How Bonfire Brewing went out: Inside the shutdown of the beloved Eagle business
Brewery’s future now lies in the hands of a few key actors, with much to be resolved before business can reopen its doors to the community
On Nov. 20, Bonfire Brewing celebrated its 11th anniversary with an all-out party at its taproom in Eagle. The bar was overflowing with patrons and employees talking, dancing and, of course, drinking with close friends late into the night at the beloved community gathering space.
The next morning, the taproom was shuttered, and the brewery suspended all production and distribution of its highly popular and award-winning craft beers.
Bonfire Brewing released a statement saying that the closure resulted from a liquor license discrepancy, without offering any information about when the taproom might reopen or the future of the business. In the weeks following, the Vail Daily has conducted multiple interviews with employees, stakeholders and members of the company’s board to understand how the popular downtown Eagle business came to close its doors and the internal struggles over the future of the company following the unexpected February death of Andy Jessen, the brewery’s cofounder and a beloved community figure.
While the necessity for the November shutdown did result from a licensing issue, the events leading up to that decision are more fraught and convoluted than a simple paperwork obstacle. The possibilities for Bonfire Brewing’s future is now in the hands of a few key actors, and there is much to be resolved before the brewery can reopen its doors to the community.
Bonfire Brewing was originally cofounded and incorporated by Andy Jessen and Matthew Wirtz in May 2010. The two were roommates at the time, and like many microbreweries, Bonfire had started off as a hobby — just two friends experimenting with home-brewed beer out of their garage.
When Andy Jessen and Wirtz decided to turn it into a business, they adopted a corporate structure that designated themselves as cofounders and established a five-member board of directors for oversight purposes.
That same year, Andy Jessen’s future wife, now Amanda Jessen, moved from Denver to join him in Eagle. Though not legally designated as an executive in the company, Amanda Jessen was an integral part of the business from Day 1. For the first four years, the trio led the company together and built Bonfire Brewing from the ground up.
In 2014, Wirtz and the Jessens had a falling out, and the conflict ended with Wirtz’s decision to step away from the company. Wirtz moved to Slovakia with his girlfriend — retaining his shares of the company and his board seat — but releasing all operational authority to Andy Jessen in a signed separation agreement, Amanda Jessen said.
From 2014 until this year, the Jessens ran the brewery together as co-owners, hiring 18 employees, growing Bonfire’s distribution into the top 10% of microbreweries in the United States, and establishing it as a central local business and community hub in Eagle County.
“We were able to do so many things that I’m super, super proud of, and those are the things that I think solidified Bonfire in our community,” Amanda Jessen said. “We had a ton of future plans for the business and were just really excited to continue that and keep giving back.”
Loss of a leader
On Feb. 1, 2021, Andy Jessen was caught in an avalanche with three other men while skiing near Silverton. One man was rescued with minimal injuries, but Andy Jessen and fellow Eagle County locals Adam Palmer and Seth Bossung did not survive the tragic event.
Andy Jessen was deeply involved in the Eagle community, both through his work at the brewery and his public service on Eagle’s Town Council with Palmer. In a remembrance published in the Colorado Sun a week after his death, Jessen’s friend Luis Benitez described the centrality of Bonfire Brewing in Jessen’s life and in the community.
“His taproom is the town’s living room, rec room, ballroom, and sometimes courtroom,” Benitez wrote. “Everyone — and I mean everyone — at some point sat at the bar and got quiet, sage advice from Andy… From that brewery, we watched the birth of a public servant.”
Just one day after her husband’s death, Amanda Jessen stepped back into the town’s living room and returned to work.
“I came back the very next day and went back to work, because we needed leadership,” Amanda Jessen said. “I know how much of us we were putting into the day-to-day operations of Bonfire, and so immediately I knew that if I don’t get back there — without Andy, without the two of us — it’s not going to work.”
Ken Hoeve, one of Bonfire’s board members, said that Andy Jessen was referred to as the “Master of Minutia” at the company.
“He prided himself on that, and he backed it up,” Hoeve said. “His attention to detail and memory of things — I mean, the guy was just a genius in so many ways. When we lost him, we lost our friend, and then we lost this.”
Moving forward without Andy Jessen’s extensive knowledge and leadership was already a daunting task, but the real complications came from the 2010 operating agreement.
