunch of beers and still be able to get home safe. It has nothing to do with anything other than it’s just what we want to do.
So other than being really sessionable, what sets TRVE’s beers apart from other breweries?
I think our mixed-culture program is doing a great job of setting us apart. When we started doing oak fermentations, mixed-culture fermentations, acidic beers, all those sorts of things, we were probably the second or third brewery in Denver to do that. So at this point, I think we have a really good pedigree and a good track record on making some really good acidic beers, for lack of a better term.
I think that has really increased our visibility, and our credibility because we’re doing it well and doing it the right way. I think that's helped our reputation.
I also think that we brew some phenomenally clean beers. We're very strict with our quality standards. We don’t like to let anything get out that’s even remotely showing signs of technical flaws or recipe imperfections. We’re very self-critical. I think that helps us maintain a high level of quality in our product.
Quality and consistency are incredibly important.
We’ve dumped tons of beer. Some people might see that as a blemish on their record, but for us, it’s almost a point of pride. We can say, “Yeah, we fucked something up, we figured it out, and we have the balls to dump it to be sure we’re maintaining a good reputation.”
As far as our saccharomyces fermentations go though, the last time we had to dump a beer was about a year ago, for our third anniversary beer, which we had to jam through. In the end, we weren’t happy with it, so we got rid of it. We probably dumped about nine of the eleven kegs we had in that batch.
After trying it a few times we were saying to ourselves, “This is not right. It doesn’t feel right. This isn’t what we wanted.” So we got rid of it.
In the mixed-culture program, we’ve dumped huge amounts of beer. Everybody talks about that being a part of that path. If you go down the path of doing mixed-culture fermentations, it’s a guarantee that you’re going to have to dump a lot of beer. We were ready to accept that when we expanded and built the Acid Temple. Low and behold, it’s true. We’ve had to dump beer, but we’re not upset about it. It’s just a part of the process.
How do you balance that with the business? Are there beers that you count on doing well every time you brew them?
Yeah, with the pub side of things, it’s remarkably consistent. We make our nut here. All of our revenue comes through here. Being that we serve the beer that we make, it’s high-margin, so we have a little bit more room for error with what we’re doing at the Acid Temple.
Not to mention, when you’re talking about acidic beers, because of the risks that we have to take on, we do have to charge a little bit more of a premium price. Although, if you compare our pricing to some other beers in the same domain, I think we’re a fucking steal. I don’t like to gouge people. None of us like that.
We want to make our beer accessible to anybody, generally speaking. Anybody that wants to appreciate this beer, should be able to, and we hope to price it so that they can. We have a bunch of dirtbags coming in here, touring bands and shit like that, and we say, “Hey, you want to try a cool beer? It’s not expensive and we can introduce you to some cool beer.” So we hope to be on the lower end of the price range as far as that goes to keep it accessible for everyone.
I notice you guys always have a diverse crowd whenever I’m in here. It’s definitely not just a bunch of metalheads. How do you serve the guys that come in pink polos?
The same way we serve anybody else, man.
Honestly, that’s it. The coolest thing about the heavy metal scene is that, depending on how deep you get into the subculture you get, it’s generally a pretty accepting community. At the end of the day, most metal-heads are fucking weirdos. They were the kids playing D&D and shit in high school and getting picked on. It creates camaraderie that we extend to anyone else that comes in here.
It’s not about treating anyone any differently. I hire my bar staff very explicitly to make sure they’re going to take care of everybody. It doesn’t matter if you have eight-hundred piercings, a mohawk and you’re wearing all leather, or if you do have a pink polo and golf shorts.
We don’t fucking care. As long as you like our beer, that’s the most important part.
I guess we’ve come to the obvious question then: how does the metal influence the beer?
I get asked that question all the time, and I think people put more stock into that than we do. We listen to metal, we make beer, and we bring the two together.
