Community Driven: A Chat with Jason zumBrunnen of Ratio Beerworks
INTERVIEWED August 19, 2016 BY TYLER JONES
AT Ratio Beerworks - DENVER, CO
Beer is one of the finest arts out there. It brings together a symphony of ingredients, hard work and skill to make a product we love–for its flavor as much as its ability to liven up a conversation among friends. Perhaps because of those qualities, a number of great breweries have been opening in Denver’s River North (RiNo) arts neighborhood.
Building on a technical background (that includes Siebel Institute in Chicago and Doemen’s in Germany, as well as a DIY mindset that came from his days in punk rock), Ratio Beerworks co-founder and Brewmaster Jason zumBrunnen and his team have set themselves apart in RiNo by making particularly outstanding beer. But that’s just a starting point for them. The brewery regularly puts on events ranging from the popular "Lucha Libre and Laughs" to community service, and as Ratio continues to grow, zumBrennen hopes to support other artists as well. Not satisfied with just being an excellent brewery, Ratio hopes to build a sense of community that supports the arts, and is held together by...beer.
Jason–you and the guys that started Ratio all met in the music scene. How did you go from getting your degree at CU Boulder, to the independent music scene, to starting your own brewery?
At first, the fact that we all met through music and wanted to start a brewery seemed crazy, but in reality, the two cross over really well. Craft beer–well, beer in general–cross over really well with music, and especially live music.
One of my partners, Scott [Kaplan], was playing in a band at the same time I was, so I just knew him from touring and playing in bands. Our third partner, Zach [Lowery], actually ran a little record label, and that got distributed on the label that we were on here. So we met because of music, but we bonded over beer. That’s really what I was trying to get into, and we bonded over it because that’s what they love as well. It was such a natural fit.
The idea now, and the tie in with Ratio, is that beer is this kind of glue in the community that brings together music and art. And the beer is just what connects it all.
I know that community involvement is a huge part of what you guys do here. Was that the goal from the beginning?
Right. Actually, that’s another tie back to music. We were more into the punk rock side of things, which is really DIY. We weren’t playing on these big planned tours. A lot of the time, we were booking tours ourselves. You would go to these clubs, and you had to make these shows happen yourselves, and it created a community. That’s the fun of it as well.
When these bands would come back through, it created this energy and excitement. Going into beer, that was part of it, and we asked ourselves, "Why can’t we still use that same community element?" We knew a similar type of community existed in beer, so we viewed community in the beer scene the same way that we did in music.
And it’s not just trivia shows, either. I know I’ve seen some comedy shows, and yoga, too. What else are you guys trying to do here?
Being kind of an urban brewery, and looking at what people do for recreation besides watching TV, it’s not just music. You look at other arts, even fine arts, and comedy, and these different things that people come together to do, and it’s really cool. We like to spread that out, and I think we’ll be spreading that out even further.
Comedy has been a big one, and that was just a cool connection with the Denver comedy scene really starting to pick up. I moved back here in 2010, and I wouldn’t have thought of it as a big comedy city, especially after living in basically L.A. But the local crew here, in particular Ian Douglas Terry, who runs our shows now—which was another connection through music. He used to see my band play back in the day, but he's been great.
When people do great things, and they do it well, that’s part of the bonding and the community side of what we’re doing. We said "Ian is great and he can do this." So we pulled him in as a part of our team in a way. Even though he does this separately, he’s awesome at it.
Certainly some things that you don't see often associated with breweries.
And with the trivia nights, it’s the same thing–where we asked if we could do something different than just a standard trivia night. So we’ve got Ian, who’s also a great MC, he had the idea of doing a trivia night that he curates. So we have these truly unique, one-off trivia shows. So that has only been going on for a few months, and it’s pretty cool.
It’s cool to see how some of that will develop. Not everything will develop into something huge, and sometimes we only do it once, but sometimes we decide to make it reoccurring because it’s unique enough and a cool enough thing to justify that. We want to go to cool things too.
What else are you looking to add?
We do a lot in this taproom, and we’ve expanded our side yard to do more events. We do the "Lucha Libre and Laughs," which is wrestling and comedy. We even have some Shakespeare events here. I think now, we’re really thinking about pushing out, and looking at what we can sponsor out in the community as well. There’re a lot of makers here, there’s a real entrepreneurial spirit. I even see it in some of the cool clothing lines that are true independent start-ups here in Denver, and some more fine arts and dance. That’s the stuff we’re thinking about getting behind.
Maybe it’s not something we can do right here, but we were struggling artists too. So if we can get behind other events, with at least our beer, that’s great. With those kinds of artists, it’s a really natural fit, and it has worked out well so far.
