When Cannonball Creek Brewing Co. opened in January 2013, drinkers were so eager to try its beer that the Golden brewery initially ran out and had to shut down several days each week to restock the taps.
Co-owners Brian Hutchinson and Jason Stengl remember that first year as “mayhem,” but the public’s reception gave them a hint they were doing something right. Fast forward to 2021, and they have more than anecdotal evidence to prove their beer is on point.
At least one Cannonball Creek beer has medaled at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival competition every year since the brewery’s inception, for a total of 14 awards — six gold, five silver and three bronze. That includes a first-place prize for its Vladimir Brutin India pale ale at the 2021 awards.
“It was surprising because we got two medals the first year we entered the competition,” said Stengl, thinking back to 2013. “We were confident that we could, but it was also a surprise.”
Cannonball Creek might be Colorado’s best brewery that almost never was, as both owners admit they initially didn’t have long-term aspirations in the beer industry. After moving to the Centennial State in 1997 from the Twin Cities, Stengl was bouncing between jobs and considering starting his own business when he landed a gig with Mountain Sun pubs and breweries because of prior experience in truck driving and warehouse operations. He eventually joined the brewing team, where he met Hutchinson. Previously a teacher in Adams County for students with emotional and behavioral disorder, Hutchinson was bitten by the homebrew bug while pursuing a master’s degree in special education at the University of Northern Colorado.
Neither had prior professional brewing experience, but shortly after they started working together behind the kettle, they started dreaming of opening their own operation.
Cannonball Creek Brewing Co.’s Featherweight pale ale has won several GABF medals, even as the recipe has changed over the years.Cannonball Creek’s showing at GABF is impressive not only because the competition is fierce — judges evaluated nearly 9,700 beers during this year’s competition alone — but also because of the brewery’s size.
Cannonball Creek is by definition a micro operation, brewing just 700 barrels of beer in 2020, according to the Brewers Association. Comparatively, New Belgium Brewing Co. and Avery Brewing Co. also won GABF medals this year, and brewed 975,000 barrels and 46,750 barrels, respectively, in 2020, the BA reported.
And because Cannonball Creek sells beer almost exclusively from its onsite taproom, drinkers who haven’t visited likely don’t even know what they’re missing.
“Sometimes it’s fair to say we’ve been a little weak on the marketing side and things like that, but we feel like we make up for it with exceptional beer,” said Hutchinson.
So, what’s Cannonball Creek’s secret? Hutchinson, who is head brewer, said it starts with a passion for and familiarity with hoppy beers, which dominate the year-round menu. Most of the recipes that have won medals have done so in categories such as pale ale (Featherweight), experimental IPA (Vladimir Brutin), and session IPA (Trump Hands). Additionally, the brewery’s black IPA has won multiple awards in the American-style black ale category.
But Hutchinson is also unafraid to change award-winning recipes, “not in the interest of winning medals, but making better beer,” he said. The Featherweight pale ale, for example, first earned a GABF medal (silver) in 2013 when the recipe used more crystal malts, making it slightly darker in color and more malt-forward in taste, Hutchinson said.
Today, the beer boasts what Hutchinson calls a simpler malt bill of predominantly pilsner and Munich malts. The astonishingly light-bodied beer delicately showcases grapefruit and other citrusy hops in the aroma and flavor, with a subtle grainy malt presence for balance. It finishes crisp and dry, with just a touch of bitterness on the backend. It’s incredibly crushable, and GABF judges seemed to agree: In 2020, the new Featherweight recipe garnered gold.
“The biggest thing we consider when we’re talking about making beer is literally making sure it’s something we would want to drink,” Hutchinson said. “Especially as times change and you get influenced by other beers that you drink, you meet other brewers, you talk about beer, new ingredients come out — those are all just ways to get inspired to make your beer better and better.”
What’s in a name?
One of Cannonball Creek Brewing Co.’s most eye-catching beer names is Trump Hands, the brewery’s first session IPA. (The term “session” refers to beers that are 5% ABV or less.) Brewer Brian Hutchinson was looking for a beer name that would insinuate “small” to refer to the alcohol content and found inspiration from a Republican presidential primary debate in which a candidate mentioned the size of Donald Trump’s hands. “We found the whole thing comical that they were bringing that up during a presidential debate,” he said.
Cannonball Creek Brewing Co., 393 N. Washington Ave., Golden. Hours: Monday through Thursday from 2 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from noon to 10 p..m, and Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. 303-278-0111. cannonballcreekbrewing.com
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