A thoroughly inventive brewpub which offers a wide range of ales and lagers not found in any other American brewpub, Sandlot continues to break beer snob stereotypes.
Sandlot is the proud owner of numerous GABF medals for its inspired beers, which include two kinds of smoked beers and three pilsner styles. The brewpub is best known for its creation of the successful Blue Moon portfolio, now produced for national distribution by parent company Coors. The pub opened in 1995 when the stadium hosted its first game for the Colorado Rockies.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Sandlot's brewer Tom Hail to discuss Coors, Blue Moon and how light lagers are like skimpy bathing suits.
ANDY CROUCH How did you start with Sandlot?
TOM HAIL I saw an ad in the paper. I didn't actually have brewing experience at the time - I was just home-brewing. I sent a letter, that is now famous, applying for the assistant position. I wrote, "You know, I know you didn't put an ad in the paper saying that you needed an assistant, but if this guy is going to run a ten to thirty barrel system, he's going to need some help. And I got a letter back from Coors that said, you know, "Screw you. Have a nice life." But they forwarded all of the resumes on and I eventually got a job.
AC What is your present position with Sandlot?
TH Janitor, no. There's just two of us here now for the most part. So I suppose I'm the brewer.
AC What is Sandlot's relationship with Coors?
TH Coors owns the Sandlot Brewery. I guess the analogy we most often use is, you know how Puerto Rico is part of the United States but not really a state? That's kind of how we are. We're sort of like the Puerto Rico of Coors.
AC How does the interaction work?
TH We are responsible for the bottom line to Coors. We get input from the rocket scientists up there when we need it. But for the most part, we're on our own. We get our malts from Coors.
AC How did Blue Moon get its start?
TH Blue Moon started here. I didn't develop it - Keith Villa, he's 'Doctor Beer', developed it. We introduced it here to the public in 1995 as Bellyslide Belgian White and it was a smashing success. They went national from there. For the first couple of years it was contract brewed out at FX Matt because we didn't have capacity or bottling capabilities. Then it went to Hudepohl-Schoenling and now they're brewing it at the Coors brewery in Memphis.
AC How did the Blue Moon line get its start?
TH The Blue Moon was all Keith. He developed all of those beers. We did the brewing at first. He got his PhD in brewing science in Belgium, so he had that whole Belgian thing going. It started out with several different varieties that ebbed and flowed and stuck with Belgian White for quite a while. They did Pumpkin last year and at one time did an Abbey-style ale. That kind of came and went.
AC How is the line doing?
TH It's doing great. It's growing double-digits in most places, which as you know, for a big brewer is big news.
AC Will Coors continue to produce the Pumpkin Ale?
TH I suspect it will. That's not our call. We do a draft batch or two of that each year. We supplement the draft market for Denver, so we actually make a ton of Blue Moon now. But it is just a drop in the bucket relatively speaking. We do, on average, about 100 to 125 barrels a month of Blue Moon. Our annual capacity is about 2500 to 3000 (barrels a year). We've never actually hit that but we may this year because we're brewing so much Blue Moon.
AC How did you decide which beers to start with?
TH We did mostly ales, our lagers are our specialty beers. Our core brands are ales just because they are faster and we don't have a ton of tank capacity. If we had our druthers, we'd have three times as many tanks and do a bunch of lagers. Lagers make us happy. They're a little tougher to make right, more interesting I think.
AC What are your core brands?
TH Our core brands are the Blue Moon Belgian White, which we brew constantly. Last year, we started brewing it for the stadium and the pub. Our next biggest selling beer is the Right Field Red, which is a Scottish-style ale. We make an ESB called Power Alley ESB. Then we make Slugger Stout, which we dink around with quite a bit. We actually serve it like a Guinness, nitrogen through a sparkler tap. It comes out really nice. It's a little bit of a bigger beer. Our fifth brand is our Brewmaster's Special, which is where we get to play with stuff. That ranges from a helles to a pilsner to a weiss beer to a bock or a barleywine.
AC How often do you change the Brewmaster's Special?
TH As often as possible, at least once a month. Towards the end of the baseball season, we'll make several. Once baseball season is done, so as not to confuse the baseball fans, we'll usually have a bunch of different beers on tap instead of our core brands. Those will mostly be lagers.
AC How different is it brewing for a pub located inside a baseball stadium?
TH It's not too bad. The first few years they sold out every game and over the course of time the price has gone up and attendance has gone down. So it's not too bad during the summer. And with any excess capacity we have this summer, we're making Blue Moon. We actually make more beer in the winter now than we do in the summer. We do beers for several of the ski areas and that supplements our winter activities. We make Barmen Pilsner, which is a year 'round beer.
AC What beers do you produce for the ski resorts?
TH We do a beer for the Vail resorts, which is Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail, and Beaver Creek. This year we did one for Copper Mountain and for Winter Park Ski area.
AC Tell me more about the origins of the Barmen Pilsner.
