In a contemporary craft beer market where extreme renditions and off-kilter interpretations of classic styles garner attention, the sturdy, balanced ales of Breckenridge Brewing Co. are standouts.
“From an innovation standpoint, I think we’re right in there with some of the great brewers around the country,” says Todd Usry, director of brewing operations for Breckenridge. “But my main goal is to make beer that is drinkable. Even if it’s a strong IPA that’s as hoppy as can be, I want people to be able to have more than one.”
Usry is a beer enthusiast from the great beer generation — a collective of groundbreaking hobbyists and entrepreneurs who worked diligently during the “beer renaissance” that swept the nation during the 1980s and early ’90s. This month, his brewery celebrates 20 years of producing fine ales.
“Our beers have always been very well balanced and highly drinkable,” Usry says. “The big brewers have kind of latched on to this ‘drinkability’ term, and they overuse it. But we’ve been breaching it for years. I want to make as many styles as I can, but I also want them to be drinkable without being boring.”
Breckenridge Brewery grew from a 3,000-barrel-a-year brewpub to one of the most successful craft breweries in the nation. They now handcraft nearly 30,000 barrels of fresh beer each year and sell it in 26 states.
“I want people to enjoy it and go back to it, rather than say, ‘Wow, that was big and that’s it for me.’ I want all our beers to be sessionable,” says the brewmaster.
Usry fell in love with good beer shortly after he got married in Virginia. He and his wife relocated to Colorado just as the first major American microbrewing renaissance was picking up steam. Breweries like Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, Brooklyn, Rogue, and Widmer were among the wave of up-and-comers.
“Small breweries were popping up all over Colorado and the West Coast,” remembers Usry. “I decided to gather all the money I could borrow from family and friends and start up a brewery.”
Breckenridge founder (and original brewer) Richard Squire brought Usry on in 1991. Usry apprenticed with a Canadian brewmaster for three years and then took over in 1994. In 2008, he assumed direction of production and sales as well.
The brewery hit the Charleston market this year with a variety of ales, including its flagship Avalanche Ale, which has a smooth, grainy malt flavor and a mild hop aroma. It’s refreshing, flavorful, and surprisingly crisp for a darker style. At a standard 5.4 percent a.b.v., it’s pretty easygoing.
Additional styles available in town include the pale and hazy Agave Wheat (brewed with Salmiana agave nectar), the hoppy Lucky U IPA, the limited-edition 471 Double IPA, and the sweet and creamy Vanilla Porter.
“I think we got stagnant for a while, resting on the laurels of Avalanche,” admits Usry, referring to the medium-bodied, copper-amber ale. “We made a conscious decision to change that a couple of years ago.”
Recently, it’s been a delicate balancing act for the brewery — especially within a vibrant craft beer market in which so many brewers are releasing wildly exaggerated versions and extreme reworkings of classic styles, often with enormous amounts of hops, malt, spices, fruit, or unusual brewing and aging methods.
In April, Usry visited Charleston and hosted several Breckenridge events around town, including a five-course beer dinner at the downtown Mellow Mushroom, growler pours and in-store meet-and-greets at Total Wine and Laura Alberts, and a growler hour at Charleston Beer Exchange. In a casual setting like a beer dinner at a pizzeria, he came off as a cheerfully mild-mannered business guy.
This month, Breckenridge Brewery hosted an anniversary brewmaster’s beer dinner with a special single release of barrel-aged beers and firkin treatments of current mainline beers.
“It’s a crazy array, and it covers the map,” Usry says of the current Breckenridge beer roster. “We’ve got an imperial porter, an imperial red ale that’s draft-only, and imperial brown ale. We’re constantly playing with stuff.”
Visit breckbrew.com for more.