Though Wirtz had been uninvolved in operations since 2014, the structure of the board is based on the 2010 agreement and is split evenly between his and Andy Jessen’s influence. Each founder had a board seat and was given one designee each. Ken Hoeve fills the fifth seat.
Andy Jessen’s father, Philip Jessen, filled his son’s board seat in March.
“In order for any motion to be passed by the board, it must have the assent of at least one Jessen designee and one Wirtz designee,” Philip Jessen said. “This stipulation resulted in what I have many times referred to as ‘decisional paralysis.’”
Following Andy Jessen’s passing, it was critical that the board authorize a new executive to run operations on the ground, but all motions to do so — including naming Amanda Jessen as general manager, naming Philip Jessen as general manager, or hiring an outside manager — did not pass.
“Any of these attempts which actually reached the floor were defeated by virtue of them not acquiring approval by a Wirtz designee,” Philip Jessen said.
Wirtz — who currently lives in Slovakia and had not worked at the company since 2014 — made it clear that he was re-assuming a leadership role at Bonfire Brewing.
Amanda Jessen said that Wirtz messaged her the morning after the avalanche, saying that he wanted to return to Eagle to help run Bonfire Brewing in the wake of the tragedy.
“I asked him not to come,” Amanda Jessen said. “He said ‘You will need my help,’ and that he would be coming anyway. And that’s the last time we talked.”
That month, Wirtz traveled to Eagle County to get involved with Bonfire. Wirtz has repeatedly declined to speak with the Vail Daily, but Hoeve has been intimately involved in the circumstances of the company this year. He said that he is confident Wirtz’s decision to return was motivated by a desire to be of help.
“I know that Matt came back with good intentions,” Hoeve said. “He was on the phone saying, ‘Amanda is going to need help, oh my God, is she OK?’ It wasn’t fake. He was going on and on about how, ‘She’s going to need time to heal, I need to come back. I can help brew and bottle and I’m coming.’”
Upon learning that Wirtz was back in the valley, Amanda Jessen said that she felt concerned for her safety. She said that she had seen Wirtz exhibit a pattern of anger and threats of violence in the years that they worked together, and that he had threatened her directly before his departure in 2014.
On March 11, Amanda Jessen requested a temporary civil protection order — also known as a restraining order — against Wirtz. The Eagle County Court granted it the same week.
“After the sudden death of my husband last month, Mr. Wirtz immediately came back to Eagle to attempt to capitalize on my tragedy and interfere in my life and business,” the civil protection order reads. “In recent weeks he has made it clear through words and actions that he has ill intentions for my business and for me personally… Mr. Wirtz knows where I live, and after the death of my husband, he now knows I live alone with no protection.”
The restraining order — which is still in effect — states that Wirtz can have no contact with Amanda Jessen, must stay at least 100 yards from her home and places of work (namely, the Bonfire Brewing taproom and brewery sites), and, “be ordered to refrain from interfering with me or other protected persons at our place of employment.” A judge will review the order at a Jan. 14, 2022 hearing.
Shortly after receiving the restraining order, Wirtz returned to his home in Slovakia, but has continued to exert influence on the company from overseas.
Over the course of the past year, management of Bonfire Brewing has been a tug-of-war between Wirtz, the board of directors, and Amanda Jessen and the staff in Eagle.
In July, Andy Jessen’s designee, Scot Hunn, resigned from the board of directors. Amanda Jessen said the resignation was due to the stress it was taking on Hunn’s personal life, and the seat has not been filled.
Now the only Jessen designee on the board, Philip Jessen decided that giving Wirtz full control of the company was the only chance that Bonfire had for survival.
“It was abundantly clear to me by July of 2021 that Bonfire Brewing would surely fail unless some individual was endowed with full administrative powers,” Philip Jessen said. “With two Wirtz designees and one Jessen designee on the board, the only motion I was privy to seeing pass was the one to name Mr. Wirtz as Chief Executive Officer and President.”
The motion passed unanimously on Aug. 25, and Wirtz assumed the two roles at Bonfire that were previously occupied by Andy Jessen.
Wirtz was now authorized to perform all necessary actions for keeping the brewery open. Yet after acquiring these powers, he did not choose to execute them.
The most immediate need was a renewal of the company’s liquor licenses, which expired at the end of August. The Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division gave Bonfire a 90-day good-faith extension to lawfully remain open while filing for renewal, but no renewal was filed.
It is unclear why Wirtz did not renew the licenses during this time. He sent a letter to Bonfire staff the week of the taproom closure that offers a possible explanation.