We’re brewing the beers we want to brew, and I guess in that sense, maybe you can say we have a left-hand path approach to doing whatever the fuck we want to do, and not really worrying about what the trends are, or whatever everyone else is up to.
We’re not brewing a hazy IPA right now, so it’s not like we’re jumping on that fucking bandwagon. We’re choosing our own individual way of doing things, and if people want to join in and come along with us, then fuck yeah, that’s great. But we’re not going to let anything else dictate what we want to brew, and I think that metal is the same way.
I try not to pay too much attention to the trends.
I think we all do, but me and the brewery staff are trying to approach it like, “This is what we’re doing, we’re trying to do it really really well,” and it doesn’t matter if that person's sour is whatever, or this person is doing a hazy IPA. We don’t care. We’re going to do what we want to do.
I know about the trends out there. I know about hazy IPAs, I know about kettle sours and blah blah blah, but none of those things are really avenues we want to pursue right now.
That’s not to say we won’t do them later if it struck our fancy, but for now, we’re happy just making clean, fun, interesting beer.
Besides, how metal would it be if started following some trends?
Now that you guys are starting to bottle, how do you keep that voice in the beer when it leaves the brewery? Is it just the label art?
It becomes a lot more difficult for sure. When you get to the point where we’re at, doing a lot more wholesale, and you’re just putting the beer on shelves and hoping people understand what you’re trying to do — it becomes a lot more difficult.
The best thing you can do is educate people. Our sales manager is really good about educating people on what our approach is, what our intentions are with our beers, and our marketing materials are out there and very clearly defined. We try to make it so that, if you’re picking this beer up off the shelf, and you can’t find the information you’re trying to find, you can still find it on the internet or somewhere else.
It really becomes more of a challenge to educate people though, or make them aware of what we’re really all about. A lot of our business, and a lot of the popularity we have, is because people appreciate the pub. The pub is really how we put our best foot forward. Without that, it’s a challenge to represent our brand the way we want to represent it.
What got you into brewing in the first place?
I was just a home-brewer. It’s kind of your run-of-the-mill story at this point. My desk job sucked and I couldn’t do it anymore, so I decided to take the plunge and open a business.
Is it more fulfilling?
Oh yeah, absolutely. But it’s like any other entrepreneurial endeavor, you don’t set yourself up for an easy life.
When people come to me and ask me for advice on opening either a business, or specifically a brewery, my most common answer is: just don’t. It’s a fucking a nightmare. It’s a shit-ton of work. It’s long hours, long days, long weeks, long years for minimal pay. It’s extremely difficult. It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my entire life, and that includes just barely scraping through engineering school.
On the other hand, it’s also one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t take back a single thing I’ve ever done.
One of the best parts of being an entrepreneur is that I’ve had to learn a million different things. Whether it be brewing techniques, brewing science, or the business side of things. For three years, I’ve been doing all of the books, so I had to learn all that shit, and the legal aspects of running a business.
All of that just jives with my brain, to be able to just shift gears and find something else to figure out.
That’s sort of an engineering mindset though, isn’t it?
A little bit. The rigidity of engineering is why I did not like it. Working in a corporate environment where it’s like, “This is your job and that’s all you do,” that to me was boring. I want to be able to go, “Yeah, that’s cool, and I’ve learned that now, so I’m gonna go way over there and learn that thing now."
Sure, I can help you fix your telephone, but I also want to learn graphic design or I want to do bookkeeping. I guess that’s it. I like to learn new things and get better and better, and trying to understand every little part of what this place does.
What's been the biggest surprise for you since opening the brewery?
The reception. I’m glad you picked up on that we usually have a fairly diverse crowd in here. When I opened, I didn’t know what it was going to look like. When you come out of the gate with such a weirdly-niched brand, it can be a little worrying.
It has always blown my mind to see grandma and grandpa coming in here and saying, “This beer fucking rules! And your bartenders are super friendly,” and I’m like, “Yes!” Fucking grandma and grandpa are digging on this place, or the polo crowd, or whoever the fuck it is — that's great.
