Words: Kate Perdoni
Photos: Becca Simonds
The nectar of the gods is on tap at 1466 Garden of the Gods Road.
As the first saison-focused brewery within Colorado, Trinity Brewing takes its personal trifecta—Artisanal Beer, Slow Food, and Conscious People—to heart, evident in each facet of the brew-to-bottle operation. Just outside the entrance, a veranda garden grows hops, basil, cilantro, arugula and mint for use in the vegetarian and vegan-friendly kitchen and as ingredients for an array of award-winning beers. Patrons sip libations with tranquility on patio furniture fashioned from old whiskey barrels sporting custom art by Colorado Springs' own Blindworm Guitars. Inside, an elaborate archway made from dozens of used books adorns the threshold leading from the taproom to the adjacent barrel and bottling warehouse. Worn taps from yesteryear, commemorative glasses and other beer-related relics populate the taproom walls.
Citing influences from Claude Monet to David Byrne, owner Jason Yester says the brewery has tried to have a resourceful approach and to be mindful about environmental impact. Thus, two old wooden barns were torn down and repurposed into decor for Trinity, all while enhancing the Farmhouse-style brew theme. The taproom features natural light and a custom bar created from hundreds of broken bottles. "In the final stages of building, I realized that we had consumed an extraordinary amount of beer and had a ton of bottles on-site," Yester says. "The decision to smash up all of the beer bottles we had collected led to a beautiful bar top—and a fun story."
The seed for Trinity was planted when Yester was 18—the year he began to brew at home. "That's when I declared I'd open a brewery by the time I was 30. I missed that goal by six months," Yester says. "After 12 years of learning the ins and outs at another brewery, I began work on Trinity. The theme of our business model was to create a 'PPP' structure—People, Planet, Profit. This theme is very central to my soul and to my lifestyle."
In the last six years, Yester has crafted over 80 commercial recipes. Trinity focuses on Belgian and Farmhouse-style beers, as well as barrel-aged Brett beers, sours and wilds. This combination is "unique in general, and especially unique for Colorado Springs," Yester says.
The word saison is French for "season," and it is seasonal availability and local sourcing of ingredients that determine Trinity's beer creations as well as the personal tastes and favorite flavors of Trinity's three in-house brewers. Funky sours and barrel-aged beers are on the menu. Trinity currently offers 18 beers on draft, including “Three Flowers,” the latest saison, inspired by the spring season. The bursting, floral, tangy array challenges you to guess at its top-secret origins. "Mr. Saison" is a Farmhouse-style ale with inspiration rooted in native ingredients, all found on a local hike, and was created by Trinity's head brewer, Tom Brown. The concoction of amaranth, mustard seed, lemongrass and rose hips won Best in Show in the "Beers Made by Walking" competition in 2012. Trinity now brews the blend annually. Meanwhile, the “Seven Day Golden Sour,” a lacto-fermented sour ale made in a week's time, represents the pioneering of an awakened method of brewing—using Lactobacillus in lieu of, or in conjunction with, traditional yeasts. The mammoth ideas contained in each sip must be the heartbeat of the Craft Movement.
When I meet renaissance-employee Johannah Murphy at Trinity Brewing, she is wearing her signature pink brewer's boots and is midway through "mashing out," a term used to describe the removal of spent grain from the large mash tun. Wielding a hoe, Murphy pulls the wet grain into a 32-gallon tub from shoulder-height, marking the next step in the brewing of Trinity's popular double IPA “Slap Yer Mammy.”
The brewing process starts with adding malted barley, or "malt," to hot water in the mash tun to extract fermentable sugars. In the next step, called "sparging," hot water is filtered through the grain bed to rinse the remaining sugar. Then comes the mash out—Murphy's favorite part. "The physical labor is great to balance out the desk work," she said, grinning.
Once the grain is removed, the wort is boiled for about an hour, then the hop additions are made. "’Slap Yer Mammy’ is a double IPA, so there are three hop additions made to the boil," Murphy says. "The first addition adds bitterness, and the second and third additions are for flavor and aroma. The wort is then cooled, and yeast is added to start fermentation. After about a week of ferment, dry hops are added and the beer sits for another week or so on hops to develop aroma and flavor before packaging."