You said part of what you brought over with you from the punk rock scene was the DIY culture. How else has the music influenced the beer?
For sure. Our names usually have some kind of reference to music. We didn’t want anything to be on the head though. Since we opened, we have had a pretty wide range of beer styles, and that was a very conscious decision. A spread of lower-alcohol beers to the higher-ABV ones that will keep you around. Some of those lower-ABV beers were made specifically for live events like concerts.
As much as I love Hold Steady—our dark Scotch ale at 7.5%—when it’s summer and you’re at a show at the Marquee, you may not want to pound that. You may want to have several beers and still enjoy the show. So the Domestica, our American Standard Ale, was thought up almost purely as a concert beer.
You’ve done a lot of collaborations with large breweries like Let’s Get Incredible with New Belgium–and Stone was in here just this week. How do you approach collaborations with breweries that large? What do you bring to that process, and what do they bring?
That has been really organic. Actually, when I started this, we were approaching it with the mindset that, if anything, we weren’t going to do a lot of collaborations. I didn’t want to do collaboration because it was something crazy, or to attach a name to something. I wanted to feel like there was a reason behind doing it.
But, it’s really cool when it comes around organically, and the few that we have done did come around that way. New Belgium came together because of music again. Originally, Andrew Emerton, who’s now marketing for the Lips of Faith series, we knew from the music scene back in the day. He was repping and doing marketing and sales work for them down here. So the original connection came through that. But New Belgium is a very friendly and open company, so it became very easy once other people got involved, and higher-ups like Lauren Salazar got onboard. That was super fun. And there’re a couple of ties back to Fort Collins. I’m from there so there was already a natural tie.
With Stone, we knew a few people there, but also through their local rep, and it was just a natural fit. They’re a massive company, but we're like-minded enough while still bringing our own different approach, that it turned into a cool crossover.
I was surprised some of the big breweries would want to do a collab with such a small brewery.
And you guys are a relatively young outfit too.
Right, we’re just a year and a half old at this point.
But I think with Stone, we looked at the companies, and what beers we’re doing, and it was really organic. It wasn’t like we had to pitch it to anyone’s lawyers or anything. It came around through good conversation with them. There were a few emails back and forth, then we had their head of QA come out and visit. Obviously he wasn’t disgusted, and he said he was coming back for the World Brewing Congress, so the timing worked out and we got them in.
You have been quoted as saying, “Making good beer is just the barrier to entry here.” If that’s the case, how do you, or anyone else, stand out in Denver?
It’s hard. That was quoted almost a year ago, and it’s probably even more important now.
Here in Denver, there were around nine breweries in 2010. I think the year we opened–last year, 2015—I think we ended the year with over 63 breweries here in Denver.
It’s insanity, especially in the last few years. It has been double-digit growth, just here in the city of Denver. Denver was actually behind Colorado, in way. We didn’t have that many breweries per capita, and now it has just exploded. Now it might slow down a little again.
That’s my point though. I think we opened with 12 other breweries in just our year. So it’s not novel to just have a brewery anymore. It was in 2010. That was enough, and you just hoped that people kept coming.
For us to stand out, it’s back to that idea that, once you have beer dialed in, you keep working on that beer, but it’s everything else. How does the community connect with you? That’s through making sure your branding is strong and consistent, and then community events. So asking ourselves, what are we going to associate ourselves with, so people know who we are.
It’s nice having a cool taproom in RiNo. That really helps people creating what Ratio is as well. Our customers in this area have just as much of a role in creating Ratio as us.
I know from the beginning you decided that 90% of the sales would be coming through the taproom. Can you talk to me about where you see the trend of beer consumption going? Is it moving toward more and more brewpubs?
It is in Denver, and in Colorado.
One of the best laws we have here is that, under your state manufacturing license, you can sell beer from your brewery. Not all states have that, and not everyone realizes it, but that’s one of the best things we have.
We can also self-distribute our beers to restaurants and bars, up to a certain amount. Then you have to have a distributor. Those two things make it great for the breweries, and for consumers because it gives them a lot of choice.
For us, that taproom model was important. When you’re a new brewery, especially in a flooded market with a lot of brands, we developed our story here in the taproom first. It becomes dual-pronged, where people come in here and enjoy the beer, but also, it’s under our own power to build our name. And a lot of that is by doing events and having our beer here so that, once we’ve established that relationship, and you’re at Avanti, or Terminal Bar, or Hi-Dive, now you see our name on tap and you want to buy our beer there too.
If you get to the point where people say “Yeah, I already know Ratio,” that’s the point where you can stay on tap.
