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Posted: June 18, 2010

Ol’ reliable Breck Brew performs new tricks at 20

It's pairing familiarity with innovation

Jay Dedrick

Admit it, craft beer drinker: When it comes to an old favorite like Avalanche Ale, you take it for granted. Like wallpaper, it's always there and gets overlooked. Heck, it's been 20 years now since the Breckenridge Brewery got started with its flagship amber brew, which remains familiar and comfortable.

 It's not surprising that the brand's great success had a similarly calming influence on its maker. Which isn't necessarily a good thing in business.

"From an innovation standpoint, I think we got stagnant for a while, resting on the laurels of Avalanche," says Todd Usry, director of brewing operations and brew master. "We made a conscious decision to change that a couple of years ago." 

He‘s reflecting at the end of a work day at Breckenridge‘s main production plant in Denver, which has expanded in recent months to boost production. Seated next to him is his wife, Terry, who recently took on a public relations role with the brewery. She‘s sipping a Summer Bright with a slice of lemon; he has a Regal Pilsner, the first variety in Breckenridge‘s new Occasionals line, designed to show drinkers something new while giving Todd and his staff new brewing challenges. 

"Innovation is really what's driving it," Todd says. "We have been on a ‘reinvent ourselves‘ curve But we‘ll always be drinkable and balanced. I‘m not going to make a crazy sour beer just because a few people say that‘s where it‘s at. You‘ll see innovation, but it‘ll always be on the side of sustainability. 

"It‘s a balancing act -- we still want to be ‘old reliable,' but also be innovative." 

Physical expansion is part of the innovation this year and next. At 471 Kalamath St., where production machinery is being upgraded, a new beer garden for special events is in the works. The Usrys hope to have it up and running this summer. The Breckenridge's Summit County birthplace, the Blake Street Pub and the Ale House in Grand Junction keep humming along, and they'll be joined in the summer of 2011 by a big, bold upscale eatery that will emphasize finer food and beer pairings. Taking over the current Amato's fountain and statuary shop in Denver's Highlands neighborhood, the high-profile establishment will be known as Amato's Ale House by Breckenridge Brewery.

 Breckenridge is making a bigger splash beyond its brewpubs, too. Besides Regal Pilsner landing on store shelves in the weeks ahead, Lucky U IPA will follow in cans for the first time. Canned Avalanche has proven a hit; Todd says introducing the aluminum-packaged version even boosted sales of bottles. Avalanche Amber remains the brewery's biggest seller, with Vanilla Porter gaining fast. Another relative newcomer, 471 India Pale Ale, has earned a following among hardcore hop-heads. 

In 2009, Breck's earnings doubled over 2008. By the end of this May, Breckenridge had notched 18.4 percent growth in sales over last year, and 19 percent in volume -- the brewery's biggest gain in 12 years. Todd says consumers simply consider craft beer a great value, even if they're cutting back on spending on other things. 

Breckenridge sells its beer in 26 states, and can be found in pretty much any part of the country except the Northeast and the West Coast. Behind Colorado, its top markets are Texas, Arizona, the Ohio River Valley and Pennsylvania. After a 10-year absence, Florida is about to see the return of Breckenridge products. 

Todd and Terry would like to take the lineup into the rest of the country eventually, and hope to double volume from the current 30,000 barrels per year to 60,000. "I can almost get there in this facility," Todd says. 

In the meantime, the Usrys plan to look back and celebrate Breckenridge's first two decades. They've come a long way from being self-proclaimed ski bums in Steamboat to a couple with two kids and a burgeoning business. July 10 is the date of the party at the Kalamath location; they‘ll be announcing details soon. Check back at www.breckenridgebrewery.com

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Cans can: Breckenridge's Lucky U IPA is just the latest of several Colorado craft beers to be released in aluminum cans. Oskar Blues led the charge, of course, so it's fitting that they're hosting the first Burning Can festival, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. June 26 at Sandstone Park in Lyons. They'll be joined by about 15 craft beer canners (including Breckenridge); food and live music are on tap, too, at an event that benefit's the Colorado Brewers Guild. Check www.oskarblues.com for details and ticket information.

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