Growing up in New England, Murphy's father was a homebrewer. She drew labels for his creations and helped sanitize bottles. Though IPAs have always been her favorite, Murphy doesn't remember the first beer she had, simply because she tried so many. "Usually they were funky home brews," Murphy says. "My dad was really into Belgian beer, raspberry ale, framboise and other fruit combinations." Her father even worked on the bottling line of a brewery for awhile, bringing home half-full cases. Then, "Moving to Colorado opened up a whole new world of craft everything," laughs Murphy. "Music, food, beer, spirits. Colorado opened the door. It was like the gateway."
Starting on the local scene as a bartender at 19, Murphy continued working in the service industry for years. She then came to Trinity, where four years have earned her the General Manager position. Now, Murphy wears many hats, including roles in accounting, human resources, public relations, and, occasionally, beer brewer. Through her work within the craft beer community, Murphy says her palate has been opened. She attended her first Great American Beer Festival in 2011 as an employee of Trinity, sampling sour beers for the first time in a crash course, and falling in love.
For Colorado's craft brewers, "education is everywhere," says Murphy. "It's a phone call away, if you need it. And the Rocky Mountain Microbrewing Symposium happens at UCCS every year, where speakers from all over the world come to teach about brewing and marketing techniques."
As we chat, common threads among Colorado's craft industry emerge: ingenuity, along with a willingness to share resources. Local breweries are not only a good resource, but can also offer a tight-knit community within the niche craft market. "If you need a bag of grain in order to make something happen, you can just call down the street, and they'll help you out," Murphy says.
"Are there other common characteristics of brewers?" I ask.
"You mean, other than beards?" Murphy replies, laughing.
When she's not keeping the books or attending beer festivals, Murphy works to source enormous quantities of ingredients like huckleberries and rhubarb to supply the making of Trinity's craft brews. Today, she grabs a pair of pliers and motions to follow step. Murphy wants to sample fermenting beers straight from the barrel mid-process to discover what the microbes do during each phase of aging.
There's an extraordinary craft aspect to every element of production: Each bottle is not only hand-brewed, it's also hand-filled, hand-capped, hand-waxed, and hand-labeled.
As we round a corner inside the barrel room, blues music drifts from the far side of a huge volume of packaged pallets of beer. We've reached the bottling line where, today, seven workers are bottling Trinity's cucumber and lemon blend, “Elektrick Cukumbahh.” There's an extraordinary craft aspect to every element of production: Each bottle is not only hand-brewed, it's also hand-filled, hand-capped, hand-waxed, and hand-labeled. The workers will batch 15 barrels today, which Murphy estimates is 465 gallons, or around 4650 bottles. The clinking on the line amplifies the silent communication between employees.
Murphy's own first official brew for Trinity, “Hopped Toddy,” set to be released this fall, is a perfect example of brewer's ingenuity matched with locally sourced ingredients. Back in her bartender days, Murphy's favorite cocktail to make was a Hot Toddy—"They're healing in so many ways." Local honey paired with lemon zest, ginger, and cold-brewed black and orange pekoe tea amounts to a 13.8% ABV. The brew was dry-spiced with hop socks—what are essentially giant tea bags—and aged in bourbon barrels. Murphy says the barrels can only be used a couple of times before the flavor in the wood is used up—hence the patio furniture motif.
With creative ingredients and a sustainable approach, it's no surprise Murphy reports fielding a fair number of calls from the Pacific Northwest regarding the availability of Trinity products. The brewery recently expanded distribution to reach the beer mecca of Portland, Oregon, where Yester says over 50% of draft pours are craft beer—the only city in America that can make this claim. At 56%, Yester says Portland sits far above Denver, where, by comparison, about 15% of draft pours are craft.