I’ll be at a beer fest and those types of people will walk up and tell me, “We fucking love your brewery.” They’re the most normal looking human beings on the face of the planet, how the fuck do they like this place as much as they do?
That degree of positive reception has always blown my mind, and really humbled me too. It’s so cool that I’ve built something that so many people can appreciate, despite it being geared toward a very small, very specific, subset of society. It’s totally baffling.
We try not to judge people. We try to be accepting of whoever the fuck wants to come in here and hang out. We give the same level of service to everyone that comes in here. We’re just making beer and hoping that people like the beer that we make. It’s fucking weird, and it has taken off into this bizarre trajectory I did not anticipate.
Where do you see that trajectory taking you now?
I just today got the key for the adjacent space at the Temple. So we’re adding another fifty percent on top of what we already have. We’re up to about 7,500 square feet over there and it’s already full of beer that hasn’t been released yet, barrels of stuff that we’re working on, and all the equipment.
So where is it going? We’re just making more beer. We’re getting out to a couple new places. We’re going to Carolina in a couple of weeks. We went to Seattle two months ago. We’re trying out new markets here and there and seeing if people are into it. Just dipping our toes in and seeing what happens.
I was at an event in Seattle where someone came wearing our shirts without ever stepping foot into our fucking brewery, or without trying any of our beer. It was so bizarre to me.
That’s like buying a shirt from a band you’ve never even heard just because you like the shirt. You don’t know them, they could be National Socialists or some bullshit like that. I would never do that for a band. I would look into them first because they could be fucking weird, or their music could be terrible. To put that much faith into something just because of the brand is bizarre.
The brand has gone way further than the beer at this point. I think one of my goals is to catch the beer up to where the brand has gone, and get it to those places where we have people that are into what we’re doing, and if they could buy our beer, they would buy our beer.
What do you have to do in order to make that happen?
I think it’s just being really calculated about where we go and how we grow. So when we did the expansion on the Acid Temple, that was easily one of the most taxing, difficult years I have ever been through. Just a really, really long road with a lot of hiccups along the way. I don’t want to make that mistake again, so from here on in, we’re trying to be a little bit more conservative, and making sure that we have all the pieces in place before we make those big moves.
Really it’s just understanding how we can grow, and doing it in a way that’s not going to compromise our integrity, our quality, or our financial situation. We don’t want to grow in such a way that we have to take shortcuts — so slow and steady. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing, making good beer, and get it out to more and more places.
TRVE is a really unique brand. What inspires you and keeps it fresh?
What am I inspired by? Dude, every day it’s different.
What was it today?
Our illustrator Sam Turner brought in some new art for our labels, and every time I see something from him, I get super inspired. He’s a really good illustrator, and I’m a huge typography nerd, so I really like to look at an illustration and figure out what typeface will jive with it. How can we take this illustration and turn it into the package, the whole deal?
Every day it’s something different. I’ll see something and be inspired. I really like industrial design and urban design. I guess I’m a very design-oriented person. I really shouldn’t have gone into engineering, I should have gone into industrial design.
So I guess that’s what inspires me, just everyday shit.
Other than TRVE’s beer, what are you drinking these days?
It does depend on the night.
Honestly, I’ve been drinking a lot of cocktails. I think I’m at that point were I need to take a little bit of a break from beer, get my palette neutralized on beer, and come back to it with a fresh mind. The beers that I have been drinking are from Call to Arms. They brew great beers. They’re clear across town, but they brew fucking phenomenal beer. I usually go there, Ratio, or Station 26 if I really want to get a good bike ride in. Those are some of my favorite breweries, as far as Denver breweries go.
I was drinking a lot of Coors. I fucking love Coors, it’s a fucking great beer. It’s a really well made American lager. It’s just fine. Then Pete Coors came out for Trump and I was like, “Yeah, maybe not anymore.”