Tiny unit of MillerCoors’ turns out small-batch beer for Coloradans | VailDaily.com

Tiny unit of MillerCoors’ turns out small-batch beer for Coloradans

Steve Raabe
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado
Denver Post photoAC Golden brewer Steve Fletcher checks the appearance of Colorado Native Lager.

GOLDEN – In a tiny corner of the world’s largest brewery, an unlikely scene unfolds.

Workers grab individual bottles of Colorado Native Lager coming off the bottling machine and, by hand, place them in cardboard cases.

Elsewhere in the giant MillerCoors complex, thousands of bottles and cans of Coors and Coors Light each minute come spewing out of automated packaging equipment.

But in the cubbyhole labeled “AC Golden Brewing Company,” the pace is slower, the scale smaller and the beer decidedly bolder.

AC Golden is MillerCoors’ brand-incubator unit, attempting to capitalize on the growing popularity of full-flavored, small-batch beers. In addition to Colorado Native Lager, AC Golden makes Herman Joseph’s Private Reserve and Winterfest.

Sales of U.S. craft beers grew by 10 percent last year to $7 billion, compared with a decline of 2.2 percent in overall beer sales.

Even by the small standards of microbreweries, the output of Native, as its makers call it, is minuscule – 60-barrel batches made three times a week, the equivalent of about 50 kegs a day. Virtually all of its ingredients – barley, hops, water and yeast – come from Colorado.

Native is being sold in 600 bars, restaurants and liquor stores in Colorado since its debut six weeks ago.

Brewery officials hope Native will mirror the path of MillerCoors’ popular Blue Moon Belgian White – becoming a commercial success, outstripping AC Golden’s small capacity and transitioning to a mass-produced beer.

Such a prospect is threatening to some traditional craft brewers. They see MillerCoors, the nation’s No. 2 beermaker, using its corporate muscle to capture market share from smaller players.

Critics note that nowhere on Colorado Native’s label does the word “Coors” appear.

“Craft brewers are not thrilled with the idea of them not putting the Coors name on the label. Some people find that to be deceitful,” said Dan Rabin, a Boulder-based writer for trade magazine Celebrator Beer News.

Rabin, who recently toured AC Golden and tried Colorado Native, describes the amber lager as “a credible effort that has enough going on to be of interest to craft-beer drinkers.”

Some Colorado craft brewers say they’re not concerned about competition from AC Golden’s new product.

Bob Baile, president of Twisted Pine Brewing in Boulder, notes that industry leader Anheuser-Busch has introduced several craft beers without slowing the growth of smaller, independent brewers.

“We’re fairly used to it,” he said of the competition from major beer companies. “Their sales essentially have been flat, and we’re growing, so I don’t blame them.”

Glenn Knippenberg, president of AC Golden, said beer drinkers don’t care whether their brew comes from an industry giant or a small-batch artisan.

“Craft brewing shouldn’t be about the owner. It should be about the ingredients and the craftsmen making it,” he said. “A lot of people think Native is being made by MillerCoors, but it’s not. It’s coming out of our own special little place here.”

Steve Raabe: 303-954-1948 or sraabe@denverpost.com

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