"None of them thought it was possible. But people are getting tired of advertising campaigns that take precedent over a quality product, and I think that's why we're being received so well."
That's Andy Causey, co-founder of Denver-based Downslope Distilling, whose vodkas, rums and whiskeys are part of a microdistillery market that's sprung up in spite of the naysaying from commercial players. It's still an infant industry in Colorado, but it's growing: The Colorado Distillers Guild has doubled its membership since its founding in 2009, from seven members to 14, with products distributed across the state.
And now the industry is making a score: inclusion into Manitou Springs' annual Craft Lager Festival, now called the Craft Lager & Small Batch Festival.
Like the microdistilleries today, the festival itself started humbly, beginning in Soda Springs Park nine years ago. Now, it's attended by beer enthusiasts from all over the country, and expects somewhere around 5,000 paying customers this year in Manitou's Memorial Park.
The festival traditionally showcases a multitude of microbrews, and small batches made especially for the festival from some of the country's largest producers. As one of USA Today's Top 10 beer festivals in the country, it provides exposure that any burgeoning business would want in on.
"Craft brewers and craft distillers — we're brothers," says Causey, who started Downslope with his real brother Matt and their friend Mitch Abate. "We both really do the same thing. We're small producers of a product that we care very much about. I just relish the opportunity to associate the two, and introducing more options into the marketplace."
With more than 30 breweries on-site and hundreds of products to taste, plus music performances and other activities, it's difficult to imagine room for much more, either at Memorial Park or in attendants' livers. But the lead organizer of the fest, private entrepreneur Julian Heron, had good reason to welcome microdistilleries after years of consideration.
"It's the new experimental space," Heron says. "It's sort of where brewers were 10 years ago, and they're testing the boundaries of what's possible."
Heron says while the festival first focused solely on lagers, it's evolved due to the difficulty of brewing a lager — it takes three times longer than brewing an ale — and the low availability of ingredients and material. In order to make the festival more accessible to more breweries, they had to open it up. And the same is true for the next generation of the "little guy."
"I think microbrews in Colorado sort of opened the door for the microdistilleries," Heron says. "People are now more willing to try something that they haven't heard of before."
Among other selections this weekend, drinkers are likely to find spirits like Leopold Bros.' Denver-distilled American small batch whiskey; Boulder Distillery's 303 Vodka; and a Corretto Coffee Liqueur from Roundhouse Spirits, also based in Boulder.
Many of these small distilleries can't afford conventional advertising, so it's events like this festival that help them survive and grow. Because at the end of the day, they, like their microbrew brothers, still have to compete with the corporate behemoths that have the name recognition, established distribution channels and other advantages.
"I didn't get into this for the love of beer," says Heron. "I got into this for the love of business, and our business philosophy is that we try not to take too much. We try to pass it on."