Brewery owners love telling their start-up stories. Full of passion and ambition, each one involves some ah-ha moment, a learning phase, and then the grungy, but ultimately rewarding work of giving it your all. It’s a bit like the early garage days of start-ups in Silicon Valley. A start-up without a grassroots story seems somehow incomplete. As a brewer slides a pint across the bar, so it goes, the story all comes together in the glass — in a beer they’re proud of. This is not one of those story-book, apocryphal feel-good versions — but it finishes just the same.
When Chad from Blackshirt started in on his backstory, I could tell right away that this was going to be different. His shoulders slightly hunched, his arms crossed, and his eyes locked in a thousand yard stare toward the floor one moment, and then piercing right through me the next with a warrior-like determination to tell it like it is. Black Shirt is more than a family business — it’s this family's salvation. And in an age when we hide all the struggle and only post the pretty pictures, Black Shirt is a reminder that getting what you want out of life sometime takes an amazing amount of sacrifice, determination, and a scary amount of faith.
“We were sitting on the floor of a one bedroom apartment we couldn’t afford, working two jobs each, saving every penny we had, and that’s about the time when we found out we were having a kid,” Chad begins. “It crushed us at a time when we were already being crushed.”
Chad and his brother, Branden, grew up working at their father’s collision repair shop. Their father was more self-employed than entrepreneurial, so most of the lessons the boys learned had to do with working hard and maintaining independence at all costs — not necessarily growing or scaling a business. When they set their eyes on opening a brewery, taking on partners and debt didn’t really cross their minds. “We opened when we had the money to open. We built it ourselves,” explains Chad. "We all lived in these tiny little places to keep rent really low, so that every bit of money could be put towards this place. We’d get popped with a $30k water line change, or a $35k power line change, and it’d set us back hard. But we kept our heads down and kept working, and scavenged scrap to build what we needed. Everything in this place has a story as to how it got here. It was a methodical journey. It’s our lives. And one by one we each got to quit our jobs and come to work here full-time as a family. I’m broker than I’ve ever been, but I get to sleep a little better and I’m happy."
Both brothers run the brewery alongside Carissa, and a couple of employees. They make their own distribution runs, service the taproom, host bottle releases, and of course, brew the beer. Since opening the brewery, not a lot has changed in their lives in terms of work ethic. But there is a small sigh of relief amongst the group. All that hustle, saving, working, and adapting to even harder circumstances has resulted in a tangible business that’s doing more than supporting the family — it’s giving it meaning.
“Most people have asked us why we’d ever go into business with family,” recalls Carissa, "but for us it wouldn’t work any other way. There’s a lot of passion running through the veins of this place. There’s been fights, there’s been tears. But we hit our 5-year goal inside of one year, and that doesn’t happen without getting to the brink of losing it. And we did it all together.”
More than just a unique and compelling story, Blackshirt stands apart from the rest of the Denver brewing scene in some important ways. First, they scoped out a location at the edge of town, with the intention of creating a new cultural outpost for their concept rather than simply joining what was already a well-defined orbit for breweries near downtown. Most start-ups would see the proximity to some of the country’s most popular breweries as a de-risking strategy, living off the foot traffic of other breweries alone, especially in those lean, early days. But for Black Shirt, it seemed to challenge their strong independent streak.
"It used to be that you had to do your research to find us out here,” recalls Chad. "It had to be a purposeful mission, which created this really neat atmosphere — people who were really interested in the craft versus us just being another brewery you could go drink some alcohol in.” That sentiment rings true for Branden as well: "We didn’t want to be another brewery downtown that has people strolling in looking for a Bud Light and not even realizing that they’re making the beer 20 feet away. Our thinking was that if you sought us out, and the person at the bar next to you sought us out, then chances are you two would have a great conversation because of the type of people you are.”
There’s a reason there aren’t other breweries here. Five years ago you’d be standing in a part of Denver that wasn’t considered safe at all. "The front of our building was riddled with bullet holes,” Chad points out. "Now there’s a huge push by Denver to expand the downtown area. It’s gone as far south and west as it can go, north was sort of untouched. For the past four years it’s been pretty vacant up here since the rail cars were no longer used.” For Branden, it also meant that Black Shirt was embedded in a different community. “That also meant that there were a lot of artists who could get these big spaces, and they created a bit of a movement, working with their hands and on their craft. There were a hundred studios that opened up in a mile radius of here, a soul and an energy that we were drawn to."
