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Posted: November 04, 2009

A microbrewery with macro success

Big-time awards might lead to growth sooner rather than later for Dry Dock

Jay Dedrick

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Owner-founder Kevin DeLange, right, and his wife, Michelle, join brewer Bill Eye in toasting the success of Aurora's Dry Dock Brewing Co., honored as the best small brewery in the country by the Great American Beer Festival.

The beers of one of this year's most honored brewers in the country probably aren't at your neighborhood pub.

They're definitely not at the nearby liquor store. And if you make the cross-town trip to sample them at their point of creation, you won't be ordering any burgers or wings off the menu.

Dry Dock Brewing Co. is a microbrewery, plain and simple. They're small and happy to be that way - for now. But big-time awards from the Great American Beer Festival have started a buzz that may lead to growth that happens sooner rather than later.

Kevin DeLange, founder of the Aurora business, and his wife, Michelle, just celebrated Dry Dock's fourth anniversary. The really big celebration happened in September, when the brewery and its crew, led by brewer Bill Eye, were named the Small Brewing Co. and Small Brewing Co. Brewer of the Year by judges at the festival.

 That honor, along with individual 2009 medals for three of its brews, now hang high on a wall at the brewery's tasting room.

"We won a gold medal at the World Beer Cup in 2006, for our ESB," DeLange says while sipping a hefeweizen. "That put us on the map. At the 2008 World Beer Cup, we won another medal, a bronze, and that gave us legitimacy. It showed we weren't a one-hit wonder. But this ..."

DeLange says he's still having trouble wrapping his head around the success. You can hear his team's excitement in this YouTube video -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sEdc2SWL1s - where Michelle's screams say it all.

 "It was bedlam at the awards," Eye says. Since the win, DeLange has fielded about two media requests a week. And customer requests at bars and restaurants have led to a deluge of inquiries from distributors. Still, demand is likely to exceed supply for a while.

"We moved into this location (at 15120 E. Hampden Ave.) in June, so that we'd have more space," DeLange says. "We've already outgrown it."

Dry Dock is producing 1,200 barrels of beer this year - triple the amount of last year. It gets sold at Dry Dock's tasting room - at the bar, or to go in jugs - and some restaurant accounts, including Old Chicago locations in the southeast metro area and LoDo's Falling Rock Tap House.

Dry Dock's first foray into packaging comes late in November, when the brewery will offer bottles of its Christmas beer - one of three choices that tap room customers will vote on. Two years from now, DeLange hopes to be selling Dry Dock beers in bottles at retail.

It's quite a success story for a guy who wasn't involved in the beer business until eight years ago. DeLange had burned out while working in the corporate world, he says. "I needed to work for myself."

A longtime home brewer, he decided to buy a home brew supply store, the Brew Hut, in Aurora. He established the brewery as a sister business four years ago. "I knew I could make good beer," he says.

Michelle's income from working as an actuary has meant she and her husband don't need to take salaries from the businesses, so they're profitable.

"I'm surprised that we've grown so fast," DeLange says. "And I'm surprised that I've been relegated to being a paper-pushing businessman with eight or nine employees. I'm right back where I was when I flamed out in the corporate world. But at least I don't have a boss this time."

On further consideration, DeLange admits he has the best of both worlds. When he's in a creative mood, he can take over for Eye and assistant brewer Lachlan McLean and brew a batch himself. Or he can write a recipe and ask his brewers to give it a shot.

For his part, Eye is eager to try his hand at brewing some barrel-aged beers, brews that take on characteristics of whiskey and wine. Based on their track record, don't be surprised if those concoctions have the Dry Dock crew standing on the podium again at next year's Great American Beer Festival.

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