“Currently we are having trouble securing a lease for the tasting room with our landlord,” Wirtz wrote. “This is required by the state for license renewal. I have asked members of the board to reach out to him and also our shareholders.”
The extension expired on Nov. 27, and the Bonfire employees chose to shut down before the expiration took place.
“We decided to close the taproom on Saturday (Nov. 20) as it was a day that people would be able to come and say goodbye and party and have catharsis, and it was Andy’s birthday, it was our anniversary,” said former taproom manager Shawna Wood. “It’s inevitable: Bonfire, the way that it’s going with Matt’s involvement, is not going to be able to survive. So we wanted to do it on our own terms, in a way that honored Andy and Amanda’s legacy.”
There are currently no more staff members working at Bonfire Brewing. The week of the closure, Wirtz appealed to the employees to stay with the company in a letter, writing, “Those who want to continue working for Bonfire will still have employment.” He also held a Zoom meeting on Nov. 16 with the department managers to discuss the situation.
“We were all going into this meeting with an open mind and with the intent to continue working for Bonfire Brewing,” said Doug Fenske, former head of sales and distribution. “There was no attacking of anyone, there was no accusing of anyone, it was just basically — Matt, now that you’re the CEO, can you provide us with this? And all the answers were either: ‘Don’t worry about it,’ ‘I’m the CEO,’ or ‘I don’t know.’”
Instead of reassuring staff of his capacity to lead, the communication from Wirtz in the final days before the company’s closure affirmed many of their decisions to resign. All of the managers at the meeting — including Wood, Fenske, and former head brewer Fred Searles — resigned from the company before the end of November.
“While [Wirtz] demands trust without proving he’s trustworthy, Amanda and Andy earned it,” Wood wrote in a statement to the board. “They treated us like equals, valued our ideas and respected our needs. They are the true leaders.”
Amanda Jessen has also resigned. Unless certain interpretations of the operating agreement are overturned in court, she can play no part in the company that she built with her husband.
“The result of all of this is that I’ve been pushed out of this company completely,” Amanda Jessen said. “For more than a decade, I was able to envision a future here in Eagle with my husband and the business that we built and loved and poured everything into that we possibly had. I right now am in a position where all of that has been taken away from me against my will. The next steps are in (Wirtz’s) hands, I can’t do anything else. I have no more power left.”
A future for Bonfire
With no licenses, no staff, and Wirtz’s inability to set foot in the Bonfire taproom or brewery spaces due to the temporary restraining order — which remains in place until a hearing on Jan. 14 — Bonfire Brewing has few prospects for reopening anytime soon. However, that does not mean it is gone forever.
In the letter to staff, Wirtz expressed his intention to reopen the brewery and his plans to return to Eagle in 2022.
“I do not believe this needs to be the end of Bonfire Brewing,” Wirtz wrote. “Andy and I started this dream with very low odds … I am not ready to give up on that dream. I have full support of the board and encouragement to do what is needed to keep it alive. I hope you will join me in re-igniting the fire.”
Most of the Bonfire staff have found or are in the process of looking for new jobs, but expressed hope that the community gathering space that Bonfire created can be restored in some capacity.
“I do really hope that there will be some sort of reincarnation,” Wood said. “Whether that’s under a different company, or a new name, a new LLC — I’m hoping there will be something to help fill the void that the taproom closing has left us with.”
Hope for a restored Bonfire is not lost. It may not look the same, sound the same or involve the same people, but there is a chance that the brewery will be able to return to the Eagle County community.
“Bonfire was a huge part of Andy, and then Amanda’s, dreamscape,” Philip Jessen said. “My ardent hope is that somehow Bonfire Brewing will emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes of a debacle which never needed to happen, and that the wonderful citizens of Eagle will once again gather ’round.”
As for Amanda Jessen, she is not done fighting for Bonfire, but she is taking the time away from company operations to heal.
“If I had looked forward and seen this year at the beginning of it, I would never have said that I’d survive,” Amanda Jessen said. “This has ensured that I have not been able to grieve my husband. I have only been working on Bonfire stuff since Feb. 2, have not taken a day off, and this did not need to happen like this. If there is anything positive to come out of the injustice of all of this, it’s that at least I might be able to do some of that grieving process that I didn’t get to do, and try to take some time to honor Andy’s legacy, even though I was unable to save it for him.”