Ska Brewing Co. ushers in a new era with its 24,000 square foot “world headquarters”
DURANGO, Colo. – It’s often called a leap of faith, stepping into an abyss and trusting that everything will turn out fine.
In business, there’s also the adage, to make money, you’ve got to spend money.
The partners of Ska Brewing Co. have done a little bit of both with the opening of the new “world headquarters” for the home-grown Durango brewery known widely for its award-winning hand-crafted beers, including the flagships, True Blonde Ale, Pinstripe Red Ale and Ten Pin Porter.
“Once we realized we had to do something, either take over the rest of our old building or move, we started looking around and talking about all the different ideas,” said Dave Thibodeau, who with Bill Graham and Matt Vincent have been, as they have noted, the main “characters” who brew beer with character. “It became apparent that if we were going to move, it had to be to the right building, and that didn’t happen to exist. So we had to build, and we said, let’s just do it right and get every penny that we’ve ever made and can borrow and throw it all back into the business.”
A year and a half and some $5 million later, Ska celebrated the opening of the new 24,000 square foot, four-floor facility at 225 Girard in Bodo Industrial Park. It includes a two-tier tasting room, which opens on to an ample beer garden, brewery, warehouse, offices and a penthouse floor that is yet to be defined. It’s substantial growth for which Ska probably should have been prepared.
In 1999, after nearly five years in business, Graham had noted at the time, “We should have listened to our ATF inspector a little more closely because when he inspected the place, he said, ‘If this takes off at all, you’re already too small.’ He was right. It’s been like that all along.”
Ska is named after the style of music Graham and Thibodeau enjoyed “back in the day” when they began homebrewing for themselves and their friends. In 1995 they officially “launched” the business because of the demand. True Blonde was the first of Ska’s commercial brews, followed by Pinstripe, which was actually a mistake, but they went with it – the “making lemonade from lemons” philosophy. From the start, however, Pinstripe outsold the Blonde two to one, according to Graham. Looking at the big picture, it’s that type of good fortune that seems to have followed Ska all along the way.
Until opening the new facility, Ska had been located in an old warehouse on Turner Drive. From one cramped room in the back of the building to eventually owning the entire building by 2002, Ska has steadily increased not only its brewing capacity but manufacturing efficiency and sophistication.
“We’re tearing all of our stuff out of that old building now,” said Thibodeau, wondering how they managed to achieve so much in such a non-beer brewing friendly space. “I’m looking at it and saying, I’m glad it’s not my building anymore. We’ve got so much stuff in there. It’s going to take us some time to do our share of the cleaning.”
Sales of the old building to Mesa Color enabled the construction of the new. Though he and Graham provided input, Thibodeau gives Matt Vincent credit for the new building’s functionality. Architect Tim Flanagan did the formal design, but Vincent worked out the tank layout and operational flow of the brewery that is poised to produce upwards of 20,000 barrels of beer annually.
“We doubled the size of our brewhouse,” said Thibodeau of the new equipment that actually cooks the mash. “And we didn’t really have any downtime. Because it’s a new brewhouse, they got that in place when we were still brewing at the other one. When the first tank came over, we stopped brewing there and started here. Legally we couldn’t brew at both places, but we could have beer in the tanks there and start brewing here.”
Now all the fermentation tanks in the new facility are nearly full, and the first brews are being bottled and kegged. According to Thibodeau, the initial goal with the move is to triple the old facility’s capacity.
“We did about 8,000 barrels last year. We’d like to do 24,000 in five years,” he said.
With four stories and the characteristic black and white checkerboard accents, Ska’s “world headquarters” is visible from miles in the distance.
The natural slope of the land proved ideal, enabling the pieces of the brewery to be, in essence, stacked. The delivery driveway directly off of Girard leads to the loading dock and warehouse, which is actually on the third level of the building.
“A semi can come up and unload their empty bottles right there,” said Thibodeau, noting that all packaging materials and storage are found on that third level. “We have a pallet conveyor (lift), and two pallets of empty bottles come down (to the second level bottling line), they’re filled, then sent back up for packaging and our walk-in cooler is right there (off of the lift).”