Now, we’ve been lucky with people putting us on tap, but then you’re at the mercy of that restaurant or bar, and you’re trusting their servers to help push your beer.
You want to get to the point where people recognize your name. That’s our goal. That will be the goal for the existence of the company.
Can the Colorado brewery market keep growing at the pace that it has been?
That’s what is really interesting. I just told you about all the brands that out there, but most of them are tiny. If you look at the 12 or 14 that opened with us, we’re at 20 barrels, and I’m sure that would put as at the largest end of what opened that year. So you’re talking very minimal volume.
When New Belgium adds one fermentor, they probably add more volume with that one tank, than all the breweries that opened last year. That’s not hyperbole. I’m sure that’s what it was.
So in reality, you see this boom, it’s not the volume. Looking at the number of people moving to Denver, I don’t think we’re at that saturation point yet.
You do have a saturation of brands though. This happened in the wine world too. Wineries don’t sell big volumes, but there’s so many names. People start ordering just by style. Unless you’re really into the world, you just ordered off the menu by style.
As we’re hitting that saturation point, it’s just a matter of standing out from the pack.
The same thing happens in the restaurant world. It’s a very mature industry, and look at how many restaurants are here. It’s all about figuring out why people would go to your restaurant. There’s thousands of them. So it’s all about standing out with the quality of the product, and for us, connecting with the community.
We’re not at that plateau yet. It will slow down though. I think you’ll see half as many breweries open this year as did last year. And you’re going to see some go out. But that’s just the sign of a normal, mature industry, like the restaurant industry.
That was the goal all along when moving from California. The long-term goal was to open a brewery. That’s when I went back to brewing school, and Siebel in Chicago, and Doemen’s in Munich, Germany.
When I went to Wynkoop and AC Golden, I wanted to get real-world experience in as many different circumstances as possible. Those two breweries were fantastic for that. They almost couldn’t be more opposite of breweries.
Wynkoop is one of the original brewpubs in the country, opened in the late ‘80s. I think ‘88 or ‘89. It has just been renovated this last year, but it was an old brewery. It was manual and hands on. Everything broke at some point, and you had to learn how to fix it. You learned about doing everything by feel and taste, and not having gauges or testing equipment. Great hands-on learning. It makes you realize that, while you go to school to learn all these technical things, if you’re really good at your fundamentals, you can brew great beer, even though it’s a difficult system.
Then you go to AC Golden. Not only is there an experimental side with the barrel aging, but there’s the technical side with all the lab equipment and testing equipment. So you learn to use the high-end, fancy equipment, and that was amazing.
I took a lot of those lessons, and best practices, and used it to open this brewery.
What’s great is, even if you have the most advanced technological system, you should still be using your senses. Even with when you’re looking at something like a thermometer gauge when you’re knocking out, when you’re about to add your yeast, it says it’s a certain temperature. Cool. But it’s still really easy to touch the outside of the sight glass and ask, "Is this cold, cool, or warm?" It’s that easy. And by the way, those gauges get off and break, and need to be re-calibrated.
There’s nothing like still touching and tasting all along the way. So we absolutely do a combo of that. As we grow, we want to keep doing that, but at the end of the day, you just need to start building and growing a lab as well.
I know that you also look for a balance between German traditions and a more creative American approach. How do you balance those two?
That’s absolutely fundamental to what we’re doing here. Going with traditional, and not just traditional in terms of style, but looking at best practices and how great brewers of the world brew.
To me, the Germans invented modern brewing. They perfected the science behind a lot of it. But, there’s the other side of it, the creativity. And I think that’s what the American brewing scene is great at.
I want all of our beers at a fundamental, technical level to be brewed really well. We have that background, and that’s why I went back to school in Germany. But we still want to have that creative side. Our French saison for example, the style of that base beer is really classic, but then we use an American hop, Citra, all the way through, including the dry hopping, which is not traditional for a saison. Originally, you would use a Noble hop in a saison.
We love putting that kind of twist on things. But the fundamentals have to be sound.
When you’re not drinking Ratio’s beer, what are you drinking?
For craft beer, I really love Mockery. They opened just before us, and they’re right here in the neighborhood. I’ll stop by Epic because it’s right on the way back to my house. Love going to TRVE when we’re by there... Call to Arms up north. I love Hogs Head, too. It’s a tiny little brewpub here in town, and they’re making awesome beers.
I actually like the cider market too. It’s tiny, but it’s growing. There’re two here in RiNo, and I think four total in Denver. And they’re all doing it really well. So that’s fun to see–it’s not beer.
Um…and I love whiskey.
So yeah, I love changing it up too.