While the original idea was for Trinity to be an on-sale boutique brewery—a destination for a select audience who sought out these types of beers and would need to come on-site to partake—Yester says the industry has changed dramatically in the six years since Trinity opened its doors. Likewise, their business plan has morphed to fit the nation's growing taste for craft beer.
"We began to notice patterns with out-of-town enthusiasts purchasing a large amount of our specialty bottled beers," Yester says. "We learned that our beers were not on an island." Yester earmarked cities across the country where data showed consumers might prefer Trinity's unique craft brews. After eight months of sales data in Denver and direct market research in Portland, Trinity signed a contract for distribution in Oregon. Yester says the brews have seen great success once again within the craft-educated northwest.
With beautiful, uniquely designed labels envisioned by Yester and brought to life by Trinity employee Gordon Barnett, and names like "Blow Up Your TV," Trinity offers consumers a unique, brand-loyal experience. There's even a series of beers based on the film Office Space, including Damn, It Feels Good to be A Gangsta' and Red Swingline (named for the ubiquitous missing stapler). "It started with TPS Report," Murphy says. "We were having some serious issues with our printer. It kept saying 'paper jam' when there was no paper jam." Anyone who has seen the movie knows the fate of the printer.
In line to keeping production on scale with demand, Yester plans to expand Trinity's operations to Denver by 2017. "We will hit about 1500 BBLs (1BBL = 31 gal) of production this year, which will place us at about 40% growth for 2014," Yester says. "Our facility will max out at about 2000 BBLs.” The additional Denver facility will break ground in late 2016.
The move from local to national sales has garnered a new relationship with a distribution company that deals with Trinity's promotions and interactions with liquor stores, a move necessary for growth. With such a vast learning curve, "nearly everything we've done has been overcome with ingenuity," says Yester. "We aim to create and live the beer culture, rather than rest on laurels as many breweries choose to do. It has been a very engaging and organic evolution."
"The demand is there, but making sure not to rush and to give each batch the same love is important," says Murphy. She explains that Trinity finds it essential to maintain its local roots and to appreciate the community they came from even while expanding to a national market.
"Our beers can be extremely idealistic and difficult to grasp, but we strictly aim to keep it that way."
"Each brewery chooses it's own structure, and each brewery has a personal path it must adapt to," Yester says. "At Trinity we choose the path of 'passion' and follow where it leads us and supports us without forcing any compromises. Our beers can be extremely idealistic and difficult to grasp, but we strictly aim to keep them that way. Being firm, being disciplined and patient, knowing it's important to strike while the iron is hot and sticking to a thorough plan are the biggest challenges for all brewers."
“When we first opened, Jason was sleeping on piles of grain in the grain room because the kettle wouldn't get up to temperature,” Murphy says. “A batch of beer that was supposed to take 12 hours was taking 36. He wouldn't leave during the whole process, making sure everything went smoothly to get to where it is.”
The labor has paid off. For the past two years, Trinity has been named the "Best Brewpub in Colorado" by Ratebeer.com. They have won two Gold medals and a Bronze at the Great American Beer Festival, and Trinity's Red Swingline was named one of the "25 Best Beers in the World" in 2013 by DRAFT Magazine. The Colorado Brewers Guild gave Trinity the 2014 James Mattoon Award for innovation in business. With 28 employees, Yester lists among his major successes the number of workers whom have been able to purchase homes or begin families.
"We've raised the expectations of beer," Yester said. "I like to refer to Trinity as a 'wine bar that serves beer,' albeit a little less pretentious, and more rowdy!"
Murphy credits much of Trinity's growth to word of mouth. "If Coloradans love something, they share it with a friend," she says.
"The state of Colorado beer is kind of similar to Willy Wonka—specifically Gene Wilder: 'We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of the dreams.'"
"Colorado is a special place in brewing, and as a state we are producing some of the best wild, sour, and Brett beers in the entire world," says Yester. "It feels very redeeming to now act as an ambassador for the growing community of progressive and experimental brewers who continue to envision some of the most imaginative beers ever produced in this world. The state of Colorado beer is kind of similar to Willy Wonka, specifically Gene Wilder—'We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of the dreams.'"