Denver Business Journal: View from the Top: Great Divide CEO navigates explosion in craft brewing industry

“Brian Dunn, founder and CEO of Great Divide Brewing Co., Denver’s largest craft brewery, says the company’s success revolves around innovation.

Five years ago it seemed like brewers could just roll out a new craft beer, sit back and watch the lines form at their tap houses.

But it didn’t take long before the industry became much more competitive with new pressure from non-craft, mass produced alcohol makers and it has left many of the giants of the craft brewing sector to rethink what more they can do to grow.

For Brian Dunn, founder and CEO of Great Divide Brewing Co., Denver’s largest craft brewery, that has led to several steps, but each revolves around a common theme: Innovation. That has spawned a greater variety of new beers coming out of the company’s production room, a new push toward advancement opportunities when hiring people and a unified message from all divisions of the company that keeping products fresh and shaking them up should be central to the brewery’s 70workers.

“It’s required clear messaging and goal-setting for the brewery that innovation is a big objective of mine for the brewery in the next few years,” said Dunn, whose company celebrated its 23rd anniversary on July 8 with a block party. Nine of the 16 beers poured at the party were either experimental creations or limited-edition ales.

“I think the demand for new beers has increased quite a bit recently. It’s becoming increasingly more important for us to innovate and release new beers. I think that’s a great thing for Great Divide and beer drinkers, because that’s what we like to do and it really keeps things fresh,” Dunn said.

That’s a very different beer world than the one Dunn entered in 1994. After working for a company building farms in developing countries and then earning a master’s degree in environmental policy,Dunn was flying to interview with an agribusiness company when he decided to scrap those plans and open a brewery instead.

He got a loan from the city of Denver to open up in what was then a desolate Ballpark neighborhood, and he would begin brewing at 3 a.m. before heading out to peddle his new product to local liquor stores and bars.

That one-man operation grew as American drinkers expanded their palates in the late 1990s and early 2000s and began to flock to Great Divide’s big beers, from its Yeti Imperial Stout series to its hoppy monsters like Titan IPA and Hercules Double IPA. Great Divide opened a taproom inside its brewing facility at 2201 Arapahoe Street in 2007 and opened the first phase of its new $38 million brewery on Brighton Boulevard in 2015, keeping its original location going to serve what were now large crowds.

But about two years ago, at the beginning of 2015, two things began happening to the industry. The steady flow of new breweries into the industry turned into a gusher, with states like Colorado welcoming an average of one a week and the total number of American beer makers topping a 142-year-old record in December of that year. And around that same time, non-craft beer and alcohol makers, led by Belgian-headquartered Anheuser-Busch InBev, began buying craft breweries that had been eroding their market share, taking up more space for its own properties on grocery-store shelves and at bars and limiting some of the access that independent brewers had to market.

The profusion of breweries made it more of a challenge for Dunn to hire, though Great Divide had the advantage of offering jobs with greater opportunities for advancement and more responsibility than many of its competitors. He upped compensation for workers, emphasized the career paths and doubled down to ensure that the culture of Great Divide made it a place where creative individuals wanted to be.

He also increased the number of new beers coming out of the brewery, introducing new seasonals and a new series of releases entitled Local Knowledge that go on in the taproom at announced dates, often drawing larger crowds that drain the supply of those beers quickly. Those moves to attract local patrons came as the amount of beer Great Divide sold outside of Colorado fell for thefirst time in 2016 from the growing number of brewers in other states gobbling up market share.

Great Divide has provided health insurance to workers for nearly 10 years now — largely subsidizing policies for full-time employees and paying 50 percent of the monthly premiums for part-timeworkers. Dunn has been in closer touch in recent years with its insurance providers to ensure that employees are getting just the coverage they will use and not causing the company to pay for benefits they do not need.

In addition to growing competition, Dunn worries most about taxes the industry faces, which he calls the greatest exterior cost on his business. He has advocated through the Brewers Association for federal excise tax reform that especially could help smaller, independent breweries. But for all the added concerns about the industry, there also remains “quite a bit” of room for growth, both for Great Divide and for craft beer in general, he said.

Dunn said he remains focused on seeking out great employees and especially on hiring people smarter than himself in the areas of the business that are not his strength. And he said there are several succinct lessons he’s learned that continue to guide him.

“Be willing to adapt as the business changes,” he said, “And always, always make the best beer possible.

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