It was a different landscape in Fort Collins, Colorado back in 1989 when Doug, Wynne and Corkie Odell founded Odell Brewing Company. Yes, the city has always had the picturesque Front Range as its landscape, but before Odell, the city had just a single brewpub (CooperSmiths). Odell Brewing was the first packaging brewery in the city of 150,000 that now hosts over a dozen.
While some of their neighbors, like New Belgium, have entered most every state, Odell’s growth has been smaller by design, opting on a regional footprint that focuses on the Colorado market. CEO Wynne Odell has long placed the emphasis on quality beer production and local distribution, something she still emphasizes when discussing how the beer scene has changed in the company’s quarter-century history.
Paste: You’re prepping to enter Iowa, your twelfth state overall. How does Odell approach entering a new market?
Wynne Odell: We spend a lot of time on that. Part of our overall model for the paste 26 years is to keep a pretty tight geography. We’re not opening states willy-nilly just to add volume.
We chose to enter Iowa. We talked about it years ago and the Midwest was not big on our radar but our game plan was always to stay west of the Mississippi—that might change at some point. We specifically chose Iowa for geographic expansion because we had a distributor in South Dakota who also has distribution capability in Iowa, so it would be a really easy one for us to expand that territory. I’m particularly partial to Iowa, having grown up in the Midwest in Cleveland, so I was thrilled for this opportunity.
Paste: Was the “keep West” idea to keep your beer fresh? There’s a movement of opening second locations on the coasts.
Odell: You nailed it with that question. We’ve always wanted to keep it close to home. It’s been our game plan forever that we will be a regional brewery. We’ve always liked the idea that you could have different experiences as you travel. It’s fun to get different beer; there are lots of great beers in every state. It has been very intentional to do that and it’s worked really well for us.
West of the Mississippi we still have lots of territory we could fill in. Moving to the West Coast is lower on our list because there are lots of great breweries and we’re not as confident that the consumer needs us there. We’d be happy to be there, but filling out the Midwest fits in our regional footprint.
Paste: This is your first new state since 2014. What has changed in the last two years? Is it hard to find shelf space or tap lines with so many start-ups?
Odell: It is. We entered Texas in 2014 and it had been a few years since we entered a new market before that. The market has changed with the growth of local beer. We feel fortunate in entering Texas in 2014 that we got in at a great time. We were able to get our feet under us before the locals really started taking off. Now that they have gotten stronger, and there’s more focus in their own state, it is harder to maintain the presence that we have. We’re still growing, but not as fast as when we first moved in.
The local thing is beautiful. It’s what we count on for our own beer. We sell the vast majority of our beer in Colorado and we appreciate that advantage and certainly believe that local is, if it’s available, the way to go.
Paste: Is the number of local breweries changing the field for the regional breweries?
Odell: That’s a really important question. Some of our fellow brewers are adding four or five new states at a time and I recognize that there’s a grab for territory where people want to get that market now in the hopes that they can then expand on it. I’m not confident that they’ll all be successful with that model. There’s room for a certain amount of national brands and beyond that they’ll get lost in the noise.
Paste: Has your home of Fort Collins affected how you’ve grown, seeing that it’s a town with a strong brewing community and maybe has a destination appeal?
Odell: Fort Collins is definitely a beer draw. There are 16-20 breweries now in Fort Collins, which blows my mind. Someone who comes here could spend a lot of time enjoying good beer.
When we opened, it was not the beer center at all. CooperSmiths brewpub opened a couple months before us. Old Colorado opened like a week before us and subsequently closed. We were the first packaging brewery in the city and then New Belgium started two years later, as well as the precursor of Fort Collins Brewery.
We started developing a beer culture pretty quickly after we set roots down, but I don’t know if that has impacted our philosophy or our growth trajectory. It took us a long time before we started engaging with the local community in our taproom. About 2003 is when we established a reasonable taproom and 2009 is when we expanded it. Before then, if you walked in you’d get a plastic taster cup or a growler. You’d be idiots if you opened a brewery without a taproom to get that cash flow now, but taprooms didn’t really exist when we started.
Paste: You just started canning in addition to bottling. Is that something you’d had your eye on for a while?
Odell: We weren’t interested in cans because we felt that the bottle was a premium package; we liked the look and feel of it better. We didn’t even consider cans for years. I remember laughing when people were introducing the idea.
But when we got to capacity of our bottling line, and started thinking about how are we going to make this work, it occurred to us that a canning line could free capacity on our bottling line and we’d have cans. When it became obvious that canning would give us more capacity to grow, we bought this gorgeous setup that actually gives us lower oxygen uptake than our bottles do. So while our bottles are very high quality, our cans are better quality—which we didn’t anticipate.
Now that we have the canning line in place we’re moving more of our brands to cans, partly because of quality, partly because of consumer acceptance of cans, and partly because it’s cheaper than bottles.