In addition to the bottling line, the first floor of the operation houses the brewhouse and giant fermentation tanks, the largest of which holds 90 barrels. Additionally, the brewery includes a large laboratory, essential for maintaining the quality of hand-crafted beer, as well as a separate filtering room. Beer is moved from one stage in the brewing process to the next through built in pipes, eliminating the need for the large hose web traditionally found lacing the floor of small breweries.
“It’s much better for cleaning, much more sanitary, easier for people to work around,” said Thibodeau, referencing the staff of 20. “And it’s nice to have luxuries like drains (in the floor). We only had one in the old place. We had to hose it and squeegee it.”
The 50,000 lb. silo sits outside near the loading dock and it is connected to the brewery with automated auger – basically a pipe system that runs up the back of the building, inside through the warehouse and into the grain mill and scale room located directly over the mash tank on the first floor.
“It can only be a certain angle,” said Thibodeau of the auger. “If you take it too high it can’t do the job. So we had to lay out these panels and make it just right.”
As the finishing touches are made to the building, the silo will be sanded down and painted red, ensuring that the brewery is even more visible.
The walk-in cooler in the warehouse, adjacent to the packaging line, can house more than 4,200 cases of Ska bottles and cans in the center of the room. The exterior walls are reserved for kegs and stock from the other Colorado craft brewers Ska distributes locally.
“And then there’s about $20,000 worth of hops,” added Thibodeau. “We had to buy all our hops and pay for them up front and store them.”
Hops have been steadily increasing in price, impacting the beer industry worldwide. For Ska’s Local Series beer, the team traveled to Montrose to harvest 32 lbs. of the locally grown hops.
“It took all day to get 32 lbs. of hops with seven of us going,” said Thibodeau, noting that next spring as the beer garden set adjacent to the brewery is landscaped, hope is for Ska to grow some of its own hops.
The beer garden currently remains a work in progress. Essential pieces were put in place to accommodate Ska’s grand unveiling during Octoberfest (which saw some 1500 people coming through the facility), including a temporary band stage.
“We will incorporate a stage, for something like a Sunday afternoon concert series in the summer,” said Thibodeau, also mentioning that the festive afternoon Ska-b-ques might be returning. “And Zia Taqueria, which is a completely separate operation, is going to try to relocate their trailer.”
Zia’s trailer until September was located at Durango Harley Davidson, so the timing for the move to Ska’s beer garden proved beneficial to both. If Zia meets all City approvals, the satellite restaurant can provide food to supplement Ska’s beers, as well as provide a new lunch option for Bodo Park workers. Because Ska is a micro-brewery, its liquor license does not allow sales of food. The license differs from what brewpubs such as Steamworks or Carver’s enjoy.
But Ska’s new tasting room (which actually spans two floors) is about as close to a tavern as the law will allow. The expansive main floor room features a bar made from wood from the old Durango Lanes bowling alley. The tables too are left-over bowling alley wood, rescued from Monaco Lanes in Denver.
“It was a lot of work,” said Thibodeau, “but it goes with our little bowling theme without being too in your face. And it’s recycled, reclaimed wood, so more sustainable.”
In addition to practicality, sustainability was an overall theme in creation of the new building. Though it did not go through the LEED certification process, it was constructed to LEED standards. An energy efficient, thermal heating system heats the entire building, solar tubes provide natural lighting in the warehouse and stairwell, insulation is shredded recycled denim, and the concrete, colored with soy-based dye, is made from fly ash, a by-product of coal-fired power plants.
“Because of the design, our energy efficiencies and the way we laid everything out, we hope to use, once we’re fully rolling, about half the energy per barrel brewed that we used at the old place.”
The building is also wired for solar panels, which Thibodeau hopes to have installed in the near future.
Currently Ska is distributing throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Illinois and North Carolina. With capacity increasing, the company plans to move into Nebraska in coming weeks and Texas after the first of the year.
Ska’s tasting room, which also features a cooler for six-pack purchase, home brewing supplies and Ska logowear, will likely be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., though firm hours have not yet been established.
A new website is also taking shape at www.skabrewing.com.