The beer itself takes an obscure, but fascinating turn as well. Known as the Red Ale Project, the team creates beers with a similar underlying approach in the malt bill using Colorado malts, and providing a signature red ale flavor. What started as an obsession for perfecting a base beer has morphed into a variety of styles and flavors with a common core. Saisons, sours, porters, bitters, and pales populate this hyper-focused, but still-diverse back catalog. Each recipe balances a constantly tweaked malt bill with a increasingly adventurous hop and yeast profile. "We brewed our Colorado Red Ale for three years straight —167 batches,” claims Chad. "Tweaking tiny little things in the recipe. Mash temperature, water chemistry, hop varietals and methods, aging techniques, fermentation, yeast strains, things like that. 167 time later we felt like we had a recipe we were proud of — our Colorado red ale. It’s the base malt recipe for every single one of our beers."
For Black Shirt, the Red Ale Project gives them a way to think about their region, the ingredients produced in their own backyard, and a reason to care about one beer over another. "With our focus on the Red Ale Project, we’re able to educate about ingredients and process,” claims Chad. "Weather the hop changes or the style changes, we can educate them on what’s changed. We didn’t want to create mysterious beers — we wanted to embrace the transparency of what we’re doing. Then our customers can go that liquor store and pick something specific out of hundreds of options based on their new knowledge. We don’t like walking into a brewery and seeing some gimmicky name, ABV, and maybe IBUs. We want to offer a lot more."
The Red Ale Project gives the team a way to riff on the familiar. "Sure, we brew a ‘Saison' – but it’s an eight percent, 40 IBU Red Saison brewed with ten different grains, a single, isolated, pure yeast culture that we allow to ferment at cool temperatures, utilizing hops that most Belgians have never heard of!” says Chad. "It’s our own little project and it’s been a huge success for us.” While the team has found a home in the Red Ale, it was their father, a constant source of inspiration, that unwittingly gave them the idea. "We were guided by advice that has resonated within us since we were little boys — "do one thing and do it better than anyone else,” says Branden.
But that’s not where the intensity ends. This musically inclined family uses the metaphor of albums and tracks to help their most loyal customers follow along on the way to the perfect beer. You won’t find a link for “beers” on their website, rather, you’ll see “albums,” which lists each beer, and the various “tracks” they’ve laid down for each. The listings show how ingredients, color, bitterness, and ABV change as they tweak it. Indeed, they even list the tracks that got dumped. Even if you’re not completely charmed by the metaphor, you can’t help but lose yourself in the brewers' notes and incredible details listed for each batch. Chad explains: "Each track has a date. If we take any of that batch and sour or tincture it, we call it a live track. If we age any in or on oak, it’s an acoustic track. I think an acoustic guitar does to a song what the presence of wood does to a beer — there’s a warmth, a tonality that fits. So if you’re really curious about what you’re drinking, you can go to the website and get tasting notes, see what’s different about each batch. You get to see these beers evolve over time. Some of our friends who just want to hang out and drink think it’s beer-geeky as hell, and that’s fine too. But we’ve always placed importance on telling the story of a beer."
Around midday, I tagged along as Chad and Branden loaded up a few dozen cases of the Red Ale into the back of the pickup truck and we headed out for a self-distro run. Cruising down Martin Luther King Blvd around the northern end of Denver from one stop to another, we passed a sleepy residential area. Chad took a short detour, pointing out a house that he and Carissa used to live in. "That’s where we started the brewery,” he says. “It was mixed zoning — we were sort of in a grey area. So we tried to take advantage of the situation and just started brewing there. But that didn’t fly for long. Eventually we had to start looking for a real home.”
Backing the truck up to the loading bay at Argonaut Wine & Liquors along Colfax Avenue, Chad shook hands with a few of the stock guys hanging out in the cold room on an especially hot Denver day. There was anticipation in their eyes as Chad loaded case after case off the truck bed by hand and wheeled them inside. “We move a lot of this stuff,” claimed one of the sales guys, coming back to check on the delivery. The Red Ale went straight onto empty shelves.
Back at the brewery, we pulled around back and Chad idled the engine, slowing to a gravel-crunching stop. "That’s where they’re putting in the new train station,” he said with some dissonance in his voice. “That’s going to change some thing for us, I think.” The area around Black Shirt is quickly developing, pushing Denver’s downtown residents out his way. That’s money in the bank for most business owners, but the isolated sub-culture he was hoping to build is going to have to contend with an expanding mainstream audience. The train station is attracting developers, and almost daily, someone offers to write Chad a check on the spot for the building. The visible strain in his neck and shoulders as he describes these encounters tells you that he’s still feeling conflicted. “Do I stick it out and fight against the forces?” he asks, "Or do I sell it and build elsewhere again so soon, and maybe ensure some of our financial future?” The awkward pause that follows tells me that this wasn’t purely rhetorical. His eyes get glassy and he loosens his rigid stance, before he snaps the moment back. “No one can tell you how to make these calls,” he says, before he takes a long draw of hot dusty air, and turns back into the shade of the brewhouse.