Posted: April 01, 2014
Made in Colorado 2014: FoodEric Peterson
Colorado makes certain things remarkably well. The list includes: Spacecraft, beer and burritos – to name a few.
In other words, we’ve got some serious range.
And the state’s manufacturers are an increasingly nimble lot. A group of companies as diverse as Omerica Organic (jewelry), Guerrilla Gravity (mountain bikes), and Circle Graphics (billboards and canvas-wrapped wall decor) are busy toiling to fuel growth by offering on-demand production of custom designs – a forté that gives a notable leg up on those pesky mass-market off-shorers.
The technology is as cutting-edge as it comes. Robotics and aerospace makers are well-represented among the 25 nominated manufacturers in the 2014 edition of the ColoradoBiz annual Made in Colorado issue, while medical and industrial tech add to the 10 categories as well.
Case in point: The Dream Chaser is Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems’ cutting-edge spacecraft, which recently embarked on a battery of tests to become NASA’s replacement for the Space Shuttle. It is a true Colorado product: a collaboration between roughly 15 of in-state businesses and universities.
When reviewing the list, one question remained: Is there room for a sixer of Ska beer in the Dream Chaser’s cargo hold?
Read on to learn more and get inspired to create in Colorado.
Carl Hammond started his eponymous candy factory in 1920 and conceived of a breakthrough product the following decade: the Mitchell Sweet.
The caramel-coated marshmallow treat is still a top seller for Hammond’s Candies. CEO Andy Schuman estimates the company has made more than 20 million of them in the past 80 years using a time-tested, three-day process.
“It’s a cool process to watch,” says Schuman. “We cannot make enough of them.”
Schuman led the acquisition of the company in 2007 and has helped catalyze 20 to 25 percent annual growth in the years since. New candy bars, a line of GMO- and corn syrup-free natural candies, and the acquisition of a Virginia-based maker of peanut brittle have underpinned the growth.
New for 2014 is a line of premium cotton candy. “We’re going to deliver it fresher and we’ve also dressed up the packaging,” touts Schuman.
Hammond’s 120-employee team jumps to 200 or more for the “mass chaos” of autumn and winter, says Schuman. But it’s nothing like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
“When it’s all said and done, it’s a candy company, but it’s a business,” says Schuman. “We have a lot of fun here, but I’m more of a businessman than a candy mad scientist. Business comes first.”
Frozen burritos and meals
evolfoods.com / Boulder
EVOL founder and Senior VP Phil Anson famously started selling homemade burritos to rock climbers at the mouth of Eldorado Canyon near Boulder in 2002. He hit his target of selling 500 burritos per week by mid-year.
The company has come a long way. Now it has 80 employees and makes more than 100,000 burritos and other meals a day at its Boulder factory. And the big news: EVOL was acquired by Boulder Brands – home of Udi’s and Smart Balance brands – in late 2013 for $48 million.
Anson says he was once skittish about the prospect of selling. “I thought whoever would buy EVOL ... would fire everybody and close the plant,” he explains. “When selling to Boulder became a possibility, I completely changed my tune. Nobody got fired. Everybody came over.”
But it’s not all the same. “There are changes that have already happened and changes that will happen,” says Anson.
In the former category are new Lean & Fit single-serving foods (under 300 calories each) and Multi Serve meals for two.
In the possible changes-to-come category: “a state-of-the art frozen-foods factory in Denver,” says Anson. “We’re still exploring and figuring it out.”
Ska Brewing Company
Beer / skabrewing.com / Durango
Dave Thibodeau and Bill Graham started brewing as underage students at Wheat Ridge High School in the 1980s, landing on Thibodeau’s father’s recipes and making a few batches of no-frills “prison beer.”
Fast-forward to 1995: Graham and Thibodeau lived in Durango and resolved to turn pro after “we realized how much our jobs sucked,” jokes Thibodeau.
Though the Small Business Administration rejected their “comic-book business plan,” the pair persevered and started brewing in tanks from shuttered dairies. Steady growth led to a stand-alone brewery south of Durango in 2008.
“We’re fortunate we have a great head brewer [Thomas Larsen],” said Thibodeau. “We also have a huge focus on quality control … beers that are stable on the shelf is crucial.”
Production jumped from 15,000 barrels in 2009 – the year Ska started canning – to 30,000 in 2013. Thibodeau projects 35,000 for this year.
In 2013 the brewers launched a line of canned seasonal stouts and opened a restaurant from repurposed shipping containers at the brewery.
And Ska is something of an incubator for Colorado beverage startups: Graham and Thibodeau co-founded Palisade-based Peach Street Distillers with Rory Donovan in 2005. Then Donovan teamed with Peach Street’s sales manager Moose Koons to launch Rocky Mountain Soda Company in Commerce City in 2010. And Matt Vincent, who bought into the brewery in 1999, launched Ska Fabricating to make brewing equipment in Durango in 2012.
Colorado Cider Company
Brad Page launched Colorado Cider Company in 2011 after mulling the idea with his wife Kathe for more than 20 years. Instead he went into the beer industry with CooperSmith’s in Fort Collins in the late 1980s. “We looked at doing the cider thing back then, but it was way premature,” he says.
… Or maybe too late. There were many more cider-makers during the drink’s heyday in the late 1800s.
More recently, the sweet, wine cooler-like ciders that dominated the market for the past 20 years are starkly different than Colorado Cider Company’s wares. Labels like Uvana, made with a mix of Colorado grapes and apples, defy expectations.
It’s all about the apples, he adds, and growers have gravitated toward sweet varieties. To this end, Colorado Cider Company owns its own orchards on the Western Slope where the Pages planted 1.25 acres of heirloom apple trees last year. Brad expects to harvest by 2016.
Big brewers have taken note of the cider upswing, too. Sam Adams’ Angry Orchard “is good for the rest of us,” says Brad. Today there are more than 100 cideries in the U.S., a significant increase since 2010, and sales are growing by 20 percent to 25 percent annually. Colorado Cider is significantly outpacing this growth – more than doubling production to 25,000 gallons in 2013 and aiming for a similar outcome in 2014.
Spirits / peakspirits.com / Hotchkiss
Lance and Anna Hanson traded Northern California for a 70-acre vineyard outside Hotchkiss in the North Fork Valley in 2001. The twosome planted grapes, started Jack Rabbit Hill Winery, and began selling to restaurants and local stores in 2003.
“It was a major life change for us,” says Lance, whose background is in software while Anna was formerly a teacher.
In 2005, the Hansons started distilling as Peak Spirits. “The business has evolved,” says Lance, but the focus has always been on showcasing Colorado-grown fruit. “We source intentionally and the whole idea is to demonstrate the superior quality of Western Colorado fruit.”
Today Peak Spirits’ CapRock line includes roughly 10 varieties. “Everybody is certified organic or biodynamic,” says Lance, describing the latter as “a more rigorous organic standard.”
The flagship is CapRock Colorado Organic Gin. New in early 2014 is CapRock Bitter, an apéritif made from Jack Rabbit Hill estate grapes and locally foraged wild licorice root.
Also new: the CapRock Farm Bar at The Source in Denver’s River North neighborhood, which opened in fall 2013. There’s also Beercraft Whiskey, a line of collaborations with local breweries. A second label with Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project is in the works.
Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com