TH Barmen was originally developed by one of the rocket scientists up at Coors. Barmen is the town or region in Prussia where Adolph Coors came from. Most people think it was "Barman", which is a stupid name. Pete Coors authorized it and wanted to make a very authentic German-style pilsner. We did the original pilot batches down here, and they decided they wanted to make it in Golden. So they made it in the pilot brewery for a couple of years up there. Then, for whatever reason, those guys really didn't want to do it any more, and they were going to kill the brand. So we were like, "You know, we need capacity so maybe we could do it?" So we had a meeting with Pete and he asked, "Does it make good business sense?" Well, sure. So he said, "Go ahead. You guys make good beer." We've been making it ever since. We've adapted it a little bit for our system. The Coors yeast doesn't work well for us at all. So over the course of time, we've played around with different lager strains and came up with one that works really well here. We messed around with the hops quite a bit, but for the most part, it has stayed true to its original origins. We've been doing that for about three years now.
AC Do you bottle the Barmen as well?
TH No, that's draft only. I want to say it's in about 15 or 20 accounts around the Denver area. (Consumers) just rave about it. If we had more capacity, we could probably make more. But it's kind of like a supply and demand thing. There's probably a little mystique to it because not everyone can get it.
AC What other beers do you produce?
TH Last year, we had a helles. We had three different pilsner. We had a German pilsners, which got a gold medal for us at the Great American Beer Festival. We do a European-style pilsner, which won medals three years in a row but not last year. We've had a bock, a doppelbock, and a rauch beer, and a smoked beer last year. Those were all Brewmaster's Specials.
AC Tell me more about the Brewmaster's Special.
TH They come out throughout the reason, but there are usually a couple that we roll out towards the end of September. Baseball season tends towards the end of August and that gives us a little tank capacity to let beer sit around a little bit longer. We don't have to crank it through. On the Brewmaster's Specials, we don't have to strive for consistency. We try to make them consistently good, but otherwise, we dink with them. Even our core brands, such as the ESB and the stout, we'll tend to make changes that most of the masses aren't going to notice. Such as, 'Well, let's try this kind of hop'. Even the beers that we have that won medals last year, we will probably mess with them for laughs.
AC What beers do you plan to brew this year?
TH We are going to try a Schwarz beer this year. We probably won't do a smoked beer, but you never know. Generally, we like playing with lagers. We might do a dunkel weizen this year. One of our favorite beers around here is the helles beer so we'll make some of that for our personal stash. A lot of times, beers like that are kind of lost on, I won't say the unwashed, but novice beer geeks don't really respect a pale lager. They're looking for stouts or IPA's.
AC Do you think lagers don't get their due?
TH I don't think a lot of people make lagers. I know we couldn't possibly make all lagers because it's just not cost-effective. You need so much tank space and they need to age. All of ours age six weeks or so, that would be our quickest lager. When you could crank ales out through the system in two weeks, it's hard to justify doing a lot of lagers. Most of the craft brewing market is looking for something robust and exciting. Lagers are tough. They're a tough sell and they're tough to make.
AC Are lagers more satisfying to produce as a brewer?
TH I think they are. It's like a diving competition. I think the difficulty level is higher. 'You know, that's a boring little beer. But it was difficult to make it good and boring.'
AC Some in the craft brewing industry have forecasted that the niche can rise to ten percent. What are your thoughts?
TH I think ten percent would be ambitious. When we started, it was all about the beer. We don't deal a whole lot with the business end. We do a little bit of sales work, like meeting and greeting. But it's a brutal business. I'm happy down here dealing with single cell organisms. Sales is tough.
AC Tell me about your experiences with the Great American Beer Festival.
TH The last two years we were the second best small brewery in America. We've been kissing our sister for two years (laughs). We have a good time. It's a blast to see all the brewers we know from around the country. Last year, we had our annual medal winner's dinner at a local restaurant. We kind of take the place over and make everyone drink Coors beer. It's a good time.
AC Are there beer geeks at Coors?
TH There are plenty of geeks up there. Those guys, when they let their freak flag fly, can really brew some pretty incredible stuff.
AC Like what?
TH They've done a bunch of stuff. They had a lot of fun working up the recipes for (the Sandlot Brewery). When we started here, we hit the ground running and had most of the recipes done. We have since changed them completely because it'd be boring to make the same beer all of the time. They've made everything from a Berliner-style weisse to a killer eisbock. They don't do that as much now as they used to, but they get to mess around up there. There's a pilot brewery up there. Those guys know their stuff. The pilot brewery emulates the Coors system. It's a thirty-barrel system.
AC As a brewpub affiliated with a major macro-brewery, have you experienced any animosity from doubting beer geeks?
TH At first, a lot of people thought, 'Oh Coors is doing this brewery and the beer is going to suck, blah blah blah.' But no. For the most part, we don't. It's real gratifying when most people come into town for the GABF and they try the Barmen and are like, 'Oh my god. I can't believe this is a Coors product.' People who know what they're doing and what they're tasting respect Coors. It's usually the novice beer snob who thinks, 'Coors is piss water.' But you know, that's a really tough style of beer to make. Whether I like them or not, I respect them and the American Light Lagers. That's a tough nut to crack. There's no room for error. The analogy we always use with people is, 'Making a beer like Coors Light, or like our helles or our pils, is like wearing a Speedo on the beach. There's nowhere to hide.' If you're flabby or have a little excess body hair, it's not going to look good. Now, if you're making a stout or an IPA, there's roast malts and tons of hops covering up any errors. It's kind of like wearing baggy shorts and a big t-shirt. Or if you make an imperial stout, it's like wearing a sweat suit on the beach.